PART TWO: Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2019 — ON SALE NOW

Because this is long, be sure to scroll down and read the whole thing. If your email or device crimps it, you may have to click “read more” to see it all, ending with the sale reminder (20% off) and order form link at the very bottom.

Earlier in the week I wrote, to begin PART ONE of this big list of favorite reads of 2019, “Between stupid Winter illnesses and out-of-store events and brand new or forthcoming books to read, our annual custom of announcing Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year as been late in coming.”

That’s putting it mildly. Don’t ask what tied me up this week, but, for the record, this is slow, hard work, creating a list like this. I fret about What You Will Think and since our living depends on you sending us orders, I’m always tempted to pull my punches, as they say. I don’t even know what it means to literally pull a punch, and I can’t use the less violent metaphor of not showing my hand, because, well, friends, that’s exactly what I’m doing here, showing my hand, or at least some of the books I held in my hands this year. Few punches pulled, most of my cards on the table.

Here is PART TWO of the Hearts & Minds list of my favorite books, or books I felt I should honor, good titles or decent authors who contributed to making 2019 a good one for us and for book buyers and readers of all sorts. Thanks for caring about our work at Hearts & Minds and honoring us by reading this long, long epistle. Spread the word and send us some orders, please. Just use the link to the order form page at the end of the column. Happy reading!

Reminder: we show the regular retail price but will deduct our 20% OFF BookNotes discount when you place an order. Our order form page (see the bottom of the column) is certified secure.

A VITAL AND CONTEMPORARY STUDY OF SAINT AUGUSTINE – AND ONE OF THE VERY BEST BOOKS OF 2019

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press) $24.99 I will not belabor this, but refer you to my rave review which I wrote before the book came out in October. We pushed it at BookNotes as a pre-order and it became one of the top sellers for Hearts & Minds this year. And we are glad about that.

I suppose you know that I have often said Smith’s You Are What You Love was the Book of the Decade, which I announced several years ago. That book is a delightful, accessible, transformational book which in some ways summarizes the more substantial trilogy of volumes in what is called his “Cultural Liturgy” project. Those three are, in order, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, and Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. That Jamie was working on an introduction to the deep Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (How (Not) To Be Secular) and editing Comment magazine during the writing of those three big ones, and the summarizing You Are What You Love is remarkable. Oh and don’t forge — in those same years he released and we have promoted a lovely collection of shorter essays called Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture which gives further insight into where this remarkable college professor is coming from and where his “all of life redeemed”-neo-Kuyperian-worldview stuff is going.

Yes, yes, you should read all of these volumes – some of the most generative (and in some of our circles) the most discussed books of recent years. It is a bit surprising that he has become such a widely admire author and presenter, but it’s true. You really should know his stuff.

Jamie was a kid of a working class family who married young and was vibrantly Pentecostal. He eventually studied Dutch neo-Calvinism (and the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd) at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies where he worked with scholars such as James Olthius, Al Wolters, Henk Hart, Calvin Seerveld, Brian Walsh, and others who have been important in my own life. And now he says what Wolters (and James Skillen, mentioned above) have all said: the all of life redeemed and “every square inch of creation” regained theological perspective of relevant Reformation teaching goes back to Augustine, the African bishop from the 3rd century. This On the Road with Augustine is a book bringing Saint Gus into the post-modern era that Smith was born to write. It brings together so much of what he’s worked on in a marvelously readable manner. It is doubtlessly one of the most important books of 2019 and certainly one of my favorites.

You can read many reviews of it on various on-line sites and see several good videos of the author describing it; you can see how I enticed people to order it in my own BookNotes remarks about it, HERE. But just know this: Augustine, like many in the late 20th century (most notably, Jack Kerouac, author the iconic ‘60s road trip book On the Road) thought that moving on would be the way to construe one’s new identity; to find oneself as we used to say. This is actually troubling in many ways (see Mark Sayer’s under-appreciated little book called The Road Trip That Changed the World: The Unlikely Theory That Will Change How You View Culture, the Church, And, Most Importantly, Yourself) and it is important to understand. Believe it or not, Smith is helping us understand this ethos by comparing it to Saint Augustine’s own travelogue and memoir about finding himself, published in serialized form between 397 and into 400 AD

Augustine, before his famous conversion, found himself in that same space—no-place but moving on, heading to various cities and jobs and hopes and dreams in Italy. He becomes, in Smith’s amazing prose and incredibly insightful observations and analysis, a hip 21st century social entrepreneur, an artist, a world-changer and culture maker, all the stuff so many energetic young adults today are yearning to become. But yet, can we truly find and sustain a lasting identity in these grandiose schemes? Will we always be restless tying this and that? Will we ever learn to live well, be wise, grow up?

I cried for myself as an old guy, and for my grown kids, and for my friend’s adult kids, and for Jamie’s kids as he wrote with such empathy about what it is like coming of age in this secular age, in these confusing times. And I rejoiced in how he used the life and teaching of this memorable church leader from centuries ago to illuminate our calling to be in friendship, to relate to mothers and fathers, to find work, to learn to protest, to be an intentional character in our own (God’s?) story. He has a chapter on freedom, a chapter on ambition, a chapter on sex. My, my, how he turns this “refugee spirituality” of Augustine into a contemporary guide on the quest to find (truly) yourself.

“Everybody’s got a restless heart,” Springsteen sings. Baby, we’re Born to Run. Jamie gets this. Saint Augustine gets this. And the God of the church Augustine helped to form is the One who call us home, to stop our striving, to be at rest.

To help us figure it out, this tension between our longing and love for escape and our need and desire to be at rest, Smith and his beloved wife head off on a journey following some of the footsteps of Augustine. They go on the road, literally, with Saint Augustine, so to speak, so they can report back and help us along our (restless) way. Much of this was written literally in places like Milan and Rome. He tells of Augustine’s best friends and much about his mother, Monica. (Smith’s vulnerable telling of his own sense of fatherlessness is remarkable in a chapter about Augustine’s absent father.)

There are some fabulously (and surprising) full color-art plates included, pictures of architecture and paintings and renderings they saw on their trip which become important to the story. What a multi-faceted, learned scholar Smith is, and what a helpful travel companion. What a philosopher he is, but what a friend. This book, like many of his others, is filled with stories of history and philosophy and theology and culture, but it is down to Earth and (as far as a philosopher writing about Camus and Cicero and Augustine and Sartre can be, explaining stuff about existentialism and modernist ennui and how those thinkers have been influential in the air we breath, whether we know it or not.)

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts is accessible for most educated readers. Many good friends loved it and have encouraged me to tell others how great it is. I highly, highly recommend it. It is one of the very top books of 2019.

A GREAT REMINDER OF THE GOODNESS OF CREATION (AND THE GOODNESS OF GOD)

The Soul of Wine: Savoring the Goodness of God Gisela H. Kreglinger (IVP) $16.00  I’m not sure when I first read the poem “As Once The Winged Energy Of Delight” by Rainier Maria Rilke but I recall having it commended to us for meditation at, of all things, a Faith & Work conference at Redeemer PCA Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. I needn’t rehearse it here but it came to mind as I was reading the truly lovely little book by wine-maker theologian, Gisela Kreglinger. Rilke writes about wonder and awe, and although I doubt this is what he was thinking when inviting us to this poem, I remember the line “To work with Things in the indescribable relationship is not too hard for us” and a bit about how “the pattern grows more intricate and subtle.”  Upon looking it up, I was astonished by the line that says to “Take your practiced powers and stretch them out” and thought that this is exactly what this book gives us an opportunity to watch, a craftsperson (a winemaker, in this case) taking her practiced powers, watching the patterns in intricate and subtle ways as she “works with Things” before God.

Okay, maybe I’m stretching. But the Bible teaches a sturdy and robust doctrine of creation — see some of the recent essays in the wonderful Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World edited by Todd Wilson (IVP Academic; $25.00) or Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality by Gerald McDermott (Baker Academic; $22.99) or the small but potent Theology of the Ordinary by Julie Canlis (Godspeed Press; $12.99) so working with the stuff of creation (indeed, allowing it to speak to us a la Psalm 19:1-4 or Job 12:8) is exactly what being human is all about. We are made in the image of a creator God and God places Adam and Eve in the garden. It is our culture-making vocation and task (to use Andy Crouch’s phrase from his book Culture Making) to make something of the raw stuff of creation. We “exercise dominion” by stewarding well the potential and possibilities of the wonderful stuff God has graciously put into the creation. We are to cultivate — eggs into omelettes, so to speak, and make something for the common good. It is the theological accounting for art and science, families and schools, businesses and governments, parties and rituals, policies and programs. And wine.

Ms Kreglinger gave a lovely account of her life as a girl growing up in a Lutheran home and vineyard, working in the winery, and realizing that God cared about it all especially when she realized that her own families grapes were used in the parish communion wine. Her discussion of a theology of wine and winemaking was solid and thorough in the much-acclaimed The Spirituality of Wine (Eerdmans; $24.00) I told folks about it gladly, as it was one of the one such books we knew about. When I heard this was coming out I wondered what else she could possibly say, and why we needed another book on a Christian view of wine.

And oh my, how glad I am for The Soul of Wine which helps us not just understand her theology and approach to wine (it’s lavish glory, its use, its abuse and more) as explained in that first big book, but this invites us to truly experience wine’s blessedness. And to explore precisely what the subtitle says — by savoring the goodness of creation and come to know something about the goodness of God. As singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken says on the back cover of it, The Soul of Wine “invites us to experience the abundance of God.”

I cannot here tell you all that this little book explores, but it is more than just a guide to the fermented fruit of the vine, although it does delightfully explain a lot that I enjoyed reading about. (And, by the way, a few important wine importers, a trained sommelier, and the author of the respected Wine Bible have all weighed in on this very informative resource. It even has a book discussion guide and a wine tasting guide making it ideal for small groups wanting to learn a bit about the nuances of this world-famous, ancient, complex beverage.) But there is more going on. She calls us to “convivial celebrations” and to learn about joy. She even has a small bit about sex, which, again, is pointing us in the direction of being attentive to the glory of our creaturliness, and the goodness of how God made the world to work. Her chapter called “making peace with wine and food” is wise and good.

Leave it to Andy Crouch to help us appreciate why this book deserves to be on our list of notable titles this season. Listen to what Andy writes:

I read The Soul of Wine with increasing delight and ever deeper emotion. This book offers wisdom not just about wine, but about our souls as well―about the joy, grief, and beauty that shape all of our stories, and that are so intertwined with the making of wine. It will help me drink more slowly and more meaningfully not just from my next glass of wine, but from life itself.

Isn’t that a beautiful comment about a book? Yes and Amen.

I like this observation, too, well-spoken by Kendall Vanderslice, who wrote the fabulous We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God, who says:

 Kreglinger dispels the myth that wine appreciation requires a distinguished palate or an elite vocabulary. Rather she presents wine as a simple gift from God that, when stewarded well, offers a glimpse of creation as it is meant to be.

TWO GREAT BOOKS EXPLORING OUR SENSE OF PLACE AND BELONGING

Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much Ashley Hales (IVP) $16.00  I almost listed this in the last post in our category of spiritual formation; Holy in the Suburbs is, indeed, about the shape of our faith, the call to holiness, the formation of our discipleship. I could have gone there.

Alas, despite the part of the subtitle about “living faithfully” I think one of the great contributions of this book to said faithfulness is found in the insights this author has about the concrete details of our built environment and the habits and customs (and values and dispositions) that flow from them. I raved about the deep and profound literary study (in our last BookNotes) called The Absent Hand which offers a detailed rumination on landscapes – natural and human-built – that is full of gravitas and philosophy. Hales isn’t a literary critic or professional analyst; she strikes me more as a soccer mom. That is, she is fairly ordinary, a smart suburbanite who is astute enough to realize that studying the mores of one’s place and the habitats thereof really is an important prophetic task. To “understand the times and know what God’s people should do” (from 1 Chronicles 12:32) isn’t just a call to a big-picture sense of the zeitgeist, but, also, a study of the daily details beneath our feet.

I nearly raved about this book when it first came out and I suggested to many, and here at BookNotes, that it was the best Christian study yet of the phenomenon of suburbia. Plus, it is gloriously written, making it a wonderful read. It was one of my favorite books of 2019 and, I believe, one of the most under appreciated. So many church folks could benefit from this deeper (and eloquent) dive into learning the deeper things that arise (spiritually and theologically) as we discern the times and places of our homes and cul-de-sacs and Pinterest-documented days of commutes and shopping and entertaining. I was going to say cue Joni Mitchell’s album The Hissing of Summer Lawns but Finding Holy in the Suburbs is not at all cynical. No matter where you live, think you will enjoy it and appreciate it.

Here is the Table of Contents as Ms Hales takes us into “A Story to Find Home in the Geography of Nowhere.” Some chapter titles are nicely allusive, but it gives you a nice glimpse into what will await you or your group if you take this one up. There are discussions questions, too, so it’s perfect for a book club or Sunday school class or book club.

  • Worshiping Granite Countertops: Consumerism
  • When Your Worth Is Measured in Square Footage: Individualism
  • Circling the Suburbs in My Minivan: Busyness
  • Beyond the Gated Community: Safety
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends: Repentance
  • You’re Not a Barbie, You Belong: Belovedness
  • This Isn’t Pinterest-Worthy Entertaining: Hospitality
  • Open Hearts and Open Hands: Generosity
  • The Opportunity of Cul-de-sacs: Vulnerability
  • Paper Birds and Human Flourishing: Shalom

Not from Around Here: What Unites Us, What Divides Us, and How We Can Move Forward Brandon J. O’Brien (Moody Publishers) $13.99 I can’t say enough about this little book and am excited to once again remind you of it and to honor it was one of the very good books of this past year. I think any time Brandon O’Brien does a book, it is worthy of celebration as he is a really fine writer and wise practitioner of church leadership. (He is working with Tim Keller in New York City now, even though he has served small churches and wrote the quite useful Strategically Small Church.) He co-authored the spectacular Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible and, in another curious bit of expertise, wrote in 2018 Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom which is a very impressive study of a colonial era, Connecticut pastor and leader, Isaac Backus, who wrote and contended for freedom of conscience and religious liberty in a culture that seemed to be heading either towards theocracy or secularism. Backus had a “third way” and it is clear that O’Brien gets the significance of this older wisdom.

Not from Around Here is a fun, easy-to-digest book that seems to combine these various interests of O’Brien: it is about the increasing divide in our polarized times between urban and rural worldviews. Yes, he is convinced that what another author calls “the big sort” is a real thing – we are dividing ourselves in part by our sensibilities and inclinations that are shaped by our tending to be small town or big city. (Ahhh, and what does me make of the aforementioned suburbs? You’ll have to read Not From Around Here yourself to see that bit.)

O’Brien grew up in rural Arkansas and has worked in small town churches, served in the quintessential suburbs of Chicago, and, as I noted, and he now is working in the global City-to-City urban church planting organization. And he has written about public civility, pluralism, tribalism and the blind spots of race and culture (in the misreading the Bible book), public life and citizenship (in the Backus book.) I don’t know if any other reviewers have noted this, but this new book really is bringing together much of his expertise. He’s a scholar of these things, but in this book, he is offering helpful cultural discernment and practical guidance for faithful “salt of the Earth” discipleship. If we are to be leaven in the loaf, we have to know something about how the loaf works and what kind of yeasty influence we can be. He helps us understand a major (and not adequately recognized) feature of our time. Again, namely, how we are self-selecting ourselves into tribes and sorting ourselves by preference and seeing others as the “bad guys” – the troubling influences of the culture.

You know how this works – urban and seemingly sophisticated higher-brow people blame the rednecks, flyover country, the bumpkins. Those “deplorables” of the rural sort, despise the “elites.” (I would say, although O’Brien doesn’t get into it, that this hatred is so strong that this is why many are willing to put up with the arrogance and weirdness of Donald Trump who claims to know so much about so much, when, in fact, he doesn’t read or study or have competence to lead with wisdom in any field. But they love him!)

O’Brien is a Christian pastor and historian and is working here more like a prophetic sociologist, a son of Issachar, helping us understand this feature of our times. Some of it is funny – he has amusing stories and great illustrations to realize how even how we think about the faith and our discipleship.

And, perhaps a bit counter-intuitive to my description here (forgive me) he also notes that “tidy categories may suit the media, but people are more complex up close.”

Listen to what it says on the back cover (which I cited in my earlier BookNotes review.) I love this:

News outlets, historians, and sociologists can (and do) tell us all about the statistics, but they don’t (and can’t) tell us about what it’s really like in a given place–how the squish of creek water between your toes or the crunch of autumn leaves on a city sidewalk shape your sense of normal and good and right. To understand that–to understand the people in the places–we need stories. We need to listen, get to know the nuance of people, and have empathy for their way of seeing things.

Brandon O’Brien is, in many ways, a man, torn between places. Raised in the rural South, educated in the suburbs, and now living and doing ministry in Manhattan, he’s seen these places, and their complexity, up close. With the knack of a natural storyteller he shares what he learned about himself, faith, and the people who make up America on his own journey through it.

A LONG AWAITED SEQUEL by AWARD-WORTHY OS GUINNESS

Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $20.00 You may know that I have said often that The Call: Purpose is one of my all time favorite books. There are chapters I have used in teaching and speaking and there are lines I’ve quoted, over and over. It’s eloquence, insight, and powerfully-rooted theological vision of God’s call to us all to serve the King everywhere and in everything offers a foundation and dynamism for anyone seeking purpose, meaning, a sense of vocation, and a direction to their seeking. Os is a pious and Godly man, a good thinker with an undergrad degree in philosophy from Oxford (and a PhD on the work of sociologist Peter Berger.) He travels and speaks and consults internationally and is a true global citizen; born in China, educated in Great Britain, Irish by descent, and living in the US (whose Founder’s ideas and ideals he would die for) Os is a friend to many and a much respected servant of the church. He sometimes says his own calling is to help explain the world to the church and to help explain the gospel to the cultured leaders of the world. He does so with integrity and considerable eloquence. His many books should be on your bookshelf.

Carpe Diem Redeemed came out in 2019 so it is obviously one I must name and that I want to honor. It isn’t simple, though, to explain, as it seems to have a complex thesis.

As I explained when I celebrated it earlier at BookNotes, Carpe Diem Redeemed insists that if we are to “seize the day” and make something of our lives, we as followers of Jesus must not merely mimic the way the world things about seizing the day. We aren’t Romantics wanting to merely tear pages out of the books and do our own things (as memorable as the famous Whtiman-esque scene citing O Captain My Captain in Dead Poets Society. We have to, as Guinness often says, “think it through.”

As we think it through, Biblically, Christianly, one of the big questions that face anyone wanting to make the most of their time is this: what is time? What time is it? How do we “discern the times?” And so, to “redeem” our quest to seize the day, we simply must be attentive to what it means to be timely.

Guinness is asking perennial questions, and, curiously, he is one of the few asking such things these days. He wants us to be relevant and faithful in our day – of course! But we dare not be so “relevant” that we risk being irrelevant because, well, we’ve failed to develop what he calls a “prophetic untimeliness.”

Os cites so many remarkable writers who have spoken good lines about time. (The first several pages are nothing but citations from all sorts of philosophers, poets, comedians, novelists, and business leaders and that is almost worth the price of the book for these collected quips and quotes.)

For instance, the poet Octavio Paz (in The Light of India) has said,

I believe that the reformation of our civilization must begin with a reflection on time.

Years ago Guinness had a little book worked with the old adage warning that “whoever sups with the devil should have a very long spoon.” (That book, Dining with the Devil had the subtitle “the mega-church flirts with modernity” and warned about our over-reliance or technology and marketing and data, becoming successful not by reliance on the gospel but by manipulation and efficiency. And so, we use, but must hold at some distance the forces and trends and artifacts of our fast-paced, technolopy culture.

And that is how best to redeem our quest to live out our callings, to find purpose and meaning, to make the most of things: by discerning the times, and being what some call intentional. We are not to merely be energetic entrepreneurs and eager culture makers making whatever we want in whatever way we want, but we are called to be salt and light and leaven, doing our best to serve God’s purposes with the gifts and talents and capacities God has given us, the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way. We are to be in but not of the world, after all. Even our view of time must be, somehow, counter-cultural. We must resist, as Os says in the second chapter, the hot-wired ethos of “Survival of the Fastest.”

I want to nominated Carpe Diem Redeemed as one of the most badly needed and perhaps least likely to be heeded books of our time. It is notable, well-crafted, thoughtful, rich, and learned. Is he fully right about every detail? Do the words inspire with vision and joy as they so famously did in The Call. Perhaps not. But it is certainly one of the best books of 2019, and we commend it for your consideration.

AN AWARD WINNING AUTHOR BRINGS HIS HOT DISCERNMENT OF THE TIMES TO OUR MILLENNIUM WITH BOTH BAD AND GOOD

Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith Through a Volcanic Future Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $17.99 Okay, this isn’t the thickest book I’ve lugged around this year – that would be Figuring by Maria Popova of the Brain Pickings blog fam a book about science and art that Len Sweet would like, I’m sure. But Rings of Fire was one of the thickest that isn’t designed for scholars or textbooks. And it reads like a dream, as you zoom through pages and pages of facts and data and theories and explanations. As I might have exclaimed in our first BookNotes review of this (which came out in November) – Len is back! This is the most invigorating, learned, stimulating, frustrating, upbeat, prophetic, weird and wonderful tome he has done since his late 1990s Soul Tsunami.

Sweet is my favorite trend-meister and futurologist, although as a historian, he looks both back and forwards. And his day job – when he’s not reading widely and writing books about how the church can face the future with grace and truth and style and guts –is mentoring students who study this stuff. He is legendary as a communicator and as a mentor and teacher. He loves equipping young, rising pastors and church leaders to not just be away of the ethos of the times and the trends of the future, but to enter into the habits and dispositions of those who see stuff in society and know what to make of it. He was one of the first church leaders that told us that the wave of technology would make TV more interactive. Soon, you could “vote people of the island” and shows the The Voice became a New Thing. He called it EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-based, and communal) and in books like Aquachurch and SoulSalsa and Carpe Manana and The Gospel According to Starbucks he gave advice for how churches can understand the times and perhaps embody a more faithful style – a playful dance, he’d say, rather than “working at it” – of cultural engagement.

He’s done a dozen or more other books lately, many which are quite nice. (From Tablets to Tables is just out in paperback, which is a nice corrective of his fascination with the digital, reminding us that real food and real friends with real stories is important. Len has talked about community and artifacts and analogue and being green for as long as he has been writing, making him a bit of a contradiction at first glance. He’s a futurist who loves the 1800s and a postmodernist who calls us to sit down and eat meals together.

Like him or not, Leonard Sweet is one of the North American churches most lively and prolific and punchy evangelical voices and you should know his work. Especially his big work where his broad knowledge and deep footnoting really shines. Rings of Fire is a spectacular, major release where he explores in sweeping fashion a half a dozen “hot zones” and about a dozen “hot topics” which should call forth a “hot church” equipped to walk through fire in this volcanic culture. Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith Through a Volcanic Future and deserves to be highlighted as a notable book of 2019.

THE BOOK SOME OF US HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR FOR DECADES

If Jesus is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence Ronald J. Sider (Baker Academic) $24.99 I have often said that I got the bug of book reviewing when Sojourners magazine paid me $30 to do a short review of a book that was one of the best books I read in the late 1970s, Ron Sider’s Christ and Violence. I’m sure today I’d have other things to say about it, but I must even now say it is a compelling and important book. Sider, as you may know, was known for the seminal (and still in print and still very highly recommended) Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. His evangelical bone fides are impeccable; his commitment to standard gospel theology and Christ-centered Bible reading is second to none. He loves church history, takes a fair-minded view of reading widely and listening to his critics, and believes in forging a vision where faith is decisive in people’s lives and behaviors because Jesus is Lord. As an Anabaptist – that faith tradition made up of the likes of Mennonites and Brethren – he believes in the local church as essential, simple living, service to others, and, yep, Jesus-commanded non-violence. For this Christ-centered set of denominations, being in the military is considered sinful.

That Ron is a (gracious) Christian pacifist is vital to know about him, and that he wants to be consistent on that Godly sort of love for all, means he has been known for being “consistently pro-life.” He opposes killing the elderly, the prisoners, the enemies, endangered species, and, yes, the unborn. There are precious few who care about both the unborn in the womb and the enemy on the battlefield; he favors helping those in crisis pregnancies and keeping the poor from starving; he speaks about against those who would take away medical care for the sick and he speaks out against torture and pollution and sexism; he laments broken families and encourages both charity and justice in our ministry among the needy and hurting. Sider (now retired professor from Palmer Theological Seminary and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action) deserves our respect for his own efforts to be Biblically obedient, Christ-honoring, and ethically consistent.

Some liberals don’t appreciate his standard evangelical ethics about sex and the dignity of unborn life and many conservatives hate that he critiques unregulated capitalism and the military industrial complex and preaches about God’s love for creation and against pollution and racism. And war, all war.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes in the powerful preface to this powerful recent book, “Ron Sider has always defied categories.” When one is mocked by both sides, it seems one might be worth listening to.

I agree with Walter Brueggemann who has said “our long-term debt to Sider is deep and beyond calculation.” Amen to that.

And so, If Jesus is Lord, published by Baker Academic in July of 2019, didn’t get much publicity or acclaim when it came out, but I believe it is one of the most important books of the year, if not of the decade. It is, in a way, one of Ron’s great legacies, a life’s-work, a magnum opus.

One of the great insights in the little Christ and Violence that deepened my own pacifist commitments so many decades ago was how Sider rooted Biblical nonviolence not merely in Jesus’s own direct commands to love enemies or the Pauline injunction to do good to enemies (although that should be enough) but more; something theologically deeper: he underscores how non-violent, indeed, self-suffering love for others, is at the very heart of the gospel. Jesus took on the evil of the world on the cross and while we were yet God’s enemies he allowed us to kill him (Romans 5:10), thereby saving the world. God’s own work of reconciliation as seen in the atoning work of the cross reveals most of what we need to know about the attributes of God. The holy God of the Bible uses a towel and basin, a cross and a crown of thorns, to extend mercy to his own enemies; it is God’s preferred method. We are called to be agents of that same message and method of reconciliation. Yes, Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Yes, he said to love even our enemies. But the sturdy ethics from Sider emerge from something even more profound: his view is rooted in the very character of God who shows us how the universe really works when He is King: the cross reveals it all.

And so, that theme was pivotal for me, and it emerges agin in this book – rooting the new call to peacemaking not just in the prophets saying to beat swords into ploughshares or Jesus’s command to love enemies or Paul’s call to do good to those who persecute us or even Peter’s direct reminder that Jesus left us an example in the garden when he didn’t fight back, but in the atonement, in the cross, in the gracious goodness of the Triune God’s forgiveness.

And many of us have been waiting for decades to have Ron flesh it out in a systematic, Biblical way. To connect his anti-war and anti-violence work for reconciliation in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Servant King of an Upside Kingdom.

Sider has been making major contributions to an evangelical sort of nonviolent activism consistently over many decades. (He has also, by the way, written on living simply, on evangelism, on consistently Biblical faithfulness, or service to the poor; he edited a volume of diverse views on economics, and wrote a fantastic book called Just Politics on citizenship and politics.)

In 1982 he co-wrote a major work on being faithful in the nuclear age that offered Biblical foundation for many of those of us involved in the nuclear freeze and disarmament movement. He did a book on being consistently pro-life. In recent years he invited us to learn about how nonviolent direct action might work (and that since the just war theory has always said that violence must be a last resort, he called on more traditional just war theorist to consider tying these other peaceful methods before blessing wars too quickly. Just war advocate Richard Mouw wrote a good foreword to that conceding that Sider was making a very good point.) A few years ago he wrote Nonviolent Action, a book – loved by some and contested by others – insisting that the early church condemned all killing. (See his The Early Church on Killing which shows that early followers of Jesus did not join the military and disapproved of abortion as it was practiced in those Greo-Roman centuries.)

But now, finally, in the Year of our Lord 2019, Ron Sider has written this 240-page book, replete with footnotes and scholarly citations, making his comprehensive case for the Biblical call to evangelical nonviolence. It is not the only book to read on Christian peacemaking or Biblical nonviolence. But it is the definitive work by Dr. Sider and certainly one of the great contributions to this topic in our lifetime.

Gabriel Siguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition has said it is “the most insightful and persuasive treatise for Christian peacemaking” and Scot McKnight says “I have been reading Sider for forty years and this is his best case yet.” Jim Wallis says of Sider’s explication, “for both individuals and society, it is one of the strongest I have seen.”

Miroslav Volf says about Sider’s claim that Jesus taught his followers that we ought not to kill that, after reading this “you will be able to reject this claim as unworkable in the real world, but you will not be able to dispute it. A compelling and challenging volume.”

If Jesus Is Lord: Loving Our Enemies is serious, but readable, hefty, but not tedious or over-done. It looks at the Bible, of course, and church history and theology and culture and politics. Through it all, though, it has this mood, this earnest love for God who is revealed in the person of Jesus. In fact, one reader said “No one tackles the tough issues like Ron Sider. This book helped me draw closer to Jesus.”

Well, lots of others tackle tough issues. But few do so with as much plain devotion to the Bible and to the person of Jesus. For that you simply must be grateful. Finally agree or not with the call to resist all war as worldly and sinful or not, this studious book will help you focus on the Scriptures and the age-old creedal affirmation that Jesus is Lord. Any book that helps us with that with as much vigor and determination as this one does deserves all sorts of awards.

If Jesus is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence is a gift to the church, a call to faithfulness, and a very, very, important volume. Highly recommended.

FAVORITE MEMOIRS READ THIS YEAR

Some of you know this is one of my favorite genres, and it seems Beth and I always have a memoir or two on the bed stand. Some of these stories are so wild and well-written they are more fun than novels! (And, occasionally, I find myself saying that if a novelist tried to pull this off, we’d think it was implausible. Truth actually is, sometimes, stranger than fiction.) And so, a few of the favorite autobiographies that I read this year.

Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation Thomas A. Tarrants (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 I hope you recall our earlier comments about this as it is an edge-of-your-seat sort of page-turner, nominated for “best book” from the ECPA this year. (Those announcements will be made later this year.) We have had the pleasure of knowing Tom Tarrants and, to be honest, can hardly believe this vividly told story.

Consumed by Hate tells about Tom’s evil involvement, in the 1960s, with the KKK and worse. He went to jail for terrorism as he attempted to bomb the home of Jewish folks; his partner in crime died in the police shootout and he himself was very seriously wounded. The backstory of his ideological commitments – what today we might call the alt-right – is told plainly and one is still left pondering how someone gets to radicalized. Still the story moves on and the following chapters are even more dramatic!

Tarrants remarkably escaped from prison and was later apprehended (he was on the infamous FBI “Most Wanted” list.) While in prison (again) he became, slowly but surely, a transformed man, converted by Christ to the ways of the Lord Jesus. This is amazing stuff about amazing grace and left me in tears.

Through Prison Fellowship and other strategic leaders investing in him as a growing Christian prisoner, he was miraculously pardoned by the governor of the state and eventually released. Tom continued to study and minister to others as he took up the call to Christian ministry – co-pastoring a bi-racial, urban church, no less! Years later, the well-educated and utterly transformed Tarrants became the director of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington DC.

My prosaic and bare-bones outline doesn’t do justice to the suspense and power of this remarkable story as told in Consumed by Hate, Redeemed By Love. When authors as gifted as John Grisham rave about it, as he has, you know it’s good. This was one of those books I read this year almost in one long sitting – I couldn’t put it down! Thank God for the mercy of Jesus, and thank God for the conversion of this woefully misguided, truly awful person, redeemed and transformed by love. He has done good work in the subsequent years and it was hard for him to tell this story. We’re glad he did.

Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life David Giffels (Scribner) $16.00  Again, I’m listing this as a 2019 release because it came out in paperback this year. I had written a bit about it last year because the topic was so striking, I loved the hardback cover, and the blurbs were extraordinary. I skimmed it and recommended it – obviously it was very well written and a curious topic.

Now that I’ve read every word in earnest – many of the sections more than once! – I must say this is one of my favorite memoirs ever! What a book! It ranks up there with Lit, Cherry, Taste This Bread, Educated, Too Close to the Falls, and other such well written and fascinating memoirs.  You may recall the story: the author is a young, edgy English teacher at a community college in Akron, Ohio and is also quite the diligent word-worker, inspired and apprenticed by his dad, a truly excellent craftsman. As he is grieving the loss of his mother, and the loss of a good friend, Giffels decided to build a coffin with and for his dad. This is the story of that year making that coffin.

It sounds a bit morbid, but it isn’t, really. The two are close, the family is extended, the  poignant and wacky episodes worthy of some cross between some rustbelt version of This Is Us and Modern Family. Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son… is funny and sad and includes some rock and roll, and a lot about wood and sawdust. It is clever and whimsical and poignant and, indeed, about life and death, loss and love. I love the play on words in that last phrase of the subtitle, “the measure of a life.” As any woodworker knows, measuring figures into this story a lot.

As I’ve said, David Giffels is a rock music fanatic, so I really liked those portions, too. His rustbelt sensibilities and love for his own crummy town is pretty darn awesome to behold. I simply adored this book, realize what a great writer the author is, and I am sure I will read it yet again. I hope you do, too. Enjoy!

Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir and The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir Harrison Scott Key (Harper) $15.99 each Okay, these are not new books. But they are new to us, an author we never considered until a friend from down South named Jimbo told us about them. And I would say zooming through them were the most joyful, fabulous, fun-filled reading experiences of the year. I couldn’t stop giggling and guffawing and being astounded at the turn of a phrase or a miraculously remarkable sentence construction or the wildly odd storyline and character revelations of the self-deprecating author (that I so understood — embarrassing as it is to say so.) This was everything I wanted in a summer read – funny, honest, intelligent, a bit of cussing, much pathos, a little sex, ominous failure, sincere faith – he’s a Southern Presbyterian — and, curiously, did I mention really, really funny? Kay has won the prestigious James Thurber Prize (for literary-style humor for egg-heads, I guess,) So there’s that.

One can hardly say easily what these books are about, but here’s the quick version: in Congratulations the author ruminates on his life and his sense of calling to be a writer. He sets out to write a book, a good and famous and award winning, important book. (Why not?) He believes this is his God-given dream, a vocation and more. (He actually has some helpful stuff to teach us about all this, when one has a passion or a dream or a sense of call that borders on obsession.) Key is quite literate and smart and not too successful as he and his wife start a family in a hip Southern college town.

As it ends up – spoiler alert – the book he ends up writing is not the failed novel he intended but a memoir about his father, a legendary hunter and woodsman, a redneck sexist who didn’t seem to appreciate the sissified readin’ and writin’ of his youngest son who didn’t like to kill things and like to hug. There it is: Harrison Scott Key finally figures out what to write about, gets in done to some glowing reviews even if he fully blew the pre-interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. (Anyone who has hopes and dreams as an author has got to read this and will cringe through much of it. Trust me on this.) His cross country book tour was part Hunter Thompson, maybe, and not too successful and the writing about it was stunning. And some of what happens next? Well, again, you can’t make this stuff up.

And so, The World’s Largest Man is, in fact, that book that he tells about writing in Congratulations, Who Are You Again?  It came out in 2015 and Keys was somewhat famous, for a bit, even if it never quite became the great American anything. I really enjoyed reading Congratulations first as he told so much about the process of dreaming up this sense of calling, becoming a writer, and finally landing on a memoir about growing up with his colorful (to say the least) hunter father. World’s Largest takes us deep into the woods and it isn’t always pleasant, although it’s funny as hell. What a story.

Here is what the publisher explains it; come on, read this:

Harrison Scott Key was born in Memphis, but he grew up in Mississippi, among pious Bible-reading women and men who either shot things or got women pregnant. At the center of his world was his larger-than-life father–a hunter, a fighter, a football coach, “a man better suited to living in a remote frontier wilderness of the nineteenth century than contemporary America, with all its progressive ideas and paved roads and lack of armed duels. He was a great man, and he taught me many things: how to fight and work and cheat, and how to pray to Jesus about it, how to kill things with guns and knives and, if necessary, with hammers.”

Harrison, with his love of books and excessive interest in hugging, couldn’t have been less like Pop, and when it became clear that he was not able to kill anything very well or otherwise make his father happy, he resolved to become everything his father was not: an actor, a Presbyterian, and a doctor of philosophy. But when it was time to settle down and start a family of his own, Harrison started to view his father in a new light and realized–for better and for worse–just how much he was like the strange man who made him.

Neither Beth nor I can conclude surely which to read first nor can we conclude which we liked better. Buy ‘em both, read ‘em both.

Heavy: An American Memoir Kiese Laymon (Scribner) $16.00 This is a book that blew me away and although I read it in hardcover,and gave it a shout-out here at BookNotes before, the paperback recently came out, so it is now less costly. It is a book you should know about — it won the Andrew Carnegie Medal and was a Kirkus finalist, so has been widely lauded. Still, it is not for everyone and many traditionally conservative Christian readers will be put off by the barrage of foul language. Christian faith is actually a part of this story, as it often is for people of color in the deep south, it seems. That is, Laymon is not the militant atheist that Ta-Nehisi Coates is. But, like Coates, he was abused within his family and scorned by the mainstream white culture. And like Coates, he can name these tragedies and writes like a dream.

Perhaps I shouldn’t draw those mental connections; Heavy is not the same kind of story (or the same sort of writing) as Mr. Coates’ elegant memoirs, The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me. But it is a very passionate, gritty memoir set firmly in the black culture (including poverty and racism and obsessions with race and status.) It focuses most poignantly on the author’s body, his sexuality and longings, his obsession with weight and weight loss. It includes a lot about his mother, his southern mother. It isn’t a conventional “rags to riches” story, although Kiese Laymon does move North and eventually gets a job as a college professor. Now he is back in Mississippi, speaking as a very contemporary black feminist writer in the land of Faulkner.

The review in O, The Oprah Magazine called it “raw” and “cathartic” and likened it to Pittsburgh’s John Edgar Wideman as Laymon “defiantly exposes the ‘aches and changes’ of growing up black.” The book was captivating for me (and I have read a fair number of memoirs by people of color) and stands out as one I will think about for a long time to come. Any of us who want to understand black families, the hardship faced including hardship from the police. His mother is intellectual and violent (like Coates’s Baltimore father) and he tells much about his parents, about broken families, about sexuality, about youth, about depression. It is a major and very vulnerable story about being a writer, about telling the truth and about being black in America.

As Roxanne Gay writes about it,

Oh my god. Heavy is astonishing. Difficult. Intense. Layered. Wow. Just wow.

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace Christie Purifoy (Zondervan) $18.99 I keep coming back to this, dipping in, thinking about it, looking for a passage I liked or that was so well written, that I surely have to names this as one of our favorite reads of the year. Further, as we said when I announced this last summer, it was  (as I put it at BookNotes) “one of the great joys of recent months to have gotten the chance to finally meet Pennsylvania author Christie Purifoy, a memoirist and essayist of the finest quality, who can turn a phrase like nobody’s business.” We were with her at the lovely book launch party in Lancaster of our mutual friend Shawn Smucker, a novelist of some note.

We want to honor this distinguished book and figure I should just share what I wrote at BookNotes before. You should buy this book and spread the word — it’s surely a Best Book of 2019.

A few years ago Christie Purifoy wrote a lovely book about her spacious, old farmhouse “in four seasons” (Roots & Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons) and it was quite good. But this Placemaker book is extraordinary, delightful, compelling, enjoyable on many levels. The other evening at a book event she read movingly from a section about fermentation (you know, sauerkraut, kombucha, making pickles, even.) The Earth’s processes of death and decay, entropy, chaos and the like became a window for reflecting on our desires for control, for reigning in the chaos. She frets about these things as we do, but she also tends orchards and writes glowingly about trees. Creation and Fall and Redemption swirl together in her gorgeous reflective prose and a book about place becomes a vision for living into God’s healing ways, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Beth and I can’t say enough about our new friend Christie and her husband; we are eager to encourage you to buy this very handsomely made book — it has deckled pages, French folded covers, a slightly textured paperback cover with some tactile beauty — and to enjoy her reflections on home and gardening and beauty and life. Even amidst the ruins. What a book! The author has dirt under her fingernails, by the way. Oh, and a PhD in literature from the University of Chicago.

Kudos to Christie for working her craft and writing this lovely volume and to Zondervan for publishing it with beauty and charm. Cheers!

Separated by the Border: A Birth Mother, a Foster Mother, and a Migrant Child’s 3,000-Mile Journey Gena Thomas (IVP) $16.00 I cannot quite put my finger on all that moved me about this memoir although the awful policies of the Trump administration – children in cages, children deported without parents and parents deported without their babies and on and on – was in the air as I was reading this. That the publisher saw the urgency of this narrative and wanted to put a human face on it all is a major contribution. This book, I believe, should be in every bookstore and library in the country as it is just so very, very timely. And as harrowing as it may be, it’s a great read, a moving tale, a stunning and audacious journey that shows, at least, as the publisher reminds us in the description, “the power of motherly love.”

Here is the basic explanation of the remarkable story:

Thomas tells the story of five-year-old Julia, whose harrowing journey with her mother from Honduras to the U.S. took her from cargo trailer to detention center to foster care. Weaving together the stories of birth mother and foster mother, this work shows the human face of the immigrant and refugee, the challenges of the immigration and foster care systems, and the tenacious power of motherly love.

There is more to this book that an expose of the “challenges” of the immigration system, as it does explore the need for foster care parenting, and the blessings and struggles of offering one’s love for others in this poignant and sometimes painful way. And it shows how this author risked so much to re-united the separated mother and child. Oh my, what a holy adventure! What a story!

I think you can see why I found this story so compelling and wanted to name it here among the Best Books of 2019 when you read these endorsements written by authors I trust:

“Welcoming strangers is dangerous. All sorts of things might happen: it might radically alter your understanding of the world, change your politics, or your relationships. It will certainly affect your relationship with God. Gena Thomas’s book is testament to the wonderfully transforming power of hospitality. I recommend her story to you as a daring and dangerous read.”–Krish Kandiah, founding director of Home for Good, author of God Is Stranger

“When headlines and public policy debates filter down to the story of one mother, one child, and one US citizen willing to walk through the process, our focus changes from the macro to the micro. A story of grief, pain, politics, faith, endurance, laughter, separation, and reunification, this steps us out of the policy debate and into the individual experience. I wholeheartedly recommend Gena Thomas as a voice that has walked through real, sacrificial relationships using her Christian faith as a guide for each step of the process. If we want to understand how the policies and politics of the immigration debate impact real people, this is the place to start. This is a humanizing story that takes us beyond the talking points.”–Alexandra Kuykendall, author of Loving My Actual Neighbor, cofounder of The Open Door Sisterhood

“I adore this book! It is a shattering read about the journey asylum seekers take to reach our border only to have their children taken from them. Thomas’s book details the living hell Lupe, Julia, and Carlos experienced and how her family became part of the story. It rips out our stony hearts, giving us the opportunity to receive the fleshy heart of Jesus, the opportunity to receive grace. We endanger our souls and imperil the soul of our nation if we dare ignore this masterfully written account, the plight of immigrants, and our responsibility in all of it.”–Marlena Graves, author of A Beautiful Disaster

As Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, says of Separated by the Border,

In one powerful book Gena Thomas shares the trauma, hope, and love that is the migration of men, women, and children in today’s world. Wrapped around her own experience as a foster parent, Thomas helps us understand why one flees their home country, even though they want to return. It is truly a remarkable book.”

Love Anyway: A Journey from Hope to Despair and Back in a World That’s Scary as Hell Jeremy Courtney (Thomas Nelson) $17.00  This was one of the most eagerly anticipated books for those of us who loved his stellar Preemptive Love about doing medical missions with children among Muslims, Jews and Christians in war-torn Iraq. Jeremy has many followers and friends and many of us were eager to read this one.

As you may know if you know that first unforgettable book (Preemptive Love) his non-profit organization Preemptive Love did pediatric heart surgeries in Iraq which has the largest amount of children born with defective hearts anywhere in the world, most likely from the nuclear tipped, uranium-enhanced weapons the United States used in the first Gulf War.

How did this Christian NGO helping the impoverished turn into a medical mission that drew in interfaith coalitions and became a cross-cultural project of reconciliation—dare I say, a post-9-11, Middle Eastern, anti-war movement – in this dangerous part of the world?  Some of that is documented in Preemptive Love but the fuller backstory is now explained in riveting storytelling in Love Anyway. You can read my review HERE and perhaps you’ll see why I found this telling of Jeremy’s brave work to be so compelling. As I explain, Love Anyway is a harrowing story about Jeremy and his wife’s deepening their belief in the power of love and understanding and how this lead them to different sorts of networks and ministries from Iraq to Syria. It gets hard, the writing is tense, the story powerfully told. It is one of the few books this year that I read straight through hardly without a break; what a page-turner! You should read it.

There’s lots of good stuff on the internets about this organization and a good short film that came out about the time of the book. Maybe you could have a book group and do a fundraiser. I can hardly think of a more urgent need.

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne) $25.99 Some may not think of Barbara Brown Taylors story about teaching world religions as a memoir. It isn’t her whole life story, but like her other marvelously written, crisp, honest volumes of wonderful prose, she is – although weighing in on questions of the role of faith and convictions and believe and world religions – mostly telling here of her time as a teacher. If she has written about her calling into the ministry (The Preaching Life) and her sense of frustration and a pained exit from parish work (Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith) this is the first major book where she describes her second calling, that of a college professor. It is, as Mirabai Starr say, “Among the finest memoirs I have ever read of the life of a teacher.”

Yes, Barbara Brown Taylor is a fairly open-minded, typical Episcopalian priest, nurtured in the deep ways of the Anglican sacramental worldview and of the convictions of the Book of Common Prayer and the revolutions of liberal theology in the middle of the 20th century when she was coming of age. It isn’t surprising that she is drawn to the mysteries of world religions and that she has come to be passionate about teaching, as a liberal Christian, the joys of learning about other faiths. At the heart of her teaching is not cheap knowledge about other faiths and certainly not cheap spiritual appropriation, but fostering “holy envy” (a phrase she swiped from a Lutheran Bishop in Sweden who said it is healthy to admire and even envy certain virtues of other faiths. This seems common sense to me, and nothing unorthodox. Of course we admire the Buddhists attentiveness or radical Muslim’s or Hasidic Jews dedication to their sacred food and prayer regimes. I’m nowhere near Amish, but surely there is good to be found in their expression of faith, right? There is nothing wrong with Protestants admiring the sense of mystery nearly unnamed in higher church Catholics and nothing wrong with liberal UCC folk admiring the warm-hearted piety of old school Methodists. We needn’t compare truth claims or adopt a cheesy universalism to truly admire and learn from other faiths. Okay?

But, oh my, how to do that, wisely and tenderly and fruitfully? And how does one do that when, as is the case in Ms Taylor’s situation, the students are mostly Southern Bible-belt fundamentalists.

I will never forget the scene in which Barbara has taken her college students to a (respectful, demur) visit to a worship experience of a non-Christian religion. One of the students, an earnest, traditional fundamentalist Christian, has to leave the room and she departs deeply weeping for the lost souls she is watching as they worship their false gods. How does Ms Taylor respond? As a good pastor and as a good teacher, I believe. The book is loaded with these remarkable moments.

The review journal Booklist gave Holy Envy a starred review, saying:

Taylor nudges her students away from spiritual appropriation and comparison, moving instead toward challenging discernment of their own faith and the faith of others. Taylor, like the best faith leaders, is a great storyteller. Highly recommended.

I reviewed this at BookNotes when it first came out and I have thought about it all year. She is a gorgeous writer and I’d read anything she wrote and even though my own faith convictions might be different than hers, I admire her writing and so, so appreciate her journey.

Here is some of what the publisher has written in describing it; I hope you can see why I call it one of my favorite books of the year:

Barbara Brown Taylor continues her spiritual journey begun in Leaving Church of finding out what the world looks like after taking off her clergy collar. In Holy Envy, she contemplates the myriad ways other people and traditions encounter the Transcendent, both by digging deeper into those traditions herself and by seeing them through her students’ eyes as she sets off with them on field trips to monasteries, temples, and mosques.

Troubled and inspired by what she learns, Taylor returns to her own tradition for guidance, finding new meaning in old teachings that have too often been used to exclude religious strangers instead of embracing the divine challenges they present. Re-imagining some central stories from the religion she knows best, she takes heart in how often God chooses outsiders to teach insiders how out-of-bounds God really is.

Throughout Holy Envy, Taylor weaves together stories from the classroom with reflections on how her own spiritual journey has been complicated and renewed by connecting with people of other traditions–even those whose truths are quite different from hers. The one constant in her odyssey is the sense that God is the one calling her to disown her version of God–a change that ultimately enriches her faith in other human beings and in God.

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story Of Unlearning and Relarning God Sarah Bessey (Howard Books) $26.00 When customers, friends, and the back cover blurbs align in insisting a book is one of the best ever, it is a must for me to review. Miracles… claims to be quite a story and yet I put off getting to it, thinking I’d like it, but it wouldn’t be extraordinary.

Granted, we love her first lively book Jesus Feminist (although nothing new, we’ve been selling books about evangelical feminism since we opened in the early 1980s) and I really appreciated Bessey’s first memoir, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith about her own changing faith (not unlike, say, the story of her dear friend, the late Rachel Held Evans) as she narrates her journey out of the Word of Faith Pentecostal faith of her girlhood. Nearly everyone’s faith shifts and matures, deepens or softens, but her journey was particularly striking (she’s a great writer and, well, she really was in some super strict, bodaciously unconventional stuff, at least for most Christians, making her shift particularly dramatic.) Making room for change and doubt and open-mindedness is a big deal for some traditions so Sarah blogs and speaks and writes about this stuff at no little cost to her, I’m sure. We are grateful for her candor and grace.

These writers doing books about being raised in shaming, strict, and sensationally religious families who are now being set free to be more normal and balanced in their expression of faith, allowing doubt and honesty, reasonable worship and non-fanatical public opinions, is quite the genre these days. I like them, really, even if that isn’t exactly my own experience. It’s close enough, though, to resonate. Out of Sorts really is a fine phrase to describe how many of us describe our religious sense these days, eh?

And so, Miracles and Other Things is plowing that same field again. She starts off with a preface so earnest about taking our hands and loving us as readers, carrying our own stories with her as she does her work. I get it – she is a beloved public speaker and she gets emails and letters and people stay late into the night at conferences saying (among other things) You too? She connects, truly connects, with so many (often disenfranchised) mostly young woman of faith and she invites them to rise up. It sounds a bit breathy – and for those who don’t have this experience of being excluded or misunderstood, her earnestness may impress or maybe just annoy a bit. But she is a rock star, with the book endorsed by the usual cast of characters such as good writers like Jen Hatmaker, Shauna Niequist, Glennon Doyle, and others on a journey away from fundamentalism like Mike McHargue and Peter Enns and Jonathan Martin, who calls it a “trail blazing, bush-burning book.” Happily, mainline denomination folks rave, too – Kate Bowler (of Duke, and the must-read, best-seller Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Believed) and yep, Barbara Brown Taylor.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

“Sarah Bessey is a writer of remarkable gifts. Beyond her ability to make a breath-taking sentence, and to tell the truth about the dying and rising of faith, she can tell a story as if she is whispering it straight into your heart. She is, by her own definition, a dangerous woman, with wisdom to spare about learning to love the broken miracles God offers us once we’re honest about where it hurts.”–Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark

So there you have it: Saint Barbara BT herself affirms what any of us who have read Bessey already knows. She’s a great writer and an honest, important leader.

But wait: we thought she had left her Pentecostal Word of Faith stuff. What’s this about miracles?

You see, this is not the book that Sarah intended to write. She tells us that she pounded out another huge manuscript, amidst grief from miscarriages and then several births, and a hard, hard labor and a dad that was dying, and that book was not what she finally wanted to write. What she did was tell this much more honest story. It is a story of her evolving faith, and – this is harrowing, to say the least – an awful car accident that nearly killed her, causing immense pain and chronic issues that got worse as the months of recovery wore on.

She writes honestly about this and I am sure those of us who have been in serious accidents (I have) or who have had loved ones in serious accidents (we have) will be deeply moved by her story and the pain of her recovery. But even as she can hardly walk, get this: she gets a bone fide invitation to be on a team of charismatic Christians (old friends) to celebrate a Jubilee with the Pope.

As a woman whose family economic status is such that she hardly even dreams of international travel, let alone a trip to Rome, she is both ecstatic and, understandably, unsure. Although pleasantly ecumenical, she has deep principles that oppose the patriarchy and hierarchy and abuses of the Catholic Church. (She wrote a book called Jesus Feminist, she wonders if they recall!) Like many of us who long for a greater congeniality within the Body of Christ, she mourns that they have a closed communion table and she could attend as a guest of honor but still be barred and banned from receiving the sacraments. And, more bluntly, she is not sure she can make the trip – once-in-a-lifetime gift that it is – due to her physical disabilities.

I will not tell you the rest, but know that this story of pain and loss and travel and mission and ministry and love and family is truly miraculous. It is a wonderfully fun read, compelling, engaging, well written, and inspiring.   One doesn’t have to have her same experiences to find the book pulling you in as you yourself experience the Spirit as she herself does.

As Shauna Niequist says in the preface, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is:

A grown-up, clear-eyed story of faith, told with so much soul and laughter and grit and elegance and plainspoken truth that it leaps off the page, straight into your heart. What a gift.

The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey Brian D. McLaren (Fortress Press) $16.99  I was thrilled the minute I heard about this marvelous idea, a new series of faith-based travelogues called “On Location” kicked off by the very fine writer Brian McLaren. Those that follow Brian know that he wrote a set of novels (now recently re-issued by Fortress, by the way) in which Darwin’s work and a visit to Galapagos figures into the story. McLaren loves the outdoors, loves his reptiles and tortoises, so, yep, he’s the man for this job. And what a good, good job he did.

I am sure I will never travel to South American, let alone to these Ecuadorian islands, but I do love travel books. Memoirs about adventures are a way to live those adventures and when a writer is bringing spiritual and theological insight along the way, what joy. That this is a spiritual pilgrimage, in many way, to one of the world’s most known and fragile ecosystems is itself a great gift and, yet, is fraught with concern.

I enjoyed this compact paperback and even though I’ve met Brian several times and consider him an acquaintance, I felt like I got to know him better. He writes about his son’s cancer just a bit, he is frustrated when he misses cell-phone connection to talk with his wife, and he reports on some talks he gave after he came home, talks that sounded truly interesting and important. I really liked catching up with him, even if it was when he was far, far away, keeping a diary for us all to enjoy.

Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 Sharon Robinson (Scholastic Press) $16.99 I read fewer YA novels this year than I sometimes do (and when I think of so many good ones, I wonder what I was thinking!) I want to sneak this one in here, which I read at the start of the new year, as an exceptionally strong, truly notable book of 2019. Although written as a youth book, many, many of us will enjoy it. Sharon Robinson turned 13 the night beforeGeorge Wallace declared on national television ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’ in his inauguration for governor of Alabama. Can you imagine? This book will help as it is written from the viewpoint of a child. I highly recommend it.

Child of the Dream is, obviously, a story of a young woman and her coming of age in 1963, a remarkable year by any account. The book is heart-warming but honest, vivid, even, and, as Andrea Davis Pinkney (of Martin Rising: Requiem for a King) wrote about it: it is a “deeply personal portrait of her childhood during one of the most pivotal moments in America’s history.” Pinkney continues, “She lets us walk in her shoes so that together we experience how it feels to see a dream on the horizon — and to reach for it.”

Do you realize who Sharon Robinson is? She is the daughter of famous baseball play, number 42 himself, Jackie Robinson. It’s why Jason Reynolds writes that this book tells of her own understanding of her place in the fight for civil rights. Reynolds says “This is a home run, not just for her, but for us all.” Exactly!

Listen to Christopher Paul Curtis (Newbery Award-winning author of the National Book Award finalist, The Journey of Little Charlie, who has this delightful, fabulous endorsement:

Sharon Robinson has pulled off an impressive trifecta: She has given us priceless, behind-the-scenes access to perhaps the most tumultuous year in modern American history; she has written a touching, compelling, coming-of-age story; and she tops the whole enterprise off with a tribute to her upbringing by an exceptional pair of African Americans, her parents, Rachel and Jackie Robinson.

This is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession Cameron Dezen Hammon (Lookout Books) $17.95 A friend who knows this author alerted me to this book before it came out and when if finally was released I knew I had to take the recommendation of my writer friend seriously; she is creative and thoughtful and she assured me I’d be captivated by the prose and the stunning story. Indeed, I was mesmerized by the first page, drawn in to a gripping story about, well, as the subtitle says, religious and romantic obsession. What up-front worship leader is having sexy texts from a lover in the middle of a set? What church leader entertains sorrow and doubts and regrets and anger has no place to share them? What evangelical Christian working for mega-churches and hipster outreaches finds her very body assaulted even as she is attempting to serve them by playing Godly, passionate music?

Apparently – it breaks my heart to say this – Cameron Dezen Hammon is not the only one who has experienced distress and sexism, religious confusion and artistic and theological difficulties within the leadership of modern evangelicalism. (See my review a week or so ago of The#MeToo Reckoning by Ruth Everhart for a study of mostly mainline Protestant congregations to be reminded of the pervasive cover-ups of sexual misbehaviors within faith communities.) Ms. Hammon does not name the (famous?) pastors of the well-known “gospel-centered” churches in which she experienced gross patriarchy and serious injustice, but it doesn’t matter; we can imagine.

Still, this memoir is not all expose and lament. It is, as the foreword says, “a valuable look at the social structures of evangelical Christianity” but it is also about the author’s own deep desire for God, for connection. While not a typical spiritual memoir, it truly is just that. Ms. Hammon, like nearly every mystic in church history, sees some convergence between romantic love and religious faith, between sexuality and spirituality. Desire? Ecstasy? Love? Belonging? Are we seeking romance and intimacy and home, or faith and forgiveness and heaven? Or both. Maybe faith indeed leads us home, into authentic community and real love, here on Earth. Perhaps grace offers eternal things that show up in the mundane. If so, Ms Hammon is a seeker for that reality, and her beautiful raw story will be a guide for many. This is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession made me sad but it one of the most memorable, striking reads this year.

I find it hard to say just how deeply this good writing moved me, how curious I was and how engaged as a reader; I suspect not everyone will be as generous or caring as I was; it is not for everyone. Jessica Wilbanks (memoirist and author of When I Spoke In Tongues) says of This Is My Body that it is “Unflinchingly honest and searingly lyrical.” She is right – it is “a song of a book.”

Cameron Hammon’s own conversion story from a New York Jew-ish punker is compelling and will resonate with any who came to a lively faith within a para-church organization or house church situation. Her struggle as a musician and artist will resonate with many who feel like the church has not used their gifts well. Anyone who has left upbeat evangelical or Pentecostal faith to find a more nuanced spirituality will understand the mixed feelings of her journey. This memoir will be important to many, an edgy and artful telling of a story that many others are writing these day. It is, in my view, one of the more remarkable and startling examples of these kinds of faith deconstructions and journeys out of popular evangelicalism.

And yet, through all of this, one of the biggest aspects of the story of This is My Body is the marriage one, the romantic longings and her relationship with her husband. How does one evolve spiritually and religiously (especially when one’s work and paycheck are dependent on the church) when one is married? How does one grow or change as an individual when one’s spouse is on his own faith journey? How does one think about sexuality and intimacy in marriage when talking about spiritual intimacy and singing about Love is how one makes one’s living? How does a shift away from fundamentalism towards doubting faith and re-embracing feminism effect a marriage? That is a major part of this tale. Remember, the book is called This Is My Body.

Lacy Johnson (author of an award winning collection of essays called The Reckonings and a previous, harrowing memoir of her own abuse by a boyfriend) says:

There is a deep and insatiable longing at the center of Cameron Dezen Hannon’s spellbinding debut memoir: to love and be loved with honesty and abandon, to follow a spiritual path toward clarity and truth.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth Sarah Smarsh (Scribner) $17.00 This was another book that just came out in paperback that I read earlier this year in hardback. It was, interestingly, one of the “One Community Reads” selections this fall for many towns here in central PA. One recent customer understandably connected it to Hillbilly Elegy and Nickel and Dimed. Smarsh is a gifted writer and amazing storyteller – and what a story she has to tell of her extended family in the heartland. Set among poor, rural folk in Kansas, she tells of parents and grandparents, using a device that some find endearing: the book is an extended letter to her unborn child. In the hands of a lesser writer it might have been smarmy or sentimental, but this telling is full of regret and longing and pride and chutzpah; she does come from colorful, sturdy, resilient, if at times troubled stock.

Ms. Smarsh can be wickedly funny and tender but I see her also as a biting social critic. She is relentless in talking – appropriately and insightfully – about wealth and privilege and power and poverty. This isn’t a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” sort of story a la Hillbilly Elegy; it is, perhaps, closer to Nickel and Dimed with its critique of the culture’s misunderstandings of the working poor – especially farmers, ranchers, the rural mid-Westerners who work hard under hot sun and freezing cold, usually white, too often poor. There’s a bit about agriculture policy and big business although she’s not quite a Wendell Berry agrarian.

For what it’s worth, the parts of her story about going to college as a not very cultured or even well-educated farm girl – her elementary school and school days are unbelievable! – is very, very telling. Any BookNotes readers who work in higher education ought to be aware of the huge gaps and obstacles facing many rural and small town first-generation collegiates; this story could help you understand this sort of privation. Read Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth

In so many ways, for so many reasons, this well written tale was one of my favorite books of 2019.

To Stop a Warlord: My Story of Justice, Grace, and the Fight for Peace Shannon Sedgwick Davis (Spiegel & Grau) $27.00 You may recall this publishers name as they are the wonderful imprint that brought Just Mercy to the world, the book by Bryan Stevenson. (If you haven’t read that Award Winner, you simply must!) So I’ve been wanting to publically acknowledge them for their cutting edge work and for bringing yet another intriguing, well-written, and honorable book about social change to the literary reading public. We are honored to get to carry books like this and we are delighted to honorably mention it here and now.

Alas, I’m not sure what to think about this amazing memoir. It is the story of a woman, a mom and a lawyer, who, as I’ve said at BookNotes before, was a leader in an NGO doing good charitable work in Africa. She is a person of action, a person motivated by faith, a Christian worker in hard places who has worked with our friends at International Justice Mission (IJM.) She is now the CEO of Bridgeway Foundation which is “dedicated to stopping mass atrocities.” She is an Advisory Council member of The Elders, the group of global statesman founded by Nelson Mandela. You could profitable read any account of her efforts and be challenged and stimulated.

But this? Oh my. Here’s the gist – just read what Adam Grant (author of Orginals and Give and Take, that we also recommend, btw) wrote in then New York Times review.

How far would you go to stop a murderous Ugandan warlord who had turned thousands of children into soldiers? As the head of a human rights foundation, Shannon Sedgwick Davis did something unprecedented: She hired private military contractors to train an army to stop him. This is an extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary leader–it’s impossible to read without feeling moved to do more to help those with less.

Okay, do I need to say more? She “hired private military contractors to train an army” to stop the evil Ugandan warlord. Jospeh Kony.

You can’t make this stuff up. To Stop a Warlord is wonderfully written and well paced so is one of those books you can hardly put down. It is driven by deep compassion, I think, and what Blake Mycoskie (her friend from Toms Shoes) calls her “relentless determination, motherly protective instinct, and steadfast courage.”

Look: To Stop a Warlord has rave reviews and lovely endorsements on the back from Betty Bigombe (and leader at the World Bank who was the chief mediator in peace negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army in the late ‘90s and into the early 2000s) as well as from the U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Henry Crumpton. Former President Jimmy Carter offers his endorsement calling is a “remarkable” book. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says it is “compelling and inspiring.”

Will this help us all, as these endorsements all say, beautifully move us all to take action for the vulnerable? Most of us aren’t on philanthropic boards and few of us have any clue about these sorts of global details. But, whew, this is unprecedented work, and “an unforgettable journey on an unexpected path to peace.”

It is without a doubt one of the most memorable books of 2019.

THREE WONDERFUL EXAMPLES OF A BIGGER or BETTER FRAMEWORK FOR THE GENRE OF BASIC CHRISTIAN LIVING

…And Yet, Undaunted: Embraced by the Goodness of God in the Chaos of Life Paula Rinehart & Connally Gilliam (NavPress) $15.99 This was one of my favorite books this year in part because of the fine wisdom and down to Earth sisterly sort of advice these women offer. Paula Rinehart has been speaking and writing on woman’s issues for decades and we have stocked other books of hers over the years. We always felt they were just a cut above some of the other sort of standard fare advice and inspiration for the religious marketplace. Connally Gilliam is younger and also works in outreach and disciple-making with the para-church group, The Navigators. She is know for what I’m told is an excellent book for those that read books in the field of being an unmarried Christian woman. That is called Revelation of a Single Woman: Loving the Life I Didn’t Expect. Again, better than many, well written, and thoughtful.

But this: it’s fabulous; very smart, engaging, helpful. But the biggest reason I was so taken with this, why we promote it and think it is so very unique and worthy of our Best of accolades is because of the structure. Hear me out.

You may know that there has been a bit of a shift in the frame of understanding of faith and discipleship in recent years. Some trace it to Dutch neo-Calvinists like Kuyper, popularized by authors like Al Wolter’s Creation Regained, others to NT Wright, but many are using language informed by two chief ideas. First that we live out our lives in light of a story – what some use to call a “worldview” but is now seen as more imaginative and towards a telos, or end – and that, secondly, that story of ours ought to be shaped by the Biblical story. Calling the Bible (and our life informed by it) a story is heard in titles like The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story or God’s Story, Our Story, or The Story of God, The Story of Us. It’s a good trend to see the Bible as something other than a repository of doctrine or a bunch of disconnected episodes. There is a redemptive storyline to the Bible and the only way to read God’s Word well is to see that Big Picture. And the only way to follow Jesus as agents of His Kingdom is to see our lives unfolding as part of His ongoing mission to complete the redemptive plot.

Enter Rinehart and Gilliam, who have given us one of the best basic Christian living sort of resources that frame our own lives in light of the four major themes of the plot of Scripture, the “acts” of the drama, so to speak. From Al Wolters on, many have seen the key highpoints of the sacred play to be the act of creation, the radical fall into sin and rebellion and dysfunction, the decisive promise and accomplishment of redemption, and the future hope of “all things renewed.” Creation/fall/redemption/restoration is the large theme of our Jubilee conference out in Pittsburgh that each February invites college students to “live a better story” by entering into that cosmic drama. Rinehart and Gilliam tell that story in the four units of their book. They allow the big picture of God’s Biblical drama to inform how we understand our daily lives, our personal hurts and fears, and how to learn to trust not just that God is good, but that God is up to something good: the fulfillment of His promises to renew and restore the cosmos. Our daily lives find health and hope by placing ourselves between the creation and the new creation, the garden and the city.

It is implied and suggested and spoken and explained that we are good, part of God’s very good creation, but we are hurting, not as we were meant to be because of our complicity in this fallen and distorted world. Christ has brought us back to life and redeemed, in principle, His beloved creation, but yet the hopeful end is not yet seen. We walk by faith, into the newness of life, realizing that the Kingdom is already but not yet. Lot’s of big picture Scripture studies say that these days and lots of theology books assume it. But precious few books about the oddness of our lives, the broken things, the pain and the failures and the foibles invite us to this Larger Story of hope for a renewed Earth. And Yet, Undaunted gets it just right, and this is a rare gift indeed.

There are folks that will not read Transforming Vision (Walsh & Middleton) or Creation Regained (Al Wolters) or Surprised by Hope (Tom Wright) or Heaven is a Place on Earth (Michael Witmer) or Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of the Earth Fits Into God’s Plan for the World (Ian Smith.) That Kingdom vision stuff would take them a long way towards deeper more faithful and sustainable discipleship, I am sure, but few people read these overarching narratives about our narrative.

But tons of people want a simple book that helps them learn how to believe in God, to follow Jesus, to care about spiritual things, to make better choices, to cope and flourish. Who doesn’t want a life of deeper meaning and guidance on finding God in our hard times?

Again, this is a genre of book – short chapters, conversational, wise, warm women writers – which are huge in most Christian bookstores. It just seems to be a nice and easy to read book about living the life of faith. And so it is.

But, hold on, this gets at the creation-fall-redemption-restoration worldview story and helps us frame all of our lives and all of our sorrows (and all of our successes and joys as well) within the context of this big, true, Story of God.

And here is how they do it — and this little bit of literary genius makes it award winning itself: they translate the words “creation”-“fall”-“redemption” and “restoration” into phrases that I think were coined by the super smart worldviewish teacher (of the Clapham Institute in Annapolis, MD) Mike Metzger, namely,

  • What Ought to Be ((Creation)
  • What Is (Fall)
  • What Can Be (Redemption)
  • What Will Be (Restoration)

The chapters are almost devotional in nature, with lots of Bible-based encouragement to live into this “ought-is-can-and-will be” framework. This slant, this take, this narrative, this Story is how to get the Biblical worldview into your bones and into your imagination. As Bruce Hindmarsh of Regent College in British Columbia notes,

This book exposes our longings for a better world and then points us forward to the way things can and will be redeemed by Jesus Christ. Because of that, we can live realistically and joyfully – even undaunted – in this beautiful but broken world. Sharing openly about their own lives, Paula and Connally invite us to do the same and live not our best life not, but our real life now.

That is why I want to celebrate this book and insist it is one of the best books of 2019. It quietly pushes us in the right direction, against goofy theologies and unhelpful ideas and unwise promises and super spiritual tones that are subtle but present in so much Christian literature. This helps give us vocabulary and categories to be realistic and joyful, to explain what’s wrong and what’s right, to discern the times and live well within them.

As Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum writes about it,

This wise, beautiful book will undoubtedly serve as a guide and friend through the dark valleys of life, a balm and a spur to those weighed down with regret, disappointment, and unmet longing. And Yet, Undaunted shows the possibilities of finding courage and joy in your life story, by pointing at the Larger Story– what ought to bewhat iswhat can be, and what will be–and the ways in which Love himself unites the plot and pervades each scene.

Listen to Vaneetha Rendall Risner (The Scars That Have Shaped Me) who says:

Connally and Paula’s writing makes my heart ache–ache for the way things ought to be and ache for the way things will, one day, be–all while dignifying the longing, disappointment, and suffering wrapped up in the now. I am so grateful for these two women: for their wisdom, honesty, and call to hopeful courage. This book will faithfully point you to Jesus as you are drawn in to engage with the deep longings and questions rumbling inside your heart.

Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of AND in an Either-Or World Jen Polllock Michel (IVP) $16.00 Funny how covers that don’t appeal to me keep me from what might be really good books. Thank goodness I had the good sense to refuse my instinct to boycott this dull, jumbled up cover because it is a great, great, artfully rich and beautiful book. I knew it would be because this author’s two previous books Teach us To Want and Keeping Place are among the best books of the last few years. She’s a great writer, a born storyteller, and a fine thinker.

As one reviewer warned, “Don’t confuse this as a call for the mushy middle…” As Russ Ramsey (himself a thoughtful pastor and great wordsmith and author) says in the foreword,

Studied rightly, theology should lead to awe and wonder. To that end, my friend Jen Pollock Michel has given us a gift.

Perhaps, like me, you are drawn to books that people who like and respect recommend. (Uhhh, I hope so! Ha.) On the back of Surprised by Paradox we have rave reviews by Karen Swallow Prior, Emily Freeman, Tish Harrison Warren, and Marlena Graves. That’s enough to warrant an award right there!

The mysteries and paradoxes Michel explores in upbeat and nicely crafted chapters are Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament. This isn’t exactly the creation-fall-redemption-restoration meta-narrative that so nicely shapes And Yet Undaunted but it is close. There is good stuff in here about wonder and goodness; there is hard stuff about brokenness and injustice; her insights about the Kingdom include good ruminations on this already/not yet mystery (and well as the upside down “blessed are” passages of Jesus. (You’ve got to read a chapter called “The High Treason of Hallelujah.”

And so, this book, too, offers what we might think of as a guide to basic Christian living, an ordinary sort of spirituality book that helps us with common stuff of faith and life. But yet, it is such a cut above the typical – graciously written, wisely construed, profoundly approached, with great questions for reflection and discussion that are really good. I mean, when a book is dedicated to “Jonas McAnn and the pastors like him” who are found “preaching the truth and trying not to miss the wonder” you’ve got to take notice.

(That is, if you know who Jonas McAnn is. He is, of course, the fictional preacher in a novel we highly acclaimed and awarded a few years back, Love Big, Be Well by Winn Collier. You see – she is using a literary character even in her dedication. How cool is that? This book deserves an award for the cleverness of the dedication page – I’ve never seen that before!)

Truly, in a world filled with ambiguity and confusion on one hand and overly dogmatic, strict and reductionistic views of truth on the other, it is lovely (indeed, it is necessary) to have voices of beauty and mystery that call us beyond binary black and white to the complexity of paradox. As it says on the back cover (which I am sure I cited in my earlier BookNotes review when this first came out)

Jesus invites us to abandon the polarities of either and or to embrace the difficult, wondrous dissonance of and.

I’m not sure I’m good at that. Maybe you aren’t either. That’s why we need this book. Thanks Jen Pollock Michel and thanks, IVP Books! Hooray.

Sacred Endurance: Finding Grace and Strength for a Lasting Faith Trillia J. Newbell (IVP) $16.00  We hope you know Ms. Newbell as a great children’s writer. Her book about multi-ethnic reconciliation in the context of God’s faithfulness to the redemption of the creation, God’s Very Good Idea, is such a favorite because it helps children (and parents) to appreciate the “creation-fall-redemption-restoration” four chapter gospel that we talked about above, and it is passionate about diversity and multi-ethnic ministry from a gospel-centered perspective. She has written other good stuff and I trust her, also as a black woman, for offering a certain slant of insight that many of us might miss.

And so, when she did a book on endurance — on keeping on keeping on, as we used to say (or running the race as the Apostle Paul puts it) — I was interested. But I wasn’t sure this was going to be extraordinary. There are lots of books about hanging in there. Although it is about other stuff as well, I find Visions of Vocation by Steve Garber very hard to top (which makes much of loving the very messy and hurting world in the same manner that God does, and not growing cynical or jaded in that journey.) It is a live question: how do we keep on loving well, serving, being faithful until the end? How about that line from the Eugene Peterson book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction? Nurturing a long haul sort of faith is needed now more than ever.

And so I turned to Trillia Newbell’s book, realizing there were great blurbs on the back from people of color I respect, like Bryan Loritts and Christiana Edmondson.(I do hope you know the podcast she helps with, Truth’s Table.) And I realized that Ms. Newbell has so much insight and frames this question so wholistically that it stands not only as a good example of faithful Christian guidance on the topic (endurance) but as an example of how to do a thoughtful, substantive, faithful sort of Christian self help book. This is “basic Christian living” 101 and more. I’m excited to name it as a great book in this genre.

You see, while it offers standard fare advice — good advice! — about turning to Jesus and being faithful, and trust in God and the like, it offers this advice in ways that are framed by the bigger story of God using suffering and God redeeming the ordinariness of our days. There is no breathy promises but no let-it-all-hang out and revel in the rawness, either. She’s honest, but she wants to help people grow in their maturity. She is equipping us to think well and live well. We are called to a race and she wants us to finish it well.

And she covers content that some basic Christian living books miss. For instance, she has a chapter about the role of the mind, and she talks about enduring in society. (Yes, questions of race and racism are part of basic Christian living!) She calls us to do life with others in community and insists (as my friend Alan Noble who wrote Disruptive Witness says of it) that we can be faithful “without denying or downplaying the reality of suffering and evil we face in this life.”

I was heartened that my instinct that this is framed by a bigger picture and better story when I saw this review by Paul David Tripp (author of the popular devotional, New Morning Mercies) who writes this. Notice the second line — he new it was going to be different, “deeply wise.”

“This is the best book on endurance I have ever read. As I began, I knew this book was going to be different–Trillia Newbell has given us something that is deeply wise, practical at every turn, and laden with illuminating illustrations. Again and again she points us to Jesus and reminds us each time that the hope for our endurance is not found in our faithfulness but rather made possible because of his. You don’t have to dread the race ahead; you can look at the road ahead with anticipation and hope. This book will tell you why.”

There are lots of great little books to help ordinary Christians learn about their faith, grow deeper in their spiritual formation, get the gospel in their bones in a way that helps them deepen their discipleship. But many are laden with less than stellar writing or overpromising or cheap sentimentality. We tip our hat to Trillia for offering good counsel and fresh encouragement that is sold and good and true, even for those who are struggling on this leg of the journey.

VITAL BOOKS ABOUT MISSIOLOGY AND MISSIONS

Although it isn’t a hugely popular section of our store, we are proud to keep old and new titles on global missions packed into our shelves in that important category. Good publishers continue release volumes in this robust conversation about the nature of mission and the ways Christ’s church can be expanded around the globe. Of course, with the majority of Christians now living in the “two thirds” world, mostly in the global South, those who train Western missionaries have considerable re-thinking to do. Those in mainline churches and those in evangelical traditions are all doing vibrant work in producing scholarship to equip those doing engaged in missionary endeavors. Here are just three we want to honorably mention this year.

Global Arts and Christian Witness: Exegeting Culture, Translating the Message, and Communicating Christ Roberta R. King (Baker Academic) $26.99 Scott Sunquist and Amos Yong are among the sharpest missiologist in North America and they are the senior editors of an on-going series called “Mission in the Global Community” published by Baker Academic. If you are interested in this high level, academic work in missiology, you should order them all from us. This is the latest and is a notable example of the interesting sort of cutting edge work done at the interface of anthropology and linguists and culture studies and gospel presentations.

 

Before I explain that one, I must say this: IVP Academic has a similar and equally scholarly and truly fascinating line of edgy missiology volumes in their “Missiological Engagements” series. And Roberta R. King (along with William Dyrness) have edited a companion volume to Global Arts and Christian Witness that has appeared on this IVP Academic series. That one is called The Arts as Witness in Multifaith Contexts edited by Robert King & William Dyrness (IVP Academic; $35.00.)

Here is what the publisher says about this amazing, breath-taking collection of essays from all over the world:

In search of holistic Christian witness, missionaries have increasingly sought to take into account all the dimensions of people’s cultural and religious lives—including their songs, dances, dramatic performances, storytelling, and visual arts.

Missiologists, educators, and practitioners are cultivating new approaches for integrating the arts into mission praxis and celebrating creativity within local communities. And in an increasingly globalized and divided world, peacemaking must incorporate the use of artistic expressions to create understanding among peoples of diverse faiths. As Christians in all nations encounter members of other religions, how do they witness among these neighbors while respecting their distinct traditions?

The Arts as Witness is a primary source sort of first-hand collection by missiologists and artists. There are chapters with titles like these:

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way: Christian Church Music in Multifaith Liberia, West Africa, in the Face of Crisis and Challenge” (by Ruth M. Stone) and “Sounds, Languages, and Rhythms: Hybridized Popular Music and Christian-National Identity Formation in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia” (by Sooi Ling Tan) or “Art as Dialogue: Exploring Sonically Aware Spaces for Interreligious Encounters” (by Ruth Illman.) This stuff is a far cry from the caricatures of missionaries in novels like The Poisonwood Bible, say. These are evangelical missionaries and musciologists, doing stuff that ends up in chapters like this: “Simba Nguruma“: The Labor of Christian Song in Polycultural, Multifaith Kenya” as told by (Jean Ngoya Kidula. Okay?

Man, this is fascinating, whether it is a ground-breaking chapter by Dyrness on the poetic faith of Zapatistas in Mexico or how contemporary art can critiques neocolonialism (in the chapter “Wild, Wild China by Joyce Yu-Jean Lee.) These are just so amazing, collecting pieces that “speak of the power of art in making peace, contextualizing theology, and aiding in the evangelization of peoples.”

But, whaaat? Is this too much, too specific, too much arcane detail? I understand. Which is why we also are honoring Global Arts and Christian Witness: Exegeting Culture, Translating the Message, and Communicating Christ. It is also meaty and substantial but perhaps more foundational.

In this one, as you can see from the title, it does, in fact, explore how artists are part of this global missions movement. Needless to say (as we often do) art needs no justification in God’s good world, so artists don’t “need” to be evangelistic or missionary-minded. In fact, good artists informed by wise, Christianly conceived aesthetics, would say art is to be allusive and imaginative and, well, artful, so doesn’t “have a message” in any prosaic sense. (Otherwise, it isn’t art, after all, but more akin to propaganda.)

But yet, for some few artists, they are called to hook their artistic gifts to global missionary efforts, and when they do it is spectacularly interesting, and often fruitful. Global Arts and Christian Witness (complete with full color plates and photographs) is an up-to-the moment report from the field by this good thinker about how artists can be part of the global work of sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom.

Dr. Roberta King is a professor of communication and ethnomusicology in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a great scholar and activist and writer.

Here is what hip hop activist and Christian scholar Daniel White Hodge (whose book Homeland Insecurity: A Hip Hop Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Culture we’ve award as notable book last year) says:

It has been said that music is a universal language, but its meaning is not. King has given us an in-depth analysis adding to the ethno-musicological lexicon in great detail. In a world where everyone has some type of favorite music, King’s astute inquiry gives us a better glimpse into the complexity of music from around the world. Very much worth the read!”

Discipling in a Multicultural World Ajith Fernando (Crossway) $19.99 This book is remarkably complex and multi-faceted, covering so much. I want to celebrate it and award it and promote it here, even if I realize too few really want to study up on this detail. But it is a detail we increasingly need to learn and this is pioneering and wise. Fernando is an amazing Sri Lankan leader (and has served the global Youth for Christ movement for years.) I would trust any book he wrote about anything (such as his must-read The Call to Joy & Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry or his inspiring NIV Application Commentary on Acts.)

Here he is insisting that our multicultural world needs countercultural disciplers. Hmmm. Let that sink in.

Of course, this presumes – and I suppose some of our readers here, if you are still with me, may not resonate with this assumption – that new believers need to be mentored, guided, that we all need spiritual guides, directors, coaches, pastors. That we are to “make disciples” suggests that some of us, at least, should be learning how to “disciple” others into the ways of Christ-honoring discipleship. Whether that is a process of catechism or spiritual direction or Bible study, we simply must help shape and care for and guide and led those who under our watch come to want to follow Jesus. Healthy evangelism always must lead to follow-up and a process of mentoring new believers.

And so, if this is true – and it obviously is – how does this “discipling” happen in the ever-more-common cross-cultural situations. Global missionaries have to think about this and missiologists are endlessly hoping to find the answer to a fruitful “contextualized” way to relate Christ and culture. But anyone in almost any town in North America, now, must take up this discussion. We all must wonder how to be sensitive to cultural and ethnic concerns as we make disciples.

Ajith Fernando’s great, provocative, fascinating book asks how we do spiritual guidance, mentoring, teaching, and leading (what he calls discipling, for short) in contexts such as among those from cultures that are oriented around honor and shame; what about honoring family commitments, if the family is of another religion (or no religion as such?) What about dealing with persecution. This is a practical guide to disciple-making as we help others grow into faithful followers of Christ within their own social and religious contexts. Some of these stories may be set in South Asia, but you will learn much from them and it just may keep you from harming those from other cultures you are befriending even now.

On Mission Together: Integrating Missions Into the Local Church Richard Noble (Falls City Press) $14.99 There are a small handful of books about how local missions committees or missions advocates or other leaders (pastors, but not just ministers) can navigate the admittedly complicated context of the local congregation and its needs and make clear the need for an emphasis on mission. And even for those mission-minded churches (like those famously documented in Tom Telford’s wonderful Today’s All Star Missions Churches) or those only wanting to be, On Mission Together by Rich Noble is just what you need!

As the globally recognized leader Peter Kuzmic writes in the remarkable foreword, it is written in what Billy Graham once called “the spirit of Lausanne.” That is, in the spirit and wholistic ethos of the famous Lausanne missionary conferences and statements that guided the best of a generation or more of thoughtful, contextualized, evangelical missionaries leaders. Kuzmic rightly says it is “almost comprehensive, well-organized, Manual for Missions” and that it almost burns with the beloved heart and vision and passion of Richard Noble for helping churches deepen their commitment to the Great Commission.

We want to celebrate and honor this book as notable because there is so very little like it out there. That may not sound rather prosaic, but it is said with gusto and joy: we rarely get to say that there is precious little in a field or genre, and this book deserves this big accolade. Our Mission Together is both a primer and a handbook, a guide and a big set of thoughtful suggestions, helping any given local church become more adept at educating about, supporting, and sending global missionaries. It is “a clear and concise guidebook for any church wanting to make global missions extend beyond an annual offering or a Minute for Missions.” Ya know?

Three big cheers for this classy, boutique Western Pennsylvania publisher and for Richard Noble, a well-known and widely-respected Christian Missionary Alliance missions mobilizer. He is the founder and director of the Center for Missional Engagement and deserves to be heard.

A BEAUTIFUL, QUIET GEM

Faithful Friendships: Embracing Diversity in Christian Community Dana Robert (Eerdmans) $19.00 I’m not sure what first alerted me that this would be a quiet gem, a great little book, perhaps too unsung, but important and wonderful. Perhaps it was the sub-title, or the fact that a foreword was offered by Christine Pohl, who wrote the seminal, essential Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition and Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us and Friendships at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission. If Pohl says something is important, we should listen.

I realized early on by reading Ms Pohl’s good foreword that this is, indeed, a book about friendship. I thought maybe the word “friendship” in the title was just useful for an image, but that it was mostly about community, about church. And it is, I suppose. But Dana Robert’s is working deeply here – even though the book isn’t academic or arcane – in the questions of virtue and relationships and character. What kind of people are we in our communities of faith? What kind of relationships form us? That is, what kind of friends do we have?

We don’t know whether to put this book under our section about racism and multi-ethnic ministry because it is about cross-cultural diversity. But is is also about diversity within the church, so we surely should shelf it in our section about community, next to ecclesiology. But, you know what? It also is a book, as Pohl reminds us, about friendship. So it goes under friendship, over in the self-help sort of personal growth section. I almost listed in in that category in the PART ONE of BookNotes Best of 210-9.

Faithful Friendships came out of lectures given at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia, a lively and wonderful place. The ideas were first shaped by a series of talks she gave at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary. Currently, she teaches World Christianity and History of Mission (and is the director of the Center for Global Christianity at Boston University.) So she gets around – Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic. (And Pohl, who studied at L’Abri, with Francis Schaeffer, teaches at Asbury, a fine United Methodist institution.)

Isn’t it nice that such ecumenical voices have so much to tell us, to teach us about Jesus and his tender call to care for others? This book is deeply Christian, rooted in the gospels, and yet if full of contemporary stories, examples and illustrations of lasting friendships and cross-cultural initiatives. You can see more of why we love it, and why I insist on honoring it here as a lovely release from 2019 by hearing these other important figures who commend it:

“Dana Robert has been that rare combination of renowned scholar and committed church mission leader. In this book, Dr. Robert does a marvelous job of reclaiming the practice of friendship as essential to Christian ethics and church life. I’ve just returned from a bruising at the United Methodist General Conference, full of talk of division and schism. I’m thinking, ‘Dana Robert’s guidance and wisdom, just when we need it. What a gift.'” Will Wiilimon, Accidential Preacher

“What a remarkable–and unusual–book Dana Robert has given us! Though esteemed as a scholar of church history and mission, she has ranged far beyond academic categories to explore the deepest human needs and to reflect on the models of friendship she has seen in Christian communities. This is not a sentimental book; her copious illustrations depict Christian commitment across boundaries, often in peril. Preachers and church leaders of all stripes will value the way she has woven biblical and theological insights together with her own warmhearted message. Dana Robert is herself a friend in the church’s need.” Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

“Refusing to be torn apart by wars, revolutions, and systemic injustice and oppression, the individuals in Faithful Friendships manifest their faith and humanity in noble acts of friendship that defies the boundaries of race, nationality, class, religion, and culture. An inspiring read.” Xi Lian, Duke Divinity School

SURPRISING, POWERFUL, HONEST, HEART-BROKEN: A CRY FROM THE MAINLINE CHURCH, IMPORTANT FOR US ALL

Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the Us Lenny Duncan (Fortress Press) $16.99  I wasn’t sure how to honor this hot love letter of a book that came out this summer. It is, as the subtitle reveals, a book mostly for mainline Lutherans. The ELCA is said to be one of the whitest denominations in the US, but it is, I’d say, a stand in for most mainline denominations. I know a number of clergy of color in our own Lutheran Synod and have only had the briefest of conversations with some about how they navigate their own embodiment within their mostly white region and mostly white congregations. Some are, as you’d expect, more outspoken about racial justice issues, while others perhaps do not feel called to that particular ministry or do not want the burden of hosting that conversation. Maybe they are content, maybe not.

I used to sell books as one of the only white people at an all African American conference for black men and women – clergy and congregants – in my own PC(USA) denomination. Like the ELCA, we’ve made all sorts of statements and public commitments to ethnic diversity and racial justice. Our mainline denominational publishers have done radical books and our leaders have issued declarations. But only as I was privileged to be an insider to the conversations within the safe spaces of the black Presbyterian caucus, so to speak, did I realize that despite the right messages (sometimes) from leadership, people of color have huge barriers and frustrations within largely white organizations, even those that say they are mostly progressive on these issues. As I started to read Rev. Lenny (the Lutheran) Duncan’s Dear Church I could almost hear my black Presbyterian brothers and sisters from years ago. This stuff is talked about in public a bit more these days, but the issues of race and class have not gone away.

(That Duncan add passion for inclusion of those other than cis-gender folk would make it controversial in some black churches, of course and in this, he does not speak for all people of color, or course.)

In his love letter to the ELCA, Duncan offers the church a “new vision for the future.” I’m not so sure what is so “new” about fighting white supremacy, misogyny, nationalism, homophobia, and economic injustice. He stands with immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community and while we don’t do it very well, the call to do so isn’t new, certainly not from this publisher. But in all this heart-felt anguish and hope, Duncan calls us to consider deeply and forthrightly just how willing we are to truly and faithfully enter that struggle for the long haul.

The writing in Dear Church is shall we say, a bit colorful and Rev. Duncan is (perhaps at first glance) a surprising character to lead the church of Luther to a new reformation. Lenny Duncan is, as he says, “the unlikeliest of pastors.” He was formerly homeless, he drifted all around the country. He was very seriously un-churched. Incarcerated. So he has some of that rough past experience and brings some history and struggle and hardship to his work as pastor at Jehu’s Table in the heart of Brooklyn. This radical social and spiritual transformation isn’t uncommon among Pentecostal and evangelical church leaders, but it is more rare in the more middle American mainline churches. Ya know? This story almost sounds, well, Biblical in proportion.

I agree (perhaps in a slightly different way than Duncan means it) when he says that the problems with the declining membership church facing shifting demographics and shrinking congregations “are not sociological, but theological.” Right on; in fact, I wish he’d have explored that more.

In this heart-felt open letter to the mainline church, Reverend Lenny Duncan calls us all to renewal, to revival. He invites us to rise up in God’s Spirit – yes, in terms of a radical vision of a fully open and inclusive church and a wholistic mission that subverts the idols and ideologies of the day, and of status quo congregations, but it is a spiritual renewal about which he writes. This really does mean turning to God and getting serious about our discipleship in the way of Jesus and His counter-cultural movement. He’s right about that, you know, and he brings this challenge with lots of energy and color and spicy storytelling. It’s worth reading, and it has a lot of integrity.

Even if you disagree with Duncan’s progressive sort of theology and his liberationist hermeneutic and lefty sort of politics, you should agree that this feisty read is better than the passionate (manicured) voices calling us to a safe sort of mega-churchy pseudo-revolution. I’m tired of hip and breathy evangelical voices calling us to cool zeal and making a difference and changing the world, when, frankly, they don’t even touch the big issues of structural and systematic idolatry in our society; they’ve co-opted the language of revolution but don’t really mean it. Dear Church means it. Rev. Duncan may not have every analysis fully right – read it and conclude for yourself – but he is pointing us in the right direction, calling us out, inviting us to be serious about faith and action, and to not give up on God’s work in the mainline churches. His diagnosis is severe and his proposals are radical.

I don’t know how my BookNotes fans will take this, but here are how some in his own beloved ELCA have responded:

Rev. Lenny Duncan is a voice calling in the wilderness. I am deeply grateful for the comfort and the discomfort his book brought me. I dare you to read this book, church. I dare you to be open to the repentance it calls for, to the grace it manifests, to the pain it witnesses to. I dare you to be changed by the truth in its pages. I dare you to not look away. It’s time.

Marrying stunning, reverberant personal stories with little-known Lutheran history, Duncan makes readers laugh out loud in grim recognition. His critiques of our beloved church strike a tender spot in the heart, not because they are harsh, but because they are true.

The Reverend Lenny Duncan writes with a searing message urgently rooted in true love. His deep commitment to speak the truth to his white siblings in the church reads as a desperately clarion call. Dear Church isn’t just a good idea for a book study–the grace-filled ferocity that overwhelms its pages reminds one of early writings from the Latin American base communities that formed liberation theology as we know it today. Duncan has written a necessary addition to the corpus of Christian writings in the twenty-first century. We ignore his plea at our own peril.”

FAVORITE BOOKS and DVDs ABOUT THE BIBLE

I love reading books about the Bible and do my fair share of informal Bible teaching, here and there. There seems to be a rising tide of fresh, new Bible scholars these days and we saw remarkably important books by authors like Nijay K. Gupta and Brant Pitre and Michael Bird and Douglas Campbell, all who are writing on Paul, perhaps in conversation with leaders in the field like Michael Gorman, who published this year Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality (Baker Academic; $30.00.)

There has been quite an interest in Paul studies this year, and we’re excited. One important and interesting one that we announced at BookNotes last winter was Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives edited by Scot McKnight & Jospeh Modica (Eerdmans; $20.00.) It offers four different “takes” or approaches to the famous epistle and then suggests how preachers should proclaims the message of Romans. There are not only essays about the four different approaches, but sample sermons.

Some of the esteemed scholars and preachers who are included in this good resource are Michael Gorman, Fleming Rutledge, Michael Bird, Douglas Campbell, Richard Hays, Tara Beth Leach, William Willimon and others, all indicative of one of the four interpretive perspectives

This is a really interesting, very useful, and I think inspiring volume and recommend it for anyone interested in Bible study, in Paul, or in preaching. Kudos!

Later in the year, Scot McKnight himself did a freshly conceived but careful commentary on Romans entitled Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire (Baylor University Press; $29.99 — no discount available on this one; sorry.) It, of course, emphasizes the ecclesiological context and implications and has gotten very good reviews. It is a notable volume, for sure, but if you’re going there, stay tuned (below) to see me once again rave about the astounding and energetic Romans Disarmed.

Although it has a very different style and approach, I have to admit I enjoyed much of the little paperback by John Piper called Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons (Crossway; $14.99.) I spend a lot of my own time in the Old Testament, so it’s good to hear him say “Besides Jesus, no one has kept me from despair, or taken me deeper into the mysteries of the gospel, than the apostle Paul.)

Zondervan’s useful “Story of God Bible Commentaries” (edited by Scot McKnight & Tremper Longman) saw several new volumes this year (for instance, Joshua by Lissa Wray Beal and Acts by Dean Pinter.) They’ve added more to the excellent paperback “Biblical Theology for Life” series – see Nicholas Perrin’s Biblical Theology of Life: The Kingdom of God.

Zondervan made a real mark in 2019 as they released two different video curriculums by N.T. Wright and Michael Bird and a major, major textbook This is amazing — what riches we have to use among our churches and small groups and Bible studies and fellowship groups. First, last winter, there was the upbeat and fabulous “live from the Holy land” 8-session DVD The New Testament You Never Knew Video Study: Exploring the Context, Purpose, and Meaning of the Story of God ($39.99, or $51.99 for a DVD/Participant’s Guide combo package.) It’s perfect for almost any group that wants solid teaching that is accesible and clear.

Then, in the fall, they released Wright and Bird’s massive (992 page) text The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Zondervan Academic; $59.99) that surely deserves the acclaim it has been getting. It is superb; perhaps the best volume of its kind! There is a large companion workbook, too, The New Testament in Its World Workbook, that can be bought to go through this big text which is useful as a study resource; the workbook regularly for $22.99. We are real fans of this fabulous, serious contribution to New Testament studies.

 

The matching DVD set of The New Testament in Its World Video Lectures offers 37-lesson seminary level video lectures and shows them as good professors not just in the classroom but, again, live in the holy land. As you can imagine, given how lovely and helpful actually hearing N.T. Wright is (and Bird is pretty great as a speaker, too) this hefty set of lectures is highly recommended for those wanting a deeper study. It is, I’d say, almost unprecedented and, although seminary level, could be made available for somebody at almost any church. The 37 lessons on four DVD discs sells for $49.99.

The release of this major book (not to mention the workbook and the DVDs) is simply momentous, what we truly might call a publishing event.

“The big, bold theological interpretation of the New Testament that N. T. Wright has been building, piece by piece, in monographs and commentaries over the years now appears here in an accessible, single-volume New Testament introduction.”  –Dr. Matthew V. Novenson, senior lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

So, a very special shout out to Zondervan thanking them for their role in bringing this new N.T. Wright teaching to us all.

A month ago I described at BookNotes two new Walter Brueggemann books written for a popular audience. First there was the short but delightfully useful From Judgment to Hope: A Study on the Prophets (WJK; $14.00) which I highly recommend. Also released in October was  An On-going Imagination: A Conversation About Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of Relationships (WJK; $18.00.) It is a fabulous transcript of the honest conversations between Clover Beal and Walt over a period of months together. It’s a must for any Brueggemann fans.

Something that delighted many with joy and surprise, even, was the Brueggemann book that WJK released last January — A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing (WJK; $18.00.) As we explained at BookNotes, it includes a number of studies on the role of music and hymns in our lives by way of studying a handful of typically mainline Protestant hymns, followed by a handful of chapters studying various Psalms that were firstly sung. It was so useful that it was given a foreword by the head of the wonderful and widely respected Calvin Institute on Christian Worship, John Witvliet.

Tremper Longman released a major work to through his hat into the ring of the genre of books that help us understand the hard and complicated stuff of the Bible in his Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence (IVP; $19.99.) He is as trustworthy as they come, it seems to me, so this deserves attention and appreciation.

I’ll admit that I really, really enjoyed and I learned a lot from Pete Enn’s witty and mostly helpful How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers–And Why That’s Good News (HarperOne; $26.99.) It doesn’t answer all the questions of a faithful hermeneutic, and revels in the loose ends a bit too much for my taste, but it’s a really good read. It deserves a very honorable mention. I know some think he’s gone way too ambiguous about the perspicuity and authority of the Word of God but I don’t think that is fair. He’s just trying to help us, as he says, see how the literature we’ve been given in our Sacred texts actually works.

It isn’t easy to pull off faithfully, but I adored The Old Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic by the impeccable Christopher J.H. Wright (IVP Academic; $16.00.) I co-taught an overview of the Old Testament course at our church and read a lot of Hebrew Scripture stuff this past fall. This little volume was really good. Also released in 2019 was The New Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic by the very astute Wheaton prof, Gary M Burge (IVP Academic; $16.00) As always, InterVarsity Press has this knack to create good books that are thoughtful and informed without being overly academic. They do lots of books for the “thoughtful layperson” alongside their extraordinary scholarly imprint. IVP Academic. (These two are, by the, in their “IVP Academic” imprint which I guess they suppose will allow them be adopted as college-level introductory texts. I suppose, but they aren’t nearly as scholarly as many in that academic imprint, so don’t let that scare you away. These make great books for any reader.

I think IVP Academic did the most consistently interesting Biblical studies and other academic output this year (see HERE for their Fall 2019 catalog, which is much more than Biblical and theological books and includes rigorously scholarly work as well as less technical volumes but that are still fairly academic; we stock many of these, of course, and can get them all.) See HERE for the interactive Baker Academic Fall 2019 catalog to see their remarkable listing of serious scholarship as well as the less formal but fairly academic listings as well.)

I hope you notice the 2019 IVP releases in their great “Week in the Life of…” series, such as A Week in the Life of Rome by James Papandrea, A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman by Holly Beers, or A Week in the Life of a Slave by New Testament scholar John Byron. These tremendous little books appeal to those who want an easy read (part fiction, part non-fiction, actualy) that puts us right into the social context of the New Testament. Congratulations to them for offering this kind of good work.

God’s Sabbath With Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled James Skillen (Wipf & Stock) $35.00  I sadly suspect that you may not have heard of this stellar 2019 release (unless you saw my shout out about it at BookNotes) nor its fine author, Dr. James Skillen.  Skillen often works in the higher scholarly levels of political philosophy and is respected in a circle of political thinkers in the line of the Dutch Christian statesman Abraham Kuyper (and even more specifically, among those who studied legal theory or social philosophy in the tradition of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, like, say, David Koyzis, Jonathan Chaplin, Paul Marshall, John Witte, Elaine Botha, Bob Goudzwaard, James K.A. Smith, Stanely Carlson-Thies, Robert and Jessica Joustra, Matthew Kaemingk, Richard Mouw, and even Nicholas Wolterstorff. ) And yet, Skillen’s passionate, deeply thoughtful, generative scholarship isn’t as known as it might be. His 2014 The Good of Politics A Biblical, Historical, And Contemporary Introduction is still a must read for our times as it offers a positive theological articulation of Godly statecraft and the legitimate role of government, offering a foundation for the civic organization he founded decades ago, Citizens for Public Justice. It’s an organization we value and look to for a way out of the tired stalemates. So Skillen has done as much well-balanced thinking about Biblically-informed statecraft and citizenship and a deeply religious public faith than almost anybody I know.

So, therefore, when Skillen offers this first major collection of writings since his retirement from CPJ, Christians interested in redeeming the vocation of citizenship and politics amidst the clanging gongs of the religious right and the Christian left, we should listen. But, know this: God’s Sabbath for Creation showcases Jim’s love for Scripture and his deep awareness of important themes in the Bible. He draws on sources as profound as Meredith Kline and Karl Barth and Jorgen Moltmann and Abraham Kuyper, on Biblical scholars from Walter Brueggemann to Craig Bartholomew to Raymond Van Leuween.

God’s Sabbath for Creation has intriguing chapters, rich Biblical insights, new ideas, wild dreams, good hopes rooted in the Bible’s own story and its description of the creations purposes and the fulfillment of those purposes. It is one of the unsung books of the year by one of the unsung heroes of our time. It is not commonplace and at times it is challenging; as I think I noted in my previous review at BookNotes there is meaty Biblical exposition here, coupled with astute political theory and social analysis. But mostly Bible. It is truly extraordinary and one of the urgent tracts for our time, inviting us to image God’s redemption of His world in Christ and what it means to enter into the ultimate Sabbath of the healing, restoring, reign of God.

The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong Karen Gonzalez (Herald Press) $16.99  We have occasionally shared that this author met an acquisitions editor for Herald Press at our store and while we were trying not to eavesdrop, they signed the contract for this very book. (And then, naturally, I sold her some books on immigration issues.) But while that is lovely and fun, the attention for this book must be turned upon Ms Gonzalez, who is a great storyteller, a great Bible teacher, and an immigration advocate who has been there. We have joked (as we often do with these kinds of books) that need to keep on under immigration issues, but also under the study of Bible characters, even though, it is also a memoir. And what a riveting story she has of seeking safety in another land. As it says on the back, “Here is a gripping journey of loss, alienation, and belonging.”

In picking this up again this week it dawns on me that I want to name it as a notable book and personal favorite this year, but that I want to suggest that it is award-winning in the Biblical studies category. Yes, she is one of the few Christian writers about immigration issues who herself if an immigrant, and yes, she tells a lot of her poignant story, making this a heckuva a great read. But alongside the personal narrative and the natural advocacy, there is, at the heart of the book, a study of characters in Scripture who have fled their homelands. Seen though the lens of migration,Ms. Gonzalez studies Hagar and Joesph, Ruth and, yes, Jesus.

There is, as many of us have come to realize in recent decades, a lot in the Bible about how to be welcoming to strangers and to have gracious policies about immigrants. And there are narratives of refugees and those who are our “intrepid heros of the faith who cross borders and seek refuge.”

Kudos to Herald Press for doing these fine kinds of books that are a bit genre-bending but ultimately very, very helpful. Good Scripture study and inspiring Biblical reflection should be mixed with real life narrative and should lead to real life social change. Karen Gonzalez gest this, and The God Who Sees tells her own story, and how it opened up her insight into God’s Word. I love the cover, too. Highly recommended.

BIBLICAL STUDIES BOOK OF THE YEAR

Romans Disarmed: Doing Justice/Resisting Empire Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) $26.99   There is no doubt in my mind that the most interesting and, I believe, the most important book of Biblical studies this year is Romans Disarmed: Doing Justice/Resisting Empire. In fact, I think it was my very favorite nonfiction read of 2019; certainly it was the most provocative and intellectually stimulating. You can study my lengthy explanation of it at our BookNotes review HERE, but you may want to know a few quick things, now: this is one of these rare books that is lively and culturally engaged with side trips into racial justice and creation care and urban poverty even as it diligently (if creatively) grapples with the exegesis and interpretation and meaning and application of the Biblical text.

Years ago when thinking about Colossians with their friend N.T. Wright, they came up with the idea of an “anti-commentary” (which became 2004’s Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire; IVP Academic; $28.00.) It is a commentary; not quite line by line, but almost page by page. It is a commentary that points us to why we read the ancient Scripture in the first place and how in the world we interpret it well and live it out: it’s a “so what” sort of practical application reflection, read in light of and forged by their ministry making the world a better place. It’s not really an “anti-commentary” but a Biblical commentary as they are meant to be done with life and passion and color and controversy. That is, it isn’t about arcane history and syntax and word meanings in some abstract dogmatic sense, but it is about communities of fait (then and now) that are transformed by the story of God unfolding as they encounter the living Word. There is a lot of background scholarship and a lot of very contemporary cultural analysis and vivid, radical application. I bet it will offend you but I bet that it will bless you even more.

Their explanations of first century Roman life and how Paul’s pastoral letter would have been received and discussed and applied is spectacular. Their storytelling puts you into the culture of the day and even if it is a bit speculative (despite pages of studious footnotes) it makes the old book come alive. Their insistence that we strip the layers of accrued theological jargon from the letter and allow it to call us today into a Romans-like faith community that brought together rich and poor, the sexually conventional and those less so, slavers and those trafficked, Jews and Gentiles, is stunningly powerful, unlocking a revolutionary sort of application that is truly transformational. That is, it can be, if you are willing to be open to a new reading and consider that it may be a faithful, fruitful reading. And find some others to discuss it with and pledge to allow God to guide you towards experimenting with living it out, Romans style.

Sylvia is a creative and immensely talented Bible scholar and professor (whose work is cited by scholars like Richard Hays and others who write about echoes of the Old Testament found in the New, which she wrote about in her own PhD thesis under N.T. Wright decades ago.) Brian is an activist and campus pastor and prolific writer, having released books that are personal favorites of mine such as Transforming Vision, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, Subversive Christianity, Beyond Homelessness, Kicking at the Darkness, St. John Before Breakfast and Habakkuk Before Breakfast. (Many of these, quite intentionally, I suspect, are co-written with others.) Brian and Sylvia steward a permaculture-based farm while experimenting with sustainable agriculture and hospitable homesteading, even as he does campus ministry at the University of Toronto and works with several social justice organizations in the city.

Perhaps it is their faithful, generous praxis (as the scholars like to put it) that gives rise to their deep insights about the social location and anti-Empire themes in Romans or maybe it is their years of close attention to the Scripture that pushed them towards increasingly radical forms of counter-cultural lifestyles; perhaps a bit of both. In any case, Romans Disarmed just shimmers with passion for Word and world, for the Pauline epistle and the powers that deform our own world, for Romans and for modern resistance. In all its complicated, ambitious glory the hefty, provocative Romans Disarmed is akin to their wonderful and much-debated Colossians Remixed. I believe it is one of the most important contributions to Biblical studies in quite a while and certainly my favorite and most pondered book of 2019.

BRIAN WALSH & SYLVIA KEESMAAT TO SPEAK AT HEARTS & MINDS MARCH 23, 2020

You can learn more soon at our Hearts & Minds Facebook page but we are pleased to announce that Sylvia and Brian are coming to Hearts & Minds to present some of their ideas from Romans Disarmed. It is a great, great honor to have these two authors with us. It will be a generous and stimulating conversation, we’re sure…

Please join us here at the shop in Dallastown on March 23, a Monday night, at 7:00 pm.

BEST CONTRIBUTION TO CHRISTIAN LITERARY CRITICISM

When Poets Pray Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.99 How can I not name this as a favorite this year, an award-deserving contribution to not only faith-based perspectives on literature, but, more, showing how ordinary readers can come to appreciate poetry more. Of course poetry does not need to be prayerful or prayed for people of religious faith to appreciate it – that would fly against all we stand for her, suggesting some cheap baptizing of so called “secular” work with some splash of the sacred. No. But still, this is a creative and generative experiment, a playful and maybe helpful suggestion of what it might be like to use these poems in this manner, to help us attend to them, and to allow them to point us to God and God’s graceful care for the world around us. This is not an essential use of poetry, but it is appropriate

Marilyn McEntyre knows all this, of course, and meanders her way into explaining (beautifully, in pages I’ve read out loud more than once in programs and preaching this year) how words matter, how God can use language and literature. So. Here is Ms McEntyre’s earnest treatment of a handful of poems (most of which were most likely not firstly written as prayers, although perhaps some were) and how we might pray them. What a great way to deepen our appreciation of some of these poets and their poems – a few which you may know, a few which you, like me, may not. And what a creative way to use God’s good gift of words and language and poetry to deepen our prayer life. When Poets Pray is very nicely done by an author we very much respect. It made bookselling in 2019 that much more special.

Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher Jeffrey Munroe (IVP) $18.00 If we were being creative and playful and I had the energy to come up with clever-sounding award names, I’d award this something like “The Best Book Which Does Something We’ve Been Waiting For The Longest” or the “Finally, Somebody Did This in 2019” Book Award. In other words, we are thrilled to see this released into the marketplace and hope you, too, appreciate its wonderful significance.

There have been some fine compilations of Mr. Buechner’s various works; the daily devotional called Listening To Your Life is still a sturdy and fine suggestion and there is a great compilation of his eloquent sermons (Secrets in the Dark) but heretofore the only introduction to his work is the quite serviceable and wise (and pricey) hardback The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings by Dale Cooper (WJK; $30.00.) I don’t think there has yet to be a really good and accessible guide to his life and work for beginners, including – as the subtitle suggests, his memoirs, his novels, his theological work, and his preaching. Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher by Jeffrey Munroe is that book. Hoooray.

There are four good chapters under the first memoir section, exploring, in order, Buechner’s famous and beloved The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, and The Eyes of the Heart. Part II looks at Godric and Son of Laughter (but oddly, no Brenden.) Part III explores Wishful Thinking and Peculiar Treasures while the three chapters in Part IV are Telling the Truth: Tears with Great Laughter and Secrets in the Dark: The Wonder of Words, followed by a nice closing chapter called “Reading Buechner Today.” There is a fine epilogue and a good appendix offering an annotated bibliography. Kudos to Jeffrey Monroe (who is ordained in the RCA denomination) and who is the Vice President at Western Theological Seminary where he also teaches writing.

There’s a very nice foreword to Reading Buechner by artist Makoto Fujimura, too, which makes this all the more special. Even the warm cover seems just right. Thanks to all who played a part getting this book to us. What a gift.

A BOOK I MUST AWARD – BUT IN WHAT CATEGORY?

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church James E. Beitler (IVP Academic) $25.00 Okay, I’ve already said that I don’t know what to do with this amazingly interesting, brilliantly conceived, one-of-a-kind book. Kudos to IVP for bringing such stimulating and thoughtful books to us, even if, as I suspect, many stores just won’t carry it. I hope that is not the case, as this book deserves to be widely read, seriously considered, discussed and somehow applied. Although it isn’t a book that is easily “applied” even though it is chock-full of wisdom, full of insights, and oh so very, very needed. Rhetoric? Yes, yes, you know: how do we “speak the truth in love” as the Epistle commands? How do we speak in a way that is relevant and timely and gracious and clear and profound and good and stimulating and… well, you get the picture. How we speak, persuade, honor the image of God in others, denounce evil and highlight beauty and goodness – whether we are in ordinary, everyday conversations or whether we are novelists or essayists, bloggers or preachers, we simply have to think harder about how to learn to be wise and compelling. Form follows function, I think somebody said so we should know that how we speak is as important as what we say. Seasoned Speech helps us explore that in amazingly healthy, thoughtful, good ways. And that’s half the fun!

As I said in my previous review in BookNotes when this came out last Spring (even then I intuited it was genius and hoped it was as good as it looked) the title itself draws from Colossians 4: 6 where Paul wrote “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” In this sense, it stands somewhat with that great book from a few years ago Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness, even if that works a bit with satire as a element of faithful communication in presenting compelling Christian truth in a skeptical, post-Christian world. Beitler brings a different approach and it is nothing short of award winning.

As you perhaps can see from the cover, what this author is doing in this grand and thoughtful work, is exploring different (faithful) rhetorical styles as evidenced by several different public intellectuals, faithful Christians who have made their mark before the watching world.

Seasoned Speech used as case studies the rhetorical and communication stylings of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilyn Robinson. What a great idea for a book, and what a splendid array of thinkers, writers, and communicators to help us grapple with how to have seasoned speech in different complicated settings.

I am sure we don’t have to explain to BookNotes fans that Lewis was the BBC apologist an intellectual Oxford don and a children’s storyteller. whose Mere Christianity explained faith as intellectually sound and a “myth which is also a fact,” His friend Dorothy Sayers was a playwright who said “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination.” Bonhoeffer – wow. But you know he mostly talked about Jesus in his humility. And Tutu – helped bring down apartheid by talking about justice and our interconnectedness, not unlike the great MLK, I’d say. Robinson is as Beitler notes, a complex figure, doing very intellectually profound essays in places like The New Yorker (and collection in heady volumes published by serious houses) as well as her more popular Pulitzer Prize winning novels like Gilead. Reminds me of Mr. Lewis in a way – Christian apologist, novelist, and essayist.

How does it all get said, by writers, dramatists, activists, public speakers and introverted authors? Can we speak truth, salty and seasoned with grace, even if we are denouncing public stupidity and great evil? Can we be winsome and strong, prophetic and persuasive? What can we learn from these great public saints of the 20th century?

This is truly one of the Best Books of 2019, notable and persuasive and, even though I fear it won’t be adequately studied, very, very important.

BOOK I MOST HATED TO LOVE / LOVED TO HATE

Shameless: A Sexual Reformation Nadia Bolz-Weber (Convergence) $25.00 Some years I use this playful heading to highlight a book I have very conflicted feelings about but which deserves to be named as a major book of the year. This captivating book surely fits that category and I know I’ll annoy both conservatives and progressives by saying I both truly loved and yet somewhat disapproved of this very moving, very tender, often right and sometimes troubling book. I couldn’t put it down, found myself cheering much of it, and was deeply moved by the reading experience and the great empathy and compassion it strives to engender. And that is true – Nadia is a caring pastor and advocate for those who don’t fit the mold – her own story, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint and the story of the church she founded (House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver) called Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People are books I truly love. We’ve been to the church more than once, and was significantly blessed by the communal experience, the singing, the interesting Lutheran liturgy offered in a serious if campy aesthetic and the very good preaching. You may not like her cussing or her bohemian ethos, but it just made me weep to see so many who would be excluded and made to feel unwelcome in so many places so obviously safe and loved and called together around the gospel in that place. Fans or haters – and this author has plenty of both – I hope you’ll respect me naming this 2019 book in public. Although I found some parts unhelpful and inadequate, I mostly loved this amazingly written, very raw and touching exploration of a new sexual ethic, free of shame and joyful about the goodness of God’s gift of erotic pleasures.

I am mostly with her in a call for a new sexual reformation, for a rejection of shame and embarrassment and an obsession with what some evangelicals call “purity.” We could use an honest admission that the Bible is less than perfectly clear about some things (including “purity”, the codes about which Jesus regularly dissed.) We need some pastoral encouragement for coping with the fact that many people are wounded around issues of sexuality (often by the church) and many are just different enough in their own funky inclinations and affections that we simply can’t just shame everyone and insist on legalistic compliance with attitudes and rules that are more Victorian than Biblical. I’m with Nadia that the church hasn’t had a robust doctrine of creation, or the body, or awe and beauty, and we haven’t taken the longings and relationships of younger adults as seriously as we might, either. For these and many more reasons, Shameless was a hard but important book for me to read.

Nadia’s stories are beautifully told and her empathy is inspiring. I think I’d read almost anything of hers because she is such an entertaining writer. (By the way: we stock her first, lesser-known book Salvation on the Small Screen: 24 Hours of Christian Television, so there ya go.)

Her extreme minimalism about all sexual ethics – basically do no harm – has been critiqued by those who cared enough to engage Bolz-Weber’s work seriously (see Wesley Hill’s fair response HERE for one good example) which illustrates some of my frustration with her shoddy thinking about it all. But as a caring storyteller and really good, colorful writer, as an earnest friend of the marginalized, and a pastor working for full inclusion in the church of those some might label deviants, she nearly wins the day, making reading Shameless a moving and poignant experience and unlike anything I’ve ever read. I don’t like it, fully, but I’ll never forget it.

 

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Hearts & Minds BEST AND FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2019 — PART ONE (on sale now)

This first Part One of my annual favorite book awards is long… you may have to scroll down in your device to read it all and to see the order link at the very bottom. Thanks for pursuing this. We are immensely grateful for your interest and support.

Between stupid winter illnesses and out-of-store events and brand new or forthcoming books to read, our annual custom of announcing our Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year has been late in coming. 2019 was a good one for readers of all sorts (even if nation-wide book sales were down) and I’m eager to honorably mention as many great titles as I can in this ramble through the halls of memorable reads.

It’s going to take me a few parts, so here is PART ONE, at least. It’s long, so be sure to hang in there until the bottom, a few yards down from here.

Most years I keep up the playful façade that these are Real Awards, but let’s face it. Not that many really care what this wordy bookseller from a small-town, family-owned business thinks and we offer no cash prizes. So let’s just say this: for our faithful tribe of customers who send us orders we are glad for your eagerness to hear our favs. A few regulars have told us they’ve been waiting; thanks for that. It’s hard, though, you know: I’ve had so many blessed hours with my nose in a book (as has Beth and the rest of our staff) that is hard remembering them all. Come on along, though, and I’ll share some of our favorites from that year of our Lord, 2019.

ALL BOOKS NAMED ARE ON SALE FOR 20% OFF.                                            PLEASE USE THE SECURE ORDER FORM LINK AT THE END OF THIS COLUMN.

Okay, we’re going to start off strong with a fun and notable one. Happily, this has become our best seller of 2019, even though we received in only a few weeks before Christmas.

THE BOOK THAT MADE ME HAPPIEST TO SELL THIS YEAR: ONE OF THE BEST OF 2019 and SURELY OF 2020

The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love & Learning, Worship & Work Steve Garber (IVP) $20.00  It is hard to declare decisively what my one favorite book was this year, but Garber’s A Seamless Life is up there, certainly among the top few. I read it twice, at least, and savored every page. The smallish, compact size and the textured paper and the vivid color photos makes me glad, the exquisite writing and the honest, sensible, yet radically integrated faith captures so much of my own heart. Is it fair to celebrate this as the Book of the Year if Steve is such a dear friend? I try to sort out if others will love it as I do if they don’t know Steve and Meg personally. I think so.

Certainly, this is a truly wonderful release and it is being taken seriously by good folks. (The endorsements on the back and inside cover are breathtakingly good, from advanced readers all over the globe.) We’ve gotten re-orders on it, which is always a good sign, that it is finding its readers and that others are longing for this sense of integration, a seamless life, a connection between work and worship, between Word and world. If you like Hearts & Minds, if you value BookNotes, I can say surely that you should order this book.

As I said in my big review HERE (please visit and read my comments it if you haven’t) these chapters in A Seamless Life are literally reports from the road, insights into Steve’s life and teaching and travels and observations written out from along the way. He brings so much good context to his stories (whether it is a reflection on his rancher grandfather or a film review or a story from his beloved Pittsburgh or a telling about a workplace he visited where healthy, faithful efforts were being made for the common good.) He finds much to celebrate, even as his heart is heavy with the brokenness of the world, and he affirms such goodness and beauty. There is a coherence to all of this, really, a seamlessness that the reader is drawn in to as these short essays gel into a big picture of a life well lived.

Here is just a bit of what I said when I was enticing folks to pre-order it from us here at Hearts & Minds:

Steve’s a born storyteller; he loves to hold up the work and witness of others to help us all be inspired to live more creatively and faithfully in-but-not-of this broken, broken, already-but-not-yet world. Yet, still, the movies and stories and exemplars in his other bigger books are arranged to illustrate the big points of the book, so, interesting as they are, they are mostly connected to that particular theme and illustrative. In The Seamless Life, however, Garber covers more topics which allows him to introduce to us even more of his friends, his favorite writers, his discoveries about family and friendship and church and business and more. The stories are front and center. In a way, these pieces are just more of the same we’ve come to expect from Steve but the scope is a bit more broad, and the short form allows him to dip in to this topic or that, tell this episode or quote that lyric or explain that movie with even more personality and obvious wisdom. It makes for very inspiring and interesting and energetic reading, urgent reports from the road. I don’t want to overstate this, but it is almost devotional, doxological.

FAVORITE BOOKS FOR CHURCHES AND PASTORS

There are dozens of books that come out every month about congregational life, pastoral ministry, denominational vibrancy, worship, renewal, missional vision, outreach, education, leadership, and more. 2019 has seen plenty of good ones and when we are at pastor’s retreats or conferences we highlight many of these. From really helpful, practical guides like How Change Comes to Your Church: A Guidebook for Church Innovations by churchy geniuses Patrick Keifert & Wes Granberg-Michaelson (Eerdmans; $16.99) to the great Peter Steinke’s Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman & Littlefield; $19.95) to the edgy and rare work by missional wild guys Alan Hirsch and Mark Nelson released this year called Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames (100 Movements Publishing; $19.99) there has been a richness of new thinking and important publishing. I could list many that are worth honoring, but besides these, we wanted to mention these five exceptional ones at least:

A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters Stephen Witmer (IVP/Praxis) $18.00  I am always on the look-out for books about smaller churches since, frankly, most congregations are not mega-churches and most are in smaller towns and are fairly, well, ordinary. Rural and rustbelt places without a lot of potential for growth, towns with “brain drain” and not many jobs for younger adults, you know. Sometimes we feel like we are in “forgotten places” and, in this book, Stephen Witmer cares. Not everybody may need this book, but for many small town clergy, this will be a huge inspiration. For most serving in rural and out of the way places, this will be a tonic. For those in these places, it may be obvious that God is with you but having a vibrant, thoughtful pastor remind you and further equip you may be just what you need.

There are a few things that make this book important. Firstly it is about what our culture deems insignificant places. Small towns and out of the way spots don’t have the sexy appeal of urban locations, and their problems are sometimes seen as less dramatic (even if no less painful) We’ve heard mission speakers and authors talk about extraordinary inner city work, about being peacemakers among rival urban gangs, or much needed, edgy racial reconciliation campaigns. We’ve heard about faith and work initiatives and big university outreaches – all strategic and exciting, even among the prestigious and powerful. That kind of drama and potential may not be prevalent in small places, and when we make a big deal out of big city work, we some how overlook those who live in more mundane contexts. How do we think big about small places? How can we resist the “Go Big or Go Home” mentality in our culture?

And that is another thing about A Big Gospel in Small Places: it does help us think about a sense of place. One chapter is called “Why Small Places are Better Than We Think” and another is “Why Small Places are Worse Than We Think.” Witmer neither demonizes nor idolizes but offers a fresh look, offering some intellectual insights to frame our work in out of the way places.

The middle, major part of the book has six chapters about how we can minister fruitfully in smaller places. That is, it develops a theological vision for small-place ministry. It is gospel-centered and offers a robust, orthodox view of how the gospel can be transformational, even amidst what he calls “joy killers in small-place ministry.”

The last three chapters are splendid for pastors or leaders wanting to be intentional and discerning about their calling to small places. He offers “Good and Bad Reasons to Do Small Place Ministries” and “Good and Bad Reasons Not to Do Small Place Ministries” and “Common Responses to Prioritize Big-Place Ministry.” This should be read by mission boards, denominational execs, moderators and Bishops and conference ministers and regional superintendents. It’s useful for those used to strategizing and thinking big, and it is useful for those who don’t really strategize much at all, like many mid-level judicatory folks already juggling so many balls in the air. I think this stuff will be useful, if not perfect, for many, many folks in church leadership these days.

Listen to Echard Schnabel, Distinguished New Testament professor at Gordon Conwell; I quote it because it is so good and right. Consider this:

This is one of the more important books written about the gospel and missions in recent decades. Stephen Witmer takes the gospel seriously: he is more interested in the good news than in church-planting strategies. He takes people seriously: he is more concerned for people than for programs. He understands success in terms of faithfulness to God’s calling rather than in terms of fame, in terms of the transformation of people’s lives rather than in terms of the numerical size of a congregation.

Here writes an academic who wears his scholarship lightly, a pastor who challenges his audience to think deeply, a follower of Jesus who follows Jesus to all the places where people live. Witmer explains that strategic thinking about ministry must acknowledge one of the great truths about God who lavishes his grace on city people, on small-town people, and on village people alike. This book is a pleasure to read, indeed a must-read for professors, students, and pastors who think about gospel ministry in the twenty-first century.

Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock (Baker) $21.99  This is for anyone who is interested in retaining the young adults at their church – and who isn’t? – and is an exceptionally interesting, clear, and helpful resource. It offers an overview of the extensive research and evaluation Kinnaman’s organization (The Barna Group) has done on what keeps young adults from saying “you lost me” (as in Kinnaman’s 2011 must-read book that explored what goes wrong in young adult ministry, You Lost Me.) This new one shows what we might do right – five things needed to keep younger folks vibrant in faith and interested in your church.

I know there are more philosophically dense and theologically mature studies of this vexing topic. But none are as interesting and action-able and useful as this. It is simply a must-read, one of the most important congregational books of the year!

Here is some of what I wrote about this at BookNotes before. It was in a Labor Day column, I think, about books about faith and work, so I highlighted that particular aspect (one of the five practices explored) of Faith for Exiles. That it mentions us is just extra special, but, sincerely, that’s not why I celebrate and honor it here as one of the best books for church use this year.

After a little reminder that we had been taking pre-orders, and a Labor day wish for prayers for our package handlers and mail delivery folks who get books to us, and then you, I wrote:

As I explained in those previous BookNotes comments, this book reports on the latest Barna-based research on the sorts of practices and theological visions offered by churches that tend to keep and attract twenty-somethings. In a way, Kinnaman has done two previous books on stuff churches do wrong, attitudes and churchy habits that tend to discourage the emerging adults in their midst. This new one describes what works. In the “starred review” by Publishers Weekly it says it is a “wonderful, thoughtful book that conveys difficult truths in a spirit of humility.” They suggest, if widely read, it could influence the church for years to come.

Here is why I mention this now in the special Labor day issue of BookNotes: one of the five key practices that churches that maintain their relationship with their young adults and attract that age group is “To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.”

Did you get that? We must Train. For. Vocational. Discipleship.

This chapter — which, okay, I’ll admit I’m proud about, since it mentions the Jubilee conference and calls Beth and me “booksellers par excellence” — highlights the data that shows that a younger generation “gets” this vision of whole-life discipleship and longs for meaningful labor. They have grown up hearing about making a difference, about paying it forward, with work-world heroes like the founder of Tom’s Shoes. The book has some fascinating data about what millennials think of work (around their claim that God calls us to work in order to create abundance, order, and beauty.) Younger adults these days are ambitious and want to shine and we in the church simply have to connect this unique generational vision and energy with Biblical foundations and Christian theology and a robust perspective on work, vocation, and calling. We in the established churches have older work-world leaders that could mentor these younger ones in “vocational discipleship” (and Matlock and Kinnaman explain how) but, to be honest, perhaps some of the older ones might have to learn from some of the younger ones. I sometimes tell eager 21year-olds at Jubilee that they now, having heard what they’ve heard there and having read a book or two that they bought, may know more about this all-of-life-redeemed, vocational, Sunday/Monday work-world ministry stuff than their home pastors and parents and beloved youth ministers. Maybe we in the church need these kids as much as they need us.

In any event, that the Barna research group and Kinnaman & Matlock have identified this as one of the key practices that is necessary for effective shaping of those in this new generation in “digital Babylon” is significant. And, after all, aren’t we all in that same boat? We all need to hear this stuff. I highly recommend Faith for Exiles, and, certainly, that chapter on vocationally oriented discipleship.

I honor this as a notable book this year for another reason. Not only is it essential for anyone wanting to work with young adults or keep younger adults in their congregations, I think it is good for those who work with youth. Further, it is a book you can put into the hands of college-age or twenty-somethings; it will impress them, I am sure, help them, and, at the very least, you can ask if it resonates, if this sort of stuff would help them understand God’s purposes for their lives and help them realize their own need for the gospel, the church, and what Garber calls a “seamless life.” Faith for Exiles is relevant for those living in the i-Gen world of “Digital Babylon” and we commend it, urgently.

Fertile Ground: Faith and Work (Field Guide) for Youth Pastors edited by Luke Bobo (Made To Flourish) $7.99 This very small book is handsome and nicely made, a collection of five key chapters that help youth workers develop among their kids a robust and faithful foundation for thinking Christianly about culture, calling, work, and careers. We have written plenty about this topic in these BookNotes columns and have offered dozens if not hundreds of titles over the years that call us to deepen our appreciation of the value of work and to nurture a distinctively Biblical vision of both our perspective on and practices within our job sites. There has been precious few resources to wisely help youth take up this vision and hardly anything of book length to equip youth workers to talk to teens about all this,

Luke Bobo is developing curriculum and resources through the wonderful Made to Flourish network, an organization founded by Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work and The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity. This is foundational stuff, drawing on Nelson and broader worldview writers (Al Wolters, Richard Mouw, James K.A. Smith) helping youth workers develop a cultural theology, create formative liturgical practices to shape young imaginations, and offering a integrated vision of the meaning of labor, the discernment of call, and the vision of social transformation. Think of the thoughtful book The Call by Os Guiness or the moving work of Steve Garber, say, appropriated for youth pastors. Think of the solid stuff of Amy Sherman (such as her must-read Kingdom Callings) or the nice Bible study by Bob Robinson, Reintegrate Your Vocation with God’s Mission made plain for teens. This is the overall vision and deep connection to the faith-and-work movement Luke Bobo has; Made to Flourish is to be honored and celebrated for offering their many services, and this kind of much-needed resource, specifically. What a substantive and thoughtful (and really handsomely designed) little book. A truly notable book of 2019!

The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God Andrew Root (Baker Academic) $26.99 Oh man, oh man, this is surely one of the most interesting and notable books of the year! We’ve had great conversations with many customers (okay, maybe not many) who have found this to be an exceptional study, provocative and one that has created space for deep and valuable conversations. The idea of it is brilliant, and Andrew Root is an author we always, always, recommend (whether you end up agreeing with his conclusions or not.) He is a Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary and is increasingly a very, very important thought leader. Happily, he seems to have the ear of both more conservative evangelicals and of mainline denominational folk. Just last week I highlighted it in a book talk with local friends from the United Church of Christ, encouraging pastors to work through it.

So what is this book about, really, and why is it deserving of a shout out here in our listing of best, favored, or most important reads of 2019? I’ll just say this: it comes on the heels of a previous much-discussed and awarded volume called Faith Formation in a Secular Age which came out in 2017. That book began a process of inquiry where (among other things) root explored the significance of Charles Taylor’s massive work The Secular Age for congregational life. (I trust you know that many of our favorite books in recent years have been in conversation with Taylor’s hefty volume and considerable analysis: see, for instance, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Nobel, In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It by David Zahl, and Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism which has an excellent chapter on Taylor.)

In any case, in Faith Formation in a Secular Age Root brings a remarkably fresh critique of youth ministry and our fascination (in this secular age) with youthfulness. What a remarkably generative bit of insight, plumbing how our culture and our churches have failed in thinking well about our generations (and about the crisis of young adults drifting from the faith.)

So, here, now, in The Pastor in a Secular Age Root continues to draw on his very interesting social analysis and Taylor-esque imagination about our culture and then asks what people are seeking in their religiosity these days. And then – and here it gets interesting – if that is part of what is going on, then what, then, is the role of the pastor?

The first section of this book – 8 serious chapters – is called “Welcome to the Pastoral Malaise” and he moves from Thomas Becket to Augustine to the history of great shifts in pastoral roles (Henry Ward Beecher and Harry Emerson Fosdick) and what happens when the search for purpose (a la Rick Warren) and authenticity “becomes king.” He uses the famous sociologist Durkheim to explore all of this… and it is fabulously interesting. I have told pastor groups that they really ought to be reading this and I am confident it is the most important book (at least in this genre of studying about the nature of pasturing in our social context) for clergy in quite a while.

Part 2 includes a lot of creatively construed Bible study and suggests that God is “a ministering pastor.” You will have to decide if this major work is useful in helping you re-imagine your role in more faithful and effective ways, but there it is. This is important stuff. I think it is good not only for pastors, but for anyone who is seriously involved in church, cares about religious leadership, and wants to pursuing faithfulness together with their congregational leaders.

Listen to these two astute blurbs and see why I’m insisting this is such a vital book to be reading:

Good books help you see what you couldn’t see before–like why pastoring is so difficult. Better books help you see the work of God despite the millennia of obstacles we have thrown up against divine agency. Root thinks the living God can break through our pastoral malaise. Reading him, I found myself not only agreeing but learning and delighting and looking anew for the God who pastors us all.”
— Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology

“In a world longing for enchantment but too cynical to accept it, pastors can understandably feel irrelevant and confused. Root provides a helpful overview of how our world became so disenchanted and what it might look like to attend to God in a world that has forgotten how to do so.”
— Danielle Shroyer, spiritual director and author

Every Ancient Ever New Winfield Bevins (Zondervan) $16.99  Bevins has written a lot over the years – he is a wise and admired United Methodist professor and director of church planting at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I didn’t need to glance at this for more than a second to know that it is one we should think about and one that many should be reading. Many have poked holes in the old chestnut among church people that young folks want “contemporary” worship and that “seeker sensitive” worship must necessarily be informal and pop-rock. Alas, as anyone who has been involved in these discussions for the last 25 years knows, it isn’t that simple. Exceptions abound. Liturgical services attract young people and sometimes when churches who have more conventional Protestant worship styles start a “contemporary” service, (with the often-spoken hope that it will attract the youth) the kids aren’t interested. Been there, friends?

Or you send your non-denominational kid off to college and she comes back talking about collects and homilies and Eucharist and the church calendar and the cool, gospel-centered Anglican priest whose church all the college kids are attending.  Yup.

Welcome Ever Ancient Ever New with its vital subtitle “The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation.” Blevins is wondering a few things in this book, much of it learned from the likes of the late, great, Robert Webber (who coined the phrase “ancient future” back when many churches were grappling with the unsettling we called postmodernity.) He is wondering why young adults leave the church (mainline Protestant and more evangelical ones) and he wonders if a concern for mystery and ritual and beauty and something more somber and thick and deep might be attractive to these restless post-moderns  He is wondering in this quick read if there are insights from the creedal and higher liturgical churches and their sacramental worldview that might be useful even to congregations less informed by classic liturgy. He is wondering if there could be some kind of intentional admixture of the best of both worlds, evangelical and lively and liturgical and full of substantive beauty.

Listen to these great quotes that explain the importance of this book:

Despite all the confident, boisterous pronouncements that old forms of worship are dying or dead, liturgical worship — anchored by ancient prayers, enlivened by historic hymns, and centered on the Eucharist — quietly refuses to disappear. In this personal, journalistic look at some of the young adults finding their way back to it, Winfield Bevins helps explain liturgy’s beguiling persistence. This book chronicles a remarkably hopeful trend in today’s churches.”
Wesley Hill, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies, Trinity School for Ministry

“There is a hunger among this generation to recover the historic roots of the Christian faith for discipleship and mission. Winfield Bevins’ new book offers a clear and compelling account of why young adults across North America are embracing liturgy. If you want to learn more about this movement and why it matters, this book is for you.”
Alan Hirsch, Author of the Forgotten Ways

“Winfield Bevins is an expert on the mission and renewal of the church–and with the research for this book, he is now well versed in the attitudes and practices of young people regarding liturgy and sacrament. Ever Ancient Ever New brings together the best of Winfield yielding something like a field guide to the mix of Gospel, culture, church, young people and liturgy. This is a must read if you are trying to reach and disciple young people in liturgical forms.”
Bishop Todd Hunter, Author of Giving Church Another Chance

Younger Christians are being spiritually renewed today through ancient Christian worship, community, and spiritual practice. Weaving wide-ranging research with scholarly wisdom, Winfield Bevins tells us their stories — and we find ourselves renewed, as well.
Joel Scandrett, Director of the Robert E. Webber Center, Trinity School for Ministry

MY TWO FAVORITE BOOKS of NARRATIVE NONFICTION – CREATIVE, VIVD REPORTING and ASTUTE REFLECTION

I love books that tell a story, but aren’t exactly a memoir, what some call “personal journalism.” Over the years we’ve touted many, some that have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes and find their way to best sellers lists. What category are books like Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – And Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy or Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams or Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold or the stunning The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland by Dan Barry or Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age by Dan Zak that tells the story of protestors at a nuclear weapons site in ways that is informative and inspiring. These are some of my favorite reads in recent years, lively, well written, and powerful testimonials.

Well, this first book is the best of this sort I read this year, newly issued in paperback in 2019. What a delight to get to award this as one of our Hearts & Minds favs.  What follows is less reporting, but a collection of essays, observing a variety of locations. It is marvelous, if hard to categorize. I love these books!

The Library Book Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster) $16.99  Do you know the work of Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker since the 1990s? She has written bunches of books, from travel writing to The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup which is subtitled: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and is an unbelievable good writer. She is best known for the international best seller The Orchid Thief: A Story of Beauty and Obsession. Perhaps you’ve seen the film “Adaptation.”

And so, this is not just a quirky book lovers pick because it has “library book” in the title. Nope, this is so well written, I read pages and pages out loud, for night after night to Beth while we were supposed to be doing other things. I was captivated, and she was too – Orlean’s pages about going to the library as a child just captured our hearts and reminded us of our youth. (Beth’s mom was a librarian, after all.)

But, yet, The Library Book is closer to a true crime story because, well, it actually is about the investigation of the largest fire in the history of Los Angeles and the largest library fire in American history. On April 29th, 1986 it would have been on the front pages of every paper in the country as the enormous blaze consumed more than a million books (including rare archives, maps, and so much more) except that was the day of the world-threatening Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, which stole all the headlines that day.

The Library Book has been called “irresistible” and “a meandering masterpiece” and “a sheer delight” in part because it does tell the broader story of the role of books and libraries and librarians in a remarkably fresh way. But thirty years after the fire in the Los Angeles Public Library, the crime had not been solved. Orleans used her investigative journalistic chops to explore the story and reconstruct not only the awful day (what writing that entailed – you could feel the heat!) but launched a further investigation into if the fire was intentionally set (as was suspected) and if so, who, and why.

Of course anybody who loves books will, surely, find this endearing, as much of it is a lovely tribute to the power of books and their writers, readers, and sellers and purveyors. Come on, what book person can resist a book called The Library Book, researched and written by a woman one prominent critic called “a national treasure.” Ms Orlean travels widely in this journey, so it is more than just about the fire and the loss of books and services at the library, but that fateful day (and the mystery of its failed investigation) grounds the narrative.

One kind of funny sort of thing for some of us popped up early. As a clever device that she uses, the author (or book designer) has at the front of each chapter the library-card-looking Dewey Decimal-ish rendering of a book title and author, properly listed, I guess conjuring up images of the lost books from the fire, each offering some random hint of what that chapter is about. In the first chapter – I gather merely because of the overt title – a book title appears that is entitled To Begin At the Beginning. Well, that is actually one we stock now published by Eerdmans, written, as she notes, by Martin Copenhaven, a popular writer for Christian Century and a beloved UCC leader and seminary President. To see that book that I have held in my hands quit recently listed – presumably an early edition lost in the 1986 L.A. tragedy, was haunting. Who knew an obscure theology text by a UCC pastor would make its name into the chapter heading of one of the best-selling writers of recent years? Interesting, eh? Kind of like that time the Multnomah book Radical by David Platt made its way into a scene on the hit NBC show “Madame Secretary.” Sorry to digress; we book people take little joys in these serendipities.

Anyway, we are very happy to celebrate and honor The Library Book by Susan Orlean and commend it to our Hearts & Minds friends. You’ll love it.

The Absent Hand: Reimagining our American Landscape Suzannah Lessard (Counterpoint) $26.00 I try to pay attention to the releases from this important publishing imprint (known for doing some of Wendell Berry’s best work) as they always do handsome books that are well written and substantive. This one was by a writer who has done highly respected, well-crafted pieces of journalism for The New Yorker for decades and was a founded editor of The Washington Monthly and who was known for the very wonderful The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Desire in the Stanford White Family.

That she was doing the kind of work that I imagined might be likeJames Howard Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere) or Jane Jacobs, or, in admiring the natural landscapes, maybe Annie Dillard or Terry Tempest Williams or those authors that enjoy telling us about their sense of place like Scott Russell Sanders. When I heard that in one of her chapters – about King of Prussia, a few hours away from us near Philadelphia – she was inspired by Joel Garreau’s Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (which I was always intrigued about but never read) I was sure I’d want to read this.

The rave reviews on the back from Bill McKibben, who promises of this author with such a penetrating intelligence, “Reading this book will, no kidding, let you look at the world in a new way, and that is a remarkable gift” didn’t hurt, either. That the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies said that Lessard immersed herself in particular landscapes “in order to parse their broader underlying meanings ranks her style with Thoreau’s experiential mode of writing” helps explain the experience I had enjoying it so. It was one of the most memorable and pleasurable and informative experiences with a book I had this year.

In truth, one of my fondest memories this entire year is sitting outside under a nearby backyard tree with an almost adequate light, sipping something and savoring the rich, thoughtful writing and this demanding, sublime prose.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers says of The Absent Hand,

The book is pitch-perfect and filled with cogent philosophical interpretations, a loving and shrewd appraisal of the physical fabric of our once-and-still beautiful but fraught country.

Witold Rybczynski wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

Unusual and engaging . . . A subjective, Whitmanesque meditation on the way we live today . . . What makes this book compelling is not so much where the author goes, but how she reflects on what she sees when she gets there . . . Her wonderfully trenchant observations cast new light on the everyday.

Ms Lessard is asking of herself and of us to ponder what is beautiful in what we see in our world around us (from beach plums to Ramada Inns) and why we care, why it matters. Whether we are observing a wilderness or rural area, a small town, a standard-fare development in a suburb, a dense urban city or that now common, previously mentioned “edge city” (between the exurb and the city proper, a sprawl of businesses and malls and industry that has a zip code but no residents) we must wonder: what is good, what is bad, what was lost, and what night be renewed?

Her keen observations “explaining the details most of us skip past” (as James Fallows notes) are substantial but beautifully crafted. The places she visits and what she sees and reflects upon in those places is estimable, surprising, at times.

Lessard visits so many places and finds so much endearing and perplexing. The first part is called “Listening to the Fields” and she spends time in her upstate New York village, explores suburbophobia, has a splendid chapter about Gettysburg, another about Natchez, and  more.

Part Two is called “The Hollowed City” and she spends much time in her beloved New York (including a chapter called “The Pumpkins of Bergen Street”), has a great piece on markets, and then goes to Youngstown, Ohio. There is more about urban life and the interface of the natural landscape and the built environment.

Part Three is splendid, seriously studying “The Absent Hand” and she writes about “The Corporation in the Woods” and “Atopia” and questions “Whose Hand?” My, my, you’ve got toe read the allusive and powerful chapter called “The Inverted Cradle.” This isn’t cheap or breezy, but it is rich and luminous and, at times, grave.

The Absent Hand was one of my very favorite books of 2019 and, I believe, a very important one. Order it today. There will be a paperback edition coming in March, which will be less expensive. Pre-order it today if you’d like…

PSYCHOLOGY AND PERSONAL GROWTH

The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament Aubrey Sampson (NavPress) $15.99 When we promoted this as a pre-order early last year we called it “stunning.” Here is what else we wrote about it:

The Louder Song by Aubrey Sampson is very well written and exceptionally thoughtful. I will admit, there are oodles of spiritual books that tell of the great suffering people have gone through. God helps folks cope, and it is a great grace. Some of the stories are heart breaking and heart warming. Whether they are beautifully rendered or plain, there is something moving about reading the stories of others journey into the depths and coming back out, chastened, sobered, but alive and still loving God and God’s people.

I have an allergy to books that offer clichés, though, or answers that sound too easy. Some of these sorts of books about making sense of suffering tend that way and we avoid recommending them. It is hard to match the pained, spare eloquence of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son or the hard-won but faithfully raw insight of Gerald Sittser’s A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.

And so, I’ll admit, when I read the long list of tragedies that befell this young woman — herself struck with a painful, chronic illness — I feared it would just be another rather sentimental story of God’s love for her through it all, fine but not terribly substantive.  But, my-oh-my, is this a strong, thoughtful, gripping book. Yes, Aubrey Sampson has suffered more than most, and yes, she tells about her grief and loss and struggle and pain. But this is also an apologetic for and study of lament, one of the few very good, accessible books on this topic. In The Louder Song she explores what it is like to have exploding grief and to be able to cry out; how, indeed, God uses lament to lead us between (as she puts it) “The Already and Not Yet.”

Ms. Sampson says,

God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song of renewal and restoration. Lament helps us hear God’s louder song. 

I really appreciate her shameless honesty, her devout piety, her robust faith, and mature spirituality. I liked her stories. And I commend her good scholarship — she is not just writing out of her own experience, rich and formative as it is, but she’s done the reading and thinking and processing of good Biblical and theological scholarship. How many evangelical testimonials of this sort integrate the insights about lament from, say Claus Westermann [who I first read because Brueggemann cited him so much] or the old Puritan Thomas Watson or modern thinker N.T. Wright? To see an author quoting Bono and Soong-Chan Rah and Lament for a Son and Marva Dawn and, of course, Michael Card’s Sacred Sorrow shows she’s got a thoughtful, balanced, creative, approach. To see Tim Keller and Anne Lamott in the same book makes me smile. To draw on progressive Africans like Mpho Tutu and stuffy Anglos like C.S. Lewis (and a quote from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Marriage Plot) shows this is super interesting and well-edited.

There is a good listing of Bible verses on which those who are suffering can draw upon. There’s a thorough guidebook full of discussion questions for personal or group use.

The Louder Song is a strong, important book and we highly recommend it. After reading so many good books about personal health and well-being, growth and grief and such, it stands out as one of the very best of the year. Kudos!

Signs of Life: Resurrection Hope Out of Ordinary Losses Stephanie Lobdell (Herald Press) $16.99 There are so many books written about coping with life’s hardships, with grief and loss and moving on and getting buy. So many tell hard stories, or they tell fairly ordinary stories in dynamic ways. A lot of them are pretty energizing and some have deep wisdom. But something often seems off; they are too glowing or too formulaic. Even the ones promising passion and authenticity and guts and grit are written by pretty bloggers who, if their lives were as raw as they claim, wouldn’t have time or the stomach for that kind of photo shoot and platform. There are a lot of fine books that are popular and helpful, but I’m impressed most with ones like this. This is wonderfully written without a lot of extraordinary drama or visionary zeal. She’s what we sometimes call “the real deal” or “salt of the Earth.”

I was hooked already by the table on contents but the first few pages were so well written and so honest about a befuddling interpersonal conflict misunderstanding that I knew this was going to be a book I wanted, needed, and was artful enough to keep my attention. I love the notion of “ordinary losses” a phrase I’ve only seen in a precious few books. On the back cover of Signs of Life it says “every day we lose a little bit of something.” And what she wants to know – what she and her husband were asked by their pastoral supervisor in the conflicted churched, is: Is the resurrection enough? Is God’s grand saving action in the cross and resurrection enough to bring life to weary folks, those whose career plans have withered or whose friendships have falters or whose zeal for faith has waned.

“In candid and artful prose, Lobdell shares stories of her own depression, loss of confidence, and disillusionment with the church,” She also does good Bible explorations, telling of biblical characters who faced “ordinary death and also God’s reviving power.” It’s a good, good book, honest and one I found unusually helpful. As Courtney Ellis puts it, Signs of Life offers “hard-earned hope for the weary soul.” As Beth Felker Jones of Wheaton College writes, “Lobdell helps us confront the hard realities of daily life and points us to the unchanging goodness of the God who brings life out of death.”

Not only is she a good writer, but (as is important to me) she offers great quotes from important authors. A quick glance at the footnotes shows citations from everybody from Martin Lloyd-Jones to Phyllis Trible, from Henri Nouwen to Walter Brueggeman, from The Jesus Storybook Bible to Barbara Brown Taylor. Not bad for a Nazarene pastor on a Mennonite publishing house.

This was one of my favorite books of 2019 not only because of the fine, honest writing, but because of the topics. She explores a certain “ordinary” loss in each chapter: the death of zeal, the death of her sense of the future, of plans, expectation, hope. She continues in chapters that are poignant and helpful, admitting to the “death” of her hopes for revival, for beauty, of invincibility and of image. This is remarkable stuff, and it’s a truly insightful read.

And, of course, again, the antidote to these little losses and daily deaths is life, life abundant, the resurrecting power of Jesus. It isn’t cheesy or triumphalistic but it is good, good news. I recommend it.

The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction Justin Whitmel Earley (IVP) $18.00  I do not do well with time management books, admittedly to my detriment (and the detriment of those who have to wait for me, or live in my unsettled wake. I know.) I do not think I’m alone in finding guidebooks and manuals, workbooks and formulas, rules of life and programs for this or that a bit off-putting (and, in any event, not very effective.) How can we live into a balanced and thoughtful way of life that makes sense of things, helps us say yes and say no to stuff, live well with such a grand quest for margin and balance turning into a shtick or formula?

Taking the old Benedictine rule of life notion into a 21st century, on-line world, Earley started thinking of helpful ways his community could help each other be what they most deeply wanted, by entering more fully into a communal practice of discerning life-giving habits. He’s been influenced by the notions of “cultural liturgies” as found in Jame K.A. Smith and “finding God in the ordinary” (a la Tish Warren.) He’s thought well, experimented faithfully and consciously, and is a good writer, reporting back what he has learned. In so doing he has written what I think is one of the best books in this genre in many a year; it is interesting, based on serious cultural and theological considerations, but really, really practical. It will help you find focus and balance and health, I am sure.

Earley created this tool as a way to help us in human-scale, healthy, (and, I might had, fairly hip and artful) ways. With some nice color and some great graphics and lovely little charts, Common Rule warmly invites us to this kind of intentional Christ-centered life.

I wrote about all this at BookNotes when it first came out, suggesting it wasn’t just solid and useful, like eating your vegetables, but is truly nice, artful book with the graphics and colored ink and gentle guidance and all. Soon, we heard reports of those who wanted to work through it together, of on-line book clubs and small groups and webinars and family meetings. The book was taking off and it seems like it is increasingly appreciated, bearing fruit, being used to help folks settle down, form roots, craft a good life. That Justin is speaking at our upcoming Jubilee conference this February in Pittsburgh is cool, too, and indicative of how this book is resonating with younger audiences. Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction is no doubt one of the “books of the year.”

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life David Brooks (Random House) $28.00 If you haven’t heard of this, you should know it – Second Mountain has been a big seller across the country and Mr. Brooks is known widely (as a fairly conservative columnist for the New York Times and a regular on NPR and PBS as a political pundit.) We have adored his many New York Times best-selling books – I still count Bobos in Paradise as one of my all time favs – and have admired how he brings together some of the best instincts of those on both sides of the political spectrum. For many liberals he is their favorite conservative and for many conservatives, they jokingly call him their favorite liberal.

As was evident in his previous, serious book on virtue (The Road to Character), Brooks is drawn to religious questions and seemed to be increasingly drawn to Christianity. As he says in this amazing new book about emotional and spiritual health as one moves beyond “success” to meaning, perhaps in mid-life or later, he is “a wondering Jew and a confused Christian.”

Yep, in his own “second mountain” David Brooks has found friends among generous scholars at places such as Wheaton College and has sought counsel from the likes of PCA Pastor Timothy Keller and now professes Christian faith. Quiet and nuanced as it may be, this may be the most unsung but notable “celebrity conversion” of many a year. Move over, Kanye, David Brooks is carefully sharing about his new-found faith, citing the influences of William Wilberforce and Dorothy Day and Bonhoeffer and Romero.

Second Mountain is not a perfect book and not all have loved it as much as I do, but it is a very thoughtful study of the quest for meaning in our post-religious age, a secular Jew searching, finally, for purpose and goodness and grace. His embrace of Christianity (as a case study of the search for purpose undertaken after one moves from summiting the “first” mountain towards a second, is one of the most breathtaking stories of the year, explored in mature prose and thoughtful sociological reporting. I suppose it will come out in paperback sometime later this year, but you should read it soon.

A WONDERFUL REPRINT IN A NEW EDITION, DESERVING AN AWARD

Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image updated and combined edition Dr. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey (IVP) $25.00  We, of course, as any good bookstore would, stock all of Phil Yancey’s thoughtful and often exquisite books. One of his good friends and heroes (he was, by all accounts, a hero to anyone who knew him) Dr Paul Brand, was a missionary doctor (who specialized in hand surgery, learned in the hard school of treating leprosy in India.) The two of them team up to create to books that ruminated on the physiology of the human body – blood, skin, bones, cells, eyeballs and the like, studying things like breath and balance and pain. Their two books were called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and In His Image. I had given the first as gifts before we even opened the bookstore, so we, naturally, have long loved these studies.

Although they are ideal for anyone in health care related fields, they are lovely for any of us with bodies (especially if said bodies don’t work quit as we wished.) Moreover, the draw wise and compelling insights from the endlessly fascinating secrets of the human body and apply them to the Body of Christ and our lives in a diverse world seeking unity and shalom. Praise the Lord that 2019 saw this lovely reissue, adapted and combined – complete with a study guide, created, in part, by one of our own local customers here in Dallastown. Hooray!

TWO NEW BOOKS BY THOMAS LYNCH RELEASED in 2019

Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living Thomas Lynch (Westminster John Knox Press) $18.00 You know the way it is with us book lovers when we adore an author. We love his or her writing, sigh deeply over the word choices and remarkable sentence structure, admire his or her craft, and eagerly keep eyes peeled for new essays, perhaps, magazine pieces, or, please, maybe even a new book. Or – stop by beating heart! – two books.

Whence and Whither is a very handsome hardback with textured paperback cover and deckled edges. Lynch deserves a well-made book because he is, doubtlessly, one of our finest wordsmiths writing these days. His Undertaking: Life Notes from the Dismal Trade and Bodies at Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality are extraordinary and seminal in the development of contemporary thinking about the vocation of being an undertaker and among my all time favorite reads. Teaming with Presbyterian minister and legendary preacher Tom Long in 2013, they wrote The Good Funeral, which is the definitive book on the subject.

As you may know, Lynch is a memoirist as well (see his great work Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans) and a poet. Whence and Whither is, as the title suggests, essays about all manner of living which, naturally, includes death and dying, grief and loss, funerals and dispatching the dead. I can’t say enough about Mr. Lynch’s humble style and his eloquent prose and his bold insights about the meaning of his work and of all of our lives and deaths.

You should buy this new book. I might note that I was introduced to Lynch’s first book by one of my dearest friends, the Reverend Thomas Osenbach, who died unexpectedly this Spring and it was one of the last books Tom bought from us in his weekly visits to the shop. He stopped in at least once a week for over 30 years, always buying books, always talking about why people should read, always awaiting good words on good paper.

I read an excerpt about the dignity and value of attending funerals from Whence and Whither at Tom’s packed funeral at a local United Methodist church and knew he’d have thought it fitting. Whence and Whither has become one of the most memorable books of the year for me. Lynch helped me when my own father died in a car wreck in 2000 and he helped us when Tom passed in 2019. We are grateful and commend his rare sort of writing to you.

The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be Thomas Lynch (Norton) $27.95 Imagine, if you are a serious music fan, consider: if your favorite group, critically acclaimed, intelligent, and a blast to enjoy, did a big, double greatest hits album with some new material (not just one new cut, but five!) You’d just have to get it, right? We are happy to promote this hefty, handsome hardback, a greatest hits release with new content. The publisher calls it “a wry and compassionate” collection so I mean nothing demeaning by calling it a greatest hits double album; it is mature and wonderful and valuable. One reviewer reminds us, plainly, that “for nearly four decades, poet, essayist, and small-town funeral director Thomas Lynch has probed the relations between the literary and mortuary arts…” which is true and notes his “signature blend of memoir, meditation, gallows humor, and poetic precision.” So much more could be said.

The Depositions really is an essential set of selections from Lynch’s various sorts of writing and includes remarkable memories, such as a piece about riding in the hearse with the beloved body of Seamus Heaney, and great stuff about his own family of Catholic priests and undertakers and alcoholics and travel and work, not to mention excerpts from The Good Funeral. There are five new chapters that weave together some of his poems and how he came to write them. One, “Miracles” tells more about his own faith and an ecumenical Bible study he attends, even if he doesn’t attended services much these days.

In one of these he is lamenting the loss of several friends, including many from Irish literary circles. He writes:

The witness of these things draw a catch in my breath, that New Year’s Eve morning when we buried Dennis O’Driscoll, in the new row of St. Corban’s Cemetery. Watching his pallbearers lower him into the vacancy of the grave, these mundane mortuary chores replicating the miraculous narrative of the Gospels where the paralytic’s pals lower him into the place of his healing, the “slight lightheadedness and incredulity” perfectly articulated in Heaney’s poem, remains caught in my chest, not yet exhaled, and like the scribes in Capernaum, that day in Naas, though I’d seen such things all my workaday life, I’d “never seen anything like this before.”

A BOOK REVIEW I WANT TO SEND OUT TO THE LATE REV. TOM OSENBACH

One Long River of Joy: Notes on Wonder Brian Doyle (Little, Brown) $27.00  I mentioned above that it was my friend Tom Osenbach that first encouraged me to read undertaker Tom Lynch. Brian Doyle is another author that we carried (well, at first at least a few of his quirky, artsy books, years ago) who was one of Tom’s favorites, an author that I knew was lovely and creative, but that I just didn’t quite read. In his many years coming in here before his unexpected death this past year, Tom reminded me how much he loved Brian Doyle, his novels, his essays, his poetry, his articles, his short stories. Doyle was an expansive thinker, at turns gentle and quiet, sometimes very funny, often unexpectedly furious, usually gentle and winsome and tender and wise.  Tom read almost everything Doyle wrote; he often said that he sent donations to a Catholic College just so he could could get their brilliant alumni journal, a literary mag called The Portland Review for which Doyle regularly wrote and edited. Talk about a loyal reader. When we got One Long River of Joy this December I shed a tear or two, knowing I would have called Tom the day it arrived and he would have come in promptly for it.

And so, with some sadness and also great joy I want to tell you that my late pal Tom would have purchased this One Long River of Joy and would have exclaimed that this collection of essays by the late Doyle — he, too, passed this year, at age 60, of a brain tumor — was one of his favorite books of 2019. It is hardback, sturdy, handsome and maybe the nicest collection of Doyle’s work we’ve yet seen. It has received (not surprisingly) glowing reviews from writers and reviews, calling his essays “mystical” and “astonishing.”

Jane Ciabattari writes that it is “Both ecstatic and sober… it dances on the edge of mortality, tossing out exaltations and questions, and offering a fresh, playful, slant on spiritual writing…a celebration of life, love, and waking each day.”

Here is what the publisher says about it:

When Brian Doyle passed away at the age of sixty after a bout with brain cancer, he left behind a cult-like following of devoted readers who regard his writing as one of the best-kept secrets of the twenty-first century. Doyle writes with a delightful sense of wonder about the sanctity of everyday things, and about love and connection in all their forms: spiritual love, brotherly love, romantic love, and even the love of a nine-foot sturgeon.

Here is another thing Tom, and others who have a cult-like devotion to another writer, David James Duncan (author of The Brothers K and The River Why, as well as a short story collection and a passionate set of ecological essays, My Life As Told By Water that I loved more than Tom did) would have been thrilled to know. Said David James Duncan wrote the foreword to One Long River. He, too, celebrates wonder and goodness and quirky grace in this God-haunted, sad, destabilized planet. Having DJD in on this posthumous project was genius. One Long River of Joy: Noes on Wonder by Brian Doyle is truly one of the great books of 2019. RIP Brian and Tom.

BEST NEW BOOK ABOUT FAITH IN THE WORK-WORLD

Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work Denise Daniels & Shannon Vandewarker (Hendrickson) $24.95 Many years there are bunches of books vying for my attention to name and mention at the end of the year. This year is no exception, as you can see – it is hard to name the best book in a given category. However, in this field, although there’s been other very good ones, this book is such a stand out, I must name it as a clear award winner. In our large selection of books in this field (some old, some fairly recent, and some quite new) Working in the Presence of God brings some very, very good contributions and even correctives. We are glad for it, and I must say I enjoyed it quite a lot.

I’ve given a sincere shout out about Working in the Presence of God in a previous column, so I will be brief. I can say three important things about this well written and thoughtful resource.

Firstly, it offers a framework and staring foundation point about work that is essential, excellently explained, and rock-solid. I find that some books in this whole faith-in-the-marketplace field, books about calling and vocation and occupations and careers are sometimes less than clear or a bit sloppy in there framing their enthusiastic story about living out Kingdom ways on the shop floor or in some marketplace ministry. Daniels and Vanderwarker have done the primary source reading and can articulate the best Biblical and theological foundational truths and cite the very best books and leaders for their project. I’m glad for that and commend them for their healthy worldview and their opening chapters.

Secondly, this book does, in fact, strive to help us “practice the presence of God” in our modern workplaces, which is an audacious goal and a much needed assist to those of us who talk about finding God in the science lab, the classroom, the shop floor, the lawyer’s office, the marketplace, the arts studio, or sports field. We say these things and it preaches well – indeed, God is Lord of all creation and there is no sacred/secular divide; we can find God everywhere and serve God in all we do. But, really, at least in terms of a sense of the Spirit’s presence, what does that actually look like? How do we integrate “praying without ceasing” into the hectic world of our jobs and careers? So, yes, this book helps us learn to be mindful of the very holiness of God in our midst.

As Richard Mouw puts it in his back cover blurb:

We’ve had some wonderful studies in recent years about the theology of work and also about spiritual formation. In this book, the two come together in marvelous ways. The authors aren’t just telling us that we should be workers who also happen to have a spiritual life. They help us to practice the presence of God as we engage the real stuff of our working lives. . . . Practical wisdom abounds in these pages!

We are glad for books that study the ethics of market-driven capitalism and about finding Kingdom values in how we pursue our work-world practices and choices. But this book on spiritual formation in the work world adds a great component to the larger faith at work movement.

Congratulations to Henrickson (who has done Bible studies and other books resourcing this movement for years) for doing this good book. I’ll admit I wish the cover was more attractive, and I don’t like that it’s an expensive hardback. But still, it’s a gem – and with endorsements on the back from Tom Nelson of Made to Flourish and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (Vice President of Redeemer City to City’s Global Faith & Work Initiatives) I’m sure this book will become increasingly known in our movement. Remember, you saw it here, celebrated as one of the best books of 2019.

BOOKS OF PUBLIC THEOLOGY, POLITICS, and PERSPECTIVES IN SEARCH OF THE COMMON GOOD

In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World Jake Meador (IVP) $23.00 As you know, I really like books about faith and public life, those whose Kingdom vision is about the Lordship of Christ over all of life. We are avid church folk and are mildly involved in the lives of several denominations and countless pastors, but I’m really most interested in the non-churchy aspects of Christian discipleship – missional, wholistic, what Steve Garber calls “seamless.” And so, I naturally was immediately drawn to this.

And then I read the glowing rave review in the typically moderate style of Presbyterian pastor and thinker and urban church planter Tim Keller, who spent several pages summarizing much that he’s learned about the “Christ and culture” discussions of recent years and lamented the polarizing (and secularizing) impact of the religious right. Keller knows his Charles Taylor and understands our current “God-haunted” 21st century more than most pastors half his age; he brings an astute insight worthy of Bonhoeffer, Kuyper, or, better, Lesslie Newbigin, in these few concise introductory pages. They are really very wise and good.

And then Keller says:

If you are looking for a way forward, I can think of no better starting point than this book.

He then he goes on to say three things, at least, that he likes about Jake Meador and his new book. After spends another good page summarizing various chapters, Keller continues,

So read this book – and then discuss it with someone. Advance the conversation we must have if we are going to make real changes. There’s no more urgent topic for the church in the West than this, and that’s especially true for Protestants and evangelicals. In Search of the Common Good is an important contribution, and I’m glad to recommend it to you.

I echoed Keller’s recommendation and did a long review of it when it came out last June. I noted that he tells a lot of stories about his own rustbelt sort of background, why he loves Wendell Berry and wants to reinvigorate our own ministries of place, and why both a high calling understanding of the vocation of work and a deeper commitment to the local church and Christian community may, in fact, help us heal the frayed and fracture body politic. Meador is super smart but writes so nicely, I could hardly put this down, even as he’s walking us through theories of Charles Taylor and why we have this angst in our secularizing culture and what sorts of virtues are needed to renew “the world outside our heads.” I may have said that I knew it would be on my list of Best Books of 2019.

By the way, yet another reason to visit the CCO’s Jubilee conference website and consider attending (whether you are a college student or not – make the trip to Pittsburgh this February!) Jake will be there, doing a workshop on this book. After all, the wonderful wordsmith and profound theologian Wesley Hill has said that “Jake Meador is one of the most insightful evangelical writers of his generations.” Of course he’ll be at Jubilee!

TWO IMPORTANT BOOKS ON THE QUESTION OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Free To Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America Luke Goodrich (Multnomah) $24.00  I have read a number of books (from several perspectives) about this thorny question of faith-based conscientious objection, about whether or not there should be religious freedom exceptions (such as the bi-partisan policies set in place during the Clinton years which later were codified as RIFRA.) Luke Goodrich works for the fair-minded, pro-religious liberty legal group (The Beckett Fund) that wants to preserve the freedom of religious conscious in a pluralistic society. For instance, his organization (along with other such advocates for religious toleration such as the Christian Legal Society) have worked for the rights of (just for instance) Muslim prisoners to maintain beards while incarcerated as a matter of their religious practice and for the right of certain Native tribes to use otherwise illegal peyote for their religious ceremonies. Naturally, they have sided with the likes of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cake insisting that, agree or not with their conservative convictions about certain sorts of birth control or marriage equality it’s unjust for the State to compel people to betray their deepest, religiously held principles.

Thoughtful citizens should immediately ask a few questions about this “religious liberty” claim. It seems pretty obvious (I would think) that the evangelical Masterpiece cake designer shouldn’t be forced to use his talents and artful skills to create cakes that celebrate witchcraft (although he gladly sells his ordinary stuff to anyone, he doesn’t want to be compelled to celebrate the occult by making special cakes; that is one of the cases being considered in Colorado even now, after the Supreme Court ruling in his favor about making cakes for same-sex marriages, of which he disapproves.) But when and where should a citizen’s convictions become protected (being a bigot of any sort isn’t illegal, of course) and at what point is there a compelling public interest for the state to get involved insisting on certain sorts of behavior. Should a Jewish deli owner be forced by law to cater a neo-Nazi party, or may she discriminate and say no? Should a civil rights leader who rents audio equipment be forced to rent to a KKK rally, or should she have the right refuse to serve that customer? What about renting houses to the unmarried or to immigrants? What about the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It’s complicated, eh?

And, further, what about the rights of organizations as such? Should a Young Democrat club on a college campus be required to allow anyone to be their officers or is it discrimination to say one has to be a young Democrat to be a leader in the club? Is it wrong for an environmental club to on campus to insist that their leaders be committed to an ecological viewpoint? As the courts have been debating in recent years, should a Christian student group who takes money as any other official club on campus does on be required to forfeit, as they sometimes are, their by-laws that say they have to hold to the faith statement they have adopted? Can Christian colleges on non-profits hold to their own, distinctive beliefs and hiring practices if their students take government funded student loans? As you know, this has been a major concern of many Christian institutions of higher education and even small Roman Catholic orders of nuns (like the Little Sisters of the Poor who were sued by the Justice Department of the Obama administration when they – duh—didn’t provide birth control coverage in their Order’s insurance policy.)

(I just have to say — you really should read Goodrich on this case, the famous Little Sisters of the Poor v Azar. Of course, the HHS “Affordable Care Act” had given thousands of religious exemptions as per the law of the land — to the likes of Exxon and VISA and Pepsi — but somehow went crazy litigating against this small order of mostly elderly nuns. You can’t make this stuff up.)

I explain all this not because Goodrich describes all of these exact situations (although he does, actually) but because these are the contested matters that are increasingly tying up the courts and it most often gets ugly; good people disagree, but few have studied the topic carefully. It has been my experience that most of the best books on religious pluralism are general (like the excellent University of Chicago title Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference by John Inazu) or are very scholarly and arcane, diving deep into precedents and constitutional law. Free To Believe is not a difficult read and is really interesting.

The incivility on this topic is thick; both sides are often blustery. The forces who oppose this pluralistic openness to religious freedom make anyone who doesn’t tow the politically correct line out to be mean-spirited bigots and the religious right who use these episodes as fund-raising for their culture warring war chests make anyone who disagrees with them sound like totalitarian, atheistic nuts. There is plenty of heat on both sides of this debate and there have been missteps, I think, from both sides. Yet, there is reasonable work being done by people like those at the Beckett Fund that deserve a hearing.

This is why I think I want to name Free to Believe by Luke Goodrich as one of the valuable books of 2019. I think I mostly agree with most of this, but that’s not my point. My point is that liberty of conscience is vital for our republic and these questions require great thoughtfulness when it comes to religion in the public square. The rights of individuals and of faith-based organizations need to be adjudicated in light of concern for the common good. Although writing for evangelical Christians, mostly, it seems, he is clear that his organization advocates for all, shoring up the rights of conscience for all (whether you like or agree with their views and practices or not.)

Goodrich is a fine chap – we met him at an event this fall – and we’ve followed his organization (founded by the thoughtful, kind, public intellectual Kevin “Seamus” Hasson) for years. He has argued before the Supreme Court and is one of the most knowledgeable attorneys working in this arena today. Agree or not, this is a valuable book to help frame the conversation about the common good, public justice, and freedom of conscience for people and organizations.

Listen to Professor Robert George of Princeton University (a brilliant scholar who, by the way, goes on the road with his friend African American activist Cornell West, to talk together and illustrate how serious people of differing social visions can be respectful and find common ground.) Dr. George writes:

“As a top attorney with Becket, our nation’s premier religious liberty appellate advocacy law firm, Luke Goodrich has been on the front lines in the battle to protect the rights of people of every faith and shade of belief. With the basic human — and constitutional — right to religious freedom under assault from many different quarters, it is a difficult and ongoing struggle. As Goodrich recounts in his marvelous new book, there have of late been some important and exciting victories in the Supreme Court and other federal and state tribunals. But enormous challenges lie ahead. In meeting these challenges, having an informed and engaged citizenry is critical. That’s why Free to Believe is such a blessing.”

Here’s an endorsement  of Free to Believe by a prestigious law professor at Harvard Law:

“With the religious freedoms that Americans have long taken for granted now under fierce attack, Luke Goodrich not only sounds an alarm about the challenges ahead but also offers practical guidance on how to confront them. This wise, faith-filled, and eminently readable book should be in the hands of everyone who values religious liberty.” –Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and author of A World Made New

And this, from a Constitutional law expert and former judge from Stanford:

Free to Believe is a book for Christians struggling to understand biblical principles of freedom of religion — a freedom that extends to all faiths and even to unbelief. Authors who truly understand the principles of our First Amendment are rare, and those among them who know and love the Scripture are rarer still. Luke Goodrich, one of America’s top litigators in religious freedom cases and a devoted servant of Christ, is both, and his book offers insight, faith, passion, and above all clarity.” –Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School and former circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All Art Lindsley & Anne Bradley (Abilene Christian University Press) $27.99 You may know my fondness for collections of essays, anthologies which you can dip into and read a chapter or two and move on to yet another chapter or two from a different author or with a different angle. Such collections are not big sellers, oddly, because they seem so very useful. Set Free is just this kind of invaluable resource. Neither Lindsley nor Bradley are lawyers or Constitutional scholars but they contracted some kind of a grant to do this project and set out to find those who could best help us all understand the foundational questions, the solid theology and the controversies around how to build “liberty and justice for all” in our pluralistic culture.

And so, they put together a fabulous cast of players, inviting each to contribute original material.

And what wonderful thinkers and writers are in this Set Free volume – illustrious and important, even if many you may not know. There are some well-known public intellectuals – cultural critic and beloved speaker Os Guinness, who has long worked on the importance of the First Amendment, and Daniel Dreisbach (whose J.D. is from the University of Virginia and PhD is from Oxford, and who now teaches in the department of Justice, Law, & Criminology at American University and is well known as a historian of jurisprudence and a researcher on church-state relations.) Other great chapters include a several on the Biblical teaching about religious freedom, several on the history of religious freedom, and – from Lindsley & Bradley themselves — a bit on the relationship between religious, economic, and political freedom.

Another question taken up is if and in what ways religious freedom is at risk in today’s culture and what can be done about it. Jennifer Marshall Patterson has a great chapter on how preserving religious freedom for all is part of a broader vision of the common good. Mark David Hall has an important piece on the vexing question about religious accommodations and the common good.

One of the very important pieces is by our respected friend Stanley W. Carlson-Thies (who has learned much, by the way, from Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper’s civic experiment with social and religious toleration in early 20th century Holland) who gives us a chapter called “Free to Serve: Safeguarding Churches and Ministries as They Contribute to Justice and the Common Good.” Stanley runs the Center for Public Justice’s Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA) which helps organizations and ministries (of all faiths) maintain their own organizational distinctiveness and understand their own rights in hiring and other institutional practices. His work is profound and extensive – he knows more about the faith-based social service organizations that work in partnership with the government (and the legal basis of all that, based on, for instance, the Charity Choice act from the mid-1990s) and those who have served the common good for decades) than anybody I know.

So, kudos to Art Lindsley & Anne Bradley for compiling this thoughtful reader, this fine introduction to a principled commitment to pluralism and civic, legal toleration. Set Free may not be at your local bookstore or be flying up the charts of the better known on-line dealers, but we want to celebrate it and invite you, regardless of your own position on this complex matter, to check it out, give it some consideration, and discern what you can do to help us all live with our deepest differences in ways that foster respect, civility, and freedom of conscience.

For what it is worth, this question of religious liberty and freedom of conscious is also tied up with what the historians call disestablishment — that is, the separation of church and state, as such. Beth and I had the opportunity to premier an amazing book on this with our friend Dr. Carl Esbeck this fall in Chicago. See the new and notable book he co-edited with Jonathan J. Den Hartog Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833 University of Missouri Press; $45.00.) Congrats to him for editing such a fine book which studies each of the early colonies and how they moved towards this important, essential status. (Perhaps, though, I should get an award for dumbest move of a bookseller this year. When I first heard about this coming out I tried to sell it, sight unseen at that point, to Dr. John Fea, a customer and noted colonial historian. Little did I know at that point that John has a good chapter in it — chapter two, on New Jersey.  Well, I tried. Ha.)

Becoming Whole: Why The Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream Brian Fikkert & Kelly M. Kapic (Moody Press) $15.99 I described this beautifully made paperback book at great length at a BookNotes column when it came out last Spring. I thought then, and continue to think now, that it is one of the best books of this sort I read this year. It is about worldviews and narratives and social imaginaries, so to speak, and it is a critique of the way in which too many church folks have allowed false stories such as the American Dream to shape our orienting principles, our own story. Yes, Becoming Whole is a prequel to the famous When Helping Hurts so it does get into anti-poverty ministries and alleviating brokenness from the lives of the marginalized. But it is more than a ‘social justice’ manifesto or a handbook for helping wisely. It is a grand vision of how to think about life from God’s perspective. What a clear-headed, helpful teaching tool it is for any of us tempted by the false hopes of the American dream, consumerism, individualism, autonomy, and self-actualization. There really is a better story.

I am eager to insist that this is one of the very good Christian books of this year, and I’m happy to promote it, wishing it would get a wide hearing. It’s important. Here is what people I respect have said about it:

The big story (or the meta-narrative) that one lives by is not benign; rather, it really, really matters. Our brothers Fikkert and Kapic show us how to identify and jettison false meta-narratives, like the American Dream, expressive individualism, and consumerism; so that, we can wisely appropriate and live by the True Big Story found in Scripture for the sake of escorting the poor from their impoverishment to a flourishing position, for the sake of our flourishing and personal wholeness, and for the sake of the flourishing of our communities and cities.                                                                              Luke Bobo Made to Flourish, ediitor of Fertile Ground: Faith and Work Field Guide for Youth Workers and Living Salty and Light-filled Lives in the Workplace

Thanks to the principles of love and leadership as articulated in this book, as well as in the related work, When Helping Hurts, the church I serve has been able to come alongside disadvantaged, vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized communities in more informed, life-giving, and sustainable ways. Backed with sound biblical theology and practical guidance and stories, Becoming Whole is a must for any Christian community aiming to make a difference. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Scott Sauls, Christ Presbyterian Church, Nashville, author of Befriend and Irresistible Faith.

The kingdom of God is about life as God intends. In Becoming Whole, Brian Fikkert and Kelly Kapic help us understand the robust narrative that the kingdom creates and supports. Unfortunately, we have settled for puny competing storylines that make people poor—in every way. The Spirit is shouting to the Western church to abandon the worldviews and idols that are keeping us from becoming whole. This book serves as a gracious but prophetic invitation to partner with God in his mission to enable us to become fully human.
Reggie McNeal, author of Kingdom Come and Kingdom Collaborators

Broken We Kneel: Reflections of Faith and Citizenship second edition Diana Butler Bass (Church Publishing) $18.95  Oh my, I almost started a separate category for this award — “The Best Book to Be Re-Published This Year” or a gold medal for “the most important book I’ve wanted to see come back in print that finally did.” I’m glad for this (and gladly honor it here as I look back at 2019) in part because I just so very much loved it when it came out amidst the war cries and patriotism post-9-11. As a reasonable, thoughtful, Christ-like study of church-state stuff, it is fine. But it is written nearly as a memoir (the sort of personally embedded journalism Diana Butler Bass did so well in her spiritual memoir of various congregations she had been a part of in the lovely and insightful Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community.) In Broken We Kneel she writes poignantly and even painfully about losing a church position because of her disagreements with the flag-waving in the sanctuary. Idolatrous civil religion and “my country right or wrong” dogmatism apparently are not only found among Southern Bible belt evangelicals, but among those who are sophisticated and liturgical and read Bonhoeffer and such. And so she quit.

This new, expanded edition of Broken We Kneel has a new foreword by one Robert W. Lee, a relative of Robert E. Lee who has just of late become known for renouncing white supremacy and religious sorts of nationalism, which, not unlike Diana, has cost him dearly. Diana has penned a new chapter as a long introduction and a powerful “Fifteen Years Later” afterward entitled “Love — Not Hate — Makes America Great.” If it sounds like a chant, it is because it was; Diana opens the chapter by saying she did not expect to be at a protest against neo-Nazis in Virginia along with parishioners from Christ Church, “protesters clad in Lilly Pulitzer and Brooks Brothers, the preppy seasonal attire of Episcopalians” — the sort of detail that makes Butler-Bass such a fine writer and makes this book an enjoyable read, despite its intensely important heft.

You see, the 2019 edition of the book ends with a church-related controversy not unrelated to the flags in the sanctuary fiasco that precipitated the 2004 edition; historically complicated civic plaques (of Washington and Lee) were taken out of the church sanctuary and relocated  to another space on the parish property. Diana puts it mildly when she says “it did not go over well” and it became a larger issue when it became a national media story. Interestingly, she applauds the church’s feisty disagreements as they worked through the conflict. She honors the painful process and observes that the church “was not static, not a chapel to civic piety. No, this was a living place, one that houses a living argument about faith and citizenship. I think they do their best work when the argue,” she writes.

As I explained in my first review of the book a decade and a half ago, and then again early this year when I celebrated Church Publishing reissuing it, the title, Broken We Kneel was a clever alternative to the popular pro-war slogan of the early 2000s, “United We Stand.” Diana insists that there is something in our brokenness and Christ-like humility that draws us to kneel, to pray, that is better than the hoo-rah of hubris. I think she is on to something. I am grateful for all of her books appreciate her as a writer, and rejoice that this book is available in this expanded edition. Highly recommended.

The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land David Dark (WJK) $17.00  I have been pondering this book for years, it seems. A somewhat different version with a different title came out in 2005 and we raved about it then. This is a considerably re-worked, expanded and obviously updated edition, and it deserves once again to be named as a grave and requisite voice.

I would like to share with you some of what I wrote about it earlier. I have to say, I think it was one of my own most memorable reviews – I worked hard on it and tried to honor David and his good work by being a bit feisty in my explanation of his body of work and this new one. I hope you like it; sorry it’s long. I hope it inspires you to buy the book, pronto.

Here goes, from the April 23rd BookNotes:

One of the most stimulating, thoughtful, remarkably-written, and provocative books I’ve read about the state of our times and the state of our union in these times is The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land written by my friend David Dark.

David is a lover of words, a lover of truth, a lover of what some call common grace – gladly thanking God for the signs of life that pop up in even a secularized culture, offered up even by those who seem not to be religious. (Ahh, there’s an interesting idea: is anybody really not religious? Don’t we all live by and for something? That’s the theme of Dark’s fabulous book called Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious [IVP; $18.00.] What a fascinating read!)

Discerning the signs of life or signals of transcendence in the common grace gifts of popular culture is the theme of his only slightly dated first book Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos; $20.00.) He has for many years been helping us understand how to understand the culture, how to see the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane. (Or, should I say, the sacred in the profane. And vice versa.)

In a way, then, this new one about America is a continuation of that project, finding how deeply wise and transformative insights show up in the best of our American dreams, from our politics to our classic landscapes, our shaping documents to our best literature and song. I joked to somebody in the shop that he should have called this Everyday American Apocalypse.

The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land is actually a considerable re-working and expanded edition of his 2005 book, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a Christ-haunted, God-blessed Idea. It is, for those who are familiar with that stimulating, much-discussed book, different enough that it demanded a new title; it is not just a “revised” edition. There’s so much new content in The Possibility of America that it earned a new title; not only is there considerable re-working and new content, the overall tone is a bit different. Understandably. We are in even more desperate times.

It seems to me that the very title indicates a change in the panic level of professor Dark, mirroring the anxiety many of us feel in this contested, Trumpian era. It was a bit easier (not that much, really, for those paying attention, but a bit) to see “the gospel” within America a decade ago. As the subtitle of that first book put it, we were in a “Christ-haunted” land…. These are awful times for the US of A, and it seems that anyone in touch with the Bible and the current political ethos simply has to wish things were otherwise.

Enter David Dark, who once was a bit less outraged and a bit less consumed by the dark antics of our leaders, and who has deepened his long standing passion for Biblical justice and relating prophetic truth to current realities. His writing is hot, on fire this time.

Relating faith to popular culture and current events, by the way, is not new to him. In a weighty introduction called “Notes on the New Seriousness” he talks nicely about his father, a father for whom “the Bible was always in the back of his mind.”

David tells us:

In his lifelong enthusiasm for candor, fair play, and the well-chosen word, freewheeling Bible study as a space in which everything could be talked about (war, celebrity, R-rated films, a living wage) was among my father’s favorite jams. Karl Barth’s dictum concerning life lived with a Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other was an imperative he took up with glee.

He continues on about lessons learn from his father in this regard; I’m sure many of us envy being raised by a parent who, “as a conversation partner, treated words with an amused affection and reverence… “ Who offered a vibe of “conscience and candor.”

Dark describes his father, a lawyer, as one who understood how we fool ourselves, how we can use our virtue signaling for power, how we “can create or undo the impression of order and control through our use of language.” (Did his father read Derrida, or maybe just Amos and Jeremiah?) Dark talks about “disturbing the fixed scripts of the powerful.” And that “reverence and obsession are to one another near allied.”

“For better or worse,” David says, “I am a child of his obsessions.”

…After talking a bit about his role as a teacher, Dark continues,

I sit in classrooms with women and men in prisons and college campuses, and, together, we make assertions, put questions to one another, tell stories, read poems aloud, and wonder of our own words. They write sentences, I write sentences next to their sentences. And we get a conversation going somehow. We attempt truthfulness together. For some students, I sometimes have the feeling that this might be the first time someone’s calmly and respectfully urged them to think twice.

And, teacher that he is, obsessed with weighing in, he writes, furiously at times, hoping to help us think twice. Perhaps we need to see more clearly the shape we’re in, in this “God-forsaken” land. Or, perhaps, perhaps, we need to see the “possibility.” This book is his love letter to us all, even if it is more troubled and troubling than his first go at it in The Gospel According to America more than a decade ago.

The Possibility of America, as you can tell from the title, is not without hope. Dark believes in the resurrection of Jesus, after all, and he loves our land. He loves our land passionately, concretely, especially as many Southerners do. Although his writing is at times dense and loaded with metaphor and allusion, he is not, finally, an abstract writer. He’s a deep and colorful thinker, but his writing is full of specificity, of place and details, of vim and vigor, as we used to say, salt and vinegar, maybe even fire and brimstone. And empathy and love and the occasional dose of self-deprecation and honest humility. He speaks his mind, tells stories, explores American writers and singers and films, and helps us see what kind of deep patriotic wells we might draw from in order to become more Christ-like and more earnest in our civic lives.

In all this, he seems to be nearly a postmodern, twenty-first century Will Campbell. Campbell, you might know, was a wordsmith himself, published a theological journal, was a bit cantankerous, a Southern Baptist preacher who was a civil rights activist (the only white person at the founding of the SCLC) and yet friends with several Klansman. (“Jesus died for bigots, too,” he famously said.) It comes as no surprise that Dark cites Campbell’s classic memoir Brother to a Dragonfly.

…as he draws on great America literature! Oh my, he starts with James Baldwin, and June Jordon, a hefty sign of where this might be going. He quotes public intellectuals, from Lincoln to Thoreau, from Octavia Butler to Wendell Berry. He loves American lit, and explains Faulkner (a lot of Faulkner), Cormac McCarthy, Melville (and more Melville), Whitman, on to contemporaries Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and Toni Morrison, among others. Who else these days recalls the televised conversation about poetry (and the detached judgment of analysis) between howling Allen Ginsburg and mumbling straight-man William F. Buckley?

David is a very creative writer and some may find him an acquired taste. This is a grand compliment – I regularly say it about two authors I adore, Calvin Seerveld and Daniel Berrigan (and, I suppose, James Joyce, although I haven’t acquired a taste for that kind of weirdness, yet.) It is interesting that David is a student of the poet, priest, and prophet, the late Daniel Berrigan. He thinks like him, it seems to me; he sounds like him.

…Importantly, Berrigan and his famous, activist brother Philip knew Martin Luther King and American resistors such as Howard Thurman and AJ Muste, were mentored by Thomas Merton, befriended by Dorothy Day. These are American icons that Dark is attuned to and to bring their witness into conversations with Faulkner and Stanley Kubric and Americana folk music and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and rapper Kendrick Lamar is nearly geniusit’s a gumbo mix of high octane social theory, old school American literature, pop culture, and Biblical study yielding a prophetic public theology that could (please God!) lead us closer to Beloved Community.

Dark, by the way, did a marvelous chapter on Fr. Berrigan in an excellent anthology edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, and Daniel Rhodes called Can I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith & Justice (Eerdmans; $26.99) that was created in conjunction with the Project of Lived Theology at the University of Virginia. It, too, deserves acclaim as a notable book of 2019. There are 13 different chapters by 13 excellent writers and thinkers, exploring the embodiment of faith and compassion among 13 faith-based community activists such as Cesar Chavez, Mahalia Jackson, Dorothy Day, and Richard Twiss.

It is Mr. Dark’s The Possibility of America, though, that I want to highlight here as we look back on the most memorable, important books of 2019. Please consider it.

Read the full version of that BookNotes review HERE. Be sure to come back and read the rest of our list of most notable books of the year.

NEW WAYS TO THINK ABOUT FAITH AND CARING FOR CREATION: BEST of 2019

Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care edited by David Paul Warners & Matthew Kuperus Heun with a foreword by Bill McKibben (Calvin College Press) $17.00  I hate to sound like a broken record but it isn’t uncommon that my favorite books of the year and my choices for the most important books of the year are, in fact, books I’ve already reviewed here at BookNotes. When I heard about this one being put together by a team from Calvin University, I knew it would be great. Because one of the dearest friends to Beth and me (Gail Guenst Heffner) was deeply involved in the project, I started to read it the hour it arrived. (Sorry to our staff who sometimes wonders why I’ve disappeared in the middle of the day.) It didn’t take long for me to realize these were ground-breaking, profound, serious, yet accessible essays, and that Beyond Stewardship would be one of the most important contributions to the conversations about Christian creation-care in many a year. A book of the year? Absolutely!

I was glad to honor this book when we first announced it so now allow me to offer our congratulations to the team that put together this innovative volume and who believed that they could (and should) posit something new for our theological vocabulary and imagination when it comes to ecology. In a way it is brave being innovators and reformers, and I hope no one faults them for trying to be faithful in bringing clarity to how we should think about our work in caring for the creation of which we are a part.

To put it (too) simply, the have come to believe – some perhaps more firmly than others in the diverse collection of more than a dozen contributors – that “stewardship” is perhaps not a helpful or accurate word to describe our God-given task to “tend and keep the garden” (Genesis 2.) Are we “over” the other creations and are we called to “manage” and “use” them (even if wisely and lovingly?) They suggest it is hard to be wise and loving when we see ourselves (as heirs to the heresies of the Enlightenment and the myths of progress and capitalism) as apart from and over nature. Not only must we replace “nature” with “creation” we must think of better more ecologically and Biblically honest ways to describe our task as God’s image bearers in God’s good but fallen cosmos.

So there it is. A new conversation suggesting new terminology. Beyond Stewardship covers a lot of ground (and air and water and animals and more.) it’s a gem of a book to read if you care about this topic, and it is a must if you are in any way involved in promoting religious education about creation care. We are all “embedded and dependent upon” the creation of God’s. As Calvin said, it is God’s theatre, God’s household. As professional Alaskan commercial fisher-woman and gifted writer Leslie Leyland Fields (author of Crossing the Waters and The Spirit of Food) says on the back cover, “this multiplicity of smart voices will lead us in new ways to think deeply, theologically, and practically about what it means to care for, nourish, and bless God’s creation.” Three big cheers for a very small press making a truly notable contribution!

Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker Academic) $24.99  I wrote about this tremendous book at BookNotes this fall and I am fully glad to loudly say this was one of the best books I read this year. I loved its semi-scholarly ruminations on virtue theory and character formation and how the writing shifted a bit in tone, just when the going might have been getting heavy, with a splendid story, a surprisingly beautiful Bible exposition, or a mature insight about spiritual formation.  In this sense, Bouma-Prediger reminds me a bit of his friend James K.A. Smith; that is, he’s a serious philosopher and a fully engaged cultural activist and a beloved, inspiring teacher with a gift of being a great communicator. He’s not an armchair philosopher or ivory tower thinker; deep as he may be, Bouma-Prediger does his ecological thinking fully immersed in the outdoors (and, it seems, in communion with a broader community of scholars, writers, activists and students.) The stories of taking students camping or backpacking or on ecological field tips make the book really come alive.

I cannot get enough of eco-theology and we have written about why we have a pretty hefty creation care/environmental studies section in our store, but, I will admit, many Christian Earth-keeping books are somewhat similar. Bouma-Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth remains a standard text, if not the gold standard; I hope you know it. But his new Earthkeeping and Character is fantastic, not least because it brings new stuff into the conversation; it is, in a sense pioneering. This question of character formation—what kind of people must we be if we are going to care well for the planet God so loves? – is essential. It may be one of the biggest questions of our time. How then shall we live? Indeed, even if we can answer that, the deeper question is can we live in such as way? What kind of fruits must we show, what virtues must we embody, what kind of character must we have; who must we be? This is a beautiful, urgent, interesting, very, very important book as this exact question, offering a batch of virtues needed to be the kind of people who can do what must be done. It includes wonder and courage and those chapters are worth the price of the book. Kudos to Baker Academic and the team that put this together.

ON RACE and RACISM

You know we carry a lot of books about racial studies, about black and Latinex and Asian-American and Native People’s books. I mention them a lot here, even if they don’t sell much. Many in the broad evangelical church, it seems to me, care deeply about this topic (and when I say evangelicals, I mean classic evangelicals, not the far right fundamentalists who the media calls evangelicals when they are writing about the religious right.) In any case, it is often evangelical presses that have done the best religious reflection on race. InterVarsity Press stands out, and we often offer kudos for their robust commitments to authors of color and for books about racial justice issues. Other evangelical and other religious publishers are doing good work, too, and we are grateful. Here are two that deserve special accolades this year. It’s a hard call but I want to honor these two, one from a conventionally evangelical publishing hose and the other from a mainstream, New York Times best selling author.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Jemar Tisby (Zondervan) $21.99  I hope you recall that we’ve mentioned this from time to time, reviewed it earlier at BookNotes and (if you have been with us at various events) may know we’ve pushed it hard. We sold out at Jubilee 2019 when it was new, and we hope the buzz on this book has not subsided. It truly is an historic book in many ways.

Jemar Tisby is a young African American who has studied at Reformed Theological Seminary and is working on his PhD in history. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and brings a deep commitment to social justice and an obvious awareness of the African American experience to his passionate writing. But yet, this isn’t only a call for the church to repent of its complicity in fostering white supremacy and racial injustices, not only a call to be more intentional about learning about race and white privilege and so forth, but it is, in fact, a history of the churches complicated role in racism in the US. It helpfully starts in the Colonial Era and moves into all the important periods, including the question of Christian slave owners, moves to the abolition efforts and then the Antebellum Period after the Civil War, the rise of Jim Crow and so on. It is lively and well written and even though this is harsh stuff, it is the best overview of this material I think I have ever read. I hope it is sold in every bookstore in the country and carried in every local library.

You may think you know something about these concerns, and I know many of our Hearts & Minds friends know more than we do. For many, though, it is a passing interest, we want to be well informed and our gospel-driven hearts are broken when we hear of the awful stuff people of color sometimes face, but we haven’t read too much. Maybe you’ve watched a documentary about the civil rights movement or read a book by Martin Luther King. Perhaps you’ve read some of the books we’ve named in these BookNotes columns before – I’m Still Here (Austin Channing Brown), White Awake (Daniel Hill), The Myth of Equality (Ken Wytsma), Beyond Colorblind (Sarah Shin), America’s Original Sin (Jim Wallis), Living in Color (Randy Woodley), Beyond Racial Gridlock (George Yancey), Anxious to Talk About It (Carolyn B. Heisel), Woke Church (Eric Mason), The Very Good Gospel (Lisa Sharon Harper) Waking Up White (Debbie Irving) White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo), or any of the many books by John Perkins. If so, good; good on you! But I believe we all, regardless of our political leanings or our own ethnicity, need to know this historic American story about how the churches in the US have been involved in racism and institutional injustices.

Although it is broader and more passionately feisty, I trust you recall us promoting Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith by Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and Troy Jackson (Zondervan; $22.99.) The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism should stand next to that one on your bookshelf as a go-to resource to recall what needs to be known and so you are readily able to tell these historical facts to others. Kudos to Zondervan for doing this significant book and to Mr. Jemar Tisby for working so hard on this important book. Check him out at his podcast Pass the Mic, part of The Witness Podcast Network.

Listen to one of our great evangelical thinkers and leaders, Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile, the pastor of Anacostia River Church in DC:

In giving us a history of America and the Protestant Church, Jemar Tisby has given us a survey of ourselves-the racial meanings and stratagems that define our negotiations with one another. He points courageously toward the open sore of racism-not with the resigned pessimism of the defeated but with the resilient hope of Christian faith. The reader will have their minds and hearts pricked as they consider just how complicit the Church has been in America’s original sin and how weak a word ‘complicit’ is for describing the actions and inactions of those who claim the name of Christ!

I am very confident to name this one of the Best Books of 2019, doubtlessly one of the most important. I salute this young historian for helping us all understand the compromises of the past, and how that has effected our present. Thanks to all you have purchased it.

**for what it is worth, we have a few hardbacks left at 20% off of the $21.99 price. Very soon, there will be a paperback edition selling for $19.99. Please let us know if you want the hardback or the paperback.

Also, there is now a 12-session DVD video curriculum with the articulate and passionate Jemar Tisby. It has nearly four hours of content on 2 DVDs. It is called The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Video Study. (Zondervan) $29.99.

How To Be An Antiracist Ibram X, Kendi (One World) $27.00 You may know the 600+ page National Book Award-winning volume by Ibram X. Kendi called Stamped from the Beginning which was subtitled The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Bold Type Books; $19.99.) It received remarkable attention, even as it was a dense (but readable) study of American anti-black ideas in the history of race. It was important. I mean very important.

Now this young historian (Dr. Kendi teaches at American University) who used to be a sports journalist and is also a preacher’s kid, has given us a more personal book, a guidebook to antiracist work, but written partially as a memoir. (His New York  parents were Christians influenced by black liberation theology in the 60s who moved him to Northern Virginia as a youth.) I name this thrilling book as one of the most important books I’ve read this year because it pushes the anti-racism agenda directly and yet with personal stories. It made for an engaging and sympathetic read. How to Be an Antiracist has now been called “essential” by Kirkus Review and was given starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, who wrote, “With Stamped from the Beginning Kendi proved himself a first-rate historian. Here, his willingness to turn the lens on himself marks him as a courageous activist, leading the way to a more equitable society.” (This is true, by the way, as Kendi tells some embarrassing stories about his own prejudices and failures by not being an antiracist. Good for him in sharing these anecdotes as a preachers kid.)

Listen to these blurbs from rave reviews and see why I selected it to honor here, too:

“What do you do after you have written Stamped From the Beginning, an award-winning history of racist ideas? . . . If you’re Ibram X. Kendi, you craft another stunner of a book. . . . What emerges from these insights is the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind, a confessional of self-examination that may, in fact, be our best chance to free ourselves from our national nightmare.” The New York Times

“Ibram Kendi is today’s visionary in the enduring struggle for racial justice. In this personal and revelatory new work, he yet again holds up a transformative lens, challenging both mainstream and antiracist orthodoxy. He illuminates the foundations of racism in revolutionary new ways, and I am consistently challenged and inspired by his analysis. How to Be an Antiracist offers us a necessary and critical way forward.” –Robin DiAngelo, New York Times bestselling author of White Fragility

BEST BOOKS ON WHOLISTIC MISSIONAL AND CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT

Call for Justice: From Practice to Theory and Back Kurt Ver Beek & Nicholas P. Wolterstorff (Cascade) $26.00 This book just came out at the end of the year and although there are a plethora of great books on social justice, wholistic evangelism, Kingdom mission, and such, there is simply no book we know of that does what this does. It is remarkable and deserves to be celebrated and honored. We are naming it one of the great books of 2019.

Allow me to briefly explain what this wonderful, inspiring, and informative book does, and why I think it is so very important.

The story of the book is pretty straightforward. Kurt Ver Beek, Jo Ann Van Engen, and some other professors and friends from Calvin College (now University) years ago starting doing service trips to Central America. They wrote a widely distributed, republished, and debated critique of the value of “short term missions trips” and, to flesh out their own sense of working with local folk, increasingly got involved in the lives and politics and trials and needs of local folks who were working for social change. As these new Honduran friends worked for fair wages, land reform, police protection, local voting rights, and other such basic human rights, they came under persecutions, the sort that are fairly typical among the right-wing despots supported by US military aid in central America. It became clear that perhaps the most urgent matter was not having youth come to do well-intended simple work projects but, rather, to find ways to accompany these local citizens in their efforts for justice for all. There needed to be organizational and institutional heft to their cries for the rule of law.

Ver Beek (who is still a Professor of Sociology at Calvin) and his wife Van Engen created a “Justice Semester” in Honduras for Christian college students. Soon, they helped form the Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa — a Honduran NGO “made up of individuals seeking to be brave Christians making the Honduran government work, especially for those most vulnerable” and, then, a US-based non-profit support group, ASJ.

Eventually, Ver Beek and Van Engen convinced their friend and supporter, widely respected Christian philosopher and outspoken justice advocate Nicholas Wolterstorff to join them in Honduras to observe their work. He was struck by the particularities of their civic engagement and wrote a piece about it in The Christian Century, noting some of the exceptional and unique emphases and approaches of the Asociacion. The rest, as they say, is history.

Except for the actual writing of the book, which they both dreamed of, but found it hard to do, since they lived in different parts continent. The holistic, public work of the Honduran citizenship advocacy group (and their US sister group, ASJ) are increasingly known and respected (small and controversial as they may be.) Authors and global Christian leaders like Gary Haugen (of IJM fame) and Ken Wytsma (founder of the Justice Conference) have honored their work creating institutions that can confront corruption and engage broken political systems, but neither Kurt nor Nick really felt like they could put it all in a book about the vision and work and approach of ASJ. What they came up with was genius: Nick and Kurt committed to doing a serious set of letter exchanges back and forth, discussing different aspects of public life, faith-based social change, justice advocacy, and particularly the on-the-ground stories of the efforts of ASJ.

It soon became clear that the flow and structure of the book would be Nick adding what he could from his vantage point as a philosopher of justice (he has written deep and scholarly works on political philosophy and on the nature and attributes of justice) and Ver Beek answering with more practical replies. Or, sometimes, it would go the other way: Ver Beek would start with a specific and concrete detail of their advocacy work and invite Wolterstorff to ruminate on the deeper theological or political implications of it all. Through it all – amidst tender asides and honest notes from obviously two good and Godly friends – there is this “theory to practice” and “practice informed by theory” vibe to all their epistles. The title and subtitle are exactly spot on in describing the flow of the book. That the two authors are among the most reliable voices in their respective contexts makes this an unprecedented collection of correspondence. It is one of the most important resources in this field that I have seen in a very long time.

Call for Justice: From Practice to Theory and Back has a moving and helpful foreword by Ruth Padilla DeBorst that is very, very good. It is dedicated to Dionisio Diaz Garcias who was “assassinated December 4th 2006, a martyr to the struggle for justice in Honduras.” It adds some urgency and importance to a book with a dedication like that, doesn’t it? We are grateful to tell you about it. We are glad to honor it as one of our Best Books of the Year, hoping many NGOs and Christian mission or justice groups study it well. Enhorabuena 

Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues Joshua Chatraw & Karen Swallow Prior (Zondervan) $29.99 I am not always confident that these books that have a dozen different topics in them are that useful. The viewpoints may be shallow or overly biased in one or the other directions and the topics covered may or may not be the most timely. Happily, Cultural Engagement gets is pretty right on both scores.

First, there are several viewpoints offered in each section of this anthology and while all author seem to be orthodox believers committed to evangelical faith, the views are delightfully and helpfully diverse. There are fine scholars here, writing to a mostly conservative readership, it seems, but they cover a variety of viewpoints and take into consideration various nuances. That is, these are not cheap voices of the religious right who are not informed by thoughtful conservative views, and they are not emotionally-driven activists who haven’t thought through the theologically and Biblically material. Kudos to Joshua Chatraw (director of New City Fellows at Holy Trinity Anglican in Raleigh) and Karen Swallow Prior, friend of Hearts & Minds and author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More – Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, for being willing to not go boilerplate with this, but to find thoughtful voices and interesting contributors. Granted, the views are offered within a certain evangelical sort of framework, so the voices don’t represent the widest offering available within the big tent of the Body of Christ, but it is more diverse and interesting than you might imagine. It’s a great resource to read up on various pieces on a given topic by thoughtful writers.

Some of these writers include Andy Crouch and Joel Salatin, Robert George and Tish Harrison Warren, Katelyn Beaty and Vincent Bacote, Makoto Fujimura and Ben Witherington. For instance, what a treat in a volume like this to see Rosaria Butterfield in the same section as Matthew Vines (who represent two very different viewpoints on the inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the church) or two see respectful disagreement about the language we use when talking about abortion.

Secondly, the topics are all germane and urgent. From socially contested topics such as creation care, human life and reproductive technologies, immigration, gender roles, war animal welfare, and capitol punishment, there are more general topics as well — thinking about a Christian view of work, for instance, and good stuff on the arts, and the posture we take regarding civic life.

I might wish for a few other perspectives and a few other chapters, but the book already has more than enough. I’m pleased to honor it, and glad to celebrate it.

This book is incredibly needed for ‘such a time as this.’ In this day and age, when rhetoric and worldviews are so divisive, and intelligence with grace and integrity is in short supply, Prior and Chatraw manage to bring together authors who nuance ancient biblical ideas with a wisdom that speaks to the ethical issues of our modern age. Pulling no punches in tackling all the toughest issues, this remarkable one-volume compendium is practically encyclopedic in its perspectives that exemplify goodness, truth, and beauty, while showing that Christians can also thoughtfully disagree on nonessential issues without losing unity in the essentials of the faith. Allen Yeh, associate professor of intercultural studies and missiology, Biola University

 FAVORITE BOOKS ON SPIRITUALITY

The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to the Our Father Wesley Hill (Lexham Press) $15.99 I want to be brief in my explanation of this because it is such a wonderful little book that deserves to be encountered by you, gentle reader, in a fresh way, without me citing too much. I will, as is sometimes my approach, just tell you a bit about the author and the book and invite you to trust me on this: it is a marvelous read, spiritually edifying, good for those who are just beginning to study the topic of prayer and good for those who want a brief but lucid theological account of the famous passage in Matthew now called “The Lord’s Prayer” or “The Our Father.”

You should know that I admire Wes immensely. He is a very good writer – exquisite at times – and although a deep scholar (with a PhD from the University of Durham) and a beloved New Testament professor at Trinity School for Ministry, he wears his academic insights lightly. It is evident, I think, that he has done serious work on Trinitarian theology (not every book on the Lord’s Pray is so significantly Trinitarian) and it is evident that he cares about liturgy (using, in the subtitle, the phrase “The Our Father” indicates his ecumenical sensibilities and give a nod to his Anglican affiliations. He is aware of the recent longings for community among younger adults, especially, and is committed to a Biblically-driven passion for social justice; these come out in the text in lovely, helpful ways, making me all the more eager to promote this fabulous study.

Not only is it thoughtful without being dense and relevant, so to speak, with real-world, very contemporary applications (including a helpful small bit about why saying “Our Father” is, in fact, troubling for some. I appreciate that a theologically conservative Anglican would speak out against patriarchy and invite us to a more well-rounded, Biblical image for the Godhead.)

Another nice touch in this book is its design: it is a slim, compact sized hardback without a dust-jacket with artful graphic design touches and reverse-color ink and classic art. (I am glad there is a black and white reproduction of the Rembrandt painting made famous by Henri Nouwen which serves to anchor Wes’s epilogue, “Praying the Lord’s Prayer with Rembrandt.” The Lord’s Prayer, by the way, is part of a developing series, the second in the “Christian Essentials” set. (The first was Ben Meyer’s exceptional The Apostles Creed (2018) and the third is the brand new The Ten Commandments (2020) by Peter Leithart. All three are really, really handsome.

And look what is on the back, among other equally persuasive endorsements:

Most Christians say the Lord’s Prayer with great frequency and familiarity, so that we scarcely know what we are saying. In this treasure of a book, Hill opens up the prayer with great freshness for the ordinary reader, so that we seem to hear Jesus himself speaking to us, showing us how to pray to his Father in the same spirit that he himself does. This little volume will enrich a reader’s life immeasurably. —Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion and Help My Unbelief

Kudos to Lexham and, in this case, congrats to Wes Hill for doing such a wonderful, succinct, surprisingly good book on prayerfulness. Highly recommended.

The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility Jeffrey Tacklind (IVP/formatio) $17.00 We stock all the excellent and moving books in the formatio line published by IVP and they remain some of the best books being published these days on the interior life, spirituality, and walking deeply in ways shaped by the practices of faith that lead us into the ways of Jesus. Yes, that’s a mouthful and while we could just say books in the formatio line are about spirituality, they are not all about prayer and monasticism. As with The Winding Path by Jeffrey Tacklind, many of their books are beautifully written and as much about living a vibrant life in the world as finding that inner quietude that we sometimes think of as spirituality.

And so, The Winding Path (with the great, great subtitle – finding yourself between glory and humility) is exactly about the inner transformations that can be found as one is learning about the courage to follow Jesus. As this pastor (with a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in semiotics) learns to enter into suffering he help us all remember that “the way up is down.” He describes his holding various folks who are in conflict together in loving tension – entering paradox. Such a willingness to host tension and paradox and friction and suffering means, as most of us know but don’t often enough ponder, that our path towards God is “ever winding.”

I knew I’d like this book when I read the vivid foreword by the great writer Cathleen Falsani where she names the date Jeff preached the best sermon she ever heard.

She writes,

The Best. Period. Full stop. And I say that as someone who, as a religion journalist, has gone to church for a living for a couple of decades and has been “churched” in one Christian tradition or another from the day I was born. Homiletics (AKA preachin’) is my baseball.

His message that morning, exegeting the fourth chapter of the book of Job from Hebrew Scripture, was a humdinger. Humble, funny, literate, astute, accessible, compassionate, vulnerable, and profoundly, achingly honest. Quintessential Jeff, really.

So, who wouldn’t want to read a book by a guy like that? And then I see amazing blurbs on the back by Ian Cron and Leonard Sweet and J.P. Moreland and Alan Fadling and Jennifer Grant and I’m wondering, who is this guy and why haven’t I read this book yet? (And why does it have such a bland cover that doesn’t convey the electricity and energy and pathos of this vivid book? But I digress.)

Not surprisingly, The Winding Path of Transformation: Finding Yourself Between Glory and Humility challenged me even though it was a thoroughly enjoyable book to read. I honor it also because long after reading it, I find it is an important one to ponder. It has grand ideas but is really down to earth. There is stuff about “small prayers” and a chapter about living between “glory and humility” and one inviting us to be honest about living the questions. (I happen to know he did his doctorate on the theme of “humble epistemology” so his views about “knowing” are not over-confident, thank goodness.) There are plenty of citations from great theologians and plenty of allusions to pop culture yet with all this vim it is gentle, calling us to experience something with God that is authentic and transformative. I will revisit it again, I am sure; I skipped all the reflection questions but they looked excellent. I invite you to get it and enjoy the winding ride.

As Len Sweet says of it on the back, “you will shake your head in marvel and wonderment at its revelations. The promise of the title is real – your own journey will be transformed.”

Kudos to formatio and IVP and Pastor Jeffrey Tacklind for one of the best books on spiritual formation this year.

Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life Carol. A Berry (IVP/formatio) $22.00  For anyone who cares about Henri Nouwen and his gentle, often incisive insights into the interior life, a new book about his teachings would be seen as a notable book any year. Worthy of special celebration —  and kudos to IVP for helping bring this to light — is the extraordinary story behind Carol Berry’s Learning from Nouwen and Van Gogh book. You may know that Henri was early in his career a chaplain at Yale and he famously taught a few classes at the Divinity school there. (The fruit of one of those is the popular book Compassion that Nouwen co-wrote.) Just one year he taught a course on the virtues and pains of living a compassionate life and he drew in that class on the life, pain, vision, art, and spiritual of Vincent Van Gogh.  Many of often wondered what that class was like, but until recently no one who was actually in the class came forward.

As we explained in our BookNotes excitedly celebration this important book, Berry audited the course (her husband, the divinity student, was taking it for credit) and she took copious notes. She and her husband went on to be mentored by and good friends with Father Nouwen.  The Nouwen literary trust who is careful about these things authorized her to write the book based on her good notes and keen memories of this once-in-a-lifetime course.

The book is arranged in three parts and every part has three chapters. She writes beautifully about what she learned about Van Gogh, what she learned from Henri, and what she applied to her own life and her spiritual journey. The three units are on solidarity, consolation, and comfort.  It is truly one of the most lovely books about Nouwen we have seen in ages (even though the last few years have seen previously unpublished collections of his mature writings.)

Further, Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life is made as beautifully and arfully as the topic would demand. InterVarsity Press did a fantastic job with the cover, the page layout, the art pieces and color within, making this a special treat to behold, to study, to give as a gift. All in all, it is one of the most lovely and memorable books of the year!

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry John Mark Comer (Waterbrook) $23.99  This is a book that I’ve mentioned several times at BookNotes, so here is what I wrote right before Christmas when I was touting it as a great gift book. I’m happy to note it here, yet again, as one of my favorite reads of 2019.

I did a long, breathy review of this earlier this fall (HERE) and the book quickly became one of our best selling titles of the year. John Mark Comer is fun and cool, the design is hip and youthful, but the content — riffing on a line from Dallas Willard — is perennial, good for anyone who wants to deepen their spiritual lives by slowing down, learning to be mindful, and create transforming space to know God more intimately, so to be remade into the image of Christ. Fun and clever as this is, reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry becomes a great way into conversations about spirituality, lifestyles, pace of life, serenity, repentance, discipleship. He writes movingly about Christ’s (easy) yoke. About being an apprentice of the true Lord who shows us what it means to be human. Comer’s Garden City is about vocation and calling, work and rest. It is about being made in God’s image and you can see this new one as a natural follow up, focusing less on the call to work, and more on the call to rest. There is a great foreword by John Ortberg, who calls Ruthless Elimination… a “prophetic word for our time.” It is clearly pitched to young adult readers, but this old guy who turned 65 a few weeks ago (that would be me) thinks it is one of the books of the year!

Okay, I said it then, and I’m sticking to it. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer is of my favorite books of the year. Hooray! Buy it on sale, now — you can slow down after you hurry up and order the thing from us today.

My Heart Cries Out: Gospel Meditations for Everyday Life Paul David Tripp (Crossway) $24.99 This is a book that deserves some award, some honorary mention for a number of compelling reasons, I think. Kudos to the publisher for doing this book so nicely, in a larger sized paperback with full color photos includes. Perhaps a lesser-known author wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to do this outside-of-the box book, but we are glad. Tripp is the author of a number of books which offer a clear sense of the gospel – salvation through faith alone, justification through the Cross of Christ, healthy human restoration based on the hope of God’s mercy, inviting us to grit and glory inspired by gospel-centered teaching that is solid and profound. He’s a counselor and author of books about Biblical counseling. He has written about redemptive understandings to money, to sexuality, to marriage and parenting. He has a book on awe, a book on helping others. His biggest seller, though, is a year-long devotional called New Morning Mercies. It is very good. Here, though, he has given us a book of devotional poetry.

Yep, the heady thinker and systematic Bible counselor has moved to the other side of his brain and has given us an artfully created bit of free verse the comes back, over and over, to our great need – crying out to God – and God’s great grace. It’s a handsome and interesting book and we wanted to name it here. There are poem/prayers he has written over different seasons of his life, sometimes in joy and celebration but often in times of disappointment and confusion. Three big cheers for this vulnerable and creative guide to getting real with God.

If you don’t believe me, listen to rhyme-master hip hop artist and thoughtful author Lecrae, who says:

Poetry is the expression of the heart and mind of a person. When that person reflects on the person and work of Jesus, the expression is hopeful and redemptive. As an artist who uses words as expression, I found joy in reading My Heart Cries Out. This work connects with the human condition in a unique and awesome way.

Live in Grace, Walk in Love: A 365-Day Journey Bob Goff (Thomas Nelson) $16.99  We have mentioned this several times at BookNotes, from when we first announced it as a pre-order to suggesting it as a Christmas gift. I have to admit I didn’t read this an entry a day as you’re suppose to, but plowed through dozens of pages at a sitting. I just couldn’t stop – what fun, what good advice, how helpful, inspiring and challenging. I am confident I want to name it as a favorite book of the year, but not sure it should be listed here in this category of books about spirituality; it is not about contemplation or prayerfulness, really, doesn’t cite Henri Nouwen or Ruth Haley Barton or Richard Rohr. But it is (supposed to be) a daily devotional, so I’ll list it here, anyway. Read in prayerfully each day for a year, or swallow it in big gulps. Live in Grace… is a gem that will help you in your faith and discipleship, yes, your knowledge of God and your joy in the Lord.

Here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote back at BookNotes last fall: Bob is a friend and supporter (is there anybody he meets he doesn’t befriend and encourage?) As you know from Love Does and Everybody Always he is a consummate storyteller, a funny guy who lives in whimsy, and whose adventures – holy capers – are designed to create a better world of love and grace. From offering balloons to the sick to starting a girl’s school in the face of the Taliban in Afghanistan, how does he do it? Bob truly is one of the most unforgettable people we’ve ever met and his energy and cheer befuddles me.

He joked with me the last time we were together that he had thought he might get out of this (with a bit of tongue in cheek and faux bluster, I’m sure) book contract by writing just 30 days of devotions for a nice month-long reader. Oh no, no way! The publisher was not having it – they wanted a full-on 365-day reader of all new content. Stories, Bible studies, inspirational faith-building lessons? Yep, all of the above. An entire year’s worth. Bob Goff has a storehouse of adventures to draw upon and as an old Young Life guy, knows how to re-tell a Bible episode like the best of ‘em. Live in Grace, Walk in Love is a great, great devotional based on Scripture.

These stories will offer a glimpse into the zany and earnest care Bob has for others. For those that may not be familiar with Bob’s extraordinary style, I want to note just two quick things. He’s no theologian (but sure is smart; he does have a law degree and is pretty darn successful in that field.) But he does know the Bible. Some think he’s just all joy and balloons and smiles, but he quotes the Bible all the time. He just does. So don’t underestimate the Scriptural warrant of his dreams and visions of making the world a better place.

Secondly, as I’ve said, Goff does have a blast doing the unexpected, living well in gracious, good ways. That is, this new, yearlong reader could inspire those who are bored, those who are dreamless, those who can’t see that faith or spirituality might be real or exciting. Live in Grace, Walk in Love will be for many un-churched folks, I suspect, the best invitation to the Christ-promised “abundant life” that they’ve ever encountered. Buy it for the young and the old, the faithful and the faithless, the troubled and the overly confident, the light-hearted and the too serious. It will introduce almost anyone to a down-to-Earth faith that gets busy walking in love, relying on God’s good grace.

The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God Christine Aroney-Sine (IVP) $16.00 There are many books these days that invite us to find God in the ordinary. We have a whole section of books like this with more than a dozen mediations on the spirituality of the mundane. This is one that almost didn’t capture my attention – something about the cover really turned me off – but I know the author and respect her immensely. I’ve read other books of hers about contemplative spirituality and her great little morning and evening prayer book. I also respect her husband, Tom Sine, and appreciate his feisty books to be involved in social change (including the recent Live Like You Give a Damn – Join the Changemaking Celebration.)Together, Tom and Christine have forged an innovative life of service, justice, community, and celebration. If she has insights about living well in the real world, I want to hear them.

And what a great book this is, offering very special practices, ideas, proposal and guides for doing all kinds of creative activities to heighten our sense of the sacred, to learn to stand in awe, to deepen our wonder. She invites us to play — like a child! (Didn’t Jesus imply something about being like a child?) Christine is so atuned to the beauty of creation and the way God can speak to us through its speech (think of Psalm 19) she seems a proponent of something akin to a Celtic sort of spirituality (which maybe she learned in her native Australia, who knows?) She sees God’s handiwork all over and helps us lean into an appreciation for a sense of the sacred — and responds even with the occasional poem of doxology. Can we enjoy our faith, enjoy our days, celebrate the goodness (even as we hunger for greater hope and justice?) This book will be a life-giving aid to anyone who takes it up and you can spend years practicing the many suggestions and ideas she puts on offer in The Gift of Wonder. What a fun, good, healthy book.

Jesus talks about childlike trust in God. The apostle Paul writes about compassion and thankfulness. These themes play a big role in Christine Aroney-Sine’s new book. Using stories from the Bible, creative exercises, reflection questions, and her own beautiful poems, Christine addresses the questions of how we can bring joy to God and how we can live out the Christian faith as a journey of discovery. The topics of her book–awe, play, curiosity, creativity, imagination, adventure, and wonder–bring balm to the soul in this age of fear and polarization. She guides us on pathways to experience God’s generous gifts and to grow in contentment and peace in Christ. —Lynne M. Baab, author of Sabbath Keeping and Nurturing Hope

TWO GREAT BIOGRAPHIES

Frederick Douglas: Prophet of Freedom David Blight (Simon and Schuster) $22.00  Okay, I’m not going to actually review this since I have not nearly finished it yet and am hardly competent to do so. (It is over 900 pages, after all; I’m not going to lie – I have a ways to go. But, oh my…) It came out at the end of 2018 and was a pricey, if gorgeous, thick, deckle-edged hardback. It had full-page ads in places like The New York Times Book Review laden with quotes saying it was one of the best books of our time, magisterial, etc. It sold out everywhere immediately and was unavailable for the rest of the year. Early in 2019 it won the Pulitzer Prize in History, earned the coveted Bancroft Prize and the prestigious Lincoln award. I had hoped the paperback would land in 2019 so I could name it as the best paperback release of a former hardback. Given its extraordinary attention and rave reviews (both as a wonderfully-written historical biography and as a every so timely, urgently important reflection on an under-appreciated racial justice warrior) it was highly anticipated and eagerly awaited. Alas, it came the first week of January bearing a 2020 pub date.

So, you get my quandary: I didn’t name it in 2018 as it simply wasn’t available the end of December and into January of 2019. And now, the paperback is a 2020 release. My (silly) publicity, awarding, dilemma; “cinematic and deeply engaging” as it is said to be, a “tour de force of storytelling” as it is, I couldn’t list it last year, so I figured I’d award it this year.

I’m raving here, anyway, happily announcing that we have the handsome, thick, beautiful paperback and it is one that I want to shout out about here, now. I honorably name it, as it feels like a book we’ve been thinking about all year long. It draws on new material that no other biography has worked through and is the first major work on “the most important African American of his century” in decades. Why not join me now and put it on your list of must-read biographies this year. Check out these endorsements which have some of the most superlative accolades I’ve seen in a book like this in a long time:

A stunning achievement.  Blight captures an icon in full humanity.  From riveting drama in slavery and Civil War, his Douglass rises into clairvoyant genius on the blinkered centrality of race in our struggle for freedom.” — Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of America in the King Years

Extraordinary. . . . In Blight’s pages, [Douglass’s] voice again rings out loud and clear, melancholy and triumphant — still prophesying, still agitating, still calling us to action.    — Adam Goodheart, The Washington Post

David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century . . . . Magisterial.  — Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., The Boston Globe

Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mr. Rogers Shea Tuttle (Eerdmans) $23.99 I know I don’t need to tell you much about the beloved Mr. Rogers. This book has garnered rave reviews from the standard bookish reviewers – The Library Journal gave it a starred review calling it “warmly written.” Publishers Weekly calls it “delightful” and “satisfying” and more. Most importantly, Michael Long, who wrote the must read study Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Roberts says it is “By far the best book available on America’s beloved neighbor.” It becomes clear for those who have eyes to see it that Ms Tuttle has taken great (as she says in her delightful acknowledgements) encouragement from Mike Long and that she relied on some of his archival research into Fred Rogers’ letters where he often explained the meaning of various episodes. If Long gave us background and context for the Presbyterian clergyman’s television ministry, Tuttle fleshes it out in a full on, serious, wonderfully-written biography.

Tuttle, by the way, was a perfect woman for this job, or so it seems. She was part of the “Lived Theology” project under Charles Marsh at the University of Virginia and co-edited the multi-year project they developed into the book Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice (Eerdmans; $26.99) which we reviewed appreciatively at BookNotes back last winter. That project, about those who live out their faith in public ways, who take the cost of discipleship seriously as they strive to serve others, certainly gave her eyes to see the work of Mr. Rogers in the light of Christian faith and public reformation. Again, that Fred himself was ordained and active in the Pittsburgh Presbytery, is hugely important. Exactly as You Are is as sweet as it needs to be, making it a lovely gift for anyone who is a fan of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, but it is honest and even profound at times. Just for instance, the section on Fred’s complicated views of the homosexuality of Francois Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on the show, (not to mention his own sexuality) is nuanced but fraught. As lovely as a book it is (with some nice red ink on the chapter titles) it isn’t fluff or hagiography. It’s very well done.

But, it is inspiring. As it says on the flyleaf,

Tuttle explores this kind, influential, sometimes surprising man: the neighborhood he came from, the neighborhood he built, and the kind of neighbor he, by his example, calls all of us to be.

Reading Exactly As You Are you learn some fun stuff about Fred Rogers. Importantly, you learn how he was guided by “his core belief: that God loves children, and everyone else, exactly as they are.”

A VERY IMPORTANT BOOK ABOUT THE ARTS

Bezalel’s Body: The Death of God and the Birth of Art Katie Kresser (Cascade) $28.00 I am not positive this deserves a “Best Book of 2019” and I am not finished my work with it yet. But I can assure you that for anyone who has read in the “faith and the arts” movement, who is part of organizations like CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), you will find Katie Kresser’s work to be an invaluable encouragement to your own on-going thinking and re-thinking about the very meaning and purpose and value of art. Dr. Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University. She received her PhD from Harvard. This is a very studious and notable work.

I found the art piece on the cover of this book to be a bit creepy and off-putting. I don’t like the title, either, so I supposed I might have issues with the thesis. So I went into this admittedly with some suspicion. (I always check when reading books about faith and the arts to see if they cite Calvin Seerveld, and if they do not, I am even further discouraged and distrusting.) Alas, I was won over in just a few pages, even by the splendid foreword by the always interesting and always-reliable Bruce Herman. What a good painter, art instructor, writer, (and friend to many) he is! And in his opening comments, I was immediately put at ease about the insight and perspective of this obviously substantive work. Just listen to the first sentence of Bruce’s introduction:

Katie Kresser’s words consistently break open a space for the sustained human gaze – for seeing and responding afresh to the mystery of works of art in all their particularity and stubborn physical presence.

Of course, as Herman makes clear, Dr. Kresser is asking a very old question; namely, “What is Art?” It gets heavy, and within a page (not surprisingly) Herman is citing the last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (“just before the poet quotes Julian of Norwich…”) and it gets really interesting as he takes us to Catholic theologian and philosopher of aesthetics Han Urs von Balthasar. Finally, he says “The body in Dr. Kresser’s title is therefore also us.” And so it begins.

Bezalel’s Body has lots of full color art included, some that is lovely, some that is a bit disturbing. Some are classics — Caravaggio and Michelangelo and Bosch and Matisse and Picasso. And there are lesser-known old pieces and some contemporary artists that are well worth considering, as she does so well. I so enjoyed these parts when she showed what she was philosophizing about. By so doing is getting us to ask important questions about a faith-infused perspective on art history, art theory, and our own sense of psychology and self and spirituality as we encounter artworks. As it says on the back cover, “By examining how cutting edge art trends reveal age-old spiritual dynamics, Kressler helps recover an ancient tradition with vital relevance for today.” She is trying to help us understand, profoundly, what good art does. I still wish she’d have cited Seerveld…

As I was pondering citing this as a very important book this year, I saw this, which made me realize I was on to something in my naïve skimming of this substantive work. Listen to this:

“In this ranging, evocative book, Katie Kresser reframes the way we approach art. Every encounter with a painting is an encounter with otherness, a reminder of a world beyond myself and of a mystery beyond the world. To stand before a painting or a sculpture is to be called into a relationship, one that aims to change me in the process. After this book, you’ll never walk through a museum in the same way again.”                              —James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy, Calvin University, Editor-in-Chief of Image Journal

FAVORITE BOOK ABOUT CHRISTIAN FILM STUDIES

Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning William David Romanowski (Baker Academic) $22.99  When I think back of the many long — some too long, I’m told — reviews I did in this past years, one of the ones I’m most proud of was done in mid-June 2016 and it was a pretty major review of a book by an old friend, an esteemed film scholar and professor at Calvin University. I had to mention a ton of other books first, and rumninate a bit on some other titles before, about half-way through that particular BookNotes column, I got around to the major task of explaining this extraordinary book. I don’t want to reprint it all here, but you may want to read it back at BookNotes, HERE. 

Here’s why I am nominating this now, naming it as one of my own favorite books of 2019 and why I think it deserves accolades. As I tried (feebly, perhaps) to say in my earlier review, Bill’s book sets out to do things that few books in the ever-growing genre of faith and film books do; namely, to study film (Christianly, to be sure) as an art work. (Another book I highlighted in the previous BookNotes column has some good work in this exact matter, making it a cut above most. See Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue by Robert Johnston, Craig Detweiler and Kutter Callaway (Baker Academic; $26.99.)

Study film as a work of art? Of course; there is an art and craft to film making, and just as a critic of paintings or dance or photography or sculpting (or football or cooking or comedy, for that matter) needs to know about the art form itself, the skills and craft of actually making something, making a movie also needs to be firstly understood as a artfully produced artifact by skilled craft people (albeit with unavoidable religious or secular or philosophic values and biases) who make artistic or technical decisions for a reason.

I adore books like Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen or Michael Cosper’s fine The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth, both which help film-lovers connect the worldviews of the stories told with the viewer’s deep faith. Fair enough; these are rich resources. And I also like, when I can muster the interest, the fairly heady stuff that talk about the “relationship” of film and theology, as if theologians somehow have to weigh in on the meaning of films.

But Romanowski’s book, if I may say so, seems to suggest that this film plus theology approach is flawed from the beginning, assuming as it does almost a secular vs sacred dichotomy, as if (secular) movies have to be given “meaning” by some religious scholars who can see it, mixing the two discipline of art and theology. I think it’s good for theologians to get involved in all kinds of human stuff, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but one doesn’t create a Christian view of this or that by asking theologians or pastors to add their religious knowledge to the seemingly neutral stuff of the artist. The Christian insight and perspective on this or that — science, art, sports, counseling, economics, or whatever — has to be forged by those who are in that discipline doing that work, not by putting two disciplines (science and theology or film and theology) together, as if those with the vocation to be scientists or film-makers are a-religious until the theologians show up to explain things. This is a difference that makes a difference, I think: it seems that Romanowksi’s project isn’t to add theology to the study of film, but to study film as a Christian who has, in fact, mastered the art of studying film-making.

And so, this brave book, deserves a big award for bucking the trend of merely critiquing the plot and message of a movie, as if the moral of the show is all that matters. With its bright, retro cover, Cinematic Faith is inviting us all to enjoy movies more, as believers, before God, certainly by being attentive to the story and meaning and morals of the film, but more foundationally, by knowing something about how movies are made. What is cinematography and how does it work to create a mood or aesthetic and tone, and how is that mood or aesthetic or tone shaped by the deepest instincts or worldview of the cinematographer? What does the director do? What about editing?  How does the acting help tell the story — in fact, why did the casting director choose the stars that he or she did? And on we go, deep into the curious facts and features and finances of the complex art of making a movie, exploring what Romanowski says are film’s “unique capabilities as an audiovisual medium.”

Prof Romanowski’s Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning is a lot of fun — I wouldn’t name it one of my year’s favs if it was dry tome, especially since it is about something as entertaining as turning off the lights, heating up the popcorn and spending two hours suspending belief and entering an alternative world. Bill loves the movies (including silly and romantic and dramatic and popular ones.) His faith is deep and it shapes all of his thinking about the arts and aesthetics and entertainment and leisure, so this really is a great read for thoughtful Christians who want to have more pleasure at the cinema.  But if we are going to take our discipleship seriously, honoring the Kingship of Christ over all of life, then we have to do some thinking about all this.  As I note in my review, “reading enhances our faithful enjoyment.” I commend his book to you.

As I wrote last Spring:

One of the great delights of Cinematic Faith are a handful of (sometimes lengthy) “Movie Musing” sidebars where to illustrate his point in a given chapter, Romanowski explores some detail or theme in popular films.

From the “married life” sequence in Up to looking at “Dramatizing Drone Warfare in Eye in the Sky” to a brilliant analysis of history in the movie Lincoln to a fun interpretation of “time loop fiction” by way of a study of (what else?) Groundhog Day to one called “Boy Meets Girl in La La Land” these are all fascinating (even if you haven’t seen the film under consideration.)

Bill has spent considerable scholarly energy studying melodrama (and, for example, Titanic) and he loves Rocky (which, in a “Movie Musing” he calls “A Classical Hollywood Film.”) He offers musings on Blade Runner and The Imitation Game as metaphors, “art and ethics” in Rear Window, and a great piece called “Narrative, Character and Perspective in The Blind Side” – you’ve got to read that if you enjoyed this movie as much as we have. Through all of these excursions, you can tell that his tastes are not overly high-brow. (Remember his central thesis of Pop Culture Wars that all film and pop artifacts are religiously/philosophically laden and artfully serious, and his central thesis of Eyes Wide Open that we can find signs of life and Godly insight from even pagan popular culture.) Cinematic Faith is hoping to enhance your viewing experiences and help you get more out of your entertainment dollar, not bore you with academic discourse or shame you for enjoying the movies you enjoy. Please know, this isn’t highbrow scholarly theory for snooty cineastes but a thoughtful tool for all of us, whether you like The Kings Speech or the X-Men series or Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War.

Regardless of what kind of movies or Netflix shows you enjoy, you should learn a bit about the art of interpretation. This is a major theme of the book and I think it explains some important critical insights without being all alarmist (the secular bad guys are out to get you) or with too much professional film-critic jargon. He offers up-to-date insights about interpration and he roots in in four guiding Biblical principles. It has a chapter called “Movie Making Magic” and another that is pivotal, exploring the relationship of “form and content.” Oh yes, that. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?

As I wrote before, in lines I’m sort of proud of:

There’s plenty more in Cinematic Faith, from a strong reminder that the routine vision of American individualistic self salvation in many films is a far cry from the core tenant of being save by God’s grace, to a unique study of The Blind Side, to a wonderful epilogue that draws on Shrek. For those with eyes to see, all films can and do express meaning and “communicate life perspectives.” They can help us see and they can help us care.

Can knowing a bit about how they are made and how they work on us and how to critically engage them help us discern those that “resonate with a biblical outlook and so deepen our awareness of the ways that humans bear God’s image and flourish through acts of love, forgiveness, and generosity?” This book insists yes. We can truly enjoy movies and be challenged and grow through their artful style – especially if we know something about it all.

Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning stands out as a large gift to anyone that who enjoys movies and film and certainly anyone who is attempt to be intentionally faithful in “finding God in popular culture.”

SPECTACULAR PHILOSPHY, HISTORY & THEOLOGY in ONE BIG AWARD-WORTHY VOLUME

History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology N.T. Wright (Baylor University Press) $34.95 [no discount on this time, sorry.] This may be the most scholarly book yet done by N.T. Wright and certainly he is in exquisitely academic company in being asked to do the famous, prestigious Gifford Lectures. This book offers us all a chance to take in those lectures; in a clever personal note at the beginning (which I shared the last time I wrote about this at BookNotes, I believe) he explained the significance of this lectureship and what he hoped to accomplish in them. “My goodness,” his mother said, “I’m glad I didn’t have to listen to those lectures.” He good-naturedly invites his readers to abandon the book henceforth if they find it a bit obscure. I get that.

From the Gifford Lectures website, I copied this:

The prestigious Gifford Lectureships were established by Adam Lord Gifford (1820–1887), a senator of the College of Justice in Scotland. The purpose of Lord Gifford’s bequest to the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews and Aberdeen was to sponsor lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God”.

Since the first lecture in 1888, Gifford Lecturers have been recognized as pre-eminent thinkers in their respective fields. Among the many gifted lecturers are Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, Stanley Hauerwas, William James, Jean-Luc Marion, Iris Murdoch, Roger Scruton, Eleonore Stump, Charles Taylor, Alfred North Whitehead, and Rowan Williams.

It has been rare to have a Biblical scholar deliver these lectures (I’m told this is the first time in many decades, and certainly the first evangelical Bible scholar.) So this is a very big deal, with the publication of the volume obviously needing to be named as one of the most important books of 2019.

Here are two of the many rave reviews about this dense text:

This is Tom Wright at his best–an exegete, theologian, churchman, and public intellectual rolled into one. A creative and arresting contribution to ‘natural theology,’ this book argues for the plausibility of the Christian vision of the relation between God and the world by taking seriously the history of Jesus Christ, especially the promise contained in his resurrection of the new creation: the creation become God’s and humans’ home.

With a stunning breadth of research Wright takes his Gifford lectures as an occasion to deepen the paradigmatic shift in biblical studies that he has shaped over the last thirty years. Wright offers a model of historical exegesis that just might release us from our Platonic bondage. This book combines breathtakingly creative brilliance with a lovely eloquence. Since an ‘epistemology of love’ is at the heart of Wright’s natural theology, we wouldn’t have expected anything less. Read this book, then read it again. It takes its place in the esteemed tradition of Gifford lectures becoming classics.

THEOLOGY FOR THE REST OF US

Restless Faith Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels Richard Mouw (Brazos) $19.99 This was a year of some very important theological works and some were even fairly widely known and/or discussed. Think of the writer with an unparalleled vocabulary, the too-feisty Hart who wrote on Yale University Press the important That All May be Saved or

But Dr. Mouw is absolutely my favorite theologian and this is his reasonable, chatty, conversation about what it means to be an evangelical, how he, as an ecumenically-sensitive, Reformed thinker, uses that word to describe himself (even though he’s never been fully comfortable with the association) and why he thinks it is still worth holding on to.

Look: if you want to know what, really, this phrase means, without wading through the brand new (quite definitive) collection of essays called Evangelical this grand little book written almost as a memoir (almost a follow up to his memoir called Adventures in Evangelical Civility) Restless Faith is hard to beat. I am amazed how Mouw can take a story or episode or a book, calmly tell you something about it, use it as a springboard for another idea which he counters with a critique of that idea, smoothly helping us understand several viewpoints on a topic and why he favors this or that nuanced formulations. It is just wonderful being guided by him towards better thinking and a true joy of learning.

If you want to learn a lot about a lot of various theological themes and questions, Restless Faith is a way to get up to speed, painlessly. He’s a clear-headed and calm writer, interesting and fair and reliable. Until is amazing book on common grace comes out from Brazos Press next May (All That God Cares about: Common Grace and Divine Delight) read Restless Faith and then read it again. Very highly recommended.

For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference Miroslav Volf & Matthew Croasmun (Brazos Press) $21.99 Not all of us can wade through heady, abstract theology, and this book deserves our accolades here at year’s end because it was a book that, in fact, tried to address that. Not that they suggest all academic theology should just be less scholarly. No, they are asking a more fundamental question, it seems: what is the point of theology if it does not make a difference in help us, as individuals, churches, and society at large, more full of God’s shalom? That is, does it make us flourish? There are bold and some may protest, but they are asking if theology can actually address the actual question of what makes for human happiness. If some research on this has been done (and it has) then how can theology help us construe and live a life of meaning? Wow.

Here is what I wrote about it when I was inviting BookNotes readers to send us pre-orders. It came out, then, in late January 2019; we had the great joy of being with Volf again earlier this year (at Church of the Good Samaritan at an event hosted there for the Episcopalian Diocese of Pennsylvania. What fun!)

I hope you noticed my little shout out about this, ever so briefly, in the previous BookNotes newsletter. I was reviewing a book by and about the life of singer-songwriter and justice advocate and global peacemaker, recording artist and Anglican priest, Garth Hewett. I said something about his art and his theology intertwining somehow, and that he sang about stuff that mattered and that there have been recent books about an evangelical vision for the common good that explore the same sorts of themes that Hewett sings and writes about.  Theology, good theology, like healthy spirituality, must always bear fruit deepening our love for the world God so loves and equip us to be faithful in our engagement with our times. Professor Volf knows this and is an acclaimed “public theologian” whose books have this keen perception of the issues of the day and whose study yields deeper insights about being alive in and for the world.

This work is asking a huge question, and that is, if it doesn’t sound too grand, “what makes life worth living?” In fact, Volf is involved in the significant Yale Center for Faith and Culture where his co-author, Matthew Croasmun, directs the Life Worth Living program. They are doing research into this fundamental, human question and then — yes! — asking how to do theology in light of that, or in conversation with that human research. In a way, this must be a major concern of any theology that hopes to get a hearing in our pluralistic, pluralizing, post-Christian (post secular?) world. The question of what constitutes a flourishing life is up for grabs (or is just as often just neglected in our universities, business’s, and even churches!)

The vision for theology presented here is simple but not easy. Volf and Croasmun think our task as theologians is to be about the flourishing not only of the academy or the church but also of all peoples. Their work is tested in the hard laboratory of professors’ classrooms and church planters’ living rooms. I challenge you to read this book and not come away encouraged, enlightened, and renewed for our task of contemplating God for the good of humanity. So much of what passes for theology dies in intramural food fights and name-calling. This book calls us to a task more urgent, more dangerous, and more life-giving by far than that.
— Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology

NOTABLE THEOLOGY: ONE I’M TOLD IS ESSENTIAL AND BRILLIANT

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press) $26.00 I didn’t read this. Okay, so sue me – I’m naming it, anyway. There is little doubt in my mind that there is no other theological books that was published this year that got as much scholarly attention, was as seriously reviewed, as hotly debated and became a big seller as this obtuse and heavy volume published by one of the most intellectually hefty writers of our time.

Hart is known for using too many big words, for seeming ostentatious, and for clearly being a pugilist when it comes to argument. I do not want to say he is uncivil, although calling him snarky sounds too soft and popular and fun. He’s forceful and arrogant. He’s blunt and (did I say) obtuse. He’s a writer many love to hate, or, as I sometimes say, hate to love. He is Eastern Orthodox, says he is a democratic socialist, and has been described by conservative writer Matthew Walther as “our greatest living essayist.” His deep first book (The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth) was published to extraordinary acclaim; he has published other fine books with Eerdmans and other important religious publishers, and is a contributing editor of First Things. Paul Griffiths says (on the back cover of That All…) “David Bentley Hart is the most eminent living Anglophone theologian.” 

John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary says, of That All Shall Be Saved,

 At last! A brilliant treatment – exegetically, theologically, and philosophically – of the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy – above all moral – of claims to the contrary.

So many others have said these sorts of things – from popular writers like Rob Bell (do you recall my five part study of that book at BookNotes, writing more words about it than the book itself?) or Philip Gulley on one hand to heavyweight scholars like Moltmann, Barth, James Allison, or Robin Parry, on the other, while evangelical professors like Sharon Baker have books with titles like Razing Hell and Brad Jersak and Keith Giles and Brian Zahnd popularize these conversations afresh. Everybody brings in George MacDonald and how C.S. Lewis approached these things. My point is that even this year we’ve stocked a good number of books that explore this. Why did Hart take the cake?

I suppose it may be because, as Behr opines, it is brilliant, and covers Scripture, theology and philosophy. As John Milbank (!) writes on the back, “He calls us back to real orthodoxy, perhaps just in time.” I’m not sure what that means, but: Milbank! One reviewer says Harts argument is “gorgeously elaborated with unmatched force and brio.”

So, it’s being talked about in high-falutin’ circles and although that’s not fully our crowd, I respect scholars like Simon Oliver (of Durham) who says it is “some of the most exacting, perspicuous, and powerful theological writing I have read in recent years.” And ya have to love a book that is said to be written with “unmatched force and brio” which is sort of the same thing, although I can imagine that it is unmatched.

Okay, it deserves to be on our notable list. I suppose I should wade in. I’ve read a number of complex reviews and maybe you have too. Now, here’s your chance to buy the book, at our 20% off discount. Let us know what you think.

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PLEASE TUNE IN IN A DAY OR SO TO CATCH THE GINORMOUS PART TWO OF MY BEST BOOKS OF 2019 LIST.

We hope you subscribe to our free BookNotes email, which you can easily do by entering your email address in the little subscription box at our website) PART TWO will have some really good ones in some fascinating categories, some fun and edifying and perhaps surprising suggestions, I promise. (Including the book I was most conflicted about, in the perennially favorite “Best Book I Hated To Love” category.) Spread the word!

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Four important new books to “bring things to light.” ON SALE 20% OFF

As we move towards the celebration of Epiphany, we think, among other things, of Light. Of course that which “shines through” (the meaning of the word) is the person and work of Christ, His divinity and His redemptive plan to restore the cosmos. Themes of Christ being the Light from heaven are a central liturgical motif and a true word from Scripture. In John 1 it reminds us that the true Word has come into the world as light and the darkness has not be able to put it out.

Although, as we shall see, it tries.

Naturally, this is a time to refocus on Christ, on His saving power, his merciful grace, the way the Wise men culminate what we already know in the incarnation — that Christ comes also for those outside of Israel. (Ahhh, just think of those four women named in the genealogy in Matthew!). I was drawn this past season to a book we mentioned a week or so ago which was a hefty hardback full of great reproductions of renaissance paintings of Jesus. It is called Fair Jesus: The Gospels According to Italian Painters 1300 – 1650 by Robert Kiely (Paraclete Press; $39.99.)  We still have it at that announced 20% off  (making it $31.99) and it might be a good resource for your meditations this season, or any.

For this edition of BookNotes I’d light to run a bit of a riff on the Epiphany light theme, inviting you to join me in, in naming some things that need exploring in light of the Light; as the saying goes, “holding it up to the light.”

It is an exceedingly important role, investigative journalism or expose. Creatively done non-fiction that calls us to study and understand hard things is a gift; such work is prophetic some might even say, if it warns of idols and the consequences of our misguided ways. Here are four brand new books that are thoughtful and helpful and wise and bold in telling us – in light of the Light – about some distortions and dysfunctions, sins and sadnesses. If we are to live in the light of Christ’s truth, we have to face this stuff. We commend these authors to you, beseeching you to buy their books, born of love and tears, I’m sure. The publisher, naturally, will be encouraged to continue to take the risks of publishing this kind of (perhaps controversial) work if these sorts of titles actually sell. We want to support this kind of deeply Christian investigation into the shadows and hurts, and we hope you agree that you need to know this kind of stuff. Some religious bookstores don’t carry this kind of thing, so we hope we are offering you a service in highlighting at least these four. All are marked down 20% off and can be ordered easily by using the order tab link at the very bottom of this column. Thanks for caring. Happy Epiphany!

The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct  Ruth Everhart (IVP) $17.00  You may remember that we reviewed the amazing, gripping, important memoir, Ruined, Everhart wrote about being raped as a college student decades ago and how her conservative Christian college, admirable in so many ways, didn’t seem to have the heart or mind, the resources or interests, to help her much. As we learned in that book Ms. Everhart went on to get a seminary degree and was called into ordained ministry through the PC(USA.). She has served several churches in her calling (rural and suburban, multi-staff and smaller.) As a loyal shepherd in Christ’s church she continues to care for those who have been abused and has, in fact, be involved in churches where there has been sexual misconduct. Not every pastor faces this ugly stuff, but more do than you might realize.

Since the flood of stories that have come out since the #metoo movement started a few years ago, there have been other books highlighting sexual aggression against women and men, girls and boys, and this one may be the best book on this topic I’ve yet seen. Of course the child sexual abuse scandal and the scandal of cover-up within the Roman Catholic church has been catastrophic and there has been award-winning investigative reports, movies, and books about it.  Everhart’s book focuses on Protestant churches and, like most #metoo stories, is more about sexual harassment and abuse of women and less about the crime of pedophilia.

The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity is powerful and readable. The prose is straight forward and captures the reader easily—it is not lurid but neither is it bloodlessly clinical. It is not explicit or graphic but there is some awful stuff reported (if not described in detailed.) It has a pastoral tone of listening well, naming things clearly, caring for victims and of demanding justice. The notion of “complicity” in the book is important, as, like the #metoo movement, has exposed cover-ups and refusal to be honest about all this. Yet, Everhart still loves the church, is a dedicated follower of Jesus and is a Christian leader; she desires the best not only for wounded victims but for our religious institutions and faith communities as well. Shining the light is not an act of vindictiveness but of faithful truth-telling, offered in a spirit of righteousness — wanting to make things right. If you care about how women are treated in churches and have a hunch that some of these #metoo concerns are more prevalent than we like to admit, you need to read this book. If you are perhaps a bit naïve and can’t quite imagine that youth pastors or ministers or personnel committees or elder boards would commit these kinds of sins (or cover up misbehavior) you have to read The #MeToo Reckoning.

One of the great benefits of reading these hard stories, testimonials of clergy abuse, and other sexist acts of abuse of power, is that we are introduced to the victims and survivors, hearing their own stories in nearly their own voices. This is a must, and Ruth is a safe and trusted ally for these women to tell their own stories. This safe space has been a gift to the women, too, as many of these wounded sisters have reported that they weren’t believed or were not taken seriously. Their stories were minimized or silenced; sometimes, fearing this would happen, they just were never told in the first place. Holding this up to the light is good for the tellers and it is good for us to hear.

A second really good reason to buy this book is for the Bible reflections offered within each chapter. Each chapter is a telling of a certain sexual assault or #metoo type misconduct and as that story is told, a Bible story is told, in tandem. In a way, the Biblical narrative brings light to the victims story; the Scriptures are opened up in their relevance and power, even in the messy way a patriarchal culture (then) tells the stories of abuse and rape and aggression. While the stupid patriarchy of our churches is being described (including, I might add, denominations and judicatories that pride themselves in being progressive and justice-seeking!) the Bible’s own engagement with this stuff is explored. Ruth is really good in this back and forth, allowing the Light of the Word to shine on these contemporary injustice.

But there is more: in fact, she is doing much more in these Bible studies: she admittedly is reading and interpreting them through the lens of abuse. That is, since nobody reads the Bible plainly or without some lens or interpretive grid, she is trying to allow the pain of our sisters in these modern church settings to inform how we grappled with the meaning of the text. It’s not overly academic or abstract womanist hermeneutics, just good honest back and forth interpretation by a Bible scholar and pastor, in light of what she knows to be true about the world. Again, she has experienced this, even as an associate pastor, in a story she bravely tells about her own almost unbelievable situation.

In every chapter Ruth ends with a few key points, including insights into the Biblical text and then a hashtag point of what she is hoping the church will learn from these tragic fiascos. The take-aways are useful and every church needs to be attentive to these kinds of practical recommendations.

When we pre-ordered our copies of The #Metoo Reckoning we assumed we would want to tell folks about it. We have had a section of books about sexual abuse and domestic violence (also in the church) since the day we opened. We’ve always tried to facilitate conversations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about gender justice and we’ve always carried a good amount of feminist theology, evangelical and Catholic and mainline. In our years of stocking this kind of stuff, I’ve not found in many years a fresh, new resource that is as gripping and as powerful and as prophetic and yet as deeply faithful with a wholesome sort of spiritual piety and pastoral sense as The #MeToo Reckoning by Ruth Everhart. Yes, we ordered a bunch and yes we intended to feature it. Now that I’ve read it in its entirety, I can’t say enough about it. We are ordering more now so we have plenty on hand. We hope you order a couple. It’s time this crisis in our churches, even in our best and seemingly most healthy, is understood and, where necessary, exposed.

 

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah (InterVarsity Press) $18.00  This recent release has been a much-anticipated book, in part because Mark Charles, a man of Navajo and Dutch American descent, has been a tireless speaker, an inspiring and powerful teacher, and a helpful mentor to many, speaking out about Native issues for years. Soong-Chan Rah is also quite well known (he teaches Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary) and has published several important books. This recent one is perhaps the first in its genre being published within the evangelical world so it is, in a way, historic; it is a strong theological critique of the fifteenth century church edict which gave Christian explorers the right to claim territories they “discovered.” Exploration, missionary work and crass colonialism combined in ways that were hardly ever helpful for indigenous people. (See the powerful award winning film The Mission for a compelling, tragic, beautiful treatment.)

Many have documented how this kind of colonialism often lead to injustices and even genocide. (See, for instance, the important Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss or a few of the chapters in Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith co-edited by Rah, by the way) but few have tackled the fundamental legal question about this institutionalized legitimization of repression by church and state as has Mr. Charles in Unsettling Truths.

As Unsettling Truths — get the double entendre of the title — explains, such institutionalized “divine right” to grab land and subjugate indigenous peoples naturally led to other unhealthy and detrimental notions, from American exceptionalism and triumphalism to white supremacy and slavery. As Bruce Cockburn starts his song “Stolen Lands”, “From Tierra del Fuego to Ungava Bay/The history of betrayal continues to today…”

No one can ever justify to brutal treatment that many First Nations peoples faced but we have to do more than lament and shrug. We must understand and critique and deconstruct the powers that set this awful history of stolen land in place. We must figure out what to say about the “Doctrine of Discovery” and what to think about a church that would declare such thing.  It all has to be brought into the light of truth, the light of Christ, the light that can reveal ways to move forward.

There are amazing chapters in here — agree or not with all of them, you should read “The Doctrine of Discovery and Why It Matters” and “The Power of Narratives and the Imagination” and the beautiful “The Kingdom of God Is About Relationship Not Empire.” These authors explore the “Dysfunctional Theology Brought to the ‘New’ World” and explores not just settle colonialism but even stuff about Abraham Lincoln (including, then, the era of Native Genocide.” He asks about the complexities of American trauma in our historic story and invites a “truth and conciliation” project. The sharp words about the failure of “re-concilation” is urgent, I think. There is a lot of vital content in here.

I so respect the esteemed historian Mark Noll. I appreciate his thoughts here saying that he may wish for other interpretations of some of the events in described in this book and he finally does not fully agree with all of their conclusions. But yet, he endorses and recommend reading it. Listen to the always prudent Professor Noll:

“Why should I endorse a book when I do not agree with some of its historical judgments? Answer: for the same reason you should read it. Charles and Rah attack a pernicious principle (the Doctrine of Discovery), review an evil history (the United States’ treatment of Native peoples), challenge a persistent stereotype (American exceptionalism), and psychoanalyze white America (in denial about the nation’s history). The entire book, even when you think things could be evaluated differently, will make you think, and think hard, about crucially important questions of Christian doctrine, American history, and God’s standards of justice.”

Listen to these two passionate endorsements, among many:

“Oh that this book’s thesis were merely ‘unsettling’ like a brisk wind or a cancelled flight might be. Instead, Charles’s and Rah’s argument feels more like an earthquake or a tsunami. To hear the Doctrine of Discovery this richly, poignantly, and painfully explicated will press readers to face ‘truths’ that are not merely unsettled but undone. Therein lies the book’s hope.”
–Mark Labberton, President, Fuller Theological Seminary
“There is an inherent danger in attempting to decolonize and deconstruct one’s faith without an understanding of how deeply Western Christianity wed itself to the false and dangerous Doctrine of Discovery. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah skillfully give us an unflinching look at Western political and church history, weave in personal stories, and help connect the past to present policies, appealing to both our hearts and minds.”
–Kathy Khang, author, Raise Your Voice
Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience Sheila Wise Rowe (InterVarsity Press) $17.00  This is a brand new book and we must say that there is, to the best of our knowledge, nothing in print that approximates it. This is not a general book about racial injustices, not just a call to racial justice and reconciliation, not even a handbook for minority Christians to navigate the tensions of living and working in largely white culture and institutions. There are many good books on those topics, many done by this same publisher (who has by far contributed more to evangelical awareness of racial and ethnic concerns and ministries that any other publisher in the last 50 years) but this, this is something unique. It is, as the title plainly notes, a book about healing from trauma caused by racism. Ms Rowe’s Healing Racial Trauma is a rare and important book.
I have heard speakers on this topic and have had conversations with those who are learning about trauma studies and the trauma inflicted upon people of color. But no one has yet brought it together in a full length book study like this. Not only is it pioneering, it is astute and wise and poignant and good. Dan Allender — who knows something about trauma and has written eloquently about healing from abuse of other kinds — is right to say that Healing Racial Trauma by Sheila Wise Rowe is “a magisterial gift.”
You will be glad to know that Ms Rowe holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and she has ministered to abuse and trauma survivors in the United States and in South African. She is also a spiritual director. Again, this is so good to have someone trained in spiritual practices and mental health and psychology, through the healing lens of a deeply integrated Christian worldview. As a woman of color (who was bused to an almost all white school amidst great animosity) Rowe knows first hand that hurts and damages that come from racist cultures.
I suppose most readers will know or at least intuit this, but for the record: this book is not mostly about “getting over” or “coping with” or forgiving rare episodes of racist slurs. As hurtful as such demeaning gestures or episodes can be, there are other sorts of injustices and demeaning and hurt that comes less overtly, perhaps, more ubiquitous, the normalization of white supremacy. Some people almost joke about the dangers of “driving while black.”  But it is a constant low level anxiety among many, many people of color, for good reason. This book explores some of that systemic weight that is carried by people of various colors and hues and ethnicities — and invites reader to a journey of finding hope and healing and, indeed, spiritual power that looks like resilience.
Listen to these authors and activists who are glad this notion of “racial trauma” is being brought to light, and want you to read this, helping deepen the conversation in the light of God’s gospel:

“I am excited to recommend people of faith pay close attention to the work of Sheila Wise Rowe in her much-needed book, Healing Racial Trauma. The road to resilience is long and lonely. Black people in the United States are often required to believe that we can sprint to strength and that we need not heal from what happened in our history. Sheila’s careful surveys of interpersonal, systemic, historical, and transgenerational issues inspire and remind us that there is deep work to do, not simply for resolve and survival but for the sake of future generations. I was especially pleased to note the author’s strivings for First Nations solidarity. I appreciated the boldness of each chapter focus and the spiritual connections employed with psychology and critical race theory, not against. This is fearless and much too rare in faith-rooted trauma counseling. I hope that black Christians, all Christians of color, and their families will use this book as an inspiration, affirmation, and a guide to addressing the bitter pieces of our stories. I expect white Christians to find a resource of patient assistance on their own road to resilience and deliverance from the vestiges of whiteness and its demonic grip on the global household of God.” —Michelle Higgins, co-host of Truth’s Table and executive director of Faith for Justice

Healing Racial Trauma is one of the most revelatory, fiercely honest, and hope-filled books that I’ve ever read. My dear friend Sheila Wise Rowe performs open-heart surgery on those wounded by racial trauma by acknowledging their stories, validating their pain, and offering the only actual solution: Christ-centered healing. Regardless of your background, you cannot read this book and not be changed.” —Dorothy Littell Greco, author of Making Marriage Beautiful

Healing Racial Trauma is outstanding. This book forced me to pull back the makeshift Band-Aids, which on the surface hid some deep-seated wounds from the racial trauma I had experienced. Reading this book reminded me of the stories my black grandparents would share of racial tension and outright hatred with my siblings and me at a very young age. Tears filled my eyes while I was holding on to every written word. I pressed beyond the immediate feelings that welled up within me to find solace and embrace authentic healing. This book is a must-read if you are serious about healing racial trauma. I give Sheila Wise Rowe a standing ovation for this life-altering book!”       —Gail Dudley, author and speaker
“With a Christian’s worldview, a counselor’s expertise, and a survivor’s personal perspective, Sheila Wise Rowe weaves together her personal memoir with history, social science, and a biblical framework to offer a pathway for healing to those who have experienced racial trauma. She also brings a Galatians 6:2-like advocacy for all who pray for healing and restoration of our brothers and sisters.”  —Kristie Anybwile
“Sheila Wise Rowe taught me much in this well-written, vulnerable, and heart-shaping book. As the pastor of Sheila’s multiethnic church, I’ve too often wanted to rush my Black and Brown brothers and sisters to forgiveness, ignorant of the process of healing that must surround and support them. Her work here helped me understand something that hadn’t clicked for far too long, and I’m grateful. Shining a light without shaming, I read this book and learned from an author who loves her readers, whoever they happen to be. Pick up this needed addition to an all-too-often acrimonious conversation and learn to heal, hear, and walk together as the diverse disciples that Jesus our savior calls his church to be. I want my whole staff to read this, and I recommend that you read it too.”  — Adam Mabry, lead pastor Aletheia Church
Healing Racial Trauma is a magisterial gift for those who have suffered harm as a person of color, and it is also a revelation for those whose whiteness has served as a pair of blinders from racial trauma. Sheila Wise Rowe brilliantly exposes, narrates, honors, and calls forth from Scripture, clients, and her own life, the stories of violation and the power of hope. There are few books I have read where I wept and raged and was humbled and offered a vision of what it might be like to fulfill the Lord’s prayer: ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ This is must-read for all who hunger for righteousness.”  — Dan B. Allender, author, professor of counseling psychology, founding president of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology

Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (InterVarsity Press)  $22.00  Talk about bringing things into the light. I am nearly positive that you will learn things in this book you didn’t know, you will be inspired to hear about stories you may have not heard about, and you will see things — mostly, the Bible and the social ethics demanded by a Christ-like worldview — in a very new way. Might I say, in a new Light?

A few quick comments: there is too much to discuss in the very impressive (but very readable) Revolution of Values to cover here, now, so I hope to do an extended treatment where I can let loose a bit more. (For starters, for reasons I might discuss more later, I don’t approve of the late-60s clenched fist on the cover. I have no idea who that is supposed to appeal to or why conjuring up connections to SDS and leftist revolutionaries of the late 60s has much to do with this book. There are a lot of stories in Revolution of Values but most are about Christians that had little connection to that particular era. I suspect the art designer for the publisher knows little about this era; I know that Wilson-Hartgrove was not connected to that period, either, so it’s an unhelpful choice in my view; cheap appropriation that’s a miss. But I digress already.)

Yet, the “revolution” that Wilson-Hartgrove does talk about, and that he has been deeply involved in is, in fact, pretty wild and wooly. From his early transformation into a radical Christ-follower (after having been raised as a foot soldier in the religious right — he was even a Senate page for legendary segregationist Strom Thurmand) Jonathan became friends with pacifist and neo-Catholic Worker Shane Claiborne where they together forged the “new monastic” movement as exemplified by Shane’s community in Camden, NJ (The Simple Way) and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Rutba House in Durham, NC. (For a good study of the principles developed as they nurtured a network of such radical communities living in service to the poor “as exiles in the Empire” see School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism) or the more popular level The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith.) Not many of us have gone into live war zones with Christian Peacemaker teams to bear witness to nonviolence or have taken up long term relationships with small, nearly forgotten urban churches, or have studied so carefully the spiritual disciplines (such as Saint Benedict) to see how they could sustain an interior life within a community that would allow them to endure in serving the poor and standing for justice. So, yep, this “revolution of values” is pretty revolutionary stuff, stuff that makes the clenched fist silkscreen hippy flag poster aesthetic seem like kids stuff.
Jonathan, himself a child of the south, studied more carefully — after years in a largely African American church in a working class neighborhood — the legacy of slavery that undergirds a culture of Jim Crow white supremacy and continues to loom over contemporary race relations.  In the 2018 book that was the fruit of these important reflections, Jonathan called for Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. The flamboyant, nationally-known organizer of the 21st century Poor People’s Campaign and the “Moral Monday” movement, Reverend William Barber, wrote the foreword. This is significant because (or so it seems to me) because Reverend Barber is an esteemed nationally recognized black activist, a Reverend in the historic African American church. He preaches the gospel as good as anybody, but he did not come up through the evangelical subculture. That is, he is not one of the safer, known names within the evangelical world of this particular publisher. Jonathan was befriended by, perhaps mentored by, one who is many people’s eyes the closest thing we’ve ever had to a successor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And Jonathan has learned much through his deep involvement in the Moral Monday protests and as organizer for the ongoing Poor People’s Campaign.
Enough back story. Wilson-Hartgrove is, in Revolution of Values, bringing a handful of deep, important justice causes to light, viewing them in light of — get this — the victims of those injustices, those on the front-lines fighting them, and their view of how to read the Bible. Although I wished for a bit more of this, he says in the beginning of the book that, in fact, what we most need to do is learn to read the Bible anew. And the major resource for this, the main teachers, are those who have been on the front lines of service, resisting injustices, standing up, saying no, doing the works of mercy. That is, those, as we say, in the trenches.
(There is a wonderful chapter in Lauren Winner’s moving book Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God about how she learned much from incarcerated students to whom she taught Bible; Jonathan cites that chapter in a footnote, and I was glad — he too teaches in that program and is skilled at listening well to his students, allowing them to become his teacher. That upside down methodology seems sort of like what Jesus said, doesn’t it?)
For instance, the book powerfully starts with an episode of ministry with and solidarity with mothers at the border, parents separated from loved ones. They meet in the middle of the Rio Grande river in Texas for a few moments of baptism-like embrace and in these moments he is deeply moved. In the whole larger experience, he is taught much about how these immigrant women read the Bible. He sees new things in the text he never say and he interprets older passages in new, fresh ways, ways that ring true because they come from the sorts of people the text is speaking about. Wilson-Hartgrove has travelled the world and I am sure has sat under great, scholarly Bible teachers and well informed, highly educated preachers. But at some point, new insights are learned from those on the margins. That is very much what this book is about.
Throughout the book he tells us about others he has met and how they altered his way of seeing, his social imagination, his spirituality, his understanding of the Word of God. He meets environmental activists (in a chapter that is spectacular, by the way) and in “A Woman’s Work Is for Justice” he meets women working for fair wages and women’s suffrage — it’s a great history lesson. In one chapter he interviews soldiers who came to regret their militarism and in another he spends time with those working for an end to mass incarceration and prison reform. I know myself that I find it hard to sing the song “Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary’ in any traditional worship setting because I sang it week after week for years with activists in the gravel road in front of a York County prison as we literally tried to get sanctuary for Chinese dissidents being held unfairly in the US; similarly, Wilson-Hartgrove’s “moral imagination” is newly renewed as he meets those doing that kind of work.
Can poor women, immigration activists, conscientious objectors to warfare and Native American Water Keepers teach us things, even things about how to understand our Bibles? If these issues and insights are brought into the light, could God’s own Light just beam brighter? I think this book is a very useful resource for this project — you will see learn or be reminded of important things, important things to God, important things for our culture, important things for your own soul.
There is more to this book besides walking alongside activists and allowing their justicey insights to shape our piety and our Bible reading. Wilson-Hartgrove does all this in direct contrast, chapter by chapter, to the organized efforts of the generation-old Christian Right. Like investigative journalists such as Jeff Sharlet or historians like Randall Balmer or John Fea or scholars such as Kevin Kruse or rowdy muck-rackers like Rachel Maddow, he documents some unsavory forces and connects the dots.  He names names, explores the history of who funds who, who influences whom — James Fifield and D.W. Griffith, the Koch Brothers, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Robert Tilton, the whole tawdry bunch — and asks us to be aware of what ideologies (and what profiteers) are behind much of the think tanks that shape the not-so-religious right. He is stronger and more forthright and educational for most of us than, say, Jim Wallis’s recent Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, which I have previously reviewed. That book, too, is inviting us to a more Biblically-faithful formation in the ways of Jesus. Jim gets there, in that book, by telling stories and studying Biblical texts. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove brings more history and stories of remarkable people who call us to a similar sort of “revolution of values” that would be consistent with a truly Christian frame. This is in exact contrast to the recent comment by Franklin Graham saying he does not look to Jesus for his political views.
Well, I get fired up about this stuff, even though the book is written fairly calmly, allowing the force of the stories and the impact of the truth to carry the weight. I think he makes a few mis-steps, and I may not agree with all of his assessments on each page. But still, Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good is a truly admirable project, drawing on great stories and great research, and offered for our edification. Hold this up to the light and see what happens. Highly recommended.
Jonathan has served as a scribe for the moral movement in America today. In Revolution of Values, he tells the truth about how the Bible was hijacked by the religious Right. But more importantly, he highlights the people who are challenging a false moral narrative and shows us how faith can revive the heart and soul of this democracy.” — William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach, cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival
“We are witnessing the climax of America’s longest war―the culture war. Born in the nascent years of both Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the religious Right, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was a trained culture warrior―until he turned coat and ditched the delusion of moral grandeur revealed by mercenary politics. Revolution of Values is a gift to every person straining for clarity in the fog of the culture war’s climax. Read this book. Share it. Talk about it. Both the witness of the church and the future of our nation depends on our capacity to see through the fog right now.”  — Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road and author of The Very Good Gospel

Revolution of Values puts words to the inarticulate frustrations, confusion, and righteous anger many have felt in response to the increasingly visible distance between the teachings of Jesus Christ and the actions of his followers. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove aims a pointed critique at the way some Christians have weaponized the Bible to promote policies that work against the poor, the immigrant, and people of color. He puts a face to the systemic and institutional abuses that have occurred over the past several decades by sharing the stories of people he personally knows. This book encourages all of us to work for nothing less than a revolution in our morality that will usher in more justice, equity, and love in the twenty-first century.” — Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness, author of The Color of Compromise

“Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s urgent message for the church is both a return to Jesus and a call for the body of Christ to no longer be held captive by the politics of our day. Revolution of Values returns to the heart of the Christian message―to follow Jesus, love our neighbor, bless those who persecute us, and pursue justice on behalf of the least of these. Revolution is an inspiring and prophetic book at a critical time in our country’s history!”  — Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, author of Social Justice Handbook and Just Spirituality

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An epic list of books to give to people with various interests during the Twelve Days of Christmas (and for New Year’s gift-giving!) + ALL 20% OFF

It has long been our custom to suggest gift giving — especially something like a book, which makes the perfect size and shape and price range for a special gifting in the middle of the holiday week. It isn’t mostly because we’ve got books to sell, although there’s that, but because we love the slow and mournful longing of Advent followed by the lavish celebration of the Incarnation. For years we’ve been encouraging Epiphany gift giving, too. It’s the feast in the church calendar when the Wise guys gave gifts to the baby king, after all.

So, if you want to give a book to somebody this season, or to hint at a New Year’s resolution for more learning and more reading in 2020, here are some ideas.

Send us an order and we’ll ship it out right away. We gift wrap for free, too, if you ask, we can mail something to your recipient with a little note tucked in. There’s a place at the website order form for you to tell us that if you’d like. We have shown the regular retail price but will take 20% off those prices when you place an order.

Happy reading, and happy gift giving.

Please, don’t write to tell us you wished we had released this sooner. We just couldn’t, but here’s some unique book ideas for now. It’s never a bad time to share books.

FOR THOSE WHO LOVE READING ABOUT FOOD AND WINE

The Soul of Wine: Savoring the Goodness of God Gisela H. Kreglinger (IVP) $16.00 This is one of those wonderful compact sized hardbacks, a less heady, more accesible, and more inspiring version of her fabulous Eerdman’s book, The Spirituality of Wine. This new one is great book for anyone who appreciates fine wine, or those who want a deeply Christian entre to the fermented fruit of the vine (reminding us and evoking a robust theology of creation, the goodness of God’s world and God’s good gifts, in both joy and grief.) Blurbs on the back include raves from Andy Crouch and Sandra McCracken and even Karen MacNeil (author of The Wine Bible.) There’s a wine-tasting guide and book club guide, too. This makes a perfect New Year’s Eve gift, too.

Tasting Grace: Discovering the Power of Food to Connect Us to God, One Another, and Ourselves Melissa d’Arabian (Waterbrook) $21.99  We have a large section of books about food and farming here in the shop and I’ve written before about many of our lovely favorites (and that doesn’t even mention cookbooks, from last year’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat to the old standby More-With-Less Cookbook.) Some are so, so good, mature and deep and well written. From the Episcopal theologian and food writer Robert Capon’s classic, Supper of the Lamb, to the extraordinary anthology The Spirit of Food: Thirty-Four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (edited by Leslie Leyland Fields — one of my favorite writers) we love telling people about these sorts of books. Tasting Grace is a new one by a writer that we did not know. She is apparently a bit of a celebrity chef, television host and the winner of The Next Food Network Star season five. She wrote two down-to-Earth books called Ten Dollar Dinners and Supermarket Healthy, illustrating her own passion for family meals and common food to nourish body and soul. Anyway, she has now offered this overtly Christian reflection, telling her own story, speaking with wisdom and goodness and grace. She’s seen a lot — from food addictions to the whole TV thing, so this helps us learn about life along with her, reminding us of delight and stewardship, about hospitality and comfort, about creation and redemption. She invites us to “lean into God” and find God in the ingredients, even as we worship only Him.

Here is what the great Norman Wirzba says of it:

If you thought eating food was little more than ingesting some calories as cheaply and conveniently as possible, think again. In Tasting Grace, d’Arabian invites us to take a personal journey into the deep meaning of eating and to discover the power of food to illuminate and heal life. This book will help you taste food and savor life in ways you may not have thought possible.”—Norman Wirzba, author of Food and Faith

FOR WRITERS, ARTISTS, CREATIVES, or THOSE WHO LOVE THE ARTS

When Poets Pray Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.99  Oh my my, this is a tremendous book, a must for poetry lovers and a helpful guide for those who maybe aren’t drawn to poems. (Or conversely, since it is also a book about praying, it might appeal to those who like prayer books.) Marilyn McEntyre, both a literate critic and a poet herself, imagines what it might be like if certain poems were, in fact, prayers. Or, at least, if we used them as such. What a great idea — a bit of literary insight, a creative reading of good poems, and a fresh way to enhance one’s prayer life. We recommend Ms. McEntyre regularly, including her must-read Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, the lovely word-oriented devotional called Word by Word, and the almost self-helpy handbook called Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts. These books are just a touch allusive and creative but not at all odd or eccentric, making them suitable to share with almost anyone. You’ll see When Poets Pray on our “Best Books of 2019” list soon… order one today!

The Courage to See: Daily Inspiration from Great Literature Greg Garrett & Sabrina Fountain (WJK) $20.00This is such a great idea, a lit-based daily devo. They aren’t the first to do this, but The Courage to See may be the best yet. It features inspiring words from Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith, and more. Garrett has written memoir (Crossing Myself) and theological studies of various pop culture projects (The Gospel in Hollywood) and teaches English at Baylor. Fountain is a write on art and culture. Nicely done.

 

The Grace of Les Miserables Matt Rawle (Abingdon) $16.99 This is not super heavy but is a lovely, useful, starter guide to this great conversation — how does Christian theology show up in great literature, in this case, the enduring novel by Victor Hugo. Rawle has done other such books (a nice one on To Kill at Mockingbird and one on Scrooge and Charles Dickens. They each are available also as  a six-session DVD for small group use. What fun. (Yes, you can have a small group or Adult Ed forum on the DVD The Grace of Les Miserables and you can purchase a Leader’s Guide to utilize it.) The book, though, is fun to read on its own, in six good chapters covering grace, justice, poverty, revolution, love, and hope. Perhaps you should give it to someone now and they might consider it as a Lenten study. Nice!

The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Other’s Eyes C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins) $19.99 A perfect hand sized shape in a classy hardback offering insights from Lewis on reading, literature and the meaning of the literary experience.  Lewis reminds us, literature can “heal the wound”… and in reading great literature we expand our vision. Lewis writes, about taking up good books:

I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.  Here… I transcend myself; and am never more myself when I do.

 

Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK) 35.00 Wow, what a book, a smallish coffee table book that has lovely reproductions of Sister Wendy’s most beloved and most often described artworks. She was putting the final touches on this one-of-a-kind anthology when she died in December 2018. The result is (as it says on the back cover): “this enthralling collection of 100 famous and lesser-known masterpieces of Western art, ranging from the sixth century to the present.” This is beautifully produced and, as British broadcaster Peter Stafford puts it, it is “a fitting tribute to the unique Sister Wendy. Prepare yourself to be surprised.”

Sister Wendy was known for often insightful and always delightful interpretations of art history trends, and readings of specific paintings. When she tells you what to look for, what this or that most likely meant, what the artist him or herself was considering in the years he or she did the painting, you just know you’ve got so much more to use to enjoy and appreciate the painting. She brings what Seerveld calls “rainbows for the fallen world” by using her discerning eye and her deep commentaries. If you know anybody who likes the visual arts, or is eager to reflect on spiritual themes within the art, this handsome book is the best. It’s 9.5 x 0.8 x 11 inches and about 225 pages, so it is substantial but not overwhelming

Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making Andrew Peterson (B+H Publishing) $16.99  This handsome paperback was award one of the coveted Books of the Year awards from Christianity Today and we heartily concur. Peterson is a smart, thoughtful, singer-songwriter (his Behold the Lamb of God is a great Advent/Christian concept album.) In recent years he is well known for his role in the Rabbit Room community and publishing venture in Nashville. He released a wonderful, witty, fantasy series called the Wingfeather Saga. (We still have some of the paperbacks of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten which will be coming out in hardcover editions in March 2020.) If you know any writers, storytellers, artists, or cultural creatives, this set of essays would be a wonderful blessing for them. What a line for an aesthetic manifesto — “adorning the dark.” Order one or two today and share generously.

No Avatars Allowed: Theological Reflections on Video Games Joshua Wise (Church Publishing) $18.95  Do you recall the review I gave this in BookNotes earlier this fall? There are hardly any books bringing together sharp, serious theology and gaming, and this is a valuable resource for anybody wanting to be intentional about their enjoyment of the gaming culture. Video games, the author (a professor of theology at Villanova, Saint Jospeh’s University, and Rosemont College, and founder of the “No Avatars Allowed” podcast) takes seriously “the idea that video games can challenge us to think more deeply about our reality, faith, and community.” The blurb on the back is by the insightful Kevin Schut (professor of Media + Communication and Game Development at Trinity Western University and author of Of Games and God.) The foreword is by Father Benjamin Gildas, a friend and popular podcaster who serves as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning Years William D. Romanowski (Baker Academic) $ 22.99  Years in the making, we are very, very glad to remind you of a recent book by professor Romanowski of Calvin University in Grand Rapids. As an old college friend of the author, I am drawn to his work (and have read it twice, actually) but, I must say, even if he wasn’t a pal of Hearts & Minds, we’d be insisting this is very important and would be recommending it earnestly. For anyone who likes going to the movies or can’t wait for the next NetFlex DVD to show up (please don’t tell me you watch films on your little phone!) or streams movies often, this big book will be an education and a joy. It isn’t preachy and it isn’t simplistic but it isn’t overly academic. If you love movies, you need this book. It will help you understand the art of film and more.

After a long-winded ramble through a whole bunch of our backstory and stuff we’ve been promoting this year, in the BookNotes where I introduced this book I got around to explaining Bill’s other important books, which finally, half way down the column, led me to announce and explain the importance of Cinematic Faith. You can read that here if you’d like — I mention other books in this “faith and film” genre and suggest what is distinctive about Romanowki’s contribution. Check it out here, then come back and order one or two. We’ll send ’em right out.

THESE THREE ARE PERENNIAL CLASSICS IN OUR MOST-RECOMMENDED LIST:

It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99
It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99                       It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99

Give any or all of these three old chestnuts: we recommend them regularly, highlighting them as great, great collections of essays and exceptionally special for those wanting to think well and faithfully about the interface of their life of faith and their work in the arts. They are astute and interesting, and look really, really good, too. Seriously recommended. with great joy.

FOR THOSE WHO LOVE MEMOIR & BIOGRAPHY

Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers Shea Tuttle (Eerdmans) $23.99 There is so much written, now, about Mister Rogers and we are grateful; he was a complex figure, important (and, in case you didn’t hear it yet, a Presbyterian minister.) This recent release is a delightful, serious, insightful biography, warmly written and (as Publishers Weekly put it) explored with “a keen sense of the deeply religious forces” behind “the classic TV show and its widely lauded creator.” One of the very best biographies of Roger’s yet, by a woman affiliated with the notable “Lived Theology” project at University of Virginia. She holds an MDiv from Chandler at Emory. Great!

 

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God Sarah Bessey (Howard Books) $26.00  What a great writer Sarah is — you may know her previous books (Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts.) There is a foreword to this new one by Shauna Niequist and great blurbs on the back by Jen Hatmaker, Kate Bowler, Peter Enns, and the exquisite writer Barbara Brown Taylor. Miracles… tells a bit of her journey away from conventional, conservative, fundamentalism and towards a different sort of evolving faith, but then the whole thing takes a painful twist as she experiences an serious car accident, suffering with chronic pain and the like. And then, surprisingly, an extraordinary miracle of healing and what that means for her. There is so much going on here, it is hard to summarized. The narrative is filled with theological thinking but is rooted in her own story. She is a compelling writer, a beautiful writer, a fun and funny writer. Jonathan Martin (whose Prototype on Jesus is superb) says Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is “trailblazing and bush-burning.” I am grateful for her story and how she talks about sickness, hope, healing, and the like.

Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation Thomas Tarrants (Thomas Nelson) $24.99  This stunning story hardly needs the front-cover blurb by hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat author John Grisham who calls it “riveting” and a truly “remarkable memoir” since the very subtitle speaks volumes. But, for what it is worth, Grisham — who has seen his share of wild stuff and imagines even more — is spot on. This page-turner of a story is beyond remarkable, it is the sign of a miracle. Those of us who have had the pleasure of knowing Tom (he was the Director for many good years of the DC-area C.S. Lewis Institute) could hardly believe it when stories of his past came out. Humble, gentle, kind, impeccably orthodox in faith and behavior, Tom is a beautiful, generous friend and brother. As this book shows, it has not always been this way.

Tom was the sort of domestic terrorist who thought the KKK too mild. As an Alabama-based far-right activist he made bombs, terrorized people of color and Jewish families, was arrested after a shootout with the police (that included awful fatalities) and, later, escaped from prison, landing on the FBI’s “most wanted” list.  You will have to read Consumed by Hate for yourself to learn how he was “redeemed by love” and how — miracle upon miracle — he was graciously released from prison as a Governor commuted his life sentence.

After years in prison paying for his many crimes, and after a sincere and remarkable transformation into a Christian leader, Tom co-pastored an inter-racial, urban church, became friends with and co-authored a book with John Perkins. Needless to say, with the rise of the alt-right and virulent racism and xenophobia now on the rise, we need to understand how extreme ideology can become cult-like and violent. In these rancorous times, we need stories helping us see how all this works.

I love Russell Moore’s blurb, saying it is “a riveting narrative” and…

This is the path from burning crosses to the cross of Christ himself, from raging hate to amazing grace.

Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South Courtney Hartgrove (Convergent) $26.00  Perhaps you’ve seen the powerful trailer about the film version of this that is coming out in March. (Watch the trailer here.) Or, maybe, you saw my brief review last week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Okay, maybe you didn’t, but I raved about it. Or maybe you saw my previous BookNotes review raving about what a well-written, honest, captivating story this was, months ago. It’s a story you’ll never forget. Read my BookNotes review here and then com back and order it quickly. This is one true story they will be talking about…

 

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir Will Willimon (Eerdmans) $24.99  If you’ve been around the broader Christian world at all in the last 40 years you probably know Will Willimon, renowned scholar, preacher, pastor, former Chaplain of the Duke chapel, United Methodist Bishop, and very, very prolific writer.  For years people have been bugging him to write down more of his own life stories, to draft a memoir, to tell about his life as he has seen it. We’ve been waiting for this, a fabulous book to crown the career (at least this part of it, since he ain’t dead yet) of this curious, brave, witty, Southern preacher. The endorsements are themselves a hoot — Lillian Daniels (a UCC preacher) says “If I believed in bishops, I’d want one like Will Willimon — flawed, fearless, and wickedly funny.” Richard Lischer (a Lutheran) says, “If Mark Twain had been a Methodist, his name would have been Will Willimon.) I like that the African American preacher and scholar now at Duke University Chapel, Luke Powery, says “Bishop Willimon is a Jesus-loving, story-telling, truth-talking, laugh-generating gift from God for the church.”

Powery continues:

This is a literary gem, an honest and holy revelation about vocation.

How to Burn a Goat: Farming With the Philosophers Scott H. Moore (Baylor University Press) $34.00  Okay, this isn’t exactly a memoir, but a collection of first hand, personal essays. I think of Farmer Moore as sort of a more brainy and professional Michael Perry, after all, besides working his farm, he’s a college prof. How to Burn… is a bit pricy although it is very well bound, nicely designed trim hardback. And it’s worth every penny, as it is amazingly eloquent, if plain-spoken, and a nearly brilliant set of farming essays that are intelligent, but not academic. Yes, Moore is a philosophy professor and on occasion brings in a theory of Wittgenstein or discusses the relationship of Plato and pigs. But it includes a lot of his own story, plenty of entertaining and even inspiring stories from his farm, and is less “philosophical” than the subtitle suggests. Texas pastor Kyle Childress is right to say it is a fun book — I so enjoyed it and read parts out loud to Beth. Listen to this great quote from Childress:

What a fun book! A self-described ‘inexperienced philosopher hobby farmer,’ Moore writes about chasing guinea fowl, the virtues of mules, the vices of geese, the sounds heard on a farm, or why it is important to watch grass grow, mixed with quotations by everyone from Wendell Berry to Wittgenstein all in a clean prose style reminiscent of E. B. White. Moore had me laughing out loud and then pondering his wisdom the rest of the day.

The Galapagos Island: A Spiritual Journey Brian McLaren (Fortress) $16.99  You could give this to any number of folks — anyone who reads McLaren, of course, will want this book which is a new genre for him — very much a memoir. A travel memoir, to be exact, reflecting on his journey to the famous islands. You may recall that the study of these famous South American islands (that figured into the research of Charles Darwin) figured into one of Brian’s earlier novels (A New Kind of Christian) but this report is for real. You get to travel with McLaren on what could be called “a spiritual pilgrimage to one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.” So, gift it to anyone who likes reading about pilgrimages, or anyone interesest in either the interface of faith and science, or who is curious about ecological studies. This is part of a new series called “On Location” and carries blurbs on the back by Barbara Brown Taylor, Mike (Science Mike) McHargue, and Bill McKibben. Wow.

SPEAKING OF SCIENCE…

Science & Faith: Student Questions Explored edited by Hannah Eagleson (Hendrickson) $14.95  This little paperback deserves much applause and I’m sure you could give it to anyone interested in the basics of a serious explorations of the faith/science conversation these days. Created by the Emerging Scholars Network (a ministry of the Graduate Student and Faculty ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) it offers thoughtful essays by rising young scholars and is a great tool for conversations; there is a very useful discussion guide, with questions at the end of each chapter. The emerging scholars here are experts in the fields of aeronautics, molecular biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy of science and more.

Leslie Wickman wrote the foreword; she is the Executive Director of the American Science Association and a Professor of Engineering. Kudos to Hannah Eagleson, too, for managing this project and doing the compilation work. She’s an old customer of Hearts & Minds who, we suspect, had her own commitments to and explorations of academic discipleship deepened when she visited here often as a central Pennsylvania undergrad student. We’d be thrilled to have folks buy this from us and celebrate this good work.

Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image updated and combined edition Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey (IVP) $25.00  Perhaps you recall our announcement of this late last summer, a marvelous hardback combining newly edited versions of Fearfully and Wonderfully and its sequel, In His Image. Here the world famous hand surgeon and the talented and wise Christian writer combine to offer a uniquely Christian look at the glorious of the human body. Each chapter is on a part of the human body — blood, skin, eyeballs, brain, bones, etc — which opens up conversations about the richness of life, the role of community, the value of pain and more. The blurb on the back includes a lovely endorsement by Shane Claiborne and another by the famous former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop.  There’s a study guide, too, done by one of our very own customers here in Dallastown. Give it to anyone interested in medicine, physical therapy, science, the body, athleticism, or the structures of God’s creation. It’s a great, great read.

ESSAYS and POEMS ON DEATH AND MORE…

The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be Thomas Lynch (Norton) $27.95  We were so glad, earlier this year, to see the long-awaiting release of a new collection of essays by undertaker and poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living (WJK; $18.00.) It was marvelous and I know book lovers and Thomas Lynch fans were delighted by it. It’s a paperback with a striking cover and deckled pages and makes a nice inexpensive gift.

The hardback The Depositions was just released late this fall and, as you can tell from the subtitle, is mostly an anthology of previously published pieces (including from his brilliant, essential The Undertaking and Bodies at Motion and at Rest.) But there is some new stuff, too. Yes!

The brand new collection has a rave review on the back by Billy Collins. Phillip Lopate says “Lynch is one of my favorite living essayists. His mordant humor and openness to grace and mystery are a tonic.”

As the Boston Globe review wrote, Lynch is able to take us inside the palpable business of blood, tears, and the final verse of life in a manner that is almost shocking in the relief it delivers.

FOR ONE’S DEVOTIONAL LIFE

Captivating Grace: 365 Devotions for the Reformed Thinker compiled by Susan Hill, with a foreword by Scott Sauls (Zondervan) $19.99  What a beautiful book, a solid cloth/embossed hardback with sturdy paper, offering a daily devotional full of thoughts and prayers and reflections from the likes of Luther, Calvin, Beza, Zwingli, Turretin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon and more… It is nicely arranged in five units, with devotionals themed in each section by the historic five “Solas” of the Reformation era — Christ alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, the Scriptures alone, and for the Glory of God alone.

 

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans edited by Robert Elmer (Lexham Press) $23.99  As it says on the back promotional paper insert, “For the Puritans, prayer was neither casual nor dull. Their prayers were passionate affairs, from earnestly pleading for mercy to joyful praise. These rich expressions of deep Christian faith are shining examples…”  And indeed they are.

For those who are familiar with the very popular Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Banner of Truth; $17.00) it is clear that the Puritans illustrated a combination of warm piety and careful intellect. Piercing Heaven is a classy (embossed) hardback sans dust jacket and it is adapted around topical headings. Kudos to the publishers.

 

A Month of Sundays: Thirty-One Days of Wrestling with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Eugene Peterson (Waterbrook) $16.99 This is a never-before published collection of thirty one reflections on the gospel — a compact sized hardback, perfect for a monthlong journey into the life of Jesus — were first preached by Peterson in his role as pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. These are not necessarily cozy, inspiring devotionals that offer cheap inspiration but are solid explorations of the “big ideas, hard choices, and intimate conversations” that help you wrestle along side Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

 

Live in Grace, Walk in Love: A 365-Day Journey Bob Goff (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 This is a bargain price for this great, solid hardback. As we’ve described it at BookNotes before, it is a year’s worth of all new inspiring stories from Bob’s one-of-a-kind, dream-big, love does, kinda of life. The publisher says it offers “unexpected, thought-provoking teaching that will prepare Christians for the days ahead.” Yes, that’s true. But Bob would want you to live big and love well right now. There’s interesting Bible reflection here and tons of Goffian shenanigans, holy capers, stories of loving everybody always, offered with a whimsical nod and a gracious prayer. You could give this out to almost anybody as it is fun, humane, upbeat, and incredibly interesting. Yes!

FOR THOSE WHO APPRECIATE CULTURAL STUDIES AND ENGAGEMENT

Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith Through a Volcanic Future Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $17.99 I hope you have somebody in your circle of friends and loved ones or church members who are fans of Leonard Sweet. A futurist by trade, a United Methodist gadfly and instigator of studies and projects and leadership initiatives, Sweet is one of the most widely read, brilliant thinkers I’ve ever come across. He maps out trends and concerns of the future as it relates to the church, now, and invites us — insists! — that to be faithful we have to allow God’s Kingdom which is coming to pull us into the future. He calls us to less handwringing and more action, more stimulating (prophetic) critique and less simple accommodation. As I often say, he is witty, creative, delights in wordplay (and all kind of play, a theme that shows up in his many books) so he’s a hoot to read. Even his (copious) footnotes are an education in itself. This book is worth twice the price.

Rings of Fire captured my full attention in the first sentence, describing the island in the Pacific Northwest (Orca Island) which is, as part of the Pacific basin called the “Ring of Fire.” He talks about fault lines, tremors, and lava, working that as a metaphor easily into his forecast of our hot culture. The whole world is a global Ring of Fire.

The book is arranged in sections he calls “hot zones” and “hot topics” and “hot church” and throughout he has “hot takes” which are excursions into even more specific (“global refugees and migrants”, “acid baths of irony”, “identity crises galore”, and more. The “hot topics” cover so much — from sexuality, gender formation, suicide culture, race relations, scientism, ecological stuff, and more. He has clever names for most of these chapters and he dives deep, if only for a chapter or two. Between the big hot zones and the specific hot topics, it at times feels a bit disorganized and fragmented. Maybe that is as it should be as things are heating up and we’re getting a bit frantic, with “fires” smoldering everywhere. There are “eruptive and disruptive” blowing all around us. This may be Len’s most sweeping book since his seminal Soul Tsunami. 

Not From Around Here: What Unites Us, What Divides Us, and How We Can Move Forward Brandon O’Brien (Moody Press) $13.99  We’ve recommended books by this author before. He’s a curious fellow, brilliant, really, working now for Redeemer’s City to City with Tim Keller, but having written a book for small congregations which we like and another on a religious liberty advocate from during the colonial era Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom and co-authored a near classic called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. He thinks widely about a lot and is Biblically informed, theologically reliable, and yet seems open to new ideas and is always learning. So when we heard about this new book, I couldn’t wait. It is not only about the fragmented nature of our polarized society, but, most foundationally, about the divide between rural and urban folks. We have these tidy categories, or at least it seems the media often presents tidy categories, but, as he says “people are more complex up close.”

So, Not From Around Here is trying to see what it’s really like in a given place — “how the squish of creek water between your toes or the crunch of autumn leave on a city sidewalk shape yours sense of what’s normal and write and good.” This is a hugely important and generative, if provocative, thesis, that these bodily sensations are part of how our places shape us to experience life in certain ways. This will appeal to those who have paid attention to James K.A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project, I’d think, or even books like Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch that remind us of bodily postures as we lean into life.  To be agents of God’s reconciliation, O’Brien says, we need to listen to the stories of people that emerge from their places. We need to “get to know the nuance of people and have empathy for their way of seeing.”

As it says on the back cover, “Brandon O’Brien is, in many ways, a man torn between places. Raised in the rural South, educated in the suburbs, and now living and doing ministry in Manhattan, he’s seen these places, and their complexity, up close.”

Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work Denise Daniels & Shannon Vandewarker (Hendrickson) $24.95  I suppose this isn’t exactly cultural criticism, but it does move us into the culture at large, helping us think about faith and vocations, the common good and the ways unbiblical dualism has kept us from thinking well about work and finances. These women work well in corporate America and while there has been a generous batch of books released in recent years on marketplace ministry and Christian fidelity in the work world, few have been as insightful as this, and even fewer have been written by women. My, my, you could give this to anyone interested in this faith and work movement, about whole-life spirituality, about how spiritual disciplines (sabbath, lament, solitude) can be useful in formation for our work-world service.

There are important endorsements on the back from important voices in this movement such as Richard Mouw and Katherine Leary Alsdorf and Tom Nelson and Jeff Hanaan and Lisa Slayton and Steve Garber. These are authors we admire and some of our favorite people so if these leaders also endorse this book, you can trust us that it’s a good one.

The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work Steven Garber (IVP) $20.00  If you saw the big celebration we did about this brand new book at BookNotes a week or so ago you’ll know it is one of the most amazing books we’ve discussed this year. It is a lovely collection of short essays on a variety of topics related by the deep desire of the author to live a coherent life, one that hangs together, with seamlessness. From church life to work, from global justice to family matters, from reading novels to speaking with corporate leaders about the meaning of just profits, Steve reminds us it is all worship, that it all matters. It should be obvious, but in this distracted consumerist age it may not be, that we hunger for meaning and purpose; the live well This book ponders these things without silliness or cheesy zeal; his struggle for a seamless life is hard-earned and has integrity. These elegant essays are accompanied by photos of Steve’s travels, giving this a “report from the road” sort of feel. (And he has seen some remarkable stuff, making this in its own quiet way, a real page-turner.) It is a hand-sized hardback, with textured paper dust jacket, and makes a truly beautiful little gift. I find it hard to express how much this book means to me, and Beth and I would be pleased if you ordered some to share during this holiday season.

For what it is worth, some who ordered it promptly last week have now lined up to (re)order more. That’s the sign of a very special book.

The Library Book Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster) $16.99  I had heard such good things about this remarkably written, meticulously researched study of the largest library fire in the US (April 29th,1986) but for some reason waited until it recently came out in paperback to pick it up. What was I thinking — it took my breath away on the first page and didn’t let up; it has been a constant pleasure to read, page by page.  It is, without a doubt, one of the most captivating and well written books — heartbreaking and exciting, edge-of-your-seat, stuff as she investigates the arson accusations, the impact of the fire, and the remarkable civic spirit of the librarians.

Anyone who loves books, anyone who appreciates libraries, anybody who appreciates creative non-fiction — part memoir, part investigative/immersion journalism — will love The Library Book. This elegant report is a book somebody you know will love. The opening pages about the author’s memories of going to the library as a girl with her mother is gloriously poignant. Reviewers have called it “soul-expanding” and “mesmerizing” and “spellbinding.” Here are what a few of the many, rave reviews have said:

This is a book only Susan Orlean could have written. Somehow she manages to transform the story of a library fire into the story of literacy, civil service, municipal infighting and vision, public spaces in an era of increasingly privatization and social isolation, the transformation of Los Angeles from small provincial hamlet to innovative collossus and model of civic engagement–and the central role libraries have always and will always play in the life and health of a bustling democracy. Beyond all that, like any good library, it’s bursting with incredible tales and characters. There could be no better book for the bookish.”
–Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Monk of Mokha
Exquisitely written, consistently entertaining . . . A loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea . . . What makes The Library Book so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds. . . . Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page. . . . The Library Book is about the fire and the mystery of how it started–but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book.”
–Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Susan Orlean has long been one of our finest storytellers, and she proves it again with The Library Book. A beautifully written and richly reported account, it sheds new light on a thirty-year-old mystery–and, what’s more, offers a moving tribute to the invaluableness of libraries.”
–David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z
“After reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I’m quite sure I’ll never look at libraries, or librarians, the same way again. This is classic Orlean–an exploration of a devastating fire becomes a journey through a world of infinite richness, populated with unexpected characters doing unexpected things, with unexpected passion.”
–Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake

FOR THOSE INTERESTED ON WORLD MISSIONS

On Mission Together: Integrating Missions Into the Local Church Richard Noble, with a foreword by Peter Kuzmic (Falls City Press) $14.99  A very, very good friend out in Beaver Falls, PA (home of Geneva College) started a few years ago what he affectionately called a “micro-press.” (Sort of like micro-brew, I guess; small, local, tasty; indeed, Falls City is classy, thoughtful, unique — a boutique shop doing important little books that deserve a hearing. This is there latest and you should know about it.

The author of this book, Rich Noble, himself a friend of Geneva College and other important para-church ministries in Western Pennsylvania, has been leading “missional engagement” as a consultant for churches for years. He is especially known within his own Christian Missionary Alliance circles. So this book is very nicely published but you might not know about — it’s one of those “under the radar” titles. We are thrilled to get to amplify Noble’s good work, and introduce you to his helpful book. Come to think of it, there is no other book that we’d recommend as highly on this topic as this one; On Mission Together is savvy, practical, useful, creative, motivating, designed for anyone on a local church mission committee, a planning team for a missions conference, a mission pastor or anyone wishing for their local congregation to be more supportive of those on the global front lines of fulfilling the Great Commission. Our local faith communities (“from massive suburban churches to small rural parishes”) are central to the project of bearing witness to the expanding Kingdom of God and this book is a concise guidebook full of great ideas to mobilize your own worshipping body.

In On Mission Together there are 9 good chapters and half a dozen appendices, making this a go-to resource for anyone interested in developing their mission engagement.

The End of Hunger: Renewed Hope for Feeding the World edited by Jenny Eaton Dyer and Cathleen Falsani (IVP) $17.00  I raved about this earlier this fall and wanted to recommend it again, now. I guess it may not be the most common gift idea for seasonal gift giving but you know there are folks in your circles who are (or ought to be) very keen on learning about global justice. What missions committee doesn’t at least pay some attention to global development and world-wide poverty and starvation. As I said before, this truly is one of the best resources we’ve get seen — very engaging, lots of stories, plenty of big picture analysis and lots of concrete steps for taking up action on a special aspects of global hunger. This is a great little book and we highly recommend it.

ON THE SOCIOLOGY OF MEETINGS, LANDSCAPES, AND PLACE

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters Priya Parker (Riverhead Books) $28.00 What an amazing book this is, released this fall on the significant, storied publishing imprint. This is a book that is hard to describe but will be of interest to those who plan meetings, do programming, teach informal classes, whether in the work-world, the nonprofit sector, or, I’d say, in the local church or para-church. It is charming, fascinating, full of insight about the meaning of encounters, of gathering. What happens in meetings and how do the arrangement of the room matter? How does the mood and tone affect the participants? Why settle for lackluster and unproductive meetings? Why gather in ways that aren’t memorable (or even meaningful)? Parker is not a scold and although she is astute in her critique of many status quo kind of practices, she is upbeat and stimulating.

As it says on the flyleaf:

Drawing on her expertise as a facilitator of high-[power gatherings around the world, Parker takes us inside events of all kinds to show what works, what doesn’t, and why. She investigates a wide array of gatherings — conferences, meetings, a courtroom, a flash-mob party, an Arab-Israeli summer camp — and explains how simple, specific, changes can invigorate any group experience.

I bet you know somebody in experiential education or group facilitation or Christian ministry that would get a real kick out of this book that has been described as “both journey and guide” that is full of “exciting ideas and real-world application.” Whether you are hosting a backyard barbecue or a professional conference, you won’t think of your next meeting in quite the same way, I guarantee  it.

The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape Susan Lessard (Counterpoint) $26.00 You will see this shortly in our list of my favorite books of 2019. It is intellectually rich, beautifully written, elegant at time, fierce, heady, yet full of insight as she longs for what we miss when we lose natural landscapes. Lessard, who was a staff writer for decades at the New Yorker studies remarkable places (including the “geography of nowhere” in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and the nearly sacred, civic space in Gettysburg) Part Annie Dillard, part Howard Kunstler, part Witold Rybczynski (who, by the way, called it “Whitman-esque”) this is a book I savored.

Here is what the New York Times Book Review wrote:

Half memoir, half cri de coeur, Lessard’s lambent, thoughtful, exquisitely written collection of interconnected essays dissects–as an art historian would a picture, a literary critic a text, a medical examiner a cadaver–a diverse swath of America, from Gettysburg and the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania to Truth or Consequences, N.M.; from the seat of an airplane, 30,000-odd feet above Alaska, to the stoops and sidewalks of Brooklyn during the 1990s; from Georgetown, in Washington, where the author used to live, to Youngstown, Ohio…

 FOR THOSE WANTING TO TURN OVER A NEW LEAF THIS NEW YEAR

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry John Mark Comer (Waterbrook) $23.99  I did a long, breathy review of this earlier this fall and the book quickly became one of our best selling titles of the year. John Mark Comer is fun and cool, the design is hip and youthful, but the content — riffing on a line from Dallas Willard — is perennial, good for anyone who wants to deepen their spiritual lives by slowing down, learning to be mindful, and create transforming space to know God more intimately, so to be remade into the image of Christ. Fun and clever as this is, reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry becomes a great way into conversations about spirituality, lifestyles, pace of life, serenity, repentance, discipleship. He writes movingly about Christ’s (easy) yoke. About being an apprentice of the true Lord who shows us what it means to be human. Comer’s Garden City is about vocation and calling, work and rest. It is about being made in God’s image and you can see this new one as a natural follow up, focusing less on the call to work, and more on the call to rest. There is a great foreword by John Ortberg, who calls Ruthless Elimination… a “prophetic word for our time.” It is clearly pitched to young adult readers, but this old guy turning 65 this week thinks it is one of the books of the year!

Rhythms of Renewal: Trading Stress and Anxiety for a Life of Peace and Purpose Rebekah Lyons (Zondervan) $24.99  Perhaps this is a bit of a theme (see the JMC book above) as we tire of our fast-paced, hot-wired lifestyles. Like Comer, Rebekah Lyons isn’t just inviting us to be more healthy, avoid stress and burnout, being more calm and present. Although, heavens, we need help with that. For her, though, the “rhythms of renewal” are gateways to deeper, more wholesome and sustainable spirituality.  Comer admits that as the pastor of a large, multi-site church, and a global conversation partner around theme of social and cultural engagement, he has an unusual amount of stress. And in the past has struggled with depression and anxiety. This is Rebekah’s story, too — her anxiety and panic attacks are vivid and she is honest about how, even as a leader in the Q movement (her husband is Gabe, founder of Q) she is often debilitated by the stress of her callings. There are lovely blurbs on this book — clearly written in a woman’s voice — by the likes of Bob Goff, John Townsend, and Lysa Terkeurst.

The four major sections of Rhythms of Renewal are Rest, Restore, Connects, and Create. This is not your mother’s book on Christian living, but is, still, reliably solid as a guide to healthy Christian discipleship.

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place Andy Crouch (Baker) $15.99  This is not new, but if you don’t know it, or haven’t given it, it ought to be on your own radar screen (to use an older technological image.) There are lots of books that have come out in recent years documenting the dangers of over-doing digital technologies and there are plenty of books for parents of teens or youth, helping offer guidance and prudence, strength and insight, about how to use technology well.

I won’t bore you with my views of the nuances of all of this but will just say as plainly and clearly as I can that this is still the best book on the topic and one that everyone should read, whether you are a parent or not. It is moving, thoughtful, wise, big-hearted, and plenty practical. I know you know that we really, really wish folks would read Andy’s three other books, Culture Making, Playing God, and the more recent Strong and Weak. We are fans. Don’t miss this one which brings a good framework and wise approach to this urgent matter.

FOR SOMEONE INTERESTED IN BIBLICAL STUDIES

The Old Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic Christopher Wright (IVP) $16.00 There are plenty of books which offer fine, even fabulous overviews of the Old Testament and its coherent story. This one (in part because of the clever and succinct seven sentences approach) is fantastic. Chris Wright is one of the great Old Testament scholars of our time and an important leader in wholistic ministry (working out of the Langham Trust in the UK.) The publisher says about it:

It’s easy to see the Old Testament as confusing, out of date, or irrelevant. Using seven key sentences drawn straight from the Old Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright fits the pieces together, shows us the coherent whole, and points us toward Jesus. This short survey shows God’s faithfulness and love for his people and illuminates how the Old Testament Scriptures prepared for the identity and mission of Jesus.

The New Testament in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic Gary Burge (IVP) $16.00  A great companion to the one above, this, too, is a clever way to do a fabulous overview of the key plot and teachings of the entire New Testament. I like Burge a lot (and value his insight into the cultural backgrounds and contexts of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.)

Here is how the publisher describes this one:

“To understand the breadth of the gospel’s message, we need to perceive the full tapestry of Scripture. Using seven key sentences from the New Testament, Gary M. Burge demonstrates how the themes of fulfillment, kingdom, cross, grace, covenant, spirit, and completion set a theological rhythm for our faith, outlining the broader pattern of Scripture that illustrates what God has done–and is bringing to fulfillment–in Christ.”

The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context Michael Lefebvre (IVP Academic) $30.00  At first, I wasn’t sure I should list this as it isn’t a very typical kind of gift, although written for those outside the academic guild, it is dense. The two (…Seven Sentences ones) that I listed above would be fun for almost anyone — beginners or not — and the one below (Romans Disarmed) is something I’m just telling everyone about, like it or not. It’s that impressive and important. This, though, may be an acquired taste for those interested in Genesis 1. The Liturgy of Creation is a serious, almost tedious study of something that may seem arcane — liturgical calendars in the ancient near East and time (and holidays!) in the Bible? This is not the place to explain in detail why this is important, but Old Testament scholars will immediately realize this is vital stuff. This book is nothing short of a gold mind of rare treasures, stuff that will pay off, earning readers knowledge and insight if they pay attention. It explores the rich (meta/poetic) style of creation narratives, brings in temple language and theories of history and time, and ties it together with other teachings on calendars in the Hebrew Scriptures. As the publisher explains, Lefebvre argues that “dates were added to Old Testament narratives not as journalistic details but to teach sacred rhythms of labor and worship.” Old Testament heavyweight John C. Collins has a brilliant, enticing foreword. 

As Carmen Imes, an Old Testament professor writes:

His reassessment of Genesis 1 moves beyond the stalemate in the creation debates without recourse to extrabiblical or scientific arguments. His thesis grows organically from a close reading of the biblical text. LeFebvre shows himself to be a master teacher with pastoral sensitivity, able to patiently explain what he has so carefully studied. This book will change the way I teach the Torah. I can’t wait to share it with my students!

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) $26.99  Well. I reviewed this audacious book at great length at a major BookNotes announcement about it when it first came out and said then that I’m sure it will be on our “Best Books of 2019” of the year award. It is a detailed, creative, imaginative, hard-hitting, insistent study of epistle of Paul to the Romans and insists that the bigger point and context was for Paul to encourage church unity as a witness to the coming upside-down Kingdom of Christ which was explicitly anti-Imperial. That is, this is a reading of the famous book of the Bible, a letter, really, that has been dis-armed or maybe newly weaponized for the nonviolent struggle for peace, justice, reconciliation, ecological sanity and full inclusion of all people in the open table of God’s own. Yes, the authors argue (convincingly, I believe) that Romans has been misconstrued as an abstract theological lesson and that reading has been used to bully people, shutting down the impulse of hospitality that is at the heart of the epistle itself. So the letter — or, more precisely, our interpretations and applications — needs to be disarmed. And they show us exactly how, but experiencing the letter as it first might have been experience, calling us to be the sort of justice-seeking community that grieves with the hurting and welcomes the marginalized, as the book of Romans tells us to.

This over 400 page volume (with a chapter which is essentially a fictionalized novella set among characters in the house church in Rome) may jokingly be called an “anti-commentary” because it is almost a new genre. Some said that about their rather similar Colossians Remix, released in 2014, too, for the way it wove together old context and contemporary stories and socio-political analysis. (And, heavy as this gets sometimes, intellectually and rhetorically, there is plenty here about the lives of Walsh and Keesmaat, their watershed discipleship at their organic farm, and their deep connections to urban folk in inner city Toronto and college students at Brian’s Wine Before Breakfast community and their friendships with many other more traditional church folks might shy away from (at best)  — unhoused street folks, oppressed indigenous people, LGTBQ friends.) Directly inspired by the text of Romans, they teach us much about the dysfunctions and injustices or our day, the idols of progress and the violence of late modern capitalism and the inequities due to white privilege and the like. This is an amazing book which will be seen as groundbreaking if disturbing to some. If you give this as a gift, or invite your small group to study it, be prepared for lots of honest conversation. Whew.

“Keesmaat and Walsh write into the headwinds of Trumpism, deepening social disparity, ecological crisis, and endless war. Building on recent scholarship, this brilliant study engages the original audience, who labored under the shadow of empire, in a way that brings its message to life for similarly struggling North American Christians. The result is a fresh and committed reading by two of our generation’s best interpreters of Word and world.”                         — Ched Myers, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries

The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy Timothy Keller (Viking) $20.00 Another one of these compact sized hardbacks that make a nice little gift. And, seriously, this is fascinating. Not only is Keller always clear and thoughtful and widely read, this is recent and provocative. It’s about the prophet Jonah, of course, and that’s always a blast, ending as it does under the unpredictable plant, as Eugene Peterson put it. Here, Keller makes a creative move and connects Jonah to the parable of the Prodigal Son. Nice!

 

 

FOR THOSE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN PRAYER AND SPIRITUALITY

The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father Wesley Hill (Lexham Press) $15.99 This is a very small, compact-sized guide that is more meaty and generative and useful than some books twice the size. Hill is a New Testament scholar and a dear man and a clear (but never stuffy) writer. He’s created a very solid, useful book.

There is a blurb on the back by Fleming Rutledge, another by New Testament scholar Matthew Levering. Marianne Meye Thompson says it is “a book worth savoring.” This little book, as Rev. Rutledge says, “will enrich a reader’s life immeasurably.” A small book in a matching formate to last year’s popular Apostles Creed by Ben Myers. Highly recommended.

May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord’s Prayer Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson (Waterbrook) $16.99 This will make a great gift for a special someone, but, admittedly, may not be for everyone. Justin McRoberts is a recording artist, writer, retreat leader who brings raw truth and hard-hitting insight about our longings for a better discipleship and Scott Erickson is an edgy sort of artists and graphic designer. So May It Be So has a very contemporary, design forward feel, with graphic art (with a silkscreen sort of appearance.) In fact, the hip art pieces are invitation to ponder — they are remarkably allusive and evocative, designed to help us enter into a more meditative and curiously thoughtful space, and Justin’s meditations are perfect supplements. These two guys are convinced that humans long for connections, for prayer, for a deeper sort of spirituality that may seem just beyond our reach. Good books on the theology of prayer are important, but they are not enough. We need prompts and on-ramps and stories so we can not sure think about praying, but actually do it.

This is a companion to their award winning, much-celebrated (and equally visual and provocative) Prayer: Forty Days of Practice. You could give ’em both and your recipient would be overjoyed.

Not sure? Listed to these good folks:

“Justin and Scott have compiled the most beautiful anthology of prayers and images, interwoven with suggestions for contemplation and spiritual practices. I’ve been using these words and pictures in my own devotional life for a couple of years. They have refreshed and renewed me. This book is a gift.”
–Michael Frost, author of Surprise the World and Keep Christianity Weird

“McRoberts and Erickson are flip artists: they take what is commonly assumed or known and flip it in unexpected ways, all for the sake of greater authenticity and deeper wisdom. Their book Prayer surprises, interrupts, explodes, confronts, and inspires. I encourage you to take up their invitation for Forty Days of Practice.”
–Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary”

“In my home we have a special shelf where we keep sacred things of beauty. On the shelf are a few icons, seashells, the Book of Common Prayer, and this book, Prayer. Each person in my family–from children to adults–sits in quiet wonder as they flip these pages. This meditative and practical book brings together prayer, practices, and visual art to provide a feast for the soul. McRoberts and Erickson have created something beautiful, thoughtful, and mesmerizing.”
–Tish Harrison Warren, priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary

This Life That Is Ours: Motherhood as a Spiritual Practice Lauren Burdette (Upper Room Books) $12.99  What mom wouldn’t like a small, compact, meditatively written book about the spirituality of mothering? This is reflective, lovely, moving, even… a great gift. Lauren is part of a wonderful, small Presbyterian church we know in Pittsburgh — missional, visionary, yet deeply rooted in ancient spiritual practices. In this context she reflected on her own calling as a new mother, and how these habits of doing her daily mothering stuff were, in fact, shaping her, and have the potential to shape other moms, in profound ways.

This is really well written, poetic and inviting, warm and thoughtful. It is brief, and very honest about the swirling vortex of diapers and feedings and sleepless nights. In this new world, she observes, one’s identity can be in flux. And she assures us that God wants to meet us where we are.

An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation Martin Laird (Oxford University Press) $18.95  Again, a small hardback that is somehow weighty, serious, but yet a perfect shape in the hand to take on retreat or to a quiet chair. This is one that truly gets to be described as “beautifully written” combining scholarly awareness of the deepest mystical tradition and warm and enticing stories of his own life as a conetmpatlive and spiritual director.

As Rowan Williams says on the back cover, “Laird’s writings on this subject is simply in a different league of seriousness from most other books on ‘spiritual’ practice.” Sarah Coakley of Cambridge calls it “a new, modern classic.” This is the third in a uniform series, all quite nice, following Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. They are all gorgeous, compact, very sophisticated books that deserve multiple readings; an investment for a lifetime.

The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul Belden Lane (Oxford University Press) $29.95  I hesitate to call this spirituality, proper — it is actually written as memoir, as most of it is in the first person as Lane — who has written similar books like Backpacking with the Saints — tells of his extraordinary adventures finding God in creation. (And they are extraordinary, spiritually, yes, but just in terms of the places he visits and tells about, literally all over the globe. Wow.) James Martin, S.J. calls The Great Conversation “luminous” and Presbyterian spiritual life professor Elizabeth Liebert says it is “scholarship born of passion, love, and commitment to the continuing existence and well-being of fellow creatures.”  He is a good writer, he is passionate, and his experiments in relating to the world around us as he hikes and attends are really fabulously interesting.

Lane realized long ago that he is implicated in the crisis of the planet and he knows that God’s good creation — or so the Bible and the mystics say — can speak to us. (See Psalm 19:1-4 or the command in Job 12:7-10 if you don’t believe him.) So in prose that is beautiful and haunting he tells of his journey to cherish and commune with fellow creatures. I understand that some of us (myself included, actually) will fret that this verges on pantheism; yet, a Franciscan priest says, “as a Franciscan, i can say that this is pure Gospel.” The Great Conversation is a heady and unforgettable story of a theologian and mystic learning to listen to creation, even as he uses books by great contemplatives to help him along the way. Just like he did with Backpacking with the Saints (combining one saint’s work with one hike) he here uses one particular book from a spiritual writer with one episode of relating well to a fellow creature. From talking to a beloved tree to standing in awe by a river to being aware of God’s voice in specific birds or wind, in wildfire or stars, in deserts or canyons, The Great Conversation is stunning. Somebody you know will really love it (even if others may think it a bit much.) We’re happy to stock all his books, and commend this one to be read with discernment to anyone who loves the great outdoors and longs to live into the vision of a lively creation we can really know.

Don’t forget, as we said at the beginning, we’ve shown the regular retail prices, but we will deduct 20% OFF any book mentioned. As we always say, our order form page is easy to use — just click on the link at the bottom which takes you to our secure order form page at the Hearts & Minds website. You can safely enter your credit card information and we’ll be sure to reply promptly and confirm all the details. As we say there, you can choose your shipping method (USPS is cheaper than UPS for smaller packages) and you can ask us to just send a bill if you’d like. Easy.  
Now, back to this list…

FOR FANS OF JAMIE SMITH, THOSE WANTING A CONTEMPORARY LOOK AT ANCIENT FAITH OR FOR THOUGHTFUL, SPIRITUAL SEEKERS

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press) $24.99  Okay, hear me out: this is one of the most important, and best, and most discussed serious Christian books of 2019. It’ll be on the top of our “Best of” awards list in a week or two. You should buy two to give away, and one for yourself (duh) if you haven’t yet. We are glad so many Hearts & Minds customers have ordered it this fall, and we hope to continue to promote it almost anywhere we go. It is just one of those books that discriminating buyers of religious books should get.

Yes, it’s a bit deep. Smith is a philosopher, after all. He has written books that are appreciative of postmodernity (see the heavy Live Theory on Jacques Derrida and the must-read, introductory-level Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism) and the always contested, situated nature of knowing (see The Fall of Interpretation and, more recently, Who’s Afraid of Relativism about what pragmatic philosophers call “contingency.”) Smith’s most popular philosophically-minded book is a heady introduction to the nearly impenetrable Harvard University Press book, The Secular Age by Charles Taylor. (That is called How (Not) To Be Secular and is an introduction to Taylor’s work and is important, if still a bit demanding.) His important “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy have been essential for many of us and we rejoice that those big three (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and Awaiting the King) have been summarized in the popular You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit which I have touted as the “Book of the Decade.” Smith is a friend of Hearts & Minds and we have been influenced by him, and his own teachers.

Smith is a professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids and studied previously at the neo-Calvinist Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, so has been influenced by that big stream of Christian cultural engagement that is the line of the Dutch theological and civic leader Abraham Kuyper. All of this, though, goes back (Al Wolters used to say this regularly) to the fourth century African convert and church Bishop, Saint. Augustine. His massive City of God is seminal for social and political thought in the West and his Confessions remains a classic in Western literature, often called the first memoir. Baptized by Ambrose after a walk on the wild side, his legacy is hard to underestimate. Yet few of us know much about him.

It is this self-aware reflection on Augustine’s own interior life and his “on the road” search for identity that Smith plumbs in On the Road with Saint Augustine. As Smith explains, many of the most important contemporary philosophers — Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, just for instance — studied and lectured and wrote on Augustine. In a way, Smith says that the bohemian and “on the road” counterculture (think Kerorouc and Ginsberg and Dylan, even) which was informed by the existentialists of the mid-twentieth century is almost directly connected to the road trips of the  ancient searching thinker who Smith calls “the patron saint of restless hearts.” Man, he knows how to connect the dots, joyfully.

There are prestigious and important blurbs on the back of this book, indicating that it is being taken seriously. (It’s not just me saying this!) What popular religious book carries raves from the likes of poet Christian Wiman and NPR interviewer Krista Tippet and Jesuit writer James Martin and one of the Avett Brothers band, yes, the philosopher Charles Taylor?

There are chapters on mothers and justice and sex and identity and friendship and death and conversion and more. His opening chapter “orientation” in this field guide is so helpful as he explains how Augustine is, truly, our contemporary. Smith expresses the zeitgeist in chapters like “Heart on the Run” (about “how to hit the road”) and “A Refugee Spirituality (about “how to live between…”

The heart of the book, as I’ve explained before at a previous description at BookNotes, is really this next section called “Detours on the Way to Myself” where he explores the meaning of freedom and ambition and enlightenment and other themes about authenticity and community and homecoming. There is stuff about “how to believe” and “how to hope” and what it means to aspire or connect and protest and hope. It is rare, I think, to have such a wise guidebook that is also so philosophical, drawing on history and telling about the lives of figures as diverse as Albert Camus and Leslie Jamison and books and films and pop music from Don Quixote to the movies of Wes Anderson the the haunting songs of The Postal Service.  That he is able to move so effortlessly between what feels like an upbeat, illuminated philosophy class and a quiet moment of spiritual direction and a rowdy conversation over drinks after hours is one of the glories of this book. For those willing to work through a few of the dense parts, there’s plenty of fun reading and lots of deep, profound Christian truth.

One of the reasons the book is so lively is that throughout there are narratives of the journey (ironically, an on-the-road pilgrimage, perhaps –ironic because the classic road trip is to get away, the opposition of a pilgrimage) that Smith and his wife made retracing some of the steps of Augustine. Dehanna figures into the book quite a bit. In an interview, Smith tells of how surprising it was to be there:

There’s something visceral about walking those worn stones of Ostia, seeing the mix of paganism and politics in Rome, feeling the light on the Mediterranean, that overcomes the distance between not only the fourth century and the 21st century but also the gap between the printed page and your own imagination. Augustine became less abstract, and more human.

There are great stories of their trip and some inserts of art and images and those are very nice, enhancing the book with the pieces he discusses. There are even some cool, free postcards (for your own journey on the road) that we can share for free, while supplies last. It’s a handsome, well-designed book that will help anyone open to thinking deeply about finding themselves.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion Rebecca mcLaughlin (Crossway) $24.99  If you want to give a gift for someone who wouldn’t resonate with Smith’s rambling, complex, beautiful guide through our search for identity and roots and hope by way of studying a third century seeker, maybe a more straight-away gift would be appreciated. Confronting Christianity admits that those who advocate and live out the Christian faith simply must cope with a few key, legitimate, important questions. Some of these are general questions being asked by secularists (“Aren’t we better off without Religion” and “Doesn’t Religion Cause Violence?” and the questions about religion and science) and others are questions specifically about the Christian religion — does the Bible condone slavery?, isn’t Christianity homophobic?, how can you say there is only one way?, and the like. These sort of collections of honest answers to hard questions are plentiful, but this one is very smart and fair-minded. It won a Christianity Today Best Book award a few weeks ago and has endorsements by the likes of Oxford University mathematics professor John Lennox and Harvard University epidemiologist Tyler Vanderweele. MIT prof Ian Hutchinson calls is “deep and caring” and “not an easy stroll through imagined virtual reality but an adventurous rocky pathway through true and abundant life.”

Confronting is written by woman with a PhD in Renaissance literature from Cambridge and a theology degree from Oak Hill, also in the UK. She has worked for Veritas Forum and is cofounder of Vocable Communications. Very impressive.  It’s got a great cover, too, with 12 die-cut circles on the cover.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN THE ENNEAGRAM

We have numerous good books on this ancient, and newly popular, personality profile. We have often said that The Road Back To You by Ian Cron & Susan Stabile is among our favorites. Richard Rohr’s is big and impressive, Chris Huertz’s The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth is really good and has a workbook, now. There are others, of course.

But, whew, if you want to gift somebody with a nice little book that explores their own unique Enneagram number, well, get a load of this. What a great idea!

We just got in this set of nine small hardbacks, one on each of the Enneagram types, each with a different foreword by a person who identifies as that E profile. These numbered guides are written by Beth McCord (“Your Enneagram Coach”) and are published by Thomas Nelson. They regularly sell for $14.99 each and you can order any of them individually. If you buy the whole set we’ll bump up our BookNotes discount of 20% off to 30% off.  How’s that?

Enneagram Type 1        Enneagram Type 2          Enneagram Type 3        Enneagram Type 4        Enneagram Type 5        Enneagram Type 6        Enneagram Type 7        Enneagram Type 8        Enneagram Type 9  

Beth McCord (Thomas Nelson Publisher) $14.99 each.  Note the extra discount (30% off) if you buy the whole set of nine books.

TWO NEW BOOKS ON MARRIAGE

Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage David & Constantino Khalaf (WJK) $16.00  I love the story about Mark Twain’s reply when he was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it?”, he retorted, “Why, I’ve seen it.” Whether you “believe in” marriage equality or not, you most likely have seen it. You may have gay people you care about who are married. Why not wish them well and offer them some faith-based insight about the complexities of navigating their admittedly unusual marriage situation? This is the only overtly Christian book for gay folks (men or women) talking candidly about a Christian marriage. Most often, for obvious reasons, queer folks who are churched are involved in mainline or progressive sorts of congregations, but not always; in any case, this is no fundamentalist scold. The couple who wrote the book together themselves have to navigate their different religious backgrounds; one spouse was rooted in a more traditionalist mainline church tradition while the other was non-denominationally evangelical. I have to admit I read a lot of books about marriage (including memoirs of marriage) and I found this hard to put down.

We hope Modern Kinship blesses those who may find it difficult to locate reliable resources that might help them in their own context and ethos. I recommend it to straight couples, too, by the way; most of us need all the help we can get. Somehow the struggles and fears and joys of gay couples working out their faith and marriage in a counter-cultural way (perhaps too religious for many of their LGTBQ friends and too gay for their straight churches) just might offer some insight for others, as well.

The Meaning of Marriage: A Couple’s Devotional – a Year of Daily Devotions Timothy & Kathy Keller (Viking) $20.00  I have said that, with a few qualifications, I think Tim & Kathy Keller’s 2011 release, The Meaning of Marriage, is one of the better books on a theology of marriage I’ve ever read. It is interesting, Biblical, culturally aware, and quite thoughtful. We are happy to promote all of Keller’s many books (including the other two devotionals that he wrote with his wife, The Songs of Jesus, on the Psalms, and God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life on Proverbs) and were so very glad to see this gifty looking small daily devotional of 365 readings to supplement their Meaning of Marriage.

 This is a small sized hardback, lavish in a subdued sort of pastel way, with a nice ribbon marker, making it a great shower gift or a New Year’s gift for your spouse. Good, meaty stuff, gospel-based and often profound. This is a very nice book.

FOR FANS OF CS LEWIS & THE INKLINGS

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith Gary S. Selby (IVP Academic) $22.00  I don’t need to say much about this. You know, I hope, that Lewis wrote much about the joy of human pleasures and the goodness of creation. He wrote the forward to a famous edition of Saint Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. His vision of the cosmic nature of sin and salvation makes his fiction so earthy. Without much bluster, he calmly reminded us in so many ways that gnosticism is not Christian.  So, if spirituality is “earthy” what, then, does that mean? What does it look like? Can the old Oxford don help us with a “down to Earth” holy worldliness? Can we live out of an incarnational worldview? What in this world is “Earthy spirituality”? This is a suburb book for anyone wanting to think more deeply about spiritual formation and whole-life discipleship, but it is a gem for anyone who likes drawing on Mr. Lewis. A great book, highly recommended.

Becoming C.S. Lewis: A Biography of Young Jack Lewis (1898 – 1918) Harry Lee Poe (Crossway) $22.00 With the slightly textured dust jacked, the old fashioned photo and the wallpaper-like flyleaves, this book itself is so handsome it almost feels vintage.  It is what is says, a biography of Lewis’s youth. It is the first part of what will be a massive and major three part biography. So far, it is off to a conspicuous start — some reviewers insist this is a must-read and more than one has observed that there is material in here that has not been explored in any previous Lewis biography.

When important Lewis scholars like Don King says it “breaks new ground” and Lyle Dorsett says it is “filled with glimpses… that cannot be found in any other biography” and Colin Duriez says it “stands out” you know this is a major contribution to the field. Fans will savor Becoming C.S. Lewis, we’re told, and I suspect they are right. Is there somebody you could give it to this Christmas? Remember: for Lewis, Christmastime surely was 12 days long.

Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy Sayers Christine Colon (IVP) $16.00  Released under the auspices of the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, this is one of the most accesible and important new books on Inkling Dorothy Sayers yet done. Colon is a professor of English and a scholar of the Victorian Literary tradition and a sharp. popular instructor. Choosing Community was initially presented as part of the prestigious Hansen Lectureship series and it was very positively received. There is a lot here on the Lord Peter Whimsey detective novels so this could make a great gift for anybody who enjoys that mystery genre or that knows of Sayers’ literary work. (For instance, her significant work translating Dante.) The book cites unpublished letters of Sayers and works well with her religious drama and theatrical work, too. Nearly everyone who specializes in this field seems to shout “bravo” to Colon for her meticulous research, her good writing, and the urgently necessary vision of a broad and caring sort of beautifully orthodox faith.

By the way, for those who follow such things, the previous Hansen lectures were put out in a book that we celebrated at BookNotes, Timothy Larsen’s incisive George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment (IVP; $18.00.) Know any George MacDonald fans out there?

Speaking of George MacDonald and Lewis’s appreciation of him, allow me to reprint my review of a book that we had shared a month ago at a BookNotes column about kid’s books:

The Light Princess George MacDonald with illustrations by Ned Bustard (Rabbit Room Press) $18.00  Those who have followed Hearts & Minds for decades know that we used to feature lots of the great novels — children’s and Victorian adult novels — of the brilliant writer, orator, preacher, and artiste, George MacDonald, may of which are now out of print. Many know of how C.S. Lewis even edited an anthology of his favorite MacDonald quotes. Sadly, many editions of many MacDonald books have been dropped by legitimate publishers and few stellar editions of his volumes are readily available. We are so, so glad that the classy and fun Rabbit Room crew of Rabbit Room Press released a new edition of the fairy story The Light Princess. 

This really is an exquisite edition, with a blue leather-over-board creation very much like their lush Every Moment Holy prayer book. Bustard’s art is, I believe, a style of relief printmaking. As Ned put it in an interview about his work Every Moment Holy, “The pieces were made using linoleum so they are called linocuts (in the same way that if they were made using wood they’d be called woodcuts.)”

Jennifer Trafton wrote an excellent foreword for which we can be grateful — what a gift to be reminded of the former renown of the Scottish author who has been so esteemed by everyone from Mark Twain to James Barrie to Maurice Sendak to Madeleine L’Engle, and how nice to have this story framed by this good background introduction.

Head Rabbity author and singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson did a fabulous afterword to this edition of The Light Princess. He writes about being “Gobsmacked” and reminds us of the Tolkien-Lewis-MacDonald-esque vision of true myths. Peterson writes,

MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” reminds us that the world is an unsettling place, and mystery clouds the corners of our days.That means strange and terrible things are bound to happen, whooshing in from the dark periphery without warning… But mystery also means that grace and light can come whooshing in, too, so you might as well keep an eye out.”

Kudos to all at Rabbit Room Books for doing this lovely edition of this great old tale. But we offer special hat tips to Mr. Bustard for his playful linographs, his titling characters, and his other design work on the volume, making it a most handsome, almost exquisite, edition.

In the foreword, Trafton writes about Bustard and what his art contributes to the book:

Artist Ned Bustard has paid homage to all the multilayered themes and resonances in MacDonald’s writing by threading visual symbols throughout the illustrations like little Easter eggs for you to discover. Some are images drawn from centuries of Christian iconography — seashells, dolphin, anchor, bread, wine, and more. He’s also hidden objects and elements from some of MacDonald’s other fantasy stories, such as The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, “The Golden Key,” and Lilith. To those of you who’ve read these other stories: look carefully! Do you spot the allusions?

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN CIVIC LIFE AND CONTEMPORARY POLITICS

The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump Peter Wehner (HarperOne) $25.99 As we’ve shown at BookNotes, there are a bunch of books on civility, or finding common ground, but on also being principled and integrally Christian in our citizenship lives. You may know that Wehner worked in the Reagan administration has been a major voice in thoughtful Republican and conservative circles and because of his deep involvement with the Right is now outspoken about the vulgar and immoral ways of the current administration. He is frustrated about his own movement’s lack of coherent, abiding principles but he is also alarmed — as we all should be –about the fraying body politic, about culture wars and anger and fragmentation. He believe that politics can be a noble calling but that this has been corrupted, not least by Donald Trump.

The back cover of this remarkable book has blurbs by the likes of Mona Charen (a colleague of his at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center) and Mark Noll ( the esteemed evangelical historian) and public intellectual and writer Jon Meacham and a great, helpful endorsement by James K.A. Smith.  David Axelrod calls him “a literary Paul Revere, shining a light on the causes of the withering polarization that has seized our democracy.”

Them: Why We Hate Each Other– And How to Heal Ben Sasse (St. Martin’s Press) $17.99 We had reviewed this at BookNotes when it was still only in hardback and it has just recently come out in paperback (with a new preface from the author.) I think Mr. Sasse is a better thinker and writer than he is a Senator, but, no matter what you think of his voting record, he argues here that our crisis is deeper than partisan politics. He writes about the epidemic of loneliness and a path forward that is rooted in paying attention to place. In fact rootedness is a theme of the book. NPR says even if you disagree with his ideas, this book is well worth reading and we agree.

As the National Review notes:

Them is an attempt to diagnose and repair what has led us to this moment of spittle-flecked rage… a step toward healing a hurting nation.

Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation Ken Starr (Sentinel) $28.00  It seems that if one is following the ups and downs of the current impeachment controversy, it would be helpful and certainly interesting to compare it with the other memorable impeachment from a few administrations back. As you should know, Ken Starr, a conservative, Christian, kindly, constitutional law scholar, a thoughtful law professor and attorney (who, by the way, was under consideration for a nomination for the Supreme Court) was given the unsavory and complicated task of investigating financial shenanigans (of which people were indicted and went to jail) in which both President Clinton and the First Lady were deeply involved. There was legal stuff, grand juries, investigations, subpoenas, lawsuits, and, eventually pretty obvious contempt from the First Lady and, then, perjury from the President of the United States. The President’s own Attorney General (Janet Reno) commissioned Mr. Starr to lead the team doing the investigation into the President’s financial craziness that became known as the Whitewater scandal. As Starr says (and I have good reason to believe him) he did this a bit reluctantly, but out of civic duty as a public servant, knowing it would delay his own career goals and perhaps bring anxiety to his family; that is, it was not his great desire to become known for this. (Little did he know that he would soon have to have armed security guards, as would his young adult children when they went off to college, and that he would get pulled into years and years worth of complicated, controversial, even tragic work.)

It was in those years in the Arkansas investigation that the President perjured himself about a sex scandal in his home state (regarding an affair with Paula Jones) and the Attorney General wanted Starr — against his own best wishes and intuitions — to investigate that. The Clinton’s response was legendary. And then the Monica Lewinksy thing happened. Again, against his own wishes (as he explains in Contempt) Starr was assigned that investigation and the resultant obstruction of justice proceedings. Unsavory as Mr. Clinton’s sexual involvement was with his younger intern was — in the contemporary #metoo era this would have been seen in much harsher light, I am sure — it wasn’t until further perjury and obstruction and misuse of power came up that Starr pressed that part of the case. As Contempt shows, such grand jury investigations and hearings and procedures are byzantine and slow. (Oh, how this sheds light on the Trump hearings and eventual impeachment processes.) These things take time, and, in that case, the President clearly was in the wrong, legally. What the House and Senate would do with the final report was not Starr’s call, and he reports that he instructed the House to not release the un-redacted, salacious report to the public. (He asked Congress to not share the most embarrassing details, out of respect for the Presidents dignity and marriage. House leaders, famously, in an exceptionally rare and hurtful move, posted it unredacted on line within hours. Of course, Starr took the heat and was for a while the most hated man in America.) Even though the writing is straight-forward and not particularly artful, it was a page-turner, revealing all that goes in to holding public officials accountable under the rule of law. As Starr says often, and we must say today, no one is above the law.

Regardless of what you think you know about Mr. Starr’s work or the Clinton Whitewater case and the subsequent impeachment hearings, Contempt is riveting, what one reviewer called a “firecracker” of a book. After two decades of silence he finally tells his side of the story and the first-person account of the day to day tedium and flare-ups of high drama that became the legal warfare in DC. Our own current partisan polarization has something to do with these events, I am sure, and think it is a timely read for this very month.

Michael Wolfe, author of Fire and Fury says that,

Now, as we try to navigate another president’s epochal confrontation with the law and the Constitution, Starr is a national treasure.

Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus Jim Wallis (HarperOne) $25.99  I’ve heard a few conservative-leaning persons suggest that they know what Wallis thinks, don’t need the book, and that may mostly be so. He’s written books like God’s Politics and continues to edit the lefty, social justice rag, Sojo. But I’m not sure I get the ambivalence to this: each chapter is about a question Jesus asked and the implications such holy questioning might have on our body politic. Yes, it is an anti-Trump manifesto, but more, it is an insistence that we take Jesus seriously. He does admit that good people can disagree in good faith and he does not say that one cannot support Trump and be a sincere disciple. But if he leans towards those convictions, he tries to be civil and play fair, and he does continue to tell stories and make applications from the gospel texts. There are level-headed folks offering endorsing blurbs, from Senator Chris Coons to Princeton professor Eddie Glaude to Fuller Theological Seminary president, Mark Labberton.

When I reviewed this earlier at BookNotes I said I agreed with Brittany Packnett (of Campaign Zero) who wrote:

“For far too long, we’ve ceded the power and person of Jesus to political movements with no ambitions toward His radical love. Reclaiming Jesus is not only our responsibility, it is necessary now more than ever. This is a book for all God’s people.”

Can I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, and Daniel Rhodes (Eerdmans) $26.00  Do you recall the review I did of this earlier this fall? This isn’t about statecraft and government, as such, but it is about public life, about Christians whose faith motivated them to be involved in matters of civic life, public justice, social concerns. My, my, what a great book, created out of the “Project on Lived Theology” at University of Virginia. There are fabulous theologians and public leaders (Soong-Chan Rah, Daniel Rhodes, Becca Stevens, David Dark, and more) teaching us very much about Cesar Chavez, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, Mahalia Jackson, Richard Twiss, and others. This book is mature and thoughtful, profound, even. Can we work towards the transformation of American culture through better religious convictions? Can those with helpful beliefs be inspired to live them out in public life by learning about these others that did so in other places and times? Of course. This is a sturdy, serious book and could be shared with anyone who loves history, biographies, or wants to explore the depths of wholistic, radical faith. Highly recommended.

The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land  David Dark (Westminster John Knox) $17.00  One of the most stimulating, thoughtful, remarkably-written, and provocative books I’ve read about the state of our times and the state of our union in these times is The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land written by my friend David Dark.

David is a lover of words, a lover of truth, a lover of what some call common grace – gladly thanking God for the signs of life that pop up in even a secularized culture, offered up even by those who seem not to be religious. (Ahh, there’s an interesting idea: is anybody really not religious? Don’t we all live by and for something? That’s the theme of Dark’s fabulous book called Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious [IVP; $18.00.] What a fascinating book!)

Discerning the signs of life or signals of transcendence in common grace gifts of popular culture is the theme of his only slightly dated first book Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos; $20.00.) He has for many years been helping us understand how to understand the culture, how to see the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane. (Or, should I say, the sacred in the profane. And vice versa.)

In a way, this new one about America is a continuation of that project, finding how deeply wise and transformative insights show up in the best of our American dream, from our politics to our classic landscapes, our shaping documents to our best literature and song. I joked to somebody in the shop that he should have called this Everyday American Apocalypse.

The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land is actually a considerable re-working and expanded edition of his 2005 book, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a Christ-haunted, God-blessed Idea. It is, for those who are familiar with that stimulating, much-discussed book, different enough that it demanded a new title; it is not just a “revised” edition. There’s so much new content in The Possibility of America that it earned a new title; not only is there considerable re-working and new content, the overall tone is a bit different. Understandably.

It seems to me that the very title indicates a change in the panic level of professor Dark, mirroring the anxiety many of us feel in these contested, Trumpian times. It was a bit easier (not that much, really, for those paying attention, but a bit) to see “the gospel” within America a decade ago. As the subtitle of that first book put it, we were in a “Christ-haunted” land. Now, with a vain sex offender known for his rude impetuousness and shameless dishonesty in our highest office, supported loudly by religious leaders who take pictures of themselves with him with photos of Playboy on the nearby wall, who say firmly, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. did, that he does not take his political cues from Jesus, who have actually affirmed inhumane treatment of immigrant families — tearing children from their parents – we are in, shall we say, a different position then we were before. These are awful times for the US of A, and it seems that anyone in touch with the Bible and the current political ethos simply has to wish things were otherwise.

Enter David Dark, who once was a bit less outraged and a bit less consumed by the dark antics of our leaders, and who has deepened his long standing passion for Biblical justice and relating prophetic truth to current realities.

Relating faith to popular culture and current events, by the way, is not new to him. In a weighty introduction called “Notes on the New Seriousness” he talks nicely about his father, a father for whom “the Bible was always in the back of his mind.” He tells us:

In his lifelong enthusiasm for candor, fair play, and the well-chosen word, freewheeling Bible study as a space in which everything could be talked about (war, celebrity, R-rated films, a living wage) was among my father’s favorite jams. Karl Barth’s dictum concerning life lived with a Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other was an imperative he took up with glee.

He continues on about lessons learn from his father in this regard; I’m sure many of us envy being raised by a parent who, “as a conversation partner, treated words with an amused affection and reverence… “ Who offered a vibe of “conscience and candor.”

Dark describes his father, a lawyer, as one who understood how we fool ourselves, how we can use our virtue signaling for power, how we “can create or undo the impression of order and control through our use of language.” (Did his father read Derrida, or maybe just Amos and Jeremiah?) Dark talks about “disturbing the fixed scripts of the powerful.” And that “reverence and obsession are to one another near allied.” “For better or worse,” David says, “I am a child of his obsessions.”

No wonder he wrote a fascinating, stimulating book a few years ago called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan; $15.99.) (I might add, although it doesn’t add much, that I am honored to have a back-cover blurb on that one, sharing endorsement space with the late Eugene Peterson, who notes that Dark finds Jesus in surprising places and “he is also a reliable lie detector. And there isn’t a dull sentence in the book.”)

Dark is not only obsessed with lie detecting, with principles and words and “of who said what and how generalizing statements hide specific atrocities.” He is also obsessed – although it seems to come naturally to him – to say things in creative ways, putting side by side words that are not often combined, phrases that raise the eyebrow, that sometimes are jarring, sometimes amusing. (His sneaky little dropping of pop culture allusions, lines from rap songs or phrases from criticism or novels may go unnoticed by most – how many such “Easter eggs” did I miss, I wonder?) Which is just to say he’s a good, colorful, playful, if at times intense writer.

For instance, in that same serious introduction he describes his role as a teacher as the common good of attempted truthfulness. The paragraph-long explication of that sacred space is nearly worth the price of the book. “It could be the most insanely presumptuous task undertaken by any member of our species,” he writes. “I actually attempt to help people with their own thinking.”

I sit in classrooms with women and men in prisons and college campuses, and, together, we make assertions, put questions to one another, tell stories, read poems aloud, and wonder of our own words. They write sentences, I write sentences next to their sentences. And we get a conversation going somehow. We attempt truthfulness together. For some students, I sometimes have the feeling that this might be the first time someone’s calmly and respectfully urged them to think twice.

And, teacher that he is, obsessed with weighing in, he writes, furiously at times, hoping to help us think twice. Perhaps we need to see more clearly the shape we’re in, in this “God-forsaken” land. Or, perhaps, perhaps, we need to see the “possibility.” This book is his love letter to us all, even if it is more troubled and troubling than his first go at it in The Gospel According to America more than a decade ago.

The Possibility of America, as you can tell from the title, is still not without hope. Dark believes in the resurrection of Jesus, after all, and he loves our land. He loves our land passionately, concretely, especially as many Southerners do. Although his writing is at times dense and loaded with metaphor and allusion, he is not, finally, an abstract writer. He’s a deep and colorful thinker, but his writing is full of specificity, of place and details, of vim and vigor, as we used to say, salt and vinegar, maybe even fire and brimstone. And empathy and love and the occasional dose of self-deprecation and honest humility. He speaks his mind, tells stories, explores American writers and singers and films, and helps us see what kind of deep patriotic wells we might draw from in order to become more Christ-like and more earnest in our civic lives. In this, he seems to be nearly a postmodern, 21st century Will Campbell. Campbell, you might know, was a wordsmithy himself, published a theological journal, was a bit cantankerous, a Southern Baptist preacher who was a civil rights activist (the only white person at the founding of the SCLC) and yet friends with several Klansman. (“Jesus died for bigots, too,” he famously said.) It comes as no surprise that Dark cites Campbell’s classic memoir Brother to a Dragonfly.

Did I mention he draws on great America literature? Oh my, he starts with James Baldwin, and June Jordon, a hefty sign of where this might be going. He quotes public intellectuals, from Lincoln to Thoreau, from Octavia Butler to Wendell Berry. He loves American lit, and explains Faulkner (a lot of Faulkner), Cormac McCarthy, Melville (and more Melville), Whitman, on to contemporaries Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and Toni Morrison, among others. Who else these days recalls the televised conversation about poetry (and the detached judgment of analysis) between howling Allen Ginsburg and mumbling straight-man William F. Buckley?

If you know David (or read his Everyday Apocalypse) you know he’s going to cite Bob Dylan, and he does. Alongside Patti Smith, Chance the Rapper, and the lovely young alt-folkie Julien Baker.

David is a very creative writer and some may find him an acquired taste. This is a grand compliment – I regularly say it about two authors I adore, Calvin Seerveld and Daniel Berrigan (and, I suppose, James Joyce, although I haven’t acquired a taste for that kind of weirdness, yet.) It is interesting that David is a student of (saying a “fan of” would trivialize the matter) the poet, priest, and prophet, the late Daniel Berrigan. He thinks like him, it seems to me; he sounds like him.

Berrigan (for those who weren’t taught it in school) was until his death last year a radical Catholic priest known for speaking truth to power by way of symbolic gestures of civil disobedience, disrupting state events, exposing the ludicrous idolatry of nuclear weapons (among other shameful atrocities, from torture to abortion to our neglect of the ill.) His poetry and Biblical commentary were held in great esteem among a rag-tag group of followers, many who joined him in non-violent civil disobedience and symbolic actions to dramatize the Bible’s call to repent from social injustice, such as throwing their blood on the pillars of the Pentagon, or chaining the doors shut of multi-national corporations profiteering from cluster bombs which knowingly target little children.

Importantly, they knew Martin Luther King and American resistors such as Howard Thurman and AJ Muste, were mentored by Thomas Merton, befriended by Dorothy Day. These are American icons that Dark is attuned to and to bring their witness into conversations with Faulkner and Stanley Kubric and Americana folk music and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and rapper Kenrick Lamar is nearly geniusit’s a gumbo mix of high octane social theory, old school American literature, pop culture, and Biblical study yielding a prophetic public theology that could (please God!) lead us closer to Beloved Community.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN THEOLOGY

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press) $26.00  I may be one of the only half-way aware observers of contemporary theological conversations who doesn’t care much about this book, for whatever reason I can’t quite say, but for what it is worth, I can’t recall a bone fide book of serious academic theology that has been so hotly contested and greatly appreciated and widely reviewed. Hart is a good writer, except for when he’s showing off, drawing attention to his imposing vocabulary. HIs ideas are serious as you would expect from someone called “the most eminent living anglophone theologian” and his writing has been called “exacting” and “perspicuous.” The sensible, super smart Robert Louis Wilken says it is “original and lively.” Hart is Orthodox, used to write for First Things, and is discussed by the likes of John Milbank. Know anybody who wants to join the fun? We’re sitting on a small stack here.

The Cross Before Me: Reimagining the Way to the Good Life Rankin Wilbourne & Brian Gregor (Cook) $22.99  Although this is tackling a meaty and nearly un-utterable mystery — the Cross of Christ — it is a topic that is endlessly open to new insights and always vital. For the Apostle Paul, it seems the like “the cross” is shorthand for the saving work of Christ, his suffering, his atonement, his resurrection power, the cosmic scope in his redeeming work, and the reality of the church as a sign of the Kingdom coming. Whew. Can all of that — that is, the cross — help our life flourish? Help us find meaning and even joy?  Does understanding more about salvation help us find the way to what Jesus called “the abundant life”? Wilbourne and Gregor think so, although, like Jesus and Paul, they define “glory” in an upside down way. This is not a self help book, let alone a guide to “success” but it helps redefine the good life “as we learn to delight in losing ourselves to embrace the life-giving weakness of the cross.”

Wilbourne’s previous book was Union with Christ. About it, Tim Keller said it was “simply the best book for laypeople on the subject.” John Ortberg weighed in about that one, saying:

I’m trying to remember the last time I was more excited about a new book or a new author.

Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be edited by Mark Noll, David Begginton & George Marsden (Eerdmans) $29.99  I would very much like to review this in greater detail once I spend more time with the many interesting chapters by so many remarkable scholars. Allow me to say that it is the opinion of many who read advanced copies, and my own hunch, that this will be known as the definitive study of this lively and diverse and important sub-culture on the conservative end of the theological spectrum. That many of us identify as some sort of evangelical (in distinction from harsh and often not too cultural savvy fundamentalism on one hand and an often bland and unbiblical sort of theological liberalism on the other) makes this that much more important. (For a really readable and lively collection by a group of concerned evangelicals about whether or not that phrase is worth holding on to, re-captured from the far right political folks who use it, see Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning edited a year ago by Mark Labberton (published by IVP; $16.00.) I gave it a good review at BookNotes last winter.)

So, the next level up for those reading in this field is surely this remarkable 325+ page anthology. Historian Grant Wacker (who wrote an important, recent biography of Billy Graham, by the way) says it may be the benchmark book. Heath Carter (reminding us that this debate has been around for decades and have intensified in the wake of Donald Trump’s election) says those looking to get their bearings in this bewildering topic should “start here” — in part because Evangelicals is a brand new book that “sheds welcome light on a subject that too often generates only heat.” Join voices younger and older, from various social locations, each different sorts of Christian scholars with affection for the term, evangelical, but as diverse as Kristin Du Mez and D.G. Hart, Timothy Keller and Amanda Porterfield, Jemar Tisby and Molly Worthen, Thomas Kidd and Mark Noll, and more.

Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper Michael Wagenman (Lexham) $12.99 Readers of our BookNotes newsletter may have noticed that we often recommend authors who are somehow connected to the heritage of the fascinating, unstoppable, pious leader of a cultural renewal in Holland at the turn of the 20th century, Abraham Kuyper. We’ve highlighted books that explain the broadest Kuyperian tradition (Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition by Craig Bartholomew is magisterial) and Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction by RichMouw that offers a great, but brief introduction to the robust thinker, leader, who eventually became Prime Minister. We’ve offered collections of articles about Kuyper and, of course James Bratt’s definitive biography published by Eerdmans, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat .

But yet, I’ve wished for an even more basic book that highlights just a bit about the man and his theology, and a bit about the unique Kuyperian approach to culture and renewed social spheres. How might his thought guide us today — especially if we are disillusioned (or, as a matter of principle, opposed) to the first principles of the so called left and right? That is, if we are wanting to be somehow uniquely loyal to Christ in our civic lives, what insights might Kuyper bring us. This little book offers just that sort os exploration of what Kuyper meant (and what we might learn from) by insisting that Christ is Lord over “every square inch” of his beloved creation. Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper illustrates nicely just why so many folks are learning to appreciate this “neither left nor right” alternative approach and are yearning to explore fresh ways the gospel can permeate all aspects of society.

Live the Questions: How Searching Shapes Our Convictions and Commitments Jeffrey F. Keuss (IVP) $17.00  Admittedly, this isn’t precisely theology. It’s not academic or scholarly, But the author teaches undergrads in Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University, so I wanted to list it here. I read a book years ago that Keuss wrote about pop music (Your Neighbor’s Hymnal) and know he’s a good writer and a creative thinker. I am very, very impressed with this vital book about questions in Scripture.

I suspect you know folks who want to be more thoughtful in their faith and they may call this “theology” when it is just fairly normal thoughtfulness, nurturing an informed and self-aware worldview. Call it what you want, Live the Questions is raising great (theology-like) questions and inviting us — using the famous Rilke quote — to not just sit around pondering big questions, but to live into them, to experience the struggle and pain as well as the goodness and joy of discovery. Lively Biblical faith is not about settling on tired certainties, anyway, but (as a review of it by Walter Brueggemann put it) “on ongoing, deep, and unflinching travel into deeper wonderment and open-ended trust.” Now there’s a theological claim, eh?

Tod Bolsinger (a bone fide theologian) says of Live the Questions,

If you are ready for a more authentic faith and a more meaningful life, then Professor Keuss is the right guide and his good is a good tool.

Give Live the Questions: How Searching Shapes Our Convictions and Commitments to anyone who is open to delving deeper, who wants to learn to ask better questions about ourselves, about God, and our world. As the author himself says:

Life is best shaped by good practices that build good habits for human flourishing, and asking good questions is one such habit, one that’s often overlooked.’

There are eight key chapters, each exploring a certain sort of question — about identity, about shame, about justice and evil, about loss, about community, and more. The author has been a mentor to many college age students and many older adults esteem him greatly. For instance, the evangelical elder statesman John Perkins writes:

Over the years, I have had so many questions of God. How long will injustice go on? Where is God in our pain? But my friend Jeff Keuss says that we make our spiritual journey through wrestling with the questions, not just getting easy answers. This book will help you live the questions. If you ask good questions on your knees in prayer listening to God, then God will speak to you. And within his body of the church, together we can transform the world.”

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GREAT (BOOK) CHRISTMAS GIFT IDEAS FOR KIDS — it’s not too late! ALL ON SALE – 20% OFF while supplies last

Nope, it’s not too late. We are getting orders out right away and Priority Mail remains as quick or quicker than UPS — and much less expensive. With our customary 20% OFF BookNotes specials, you can get lasting, impressive gifts at a good price, sent with a prayer and smile.

As you may recall, we can send packages anywhere, so if you’d like us to nicely wrap a book and tuck in a little note to your loved ones, we’d be delighted to help you with that. We can take credit cards at our certified secure website (click the link at the end of this newsletter) or we can send you a bill so you can pay later. Easy. Just let us know how we can help.

We’ve got so many great kids books, we wanted to highlight a handful of mostly recent ones.

We show the regular retail price and then our sale price. Order today. Supplies may be limited. If your looking for something else, send us an email (read@heartsandmindsbooks.com) or give the store a call at 717-246-3333.

How to Read a Book Kwame Alexander, illustrated and art by Melissa Sweet (Harper) $17.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39  Ms Sweet has been a Caldecott honoree for her amazingly creative art and her colorful paper cut patchwork style here (utilizing, among other things, actual printed pages) is a wild and sensational match for this poetic, almost zany (if at times tender) tribute to the art of opening and reading and power of a book. This is one energetic, fun, complex picture book that finally invites kids to dream and hope. Ages maybe 4 to 8 or 9… wow! If you want kids to value the beauty and joy of entering a world of imagination, this is a great, great gift. Let’s create young book lovers!!

How Great is Our God: 100 Indescribable Devotions About God & Science Louie Giglio, illustrated by Nicola Anderson (Tommy Nelson) $17.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39  One of our popular children’s books this past year or so was Giglio’s 2017 release Indescribable: 100 Devotions About God and Science. This new one is more of the same, perhaps even better and for slightly older kids. There are full color photos and nicely done art illustrations and great storytelling and plenty of whimsy as the author reminds us of fun facts about the creation that help us learn science while recalling that it comes from the hand of a good, good God. There are upbeat lessons that are so interesting about space and time, about earth and weather, about plants and climates. You will thrill to learn about our bodies, emotions, and imaginations even as we learn a bunch about animals (“from their habits to their habitats.”  This does not (as far as we can tell) enter the debate about creationism or evolution, although it is clear that Giglio wants us to see scientific facts as pointers to the God of the Bible. This is great fun and inspiration for boys and girls in elementary school. Some have said it is best for ages 6 – 10, although maybe it’s a bit broader than that.

Friends Around the World Atlas: A Compassionate Approach to Seeing the World Compassion International, illustrated by Emma Trithart (Tyndale Kids) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99  Children’s books showing in full color the way other kids live, guides to other countries and their geography and culture are a stable of globally-aware educators (and should be in the homes of your kids and grandkids and on the shelves of every Sunday school classroom.) Every now and then a new one comes out that is just stellar, up-to-date, colorful, interesting and we just have to rave and rave.

Very big kudos to Compassion International for producing this pleasantly informative and upbeat picture book that gives kids a chance to “travel around the world — no passport required!” This includes a fold-out map, a prayer “passport” and more. We have an 112-page, spiral-bound very handsome Friends Around the World Activity Book that goes with it, too, if you want to order that as well. That’s also created nicely by Compassion International and sells usually for $12.99, but at our sale price, it would just be $10.39. Nice.

By the way, we’ve suggested other years and wanted to remind you again of the splendid, essential children’s prayer guide for praying about countries all over the globe called Window on the World: An Operation World Prayer Resource which was revised a year ago. It is published in the US by IVP and sells regularly for $25.00. (OUR SALE PRICE = $20.00.) Window on the World goes through the world alphabetically and gives details of important things to pray for in those various countries. It would make a great and more detailed pray guide and companion to the Atlas.

Far From Home: A Story of Loss, Refuge, and Hope Sarah Parker Rubio, illustrated by Fatima Anaya (Tyndale Kids) $14.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $11.99 Please, please, consider this. There is no doubt that immigration, migration, and refugee resettlement will be an important part of the life of your children as they grow up so you should prepare them now to have a compassionate, realistic understanding of the plight, fears, joys, and humanity of migrant families. It is hard to do a kids book that is colorful and interesting, honest and engaging without being dour or overly tragic. This book is brilliant in that regard and you’ll love the vivd art by Anaya. I’m not sure if stuffed animal rabbits are part of the real culture of the family illustrated here, but the child’s love for his toy is sweet and will surely resonate with your young one. As Mike Nawrocki (a co-creator of VeggieTales) says, Far From Home is “a fresh and inspired perspective on the refugee that will resonate with kids.” Beyond that, it will shape and form them in good, tender ways. By the way, there is this allusive few pages where an old lady tells the child about another person who had to leave his home — the illustrations make it clear it is about the incarnation of Jesus — and that brings another layer of moving thoughtfulness to discuss. It isn’t a Christmas book, but the last page does show a touching painting of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt with the words of Matthew 2:13-14.) Highly recommended.

God’s Big Plan Elizabeth Caldwell & Theodore Hiebert (Flyaway Books) $17.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60  We complimented this at BookNotes when this colorful gem came out last Spring, noting that Libby Caldwell is an esteemed Christian educator who has done research on how children learn, how they imaginatively engage the Bible, and, has, in fact, lead a team that created the fabulous children’s Bible Growing in God’s Love. We stock that big children’s Bible and Caldwell’s books about children and youth for adults.

This new, bright picture book offers an intersting look at the Tower of Babel story and celebrates diversity, affirming that difference — between races and cultures, languages and genders, abilities and preferences, etc. etc. etc. — is part of God’s good plan. God’s renewal of the world through God’s own grace and plan of reconciliation does not wipe out our uniquenesses, but helps us honor and embrace God’s amazing world. This gets at “unity within diversity” but more — it reminds us to wonder.

Alma and How She Got Her Name Juana Martinez-Neal (Candlewick) $15.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.79 This remarkable book won the esteemed Caldecott Award this past year (and our copies have the lovely silver seal.) At first one might wonder if this pencil (charcoal, maybe?) sketching — with pastel pink colors added — is deserving of a coveted Caldecott, but the more one explores it, looks and looks, reads and re-reads, one surely sees its creativity, its artfulness, its genius. What’s perhaps even better than the simple, sketchy, yet illuminating drawing art is the story itself– a young girl tracing back her ancestry and learning the varied relatives and their places who become part of her own name. You’ll learn to care for Alma and her family.  Here is how the cover puts it:

“How did Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela end up with such a long name? As Daddy tells the story of her many names, Alma can almost feel herself growing into them!”

By hearing how this little girl learns a big story, author-illustrator Martinez-Neal opens a treasure box of discovery for children curious about their own names.  Nicely done.

The Undefeated Kwame Alexander & Kadir Nelson (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) $17.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39 This is one of the most bright and vividly illustrated children’s books of the year, and it is strong, powerful, informative, enlightening. What genius to bring these two creators together, the poetic Alexander and the vivid visual artist Nelson! The Undefeated tells of jazz musicians and athletes and activists and writers and leaders and ordinary folks, those African American people who survived as they had to, who became “dreamers and doers.” Kwame Alexander has written nearly 30 books, some New York Times bestsellers and many award winners. Kadir Nelson, the artist, similarly is highly regarded (and has won two Caldecott Honors) and is a favorite of ours. (Maybe you know his cool book We Are the Ship which is an illustrated kid’s book on the Negro Baseball League, or the big, striking picture books on Coretta, on Martin, on Mandela, or the one on Harriet Tubman (simple called Moses) among many others. I can’t say enough about this powerful, righteous, book, and commend it to families across the land. Very nicely done, showing joys and hardships, tenacity and resilience.

Jesus and the Lion’s Den: A True Story About How Daniel Points Us to Jesus Alison Mitchell, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (The Good Book Company) $14.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $11.99  I am sure that those who follow BookNotes remember that we announce every new release in this fabulous series (“Tales That Tell the Truth”) that remind us that Christ is the center of the Biblical story and that creatively unpacks key Biblical stories in ways that delightfully point kids to a gospel-centered reading, a gospel-centered life. So, no, this isn’t a typo — as many Bible scholars remind us, the story isn’t about Daniel, after all, nor is it about King Darius. It is about the real King, the one whose birth we are celebrating this month.  Happily, the book — like the others in the series such as the The One O’Clock Miracle or The Garden, the Curtain, and the Cross or God’s Very Good Idea (go here to see the whole list) — isn’t preachy, but nicely invites kids to look for clues to the ultimate meaning of the story in the text. It’s an outstanding and creatively illustrated book, great for ages 4 to 8 or 9.

Drawing God Karen Kiefer, illustrated by Kathy DeWit (Paraclete) $17.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39 This is, I think, a charming book, with fairly traditionalist little kids artwork and a profound story that is, on the face of it, pretty simple.  A group of children go on a field trip to an art museum and young Emma is inspired to draw like Picasso, but wants to draw something really spectacular. She decides to draw God but immediately realizes that this is tricky. What does God look like?  Here is how one reviewer summarized the story:

Emma draws the brightest sun and feels she has drawn God because God is light, but her best friend disagrees. She drew a loaf of bread because it reminds her of God’s grace, but another friend says that bread is not God. Next she draws a huge heart because God is love. Her friends tell her God is not a Valentine. She goes home and prays that somehow she can draw God so that her friends will see Him.

So, this story about a girl drawing a picture of God ends up inviting readers to consider how they might draw a picture of the Divine. The author is a catechist in the Roman Catholic church and a staff person at Boston College. (And the popular Jesuit Father James Martin has a nice endorsement on the back.) The prestigious Kirkus Review liked Drawing God and reminded us that “it closes with suggestions for faith-based activities for children that connect with Emma’s story. A simple, easily understood, and welcome book about children’s relationships with God.” Could be used in an interfaith setting.

En la escuela de los Salmos/At Psalms School John D. Witvliet & Maria Eugenia Cornou, illustrated by Joel Schoon-Tanis (GIA Publications) $18.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.16 What an amazing new book, bi-lingual (obviously, in Spanish and English) offering a guide to using Psalms in worship. “Reading Psalms is kind of like going to school,” they write. “They teach us how to listen to and talk with God in worship, at church, and every day. What do we learn at Psalms School? Let’s read and find out!”

The tone and vision and the acrylic art by Schoon-Tanis reminds us of their previous bi-lingual project, En La Mesa de Dios/At God’s Table published by Calvin College Press in cooperation (as this one is, too) by the Calvin Institute on Christian Worship. There is simply nothing like this in print and we are proud to recommend it.

Child of Wonder Marty Haugen, illustrated by Stephen Nesser (GIA Publications) $16.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.56  While we’re recommending titles we carry from GIA, allow us to give a very large hat tip to this gloriously attractive, warm, evocative book of wonder. Marty Haugen is an old folksinger who was one of the pioneers of early contemporary liturgical songs (maybe known by those who remember the St. Louis Jesuits, David Haas, or the Monks of Weston Priory or more recently, say, Bryan Sirchio. Marty is a member of the UCC but writes music often for the Lutherans.) This lovely children’s book shows childhood rituals from all over the world so although it was composed for the baptism of his godson, the lyrics “celebrate the sacredness of human life and delight in the lives of children.” It’s tender and touching, beautiful and nicely multicultural. Included in the volume is a free mp3 download of the song itself, although one hardly needs to song to appreciate the lyrical cadence of the words of the book and the wonderful pictures.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Roaring Brook Press) $18.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19   I wish I had time and energy and space to tell you the many details of why Beth and I think this is one of the very best children’s books of recent years — it should have been nominated for a Caldecott, at least! (And it has won a number of great accolades and awards!)  You may know Gary Schmidt, a beloved English professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids who has given us great middle-school age stories like the fabulous Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, The Wednesday Wars or Okay for Now among many others. Here Schmidt uses his great wordsmithing gifts to craft a moving tale about a woman named Isabella who took a new name: Sojourner Truth.

Written with luminous prose (called “poetic and soaring”) complimented by artful, moving, water color illustration and good design, it’s very engaging for even older children. (There is a poem unfolding within the book itself, a sentence set apart every few pages, that is stunning and extraordinary, itself worth the price of the book!) So Tall Within is a book that is powerful, moving, transformative, a fitting biography of this American Christian hero. There is an excellent biography in the back for parents, teachers, or older youth.

“Schmidt’s fluid prose is nicely suited to reading aloud to primary-grade audiences, but Minter’s arresting artwork extends the age range… Even picture-book collections in which [Sojourner Truth] is well represented will surely make space for this engrossing work.” – Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Frog’s Rainy-Day Story and Other Fables Michael James Dowling, illustrated by Sarah Buell Dowling (Carpenter’s Son Publishing) $19.95  OUR SALE PRICE = $15.96  Beth and I love the look of this recent book, and offer our congratulations to the author who worked on this a long time to get it just right. In a way, this is a playful effort to teach the values of a classic Christian worldview — using the device of these fables and parables, Biblical wisdom lived out by animals (have you heard of Aesops? Of course!) In one of the clever stories, Frog tries to write a story the letters decide to walk off the page, thinking they can make their own story without a Creator. Ha! In another, Gander gets an invitation from a King that upsets his plans. There are eight imaginative tales designed actually for the whole family — some of these will make you laugh and some might just make you think. Although the very professional water colors are perfect for kids, this almost could be a whimsical gift book for adults who want to use the stories for further conversation or cultural apologetics. As the alway brilliant Kenneth Boa says of it, Frog’s Rainy-Day Story “wonderfully contrasts the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of the Word.”

What Boa is alluding to is more than the stories, actually, because at the end of each story there is a “wisdom of the world” quote (often by someone well known from popular culture or scholarship) contrasted and compared with Bible quotes. What a useful resource to invite reflection and conversation; heck, you might not even agree with the upshot of the story and what lesson is supposed to be learned. All the better for a learning resource, eh? There’s even a hefty glossary in the back. Like I said the author put a lot of effort into this labor of love.

Listen to Marty Machowski, himself a very popular gospel-focused children’s writer:

Written with the whimsy of Aesop, these engaging fables will challenge your family toward deeper thought. The marvelous illustrations will delight children and adults alike and bid them return again and again.

Candle Walk: A Bedtime Prayer to God Karin Holsinger Sherman (Church Publishing) $17.95  OUR SALE PRICE = $14.36  This is a bit quirky and we like to highlight some unique ones for those interested in harder to find books of children’s spirituality. As the solid Publishers Weekly writes, Candle Walk,

“…prepares kids for sleep by taking them on a walk through the woods and inviting them to experience the Compline, a centuries old practice of contemplative evening prayer.”

It has a degree of whimsy — outdoor animals and insects are reading the Scriptures — and the art is sometimes even silly, but the point is to not only formalize the classic bedtime prayer or to have a time of intersession, but to create a ritual which can illuminate, as one reviewer put it, “God’s peace, protection, and love.”

The author has worked in ecological activism and is trained in spiritual direction, so she knows creation care and Anglican monastic spirituality. Here is how the publisher describes the book, as a child’s introduction to Compline:

Share the beauty of nature and bedtime prayer with a special child In this bedtime book, join in a candlelit wander through the woods, listening attentively to the river, trees, stars, and moths singing verses from scripture. This beautifully illustrated picture book invites families to enter into a calm, contemplative quieting-down based on a centuries-old practice of evening prayer from the Christian liturgical tradition. Like the beloved Office of Compline, the book helps children “complete” their day and prepare for sleep, fulfilling a hunger for a bedtime prayer that is not simply intercessory, but offers an opportunity to practice listening and contemplation. Appropriate for toddlers and school-children alike, Candle Walk is a wonderful way to prepare children for sleep, assured of the nearness of God.

Love Does for Kids Bob Goff and Lindsey Goff Viduchich, illustrated by Michael Lauritano (Tommy Nelson) $16.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59  Oh man, you know I’ve talked about this before and can’t say enough about it. The hand-sized hardback is comprised of great stories from our best-selling, exceptionally popular book by Bob Goff called Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, re-told by his elementary school teacher daughter in a style a kid can enjoy. Yep, these are the best capers and Christ-like adventures and goofy escapades from Goff’s first book, written for children ages 6 – 10 or any elementary grade. What fun! What a great gift for a boy or girl.

Here is what the publisher has written to explain more about it:

In the same way that Love Does has struck a deep chord with adults, kids will experience God in new and thrilling ways and see that living out our faith certainly isn’t boring! With this book, children will laugh, dream, and be inspired to make a difference for God, and they’ll learn to:

    • take ownership of their mistakes and forgive others for their mistakes.
    • never give up–no matter how scared they are.
    • put their faith into action by spending time with–and acting more like–Jesus.

Kids everywhere will love Bob and Lindsey’s stories about how love does. With childlike faith, enthusiasm, and great whimsy, young hearts will feel instantly connected to a love that acts as much as it feels. Children will walk away with a sense of wonder at how great God is and will feel empowered to do things that will make a tangible difference in the world.

As a little boy with a big personality and even bigger dreams, Bob Goff had lots of questions, and they didn’t go away when he grew up. It wasn’t until he learned just how big and wild and wonderful God is that he began to find answers. Once Bob learned about the deep goodness of God, he began to learn about the great power God gives His kids when they live a life full of love for others.

Bob and Lindsey invite kids to get to know God better and to see the world as a place designed to be changed as we put our faith in action.

Emblems of the Infinite King: Enter the Knowledge of the Living God J. Ryan Lister, illustrated by Anthony M. Benedetto (Crossway) $24.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99  Wow, this is an amazing looking book, created by the leaders of the hip-hop record label Humble Beast. (Perhaps you’ll recall us talking about Ryan Lister’s cool adult book on a theology of the arts, Images and Idols.)  The artist involved here, Anthony Benedetto, is the cofounder of Nova Nimbus, a multidisciplinary creative studio so this isn’t a kiddie book. Emblems of the Infinite King is stunning — black and gold graphics, sometimes with reverse print (white print on black pages) with embossed gold edges and a black ribbon marker — which offers, in the words of Randy Alcorn,”a sound systematic theology conveyed to kids in a vibrant and accessible way.” It playfully uses the compelling notion of an ancient key and offers creative storytelling to bring theology to life. It has been called “strikingly imaginative” even as it pulls readers into the Throne Room of the great King to explain eight key core truths.

This exploration of the grand story of redemption is unlike anything you’ve seen and we’re happy to suggest it to families with kids from 10 or so up through middle school or even high school if they like this sort of vibe.

SIX FOR OLDER KIDS OR TEENS

Sawdust in His Shoes Eloise Jarvis McGraw (Plough Publishing) $9.95  OUR SALE PRICE = $7.96 Space does not permit us to describe this in detail, but the fact that the thoughtful Plough Publishing (of Bruderhof fame) chose to find and re-publish this older classic (by a three-time Newberry Award winner) should be all you need to know; they are careful, literary, and esteem high-quality literature that has some sort of humane story and helpful values.

When this youthful book — what we now call YA fiction — was reviewed in the New York Times in 1950, they said:

“A good book for children is a good book for any age, and Sawdust in His Shoes belongs in that rare category.”

In those same mid-20th century years, the very respected Kirkus Review called Sawdsust “a good, hearty, full-blooded yarn, appealing to both boys and girls.” A story about an outside who becomes a hero — of course they’d love it. A coming of age tale set in the heyday of the three ring circus? Well, kids may not know much about that, making this all the more alluring as they learn about Joe Lang, a kid of a third generation circus family and a star bareback rider, sent away to a vocational school after his parents die. Will the old clown Mo Shapely become his guardian? When I say this book has acrobatics, I mean it literally. It’s amazing. Sensitive kids or those looking for something other than fantasy-adventure, will adore it. And like that TImes quote, channeling C.S. Lewis, maybe it would be good for anyone, of any age.

Forward Me Back To You Matali Perkins (Farrar Straus Giroux) $17.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39  I’m not sure why, but it is a special delight to find a book that is getting some advanced buzz from the mainstream (secular?) YA establishment and then to discover that the author is a person of faith and that her story includes a plot line of great concern to many Christian readers. Obviously, many good books have no overt religious themes, nor should they, but when one comes up on a publishing house not affiliated with the religious publishing world, well, it is good.  Forward Me Back to You is just such a book and we hope our readers might support it.

Mitali Perkins has written many award winning, respected, ambitious books for young readers. (You Bring the Distant Year won bunches of awards a few years ago.)  She was born in India and has resided in both South Asia and Africa, but now in in the US. Her global awareness has equipped her to write realistically about some hard stuff in our sad world — human trafficking.

Here is how the book’s flap sets it all up:

Katrina King is the reigning teen jiu-jitsu champion of Northern California, but she’s having trouble fighting off the secrets of her past. Robin Thornton was adopted from an orphanage in India and is reluctant to take on his future. If he can’t find his roots, how can he possibly pick a college. Robin and Kat meet in the most unlikely of circumstances and find themselves signing up for a summer service trip to Kolkata to work with survivors of human trafficking. As bonds build among the travelers, both teens discover that justice and healing are entwined, like the pain in their past their hopes for the future.

We respect this author a lot and think this handsome hardback could be just the think for a thoughtful young teen who likes good, contemporary stories.

On the Come Up Angie Thomas (B+B) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19  I’m surprised we don’t have more customers asking about this — it came out this summer to some good acclaim, the eagerly anticipated (at least in some quarters) follow up to the YA phenomenon, The Hate U Give. That novel won some of the most coveted teen book awards there are — long-listed for the National Book Award, a Coretta Scot King Honor Book, a Boston-Globe Horn Book award winner, a Michael Printz honor book, and more.

In case you aren’t aware, The Hate U Give (which was made in to a movie which I did not see) was riveting, well told in the voice of a black teen, about police brutality and systemic racism in America. One reviewer wrote that it was “fearlessly honest and heartbreakingly human.” The famous John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) said,

“Angie Thomas has written a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”

Well, that’s about her previous one. The newer one is On the Come Up, about sixteen year old Bri, the daughter of a deceased rap star who herself wants to become a rapper.

“For all the struggle in this book, The New York Times Book Review wrote:

“Thomas rarely misses a step as a writer. Thomas continues to hold up that mirror with grace and confidence. We are lucky to have her, and lucky to know a girl like Bri.”

I suspect these YA books about rough urban life and high school aren’t for everyone. But I also think some teens will find them to be a real blessing, giving voice to issues they are thinking about, experiencing in their own ways. There’s a lot of heart and hope in On the Come Up.

The Faithful Spy: A True Story – Graphic Novel John Hendrix (Amulet/Abrams) $16.99  OUR SALE PRICE – $13.59  We’ve recommended this before — oh yes! The Faithful Spy: A True Story is an expertly done graphic novel that anyone interested in the genre will appreciate. And it is about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer! John Hendrix is an accomplished and fascinating Christian author and artist and we can’t say enough about this colorful, serious story about the German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his efforts to stop Hitler’s campaign of terror. 175 pages, including hand-written text. Impressive.

 

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness  Andrew Peterson (Waterbrook) $15.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $12.70  This is the first installment of the popular Wingfeather Saga created by singer-songwriter, writer, recording artist, Rabbit Room founder, poet and all around creative thinker, Andrew Peterson. On the front cover of this swashbuckling fantasy it says this: Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. and the Fearsome Toothy Cows of Skree. Well, look out for that! This has been very popular this year (and, in a month or so, the first two Wingfeather Saga books will be re-issued in hardcover, which is a bit unusual, a sign of how they are catching on in a big way.) Great for Middle School readers, and up to at least younger teens.

 

We have the second Peterson Wingfeather Saga volume, too, of couse —North! Or Be Eaten: Wild Escapes, a Desperate Journey, and the Ghastly Fangs of Dang Andrew Peterson (Waterbrook) $15.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.70 What a blast — this is sequel to Dark Sea of Darkness and equally adventurous, good stuff, thoughtful wise, even.  We listed these curiously fascinating and well written fantasy stories here since they aren’t little children’s picture books. Teens and older fantasy lovers everywhere would like them but I think they are ideal for Middle School readers and younger teens.  Flee, now, and watch those ghastly fangs of dang. Nobody wants to get eaten by fangs of dang.

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PRE-ORDER the soon to be released gem by Steven Garber – “The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work” ON SALE

The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work Steven Garber (IVP) regularly $20.00 (hardback with full color photographs.) OUR SALE PRICE = $16.00

This is a BookNotes post I’ve been eager to share as it is an announcement about a forthcoming book that is about to be released and, although it has an official 2020 publication date, will be here by mid-December. You can PRE-ORDER it now on sale as a Christmas gift and we promise to get it to you (or directly to your recipient) in plenty of time for gift giving on Christmas day.

Like those artsy Hollywood films that are released in December so they can qualify for that year’s Academy Awards, we just might count this as a 2019 release and will therefore surely name it as one of the very best books of the year. Then, I can name it again next year as one of the best of 2020, too. Believe me, I will. It’s that good.

Author Steve Garber is a very dear friend and an esteemed teacher and writer who is deeply respected by almost everybody who knows him. He smiles a lot, loves great movies and novels and pop music (and seems to have crossed paths in meaningful ways with smart bands such as the guys in Jars of Clay and respected visual artists like Mako Fujimura and so many more) and has talked about deep things with writers as diverse as rock poet Billy Corgan to the late urbane novelist Tom Wolfe to the great rural Wendell Berry. I say this not to name-drop or brag but to impress upon you that this quiet professor and skillful writer is a very, very interesting person who has been named as an influence upon important influencers. He talks about “conversations with consequence” and sometimes convenes gatherings with old theologians and modern makers, with writers and justice activists, with older scholars and young moms. He connects chefs and rock stars and poets and pastors. He cares about faithful Biblical thinking and beautiful, meaningful work in the world. He enjoys long walks outdoors. Like one of his mentors, Francis Schaeffer, he believes in honest answers to honest questions. With his sharp intellect and big picture of God’s work in the world and his patient capacity for long conversations over cups of hot tea, I have heard more than one informed person say he’s the closest thing to a combo of Edith and Francis Schaeffer we have these days.

The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work is a collection of shorter essays, reflections, reports, if you will, of Steve’s travels and conversations, often (although not only) on the questions that come up when ordinary folks are trying hard to relate their Christian faith to their work, to their jobs and their responsibilities in society. He shares much about his anguish over this broken world and yet shares good glimmers of hope, stories of goodness and wonder and of those making a difference in constructive ways. The Seamless Life is a perfect introduction to Steve’s writing for at least three reasons.

First, it’s accesible and the entries are relatively short. These pieces capture his eloquence and unique way with words – he’s got some distinctive styles that are signature formulations – without being overly dense. I think his writing style is spectacularly interesting and moving, tender and at times so poignant, yet without ever being sentimental or shallow. Unlike some authors who turn up the prose to make it artsy, but aren’t writing about stuff that deserves such weighty words, Garber’s intensity as a writer matches his seriousness as a thinker and bears witness to his life lived with quiet zeal and utter integrity and a nerdy sort of sincere passion.

But here’s what is so good about this new book: as a collection of stand-alone pieces, many reporting on places he’s visited or people he’s met, the chapters are short and often nearly punchy; he meanders through history and the meaning of words or places he’s visited but quickly gets to the point. One need not wade through long arguments and complex analysis to get to the writerly pay-off. I hope you enjoy the genre of essays, and appreciate how this collection carries the benefits of this short-form approach, even if they are sometimes memoiristic — reportage, testimony. He has honed his writing craft and has so very much to say, but brings the insight easily, here, with a really nice touch. Some of these chapters were first published as Facebook posts but as anyone who follows Steve on social media will attest, one long Facebook post from Steve is worth a whole book from a less profound author. These shorter essays are a great “gateway” to his longer books — accessible and interesting and handsomely offered, with pictures. Even if they are not exactly succinct or concise, they are relatively brief.

Secondly, it covers a lot of ground, interestingly. The entries in The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work are, besides being somewhat shorter than the weighty chapters in Fabric of Faithfulness or Visions of Vocation, a bit more diverse in content than those previous books. Both of those books are extraordinarily interesting and he brings in authors and artists and stories of unsung people he knows. He’s a born storyteller; he loves to hold up the work and witness of others to help us all be inspired to live more creatively and faithfully in-but-not-of this broken, broken, already-but-not-yet world. Yet, still, the movies and stories and exemplars in the other books are arranged to illustrate the big points of the book, so, interesting as they are, they are mostly connected to that particular theme and illustrative. In The Seamless Life, however, Garber covers more topics which allows him to introduce to us even more of his friends, his favorite writers, his discoveries about family and friendship and church and more. The stories are front and center. In a way, these pieces are just more of the same we’ve come to expect from Steve but the scope is a bit more broad, and the short form allows him to dip in to this topic or that, tell this episode or quote that lyric with even more personality and obvious wisdom. It makes for very inspiring and interesting and energetic reading, urgent reports from the road. I don’t want to overstate this, but it is almost devotional, doxological.

If you, like me, ever quote Steve’s previous two books, photocopy pages, cite certain stories or episodes, you will love The Seamless Life. It is eminently readable, quotable, and in that sense, very useful for those in ministry, who teach or preach or post. You can confidently give out this book as a gift even to those readers who you fear might not stick with his excursions into Michael Polanyi’s philosophy of science or Lesslie Newbigin’s view of truth or the political theory of Vaclav Havel (in Fabric) or the critique of the eroding influence of capitalism a la Wendell Berry or the notion of “proximate justice” (in Visions.) Not that either of those two previous books are too academic (they are not written for the scholarly market, even though Fabric was most interested in how lasting faith is developed in the young adult years within the context of higher education) and not that Seamless is overly light or cheap. Garber can’t write a cheap phrase and is always profound, even in his gentle storytelling and good humor. But The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work is an easier read than his previous two and so it’s great to give out, sure to please anyone interested in faith and public life, about honestly weaving together worship and work, wishing for a life that ties together, coherently, seamlessly, a long obedience in the same direction, hard as that may be for us frail humans.

Thirdly, it helpfully revisits some of his previous concerns working them out in real places, reporting back from the journey. Please realize that Seamless… is not a greatest hits album, since that beloved genre offers a collection of previously recorded stuff, a compilation. This handsome hardback volume has the charm and familiarity of such a device, but is not culled from the two earlier books; it is absolutely not rehash. If you’ve read Fabric of Faithfulness or Visions of Vocation, it just sort of feels like you’ve heard some of this before. Which is to say, if you appreciated his two previous books – and let us be clear, some think his books are the most important books they’ve ever read – you will adore these shorter ruminations, revisiting themes and topics and concerns and passions that thread their way through his earlier books, his many classes and speaking engagements, his very life. These are Garber’s eloquent but short-form reports from the road. And what an interesting road he’s been on!

(By the way, Visions of Vocation has been translated into Mandarin Chinese, into the language spoken in Indonesia, and, just recently, into Slovak. Steve has travelled to these places to teach and mentor and celebrate with those who have found enduring wisdom and sturdy, thoughtful value in his work. Did I mention that the photos and pieces in A Seamless Life are mostly reports from the road? Did I mention what a very interesting road he has been on? I sometimes think of him as a global Frodo…and he invites us to follow along.)

If Fabric of Faithfulness and Visions of Vocation taught us anything it is that to live out an enduring faith, seamlessly and coherently, bearing some of the weight of the hurting world as we must, and our personal brokenness, as we do, we need models and mentors. If you want a glimpse of a life well lived, culturally aware and spiritually rooted, realistic and morally serious, knowing more about Steve Garber will be edifying and perhaps life changing for you. Even more than his previous books,­­­ The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work tells more of Steve’s own story. He tells of his parents and grandparents, the geographies and places he has loved, writes sweetly about his beloved wife of many decades and his children (now grown) and ponders his various careers and callings, letting us in a bit more, telling great anecdotes about others, but also about himself. If you like his books or classes or legendary Facebook posts, you simply must read this. If it is a great gateway introduction for those who haven’t read him yet, it is also a perfect follow up and follow through to those who have been introduced to his good work in the previous books. Indeed, you will smile knowing a bit more about some of the folks that are mentioned in those previous volumes (like Hans of Elevation Burger and Bruno and Jay from the Mars Corporation Jubilee project.) Man, this is good stuff, and this new book delights to invite you into deeper membership of this broader circle of Garber’s friends and comrades.

I have read the soon-to-be-released manuscript of The Seamless Life and offered a heart-felt and glowing endorsement, which, I am told, may be inside the front cover. I count that as a great honor and I will copy that intentionally breathy endorsement below, along with others written by more important leaders, that I trust you will find informative and compelling, persuading you to care about this wonderfully written collection of shorter reports by my friend Steve Garber. You should know, too, that this hardback is designed almost like a gift book with full color photographs taken by Steve, often informally, it seems, capturing more of the embodied, real-world texture of these reports and stories and episodes of his life in the real world. I was unsure if reproducing these pictures (and doing the book in hardback) would be effective, but the more I think about it, the more glad I am about this. It really does create a reminder that these essays emerged from real places; this is not abstracted idealism. Garber has cared for a lifetime about places and cultures and people and institutions, in their beauty and sadness, so real shots of the scenes truly is apropos. I think you’ll agree that it’s a very nice touch.

I will tell you more about the various strengths of these essays later, but for now, we wanted to give you these reasons to pre-order this right away. The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love and Learning, Worship and Work has been announced as a January 2020 publication, but we have been told that it will be released early and we will have it soon. We can send it out promptly to you (or to another address for you) if you pre-order. We invite you to be among the first to get and give it. Send an order our way today by using the “order here” link below which takes you to our secure website order form page.

The Seamless Life is a scrumptious feast for mind and heart, meticulously prepared in bite-size pieces of timeless wisdom, transforming truth, and life-giving grace. The depth and beauty of the poetic words as well as each breathtaking photograph point longing hearts to a God well loved and a life well lived. Steve Garber is a remarkably good man with a rare gift of storytelling. This may be his finest work. I highly recommend it.”

Tom Nelson, senior pastor of Christ Community Church, Leawood, Kansas, and author of Work Matters and The Economics of Neighborly Love

“In The Seamless Life, Steven Garber culls a lifetime of observation, reflection, and writing into what can only be called a masterpiece on vocation. With gentle, persuasive, artful language, Steven gives the reader a true picture of a faithful life. It is a seamless vision of word and work based in love, lived for the benefit of all and the glory of God. I cannot recommend this manual of meaning and mission more strongly. This book contains the truest truths, the deepest wisdom, and love that knows no limits.”

Charlie Peacock, Grammy Award–winning music producer and cofounder of The Writer & The Husband blog

“This modern life often feels fragmented. Steve Garber’s new collection of words and writings, The Seamless Life, gently weaves coherence and grace from the far corners of vocation, friendship, and spirituality. A skillful storyteller, Garber puts himself forward effortlessly. The Seamless Life is like good conversation, and it reads as if you are sitting with an old friend across the table. These chapters can be savored daily, as each page is filled with sacred questioning, wisdom, and hope.”

Sandra McCracken, singer-songwriter and recording artist

“I do not think I can name another author whose books are so intensely esteemed and indeed treasured by a cadre of followers, readers who in many cases have become friends of the author, than Steven Garber. His transforming words are always given flesh in his books as he moves deftly from big ideas to daily consequences, between hearing and doing, principles and practice. But in this new collection of essays, stories, anecdotes, and reflections, he allows us deeper into his life, his work, and his marriage. The Seamless Life is a kingdom-sized glimpse of a good life lived with coherence and commitments, animated sometimes with rather ordinary days and then with astonishing episodes of extraordinary experiences. This is one of the best collections of essays I have ever read and is perhaps Garber’s finest achievement yet. Don’t miss this wise, achingly beautiful book.”

Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds bookstore, Dallastown, Pennsylvania

The Seamless Life is wise, warm, and winning. Steven Garber generously offers a lifetime of thoughtful engagement with work, vocation, and worship (and many other topics) in photos and short vignettes that are poetic, full of good stories, and a joy to read. This is a nourishing feast in bite-size portions. I sat down to savor it and found I did not want to put it down. If you’ve ever wondered how your ordinary work—and ordinary life—matter to God or in the big, wide world, this book will encourage and inspire.”

Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary

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Children’s books for Advent and Christmas — and a gem or two illustrated by Ned Bustard ON SALE NOW

As promised, here are a handful of picture books for children.  Some are brand new, a few are imported, a couple are reprises of favorites from Christmas past.

And then, hang on, as I’ll tell you about two other recent releases featuring artwork by beloved Lancaster area artist, Ned Bustard.  More on that, soon.

So, a dozen or so nice choices for the little ones you love. (And you can always search the archived BookNotes columns to see older reviews and recommendations we’ve done in the past.) .

All of these show the regular retail price. We’ll deduct 20% off when you order. You can use the secure order form page by clicking the link at the bottom of this post or give us a call.

The Christmas Promise (board book) Alison Mitchell & Catalinea Echeverri (The Good Book Company) $7.99  We love the “Tales That Tell the Truth” series from this gospel-centered, British publisher, and we happily stock them all. (The most recent in this series by the same writer/artist team, by the way, in the standard 8 x 10 hardback size, is called Jesus and the Lions’ Den: A True Story about How Daniel Points Us to Jesus and is quite nice.) The Christmas Promise has been a staple for us as it highlights this profound theological insight that the Incarnation and Christ’s birth is a part of a story of promise, and God is faithful to the plot of the redemptive story. The standard one sells for $14.99 but, this year, they did the book in an inexpensive, smaller board book, and it’s very cool.  Yay.

The Christmas Promise Advent Calendar and Family Devotional  (The Good Book Company) $9.99  Oh, my, this is the same colorful, upbeat, but substantive approach as the book and/or board book, but in a contemporary Advent calendar and activity book. There is also a 32-page family devotional guide based on the book. This is great.

 

 

 

 

The Hoity Toity Angel Caroline Hoile, illustrated by Hazel Quintanilla (SPCK) $9.00  Ya  just gotta love a book that has “hoity toity’ in the title.  And it so works. You see, when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, the Hoity Toity Angel is not at all impressed — Mary isn’t even a Princess! As it says on the back cover, “And, later, how can her baby possibly be a king when he’s just been born in a scruffy old stable?”

One doesn’t have to be a high-class, upstairs, Downton Abby snoot to need this reminder. Looks and prestige and status are not most important and things aren’t always as they seem. A proud angel who thinks this manger stuff is a bit too mundane? Maybe we all could learn this lesson.

The Night of His Birth Katherine Paterson, illustrated by Lisa Aisato (Flyaway Books) $18.00  This may be one of the very best new seasonal books with lush and truly beautiful art and an eloquent, well-told rendering of the heart of the classic Christmas story. You may know of Katherine Paterson, a Newberry Award winner and one of the most esteemed (and beloved) YA authors of the last 40 years or so. She was born in China to Presbyterian missionary family and has served the church for decades (even having done some YA curriculum.) This is a story in her own style that appeared in a Presbyterian woman’s magazine maybe in the 80s, and it has been one of their most popular pieces used, read, reprinted, sought out. The poetic text is mostly about Mary pondering the newborn baby, looking so carefully and expressing such joy, knowing he is somehow God’s gift to the world. What a treat to take this wonderfully tender storytelling of the nativity night and pair it with exquisite, striking, and somewhat artfully modern wash. Aisato is an artist and children’s book author herself whose distinctive work has been published around the world. Highly recommended.

Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Alison Joy (Zonderkidz) $16.99 or Board Book, $7.99  Forgive me for highlighting this once again — we do every year because it is so very good. It is subdued, yet passionate, simple — with an Americana sort of art, it seems rural, almost — and yet teaching the big, big truth that the whole creation gets in on this whole redemptive plan of God; even the animals realize that this is something they should care about. It has a touch of whimsy but it isn’t goofy. It has class, but yet isn’t stuffy. The art is expansive, the text beautiful, the simple allusive theology utterly pregnant with vast implications. We love this book, both the nice hardback and the smaller board book, although we favor the larger, bolder impact of the regularly sized 9 x 11″ one. If you order, tell us which you prefer.

Here is the author reading the book herself. Check it out and then send us an order!

The Worst Christmas Ever Kathleen Long Bostrom, illustrated by Guy Porfirio (Flyaway Books) $17.00 Well, with this vivid, colorful cover of the wide eyed boy and his wide eyed dog, you know something is up. On the back cover there is spare art and one sentence reading, “Needed: One Christmas miracle.” You know your kid is going to want to know what’s up.

Bostrom has done tons of lovely and often quite thoughtful religious books for children and is well respected in mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and evangelical Christian education circles. She’s thoughtful and knows how to write important stuff in ways little ones, even fiesty little ones, will understand. Giving her this task — the “worst Christmas ever” schtick — is a fantastic idea. Kudos to Flyaway Books (the publishing arm of the Presbyterian Church USA.) We’re pleased with this fun book and you will be, too, especially as you learn the touching plot. Matthew and his family have moved to California and he is upset that it appears that there won’t be Christmas trees or snow this holiday season. And his dog, Jasper, has disappeared.  He has a little sister Lucy who has faith that things will work out, and, who knows, maybe the surprising events of Christmas eve will change everything — helping this new place feel like home, after all.

To give you a hint, it has to do with the family’s involvement in their church’s Christmas pageant. The scenes of the family and restless kids in the pew holding their little candles and drip guards is just so perfect. The reunion with Jasper is sweet, too. This is a book for anyone who feels ill at ease this Christmas, or who just wants a good story about a family who actually goes to church on Christmas eve.  Vivid, touching, fun. We recommend it.

`That Baby in the Manger Anne Neuberger, illustrated by Choloe Pitkoff (Paraclete Press) $15.99  This is one we’ve raved about before, a beautifully told and beautifully illustrated story of a Catholic school where the first-graders are gathering around the manger scene. The ethnically diverse school children realize that the baby jesus doesn’t look like them and an ingenious priest invites them to… well, you’ll have to read this lovely solution that reminds us all that Jesus came for everyone. This book is a delight and can open doors for all kinds of conversations about faith and race and ethnicity and God’s incarnation.

Santa’s Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas Hisako Aiki & Ivan Gantschev (Simon & Schuster) $9.99  I think when we discovered this nice hardback decades ago, it was for many of our young parent peers a godsend — so artful, international, clever, done in soft watercolors with some pleasant, unique touches. Mostly, though, it was an answer to the perennial quandary: what to do about Santa? Here’s the simple answer this book so artfully offers: in the story, Santa himself has to gather the animals around to insist to them that he is not what Christmas is all about. So we have it, from Santa’s own authority, as he tells the reindeer, that the story of Jesus is what it is all about! This is a nuanced and delightful approach that is less tacky and blunt than that one showing a ceramic Santa Claus bowing piously before the manger, but I suppose the sentiment is the same. This beautiful book really works, without feeling preachy or overwrought.

The Shepherd Who Couldn’t Sing Alan Barker, illustrated by Thea Baker (SPCK) $9.00  We introduced this last year and our customers loved it, so we thought we’d announce it again.  Here is what it says on the back:

Jake is a shepherd boy on the hills of Bethlehem, and he loves taking care of his sheep. He’s not afraid of the dark or of the wolves who wait in the shadows, but he is afraid of singing!

One night, he is greeted by a host of angels, singing of a special baby’s birth. With such good news to tell, will Jake be able to find his voice and join in the song?

And here is what I’d add: the soft blue artwork makes this both evocative and pleasant; the artwork on the shepherds robes seem to be cut out of real cloth, so stand out in a way that reminds us this is a Middle Eastern story. And then there is this surprising sort of glee, the question of the song. I don’t have to tell you that this becomes a big open question for children and those reading the story: will we join in? Can we find our voice and sing our part?? What a great, great question, worth much more than the price of this handsome children’s book.

The Sleepy Shepherd Stephen Cottrell, illustrated by Chris Hagan (SPCK) $10.00  I’m not sure what I said about this last year to make it such a popular selection, but it was a big seller for us as folks enjoyed the great art, the great story, pitched on the cover as “a timeless retelling of the Christmas story.” I suppose sleeping through the excitement is something many can relate to.  But this story goes deeper (and has more text making it suitable for older readers.)

Silas is the shepherd boy who fell asleep on the job. Years later he meets Jesus and is there on Palm Sunday. Later, (spoiler alert) the grown man Silas watches over a scene while some friends of Jesus themselves fall asleep while in a garden called Gethsemane and things come full circle. I dare you not to be touched and moved as Silas recognizes Jesus and, this time, stays awake. Although mostly a Christmas story, it tells a bit of holy week and the death and resurrection of Christ. After some bright spreads of full color pages, we learn of Silas’s joy when he hears of the resurrection. The last line reads, “This really is worth staying awake for.” Highly recommended.

Kristoph and the First Christmas Tree Claudia Cangilla McAdam, illustrated by Dave Hill (Paraclete Press) $16.99 This is a large sized picture book and tells in marvelous prose and vivid art the story of a young orphan who is accompanying the missionary priest Boniface through the German countryside. The year is 722 A.D.  If this doesn’t interest you, well, I’d invite you to give it a try anyway. Or, maybe you are the kind who thinks, “You had me at 722.”) I think kids need these kinds of old, old stories. This one is pretty powerful.

Not sure if you know this bit of legend but Boniface comes upon a group of people in the forest worshipping an oak tree and preparing to sacrifice a son of the village chieftain. As the book promises on the back cover, “What happens next recalls the legend of how evergreen trees became part of the celebration of Christmas.”

As Kathleen Pelley (author of Raj the Bookstore Tiger) writes, this “tender tale told in lyrical language and illustrated with old world charm… reminds us that we are called to be beacons of hope and grace and light amidst the darkness.” Nicely done, although the pagans do seem a bit frightening, like a comic book wild man. Probably pretty realistic.

Home By Another Way Barbara Brown Taylor, illustrations by Melanie Cataldo  (Flyaway Books) $18.00 Here is what I wrote last year when we laid eyes on the eagerly awaited book by BBT.

When one of our most beloved and interesting preachers and writers teams up with an excellent, talented illustrator to re-tell one of her famous seasonal sermons, you’d expected it to be much anticipated and much discussed. And this certainly is. Surely one of the most beautifully-illustrated children’s books of the year, it is great addition to the library of anyone who collects Christmas books. It’s a bit odd, even funny at times, but so many holiday books are. It’s part of the fun, I think, re-telling and re-imagining these great, classic stories. And how she puts us right onto the quirky camel rides of these three mystics from the East. Great for after Advent.

Miracle on 10th Street: And Other Christmas Writings Madeleine L’Engle (Convergent) $15.00   I wanted to list in my earlier Advent devotional post this lovely new edition of the great collection of L’Engle’s seasonal writings but wasn’t sure. Some of these collected entries are stories, even stories that older children would appreciate. Some of it is poetry, and much is about Christmas and Epiphany and also general essays on the incarnation. I wasn’t sure it was an adult Advent devotional.

But I’m not sure it is mostly for families with children, either, although some of it surely is. I can’t say how you might use this, but I have to celebrate it, and happily recommend it to you. There are stories and essays and poems and Biblical reflections and more stories in Miracle on 10th Street. We so respected Madeleine and cherish the stories of those friends who knew her. And we do love her Christmas work — it it so very interesting and edifying, made more so when framed by thewonderfully-written introductory essay in this new version by Diana Butler Bass, who honors her well in her lengthy foreword.

I like that this new cover matches her other adult holiday collection, Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation which I have mentioned before. Thanks to Random House’s Convergence imprint for bringing us new editions of many of L’Engle’s great works. We have ’em all.  Cheers!

AND THESE TWO FABULOUS NEW CHILDREN’S BOOKS ILLUSTRATED BY NED BUSTARD

I hope you know the name of our friend and Hearts & Minds supporter, Ned Bustard. He is a Lancaster-based artist, a professional graphic designer, the managing editor of the acclaimed Square Halo Books, and a leader in the world of organizations like CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts.) His clever linographs — sort of like woodcuts — grace several books, including Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books and the exceptional, one-of-a-kind prayer book Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Books) and several children’s books.

Bible History ABCs: God’s Story from A to Z  Stephen Nichols, illustrated by Ned Bustard (Crossway) $16.99  Quite recently, Crossway released Bible History ABCs and we are so happy about it. Mr. Nichols, the head of Ligonier Ministries, did the writing and our pal, Ned, did the artwork, although I suspect they collaborated plenty. It’s a colorful and smart ABC book, about 8 x 8 in size, just like their previous Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation–From A to Z. (The first collaboration between these zany, Reformed Presbyterian guys was the must-have, but oversized, Church History ABCs: Augustine and 25 Other Heroes of the Faith.) There is so much happening in these bright books that even adults will be delighted and informed by their third or fourth reading as more hidden stuff becomes evident.

We appreciate not only the clever art and intentional effort, but also that this isn’t just a random ABC book of random Bible facts; that has been done often. This is, as they themselves put it, about “the story of God’s promises” and has this emphasis of helping kids see the flow of the unfolding drama of Scripture and its coherent plot. Nichols even has his own book about this very thing and it’s good. (See his Welcome to the Story: Reading, Loving, and Living God’s Word.)

Each letter in Bible History ABCs (as it explains on the back cover):

“…briefly introduces an important concept from the story of the Bible and is accompanied by corresponding Scripture passages, whimsical illustrations, and images of classical fine art from church history — all to help children see how their lives are part of the bigger story God is telling throughout the Bible.”

Oh yes, we need this approach, we need this blend of whimsey and fine art, and we need this kind of colorful, modern way to introduce a coherent approach to the Biblical story. A few of the pictures are oddly of people from times/contexts other than the Bible (like the cover, for instance and the inexplicable guy in the letter H) which will have to be discussed, making this all the more interesting. Enjoy!

The Light Princess George MacDonald, illustrations by Ned Bustard (Rabbit Room Press) $18.00  Those who have followed Hearts & Minds for decades know that we used to feature lots of the great novels — children’s and Victorian adult novels — of the brilliant writer, orator, preacher, and artiste, George MacDonald. (Many know of how C.S. Lewis even edited an anthology of his favorite MacDonald quotes.) Sadly, many editions of many MacDonald books have been dropped by legitimate publishers and few stellar editions of his volumes are readily available.  We are so, so glad that the classy and fun Rabbit Room crew of Rabbit Room Press released a new edition of the fairy story The Light Princess. 

This really is an exquisite edition, with a blue leather-over-board creation very much like their lush Every Moment Holy prayer book. Bustard’s art is, I believe, a style of relief printmaking. As Ned put it in an interview about his work Every Moment Holy, “The pieces were made using linoleum so they are called linocuts (in the same way that if they were made using wood they’d be called woodcuts.)”

Jennifer Trafton wrote an excellent foreword for which we can be grateful — what a gift to be reminded of the former renown of the Scottish author who has been so esteemed by everyone from Mark Twain to James Barrie to Maurice Sendak to Madeleine L’Engle, and how nice to have this story framed by this good background introduction.

Head Rabbity author and singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson did a fabulous afterword to this edition of The Light Princess. He writes about being “Gobsmacked” and reminds us of the Tolkien-Lewis-MacDonald-esque vision of true myths. Peterson writes,

MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” reminds us that the world is an unsettling place, and mystery clouds the corners of our days.That means strange and terrible things are bound to happen, whooshing in from the dark periphery without warning… But mystery also means that grace and light can come whooshing in, too, so you might as well keep an eye out.”

Kudos to all at Rabbit Room Books for doing this lovely edition of this great old tale. But we offer special hat tips to Mr. Bustard for his playful linographs, his titling characters, and his other design work on the volume, making it a most handsome, almost exquisite, edition.

In the foreword, Trafton writes about Bustard and what his art contributes to the book:

Artist Ned Bustard has paid homage to all the multilayered themes and resonances in MacDonald’s writing by threading visual symbols throughout the illustrations like little Easter eggs for you to discover. Some are images drawn from centuries of Christian iconography — seashells, dolphin, anchor, bread, wine, and more. He’s also hidden objects and elements from some of MacDonald’s other fantasy stories, such as The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, “The Golden Key,” and Lilith. To those of you who’ve read these other stories: look carefully! Do you spot the allusions?

So, enjoy some good children’s picture books — whether they are holiday themed ones, or fun, classy ones like these two on which Mr. Bustard recently worked. We have so many more in many categories (and will be doing another BookNotes column on kid’s books soon.) Call us if you need more help — we’re always eager to serve you well with our best ideas. We’re open every day but Sunday and you can call 717-246-3333.

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ANY BOOK MENTIONED

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Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown  PA  17313
read@heartsandmindsbooks.com
717-246-3333

Hearts & Minds ADVENT BOOK SALE 2019 — and a special expedited shipping offer (one week only.) ALL BOOKS ON SALE 20% OFF

TWELVE NEW ADVENT RESOURCES AND SOME OLDER CLASSICS (and an offer for some bargain pricing on expedited shipping, good until Novermber 30th.)

I know these Advent recommendations are a bit late coming for some of you so here’s what we’ll do. For an order from this list placed here through our website (or by phone or email) this week only, we’ll upgrade your shipping to “Priority Mail” charging you just $5.00, no matter the size of the package. We’ll cover the rest to get a shipment of Advent resources to you in just a few days. (Sorry, this is just good for our US customers since international shipping is more complicated.)

We will describe some children’s Advent and Christmas books in another BookNotes soon.

Know anybody you can send this to? We’d sure appreciate it — I know a few of these worth books are titles that most likely aren’t on folks radar, that aren’t terribly well known. I’ll bet you know somebody who would appreciate the news. And the discounts.  Thanks for helping us get the word out.

TWELVE BRAND NEW ADVENT RESOURCES

Advent Is God With Us: An Advent Study Based on the Revised Common Lectionary Robin Wilson (Abingdon) $9.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $7.99 We highlight this resource each year, an annually done, nice Bible study book for Adult classes, small groups, preachers needing study insights to the Lectionary texts for the season or anyone who wants to do a bit more than a quick Advent devotional reading. This booklet offers five thorough studies, this year mostly on Isaiah and Matthew (the readings for Year A.)

Robin Wilson is the senior pastor of a large United Methodist church in Alabama, has served on the Board of Upper Room Ministries and she is a graduate of Duke Divinity School.

Advent for Everyone – Matthew: A Daily Devotional N.T. Wright (WJK) $16.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.80  I suppose you know the compact New Testament for Everyone commentaries by Wright. This devotional is very much like those, but not reprinted from them. That is, this is fresh, new material. Always clear, insightful, useful, often with a helpful illustration or story to make the point. An added bonus is Wright’s own “Kingdom” translation of the Greek text. And so, these brief reflections are ideal for anyone who wants to work through the Year A gospel passages or who wants a Biblically-focused study. Good for personal use or for a small group or Adult class.

 

Rejoice! Advent in All of Scriptures Chris Wright & John Stott (IVP-UK) $12.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $9.60 How great to import this from England via IVP here in the states – what a gem of a little book. I hope you know John Stott, one of the leading evangelical voices in the entire world in the last decades years of the 20th century and into the early 2000s. He was kind and rigorous, orthodox and justice-minded, thoughtful and wise, missional before the phrase was used. Some of my favorite writers to this day see Stott as a mentor and his books as among their most sturdy influences.

In this new book, Old Testament scholar and International Ministry Director of Langham Partnership (one of the global organizations Stott founded) Chris Wright offers a Biblical meditation jump-started by a quote or quip or excerpt from a John Stott book. There are 25 Advent readings, drawn from throughout the Bible, each linked to a Stott quote or story. This is more than just a tribute to John Stott, more than a Christ Wright devotional (although either would make the price of the book a good investment for your study) but the synergy here is notable, good, inspired. Do you see your life somehow part of the big Biblical story? This book will help you see the big picture of the drama of Scripture as it unfolds and it will help you understand Christmas in its full-orbed Kingdom context, and it will remind you (or introduce you) to the wit and wisdom of the late John Stott, the sort of leader that gave evangelicalism a good name.

The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught up in the Story of Jesus Daniel Darling (Moody Press) $13.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $11.19  Listen to me here: I bet you, like Beth and I, have sat through bunches of sermons on various characters of the Bible story. It is a fairly easy sermon series to do, it seems, a common trope. That’s not to say the sermons we’ve heard or the books we’ve read about these personalities and their episodes in the Christmas accounts are simplistic, but they can be a bit sentimental or miss the mark of the huge, redemptive story breaking in on human history in the birth of the Christ child. As we often note, too often our Bible study and churchy sermonizing is not gospel centered but mere moralism. We ought to be brave or just or kind or have a lot of faith. We should do this or that. Too often we miss what God is doing in the story, how we are invited in to God’s own gracious working out of God’s own plan.

Daniel Darling is a brilliant young scholar and activist of sorts, active promoting (mostly within his conservative Southern Baptist circles) a fuller vision of a Christian social ethic beyond the typical conservative family values. His groundbreaking book The Dignity Revolution makes the case that humans made in the image of God carry innate dignity which serves as the foundation for standing up for the fair treatment of immigrants and prisoners and the elderly and the disabled – sort of a consistent pro-life ethic applied to racism and poverty and such. (Oh, if more anti-abortion folks were more adept and making this case – if they even believe it, which some do, I’m sure.) Darling gets that God’s Kingdom is multi-dimensional and that our work in the world is for the common good; let justice roll down! He knows the full gospel and knows well the ethical implications that flow from it. (Beth and I so enjoyed hearing him lecture and chatting with him and, yep, selling books to him, at the recent Christian Legal Society annual conference in Chicago.) So our hats are tipped to this good, very well read, young dude.

And my hat is tipped again for how he has redeemed this tired trope of looking at each of the Bible characters in the Christmas narratives. As a good writer, he brings fresh energy and colorful insight to the lives of Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and more. You’ll lean about the innkeeper and the angels, the shepherds and wise men, and, yes, Herod. I loved the chapter on Simeon and Anna – what pathos this story carries, and how wonderfully it reminds us of the ancient promises. In fact, speaking of which, there is a chapter here called “The Surprising People in Jesus’ Family.” I’ve preached on the genealogy texts and it’s a blast to uncover this good stuff. Kudos to DD for bringing the Word even in what is at first glance a boring list of begetting.

Like many recent Moody Press books there are a few nice design touches – some red ink, some graphics that enhance the text. There are good reflection questions (that could be used in a family with kids, I’d think) and a suggested Christmas recording. Many of these songs, by the way, are excellent choices, and not always your well-known carols. You can find the songs on Google, I’m sure, and have some fun as you read after you read each interesting chapter in The Characters of Christmas.

Hey, just so you know: Darling may be a Southern Baptist fella, but guess what author he cites, I think more than any other in his fascinating footnotes that includes everyone from J. Vernon McGee to Frederick Buechner, from Tim Keller to Martin Luther? Who? Fleming Rutledge and her essential book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Just saying. We highly recommend The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught up in the Story of Jesus by Daniel Darling.

Keep Watch With Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers compiled by Claire Brown & Michael McRay (Abingdon Press) $16.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59  What a book! Even the beautiful cover, if pondered, is a bit jarring. What a broken world we live in, and yet there’s that star, that glimmer of hope over the barbed wire. Given that the angels announcing the weighty, holy, glory of God come to Earth on that first Christmas sang about “peace on Earth” one would think that peacemaking might be more connected to Christmas than merely a ubiquitous sentiment on greeting cards or yard decorations. Good will often abounds in this time of year, but, really, how might this holy season invite us to more risky and bold actions for peace and justice and social righteousness? This little one-of-a-kind devotional will inspire you to think about this very thing.

Each entry in this Keep Watch with Me Advent devotional offers a story of a mostly unknown (but occasionally well-recognized) peacemaker or justice leader. One is written by a gifted prisoner. Others are involved in various significant social ministries. You may have heard of (and will certainly enjoy) reflections by Nontombi Naomi Tutu and Shane Claiborne, Irish mystic and peacemaker Padraig O Tuama, Middle Eastern evangelical activist Sami Awad, Tennessee-based Becca Stevens to Belfast born/North Carolinian film critic Gareth Higgins, and bunches of other eloquent, unsung activists with stories to tell around Advent texts and prayers, connected to their deep passions for peacemaking, reconciliation, and justice.

I love this book and ask, and hope, that you consider it. Maybe you could gift it to a rising activist, or an old-timer who needs a reminder to keep at it. Why not buy a couple of Keep Watch With Me and share them?

As Brian McLaren writes of it

I can’t imagine a more meaningful, interesting, spiritually enriching, and relevant Advent resource than this. Amazing people with amazing insights for a season of wonder and welcome.

Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) book – $16.99; DVD – $39.99; Leader’s Guide – $14.99   OUR SALE PRICES: book = $13.59; DVD = $31.99; Leader’s Guide = $11.99  I hope you know the popular Professor Levine (New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School.) She has brought her Jewish faith and her academic scholarship of first century Judaism to the study of Jesus and the gospel in books like The Misunderstood Jew, Short Stories by Jesus, The Annotated Jewish New Testament and last Spring’s Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week.) This new one by Amy-Jill Levine has been our biggest selling new Advent book these last few weeks as many are intrigued with her new look at the history of the birth of Christ, tracing the Christmas narrative through the stories of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and other standard seasonal texts. Of course, everyone knows these gospel texts have obvious and profound connections to Old Testament texts; as one Lutheran scholar put it, “There’s no one I’d rather have guide me through Advent and the first chapters of Matthew and Luke than Amy-Jill Levine.” There are four good chapters to the book, four lively sessions in the DVD. The four-week Leader’s Guide includes session plans, activities, and discussion questions, as well as multiple format options.

Watch this short video trailer to hear her say why she (as an outsider to the Christian faith) loves Christmas and how she’ll guide us — with laughter, a little bit of Hebrew, and a little bit of Greek — to get more out of these beloved stories.

Christmas in the Four Gospel Homes: An Advent Study Cynthia M. Campbell (WJK) $13.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $10.40  Okay, this is a creatively conceived, lovely little book. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to decorate your home for the holidays inspired by each of the four gospels? What would “Mark’s house” or “John’s house” or “Matthew’s house” look like if decorated for Christmas? In other words, how might a house look for Christmas, this book asks, if it is based on what each gospel says about it? There are beautiful illustrations from architect Kevin Burns, even. Nice idea, huh?

Dr. Cynthia Campbell is the former President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and is pastor of Highland Presbyterian in Louisville. She has contributed to the preaching guide Feasting on the World and the worship planning resource Connections. How nice to have a book that celebrates and explores the unique tellings of the Christmas story from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and connected to this somewhat sensual and visual construction.

Freedom Is Coming: From Advent to Epiphany with the Prophet Isaiah Nick Baines (SPCK) $15.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $12.00 It seems to me one can hardly understand the fullest meaning of Jesus’ incarnation and the Christmas season without spending quality time with Isaiah. This is a good serious of what Paula Gooder says are “deep but accessible reflections.” The Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby) says Baines “brings out both challenge and hope from living Advent side by side with the story of God’s people in Isaiah. A great book.”

There are six weeks of daily reflections, well written, important, I think. One Cambridge Anglican Dean says Freedom is Coming “dispels illusions without leaving us disillusioned.” What a blessing to have a resource like this, walking us through the complexities of the extraordinary Isaiah.

Wake Up to Advent! Archbishop John Mugabi Sentamu (SPCK) $15.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.00 We are grateful we can important books from this good UK publisher through our friends at InterVarsity Press; this one is the Advent book selected for a big read by the Archbishop of York (England) and we think it looks amazing. The brilliant Oliver O’Donovan wrote the foreword and Sir Philip Mawer says it is “the perfect antidote to the stress and commercialism of our preparations for Christmas.”

Archbishop Sentamu reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s works in Romans,

This is the hour of crisis: it is high time for you to wake out of sleep, for deliverance is nearer to us now than it was when we first believed.

Using that as a springboard he call us to Wake up, Clean up, Feed up, and Grow up. This is lively and invigorating, written by a Ugandan-born, evangelically-minded, Anglican bishop serving as Metropolitan of York and a Primate, making him the second most senior clerical position in the Church of England (after that of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.) So nice to have such an important little book available on this side of the pond.

Repeat the Sounding Joy: A Daily Advent Devotional on Luke 1 – 2 Christopher Ash (The Good Book Company) $12.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $10.39 Are you looking for a classic, no-nonsense but warm-hearted explication of the Luke texts for the season? Christopher Ash is a fine thinker and writer, a straight-arrow Reformed theologian in the heritage, perhaps, of the Puritans or the Banner of Truth Trust. Blurbs on the back cover include great endorsements such as one by speaker and author Kathleen Nielson who says Repeat the Sounding Joy is “profound and wonderfully Word-filled.” Sam Allberry (of Ravi Zacharias Ministries) notes that it shows us “the refreshing, startling realities that lie behind our Christmas festivities.”

There are 24 reflections, each with hymn or carol lyrics to ponder, a closing prayer and a lined page for journaling. Ashe himself is a writer-in-residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge.

7 Days of Christmas: A Season of Generosity Jen Hatmaker (Abingdon Press) $21.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $17.59  What a great gift book, a square sized, smallish hardback, nicely packaged with glossy paper and color drawings and sketches, making this a great gift to share with anyone who may feel stressed during the holiday. Perhaps you know Ms. Hatmaker’s first book called 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess which was her story of cutting out excess and inviting us follow her guidance into seven categories/areas of life where we need relief and liberation. Following those same seven categories – kitchen, fashion, stuff, streaming, tossing, spending, stressing – in which we’ve practiced idolatrous and unhealthy behaviors causing distortion and anxiety, Hatmaker here shares simple ideas for replacing excess in each arena this Christmas.

7 Days of Christmas… is witty and lively, funny, even, as she tries to help us find relief from the constant pressure to “manufacture joy.” You may know and value the big picture study The Advent Conspiracy which we still recommend (both DVD and book!) This new one, though, is a simple, gifty version. We heartily recommend it. She says it is for:

“…every jingle-bell sweater-wearing, Michelin-rated casserole-making wife, mother, sister and friend” or those who who may be “hitting your limits on more than just your plastic.”

 

The Wondrous Mystery: An Upper Room Advent Reader (Upper Room Books) $9.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $7.99  Even before the current church emphasis on spiritual practices and contemplative/monastic spirituality, Upper Room Books, from Nashville, has long published gentle and touching reflections, often rooted in a mature awareness of the issues of our interior lives. Perhaps you know of their beautiful journal Weavings which for years has published literarily rich and thoughtful spiritual reflections and essays. This wondrous (if brief) and inexpensive new seasonal collection brings together for the first time some of the best and most beloved pieces from Weavings published about Advent during the last 30 years by exceptional authors such as Barbara Brown Taylor, Henri Nouwen, Sue Monk Kidd, Wendy Wright, John Mogabgab, even Wendell Berry. What a delight to see in book form some of this pieces that were only seen by those who subscribed to Weavings. 

Each entry has a brief reading, a reflection question and a short prayer. This is affordable and brief but my, my – so good. I’m sure many are going to appreciate and hold the messages in their hearts.

A FEW MUST-READ, RECENT CLASSICS – FAVORITES FROM PREVIOUS BOOKNOTES WHICH WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND

Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $30.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $24.00  Last year I raved and raved about this, insisting that I have never, ever, read anything like it. (I have promoted it at events off site as well, holding it and waving it and trying to persuade folks that it is worth every penny.) Those who know Rev. Rutledge’s many books of sermons or her great book on Tolkien (The Battle for Middle Earth) or her magisterial tome The Crucifixion,  know that she is one of the most important theological voices – a working preacher, actually – alive today. I am not exaggerating her importance (or her eloquence.) She is a friend and hero to us; anyone that knows her knows of her sharp mind, her Christ-centered demeanor, and her sermons and lectures on the gospel, always informed by care study of the Biblical texts and mature theology about which is punctilious without being anything close to being fundamentalist. This book collects a lifetime’s worth of sermons for Advent (and Christmas and Epiphany, too and a few others.)

This book collects the most robust, sturdy, solid, important, lively, eloquent, seasonal sermons I’ve ever heard. As with some of her other sermon collections, she brings in allusions to film, articles in national newspapers or magazines, and current events (often in New York City  where most of these sermons were preached) and the arts. There is a fabulous frontispiece in Advent explaining the Blake drawing on the cover which is, in fact, the basis for the sermon in this collection called “What’s In Those Lamps?”  Again, this book is, doubtlessly, the most important such collection in print.

I know I’m prone to enthusiasm whenever I find a book or author I like. But trust me here: there is no book written that I know of in our lifetime that even approximates such a profound and Biblical study of the season of Advent and its requisite longings, hard looks, somber tones. With blurbs on the back from Richard Hays and Wesley Hill and Alan Jacobs and Marilyn McEntyre who call it everything from edgy to unflinching to eloquent to sober, you know it is to be taken seriously.

Dr. Hays says the writing in Advent

“bursts upon us with the same elemental force as the preaching of John the Baptist… do not drift anesthetized through another season of Advent: read this book.”

Last December we decided to read a number of these sermons out loud during an Adult Education Sunday school class in our fairly ordinary PCUSA church and, engaging as the sermons are, I wondered if it would work. I feared the good folks in my Sunday school class might not be up for such intense preaching, let alone just reading them out loud and studying them. Alas, our fears were misguided – the class was a big hit. The sermons that we selected from the beginning of this almost 400-page book were very well received and the conversation was edifying and fruitful. Especially for those of us who don’t do Advent well – Rutledge is an Episcopalian and rigorous about the liturgical season among those who at least have heard of it – Advent is a godsend. Unlike many pop books, it is one you should own and keep. We cannot exclaim enough how important and beautiful and useful this exceptional volume is.

The Art of Advent: A Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany Jane Williams (SPCK) $15.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $12.00 This was our biggest selling Advent devotional book last season (as the Lenten companion, The Art of Lent by Sister Wendy Beckett, was our biggest selling Lenten devotional last Easter time as well.) We are so glad to announce it again as it is just a fabulous little book –a full color painting reproduced for each day of Advent with a lovely devotional on the facing page. This is compact sized and quite affordable and the paintings are diverse. That is, they are not all obviously about the nativity, but Williams sees into the artwork, knows something about the painters, and weaves a bit of art history and aesthetic insight into an interesting and uplifting Advent devotion. What tremendous and invigorating and classy little readings these are — very highly recommended. There are nearly 40 famous and lesser-known masterpieces here, and it will, they hope, “lead you into a deeply prayerful response to all that these paintings convey to the discerning eye. What a great gift this is, too – sturdy paper, full color, sophisticated but not too heady or too expensive. Get a few and give ‘em out. You won’t regret it.  I explained a bit more about it last year in our Advent list, which you can visit here.

Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE $15.19  This is a prayer book comprised of excerpts of great literature, poets, playwrights (old and new) aligned with Biblical texts. What a feast! (You may know of her others in this series, similar literary devotional guides. The one for Lent and Easter is called Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide and the marvelous one for Ordinary Time is At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time. We are happy to carry several other Sarah Arthur books, from her tremendous co-written memoir about community and discipleship (The Year of Small Things) to her spiritual biography of Madeleine L’Engle, A Light So Lovely. She’s a great writer and wise compiler of the good, good stuff.

Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $13.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $10.40  Although this came out three years ago, we continue to promote it. Walt Brueggemann, one of the great Bible scholars and church activists of our day preaches with evocative insight and writes stuff like this:

“Advent is not the kind of ‘preparation’ that involves shopping and parties and cards. Such illusions of abundance disguises the true cravings of our weary souls. Advent is preparation for the demands of newness that will break the tired patterns of fear in our lives.”

Some of these are drawn from the two volumes of his collected sermons but most are newly published. Remarkable.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough Publishing) $24.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.20 Over the years this has been one of our consistent best sellers and a handsome hand-sized hardback book people delight in, treasure, recommend. (They then buy the Lenten/Easter companion volume Bread and Wine.) It includes short readings from great writers from throughout church history from Thomas Aquinas to Annie Dillard, John Donne to Martin Luther, Thomas Merton to Evelyn Underhill. Where can you find, I often ask, eloquent portions of writers as good but as diverse as Guardini, L’Engle, Kierkegaard, Oscar Romero, and Philip Yancey? Beautiful stuff.

Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation Madeleine L’Engle (Convergent) $15.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.00 This first was released in 1997 by the publishing imprint developed by Harold and Luci Shaw and it was beloved by many. After oddly being unavailable for a long while it was reissued a year ago with a great new cover and a lovely new foreword by thoughtful memoirist Addie Zierman. For those that enjoy Madeleine’s previous memoirs or nonfiction reflections such as The Rock That is Higher or Icons and Golden Calves (both also recently reissued) Bright Evening Star offers stories and ruminations and theological reflections by a great poet and writer. Includes a “reader’s guide” making it ideal for a holiday book club.

Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ Timothy Keller (Penguin) $15.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.00  I suppose you know how we esteem the great and insightful books by Tim Keller; we stock them all. As you may know he was a serious pastor in lower Manhattan, doing a church plant that has attracted thousands of (often young, often successful, often sophisticated) seekers with a need for the gospel and a desire to learn about how their vocations and callings in the world are related to their faith. (He has retired as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian and heads up a supportive church planting network called City to City, so remains exceptionally active and influential.) This book is an intellectually provocative and thoughtful exploration of the nativity story, including some of what Keller calls “the hard edges of the story.” It is enjoyable and interesting, a bit more mature than some inspirational devotionals might be; it might even be considered a work of cultural apologetics. This small paperback includes 8 chapters so it isn’t really an Advent devotional, but for those that want solid, contemporary, compelling sermons on the historical reliability and theological importance of this wonderful season, Hidden Christmas helps us uncover the “true meaning” – the very good news of hope and salvation. Not to be missed.

God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas: Reader’s Edition edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe (Paraclete Press) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19  If you’ve read BookNotes for years (as some stalwart friends have) you may recall may several rave reviews of this masterpiece of a book, truly one of the great Advent book releases of the last 30 years! It was firstly released as a hardcover with full color art but (as we’ve explained the last few years) the copyright for the art ran out and the little publisher had little choice but to re-issue the book without most of the artwork and lavish design) but it now available as a very handsome paperback with classy French folded covers, but not as much artwork. There are a few plates and some nice design touches making this “reader’s edition” a truly magnificent paperback. The first edition hardbacks are out of print ad unavailable.

God With Us includes an ecumenical array of thoughtful writers – Eugene Peterson, Beth Bevis, Emilie Griffin, Richard Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris and poets Scott Cairns and Luci Shaw. There’s eloquent, rich, moving insights here about the incarnation and the deeper meaning of the season and this book is a gem.

Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations David Bannon (Paraclete) $29.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.99 Allow me, if you will, to simply reprint what I wrote last year about this book that had just come out last season.

This glorious full-size hardback book (with a wonderful foreword by Philip Yancey) is the most beautiful devotional book of the season. Each meditation is paired with a moving reproduction of classic art, nicely reproduced on rich, glossy paper.  In this mature and artful presentation, it reminds us of the early (now out of print) Paraclete classic God With Us. (That is still available in the “readers edition” that omits most of the artwork and remains one of our best-sellers in recent years with its literary ruminations and poetry and mature reflections.) Like that one, this is a treasure to behold.

Wounded in Spirit stands out not only because of the subtly lavish design but because of its amazing content and spirit. David Bannon writes from profound personal experience, offering ways to commune with God through Scripture. He also tells some poignant stories of artists who lived through great pain. He himself has gone through some very odd stuff, and much grief. His adult daughter died of a drug overdose even as his own professional life was in difficulty.

I could review this book in greater detail, but I suppose you get the picture – it is very handsome, mature, thoughtfully spiritual and honest about the great brokenness of our lives, of our society, of our times. This book will inspire in the deepest, truest sense of the word as it evokes ways to be honest about our sadness and helps us find God’s comfort (and joy) in this season. That is uses artwork to help us get there is such a blessing as sometimes words just fail. This book is a gift for the hurting, but a gift for any of us who feel what we feel these days.

Because this book deserves to be known and taken seriously, allow me to excerpt a quote from the good Christian Century review written by Elizabeth Palmer:

Bannon… has lived through the realities of failure and grief. In this book, he intersperses carefully curated photos of Christian art with his own reflections on the artists—their lives, their tragedies, and their persistent hopes. Bannon also evokes an honest grappling with grief by including brief quotations from a variety of thinkers: Carl Jung, Annie Dillard, Terence Fretheim, Isabel Allende, Elie Wiesel, Julian of Norwich, Simone Weil, N.T. Wright, and Søren Kierkegaard make appearances. Particularly evocative are the excerpts from Friedrich Rückert’s poems, which Bannon translates here into English for the first time: “Do not wrap yourself around the night, / bathe it in eternal light. / My tent is dark, the lamp is cold, / bless the light, the Joy of the World!”

Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Mark Vander Vennen, Sylvia Keesmaat (Wipf & Stock) $12.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $10.39   I hope you recall that I did a serious BookNotes review telling about one of the most important books of 2019, a major study of the book of Romans called Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh. (Read that BookNotes review here.) (They will be visiting our store and speaking about the book this coming March so stay tuned and we’ll keep you posted.) Sylvia, as we explained in that review, is not only an ecological activist and homesteader, but continues to teach New Testament in Toronto. (She has a PhD earned years ago under N.T. Wright.) She’s an important figure in Pauline studies — especially exploring echos of Old Testament writings found in the New. I say all this to remind you — as we do almost every year — that the book she edited, Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations, is a remarkable bit of Biblical study informed by nothing short of brilliant understanding of the relationships between Old and New Testament texts.

Here is some of what I wrote about Advent of Justice a few years ago when it was re-issued.

I have long said that there is no other Advent devotional like this, nothing in print that comes close. It has been out of print for a few years, and we are glad it has been re-issued, with a nicer, full-color cover. (Otherwise, the inside, the handsome fonts and nicely designed pages with a few art pieces by Willem Hart remain.)

This is a collection of four week’s worth of daily readings, studies of lectionary texts (mostly from Isaiah coupled with seasonal NT texts) with a serious contextualized reading of these passages. Some of the Isaiah passages are familiar to us while a few may be less so. The hard-to-pronounce names of kings and prophets, nations and armies, are made more clear, brought into focus so we realize what was going on, geo-politically and religiously among the divided kingdoms and such. That they invite us to ponder this and to apply the lessons to our own times, indeed our own lives, is a great holiday gift. Advent of Justice is not sentimental and there is nothing about Christmas ornaments or hot cider or snowy winterscapes. This is Bible study with cultural analysis.  Dare I say it is an urgent antidote to some of the ways we’ve construed Christmas and, well, you know… One friend who appreciated it a lot called it “Advent with a Vengeance.”  Well, sort of.

I have read through these short pieces many times, and get something new with each reading.  Brian Walsh brings the big picture gospel to bear, as always, and Richard Middleton especially explains the intricacies and drama of Old Testament politics.  Mark Vander Vennen – an old pal and peace activist from our days in Pittsburgh, now a wise and respected family therapist – brings his own well-trained Old Testament scholarship to the plot, with very nicely written daily meditations, journeying with us as we wait expectantly. The last week New Testament scholar (and organic farmer) Sylvia Keesmaat eloquently brings it all together. Dr. Keesmaat, by the way, served as chief editor for this whole project, and brings the touch of a scholar and creative wordsmith.

This thin book is not light-weight, and for those not used to Old Testament prophetic literature, or for Advent being a time to inhabit the broad Biblical drama, this may even be just a bit challenging. Not surprisingly, it has some themes of social criticism, a faithful emphasis on justice and the common good, even as the texts point us towards these concerns.  That Advent of Justice was firstly produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a Canadian social justice advocacy group – the Citizens for Public Justice (formerly the Committee for Justice & Liberty) – is fitting. These authors live this stuff, and their own rich Biblical reflections have emerged out of their own engagement with issues in the public square, service to the marginalized, and taking stands for public justice and the common good.

Still, even though this is dedicated to the justice activists and citizen advocates of CPJ and brings themes of justice to the fore, it is – let me be clear – an Advent Bible devotional, short readings, day by day to help us through this season. They invite us to read the Bible text first, spend time pondering their explication, and then to return to the Bible text again, reading and hearing it with new eyes and ears. They do this to help us have a meaningful and joyous holiday season, to wait well, to make time for God’s Word during Advent. They really do hope you have a good holiday season. May it help you wait well and long more urgently for the coming of justice.

By the way, if you’ve read and appreciated Keesmaat & Walsh’s  Romans Disarmed or their previous Colossians Remixed you’ll love this little Advent devotional. And if you’ve read Advent of Justice as some have, you really should explore their more extended work, and the work of the author authors, all good friends, people we highly recommend. Cheers.

Coloring Advent: An Adult Coloring Book for the Journey to Bethlehem Christopher D. Rodkey and Jesse & Natalie Turri (CBP) $12.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $10.39  We have happily explained this the last few years and I’d invite you to revisit my discussion of it in a previous BookNotes announcement here. (My BookNotes review of the previous one, Coloring Lent, my be more explanatory, so enjoy that, here.) It’s super fun for a few reasons: first, Chris cooked this up while serving his church right up the street from us, so it’s truly a Dallastown book! Yay. He is an outside-of-the-box, philosophically oriented theological teacher (besides his duties as pastor of the UCC church here in town.) Chris has a few books published on indie-presses and was the editor of the immensely prestigious The Palgrave Handbook of Radical Theology (which is a momentous scholarly volume with all sorts of essays by major players in this odd stream of modern theology.) It sells for $250.00 (shame on you Palgrave!) but if you know any libraries or serious scholars, give us a shout; it’s quite a volume. But I digress, seriously.

Because, no matter that Pastor Chris has these bone fide scholarly chops, this is, yes, a coloring book. Coloring Advent follows the lectionary readings for this season of the liturgical calendar and has some provocative and thoughtful touches (Easter eggs, if you will) not to mention some fabulously interesting footnotes. There is – and this is absolutely true – nothing like it at all in print. Chris, by the way, also did one for Lent called Coloring Lent and yet another called Coloring Women with each coloring book drawing a woman of the Bible, including lesser known ones. His progressive theology and scholarly framework informs even how he did these coloring books!

As we said in previous reviews, though, delightfully curious as they may be, informed with ecumenical scholarship and duly noted Bible texts and Feast Days in the footnotes, it is, at the end of the day, a simple tool to help you slow down, relax, be attentive to the Advent texts, and engage – as in physically interact with – the God given passages from Holy Scripture. Highly recommended.

So there ya go, some brand new Advent reads and some from previous years. Great books to have, to use, and to give. All are 20% off the retail price.  We can take credit cards safely at our secure order form page by clicking on the link below. Or, as we say there, we can just send a bill for you, too, if you’d rather send pay by check later. We’re happy to help and we are at your service.  Thanks for caring about our recommendations and for your interest in these kinds of quality books.
May these help you and yours on your Advent journey and Christian celebrations this season.

 

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Hurry up and read these four books: “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Mark Comer; “Carpe Diem Redeemed” by Os Guinness; “When Faith Becomes Sight” by Beth & David Booram; and “Earthkeeping and Character” by Steven Bouma-Prediger ALL ON SALE – 20% OFF

 

Most modern commentaries on the parable of the Prodigal Son explain that the detail of the father running to greet his wayward boy is important. I suspect it was the brilliant Middle Eastern scholar, the late Kenneth Bailey, who introduced this detail; I vividly recall hearing Ken describe the slow, regal walk of certain Middle Eastern men. To walk in haste (let alone run) was a great indignity. Slow is beautiful.

Some of the brilliant books I want to tell you about today deal directly with questions of hurry, of haste, of our understanding and use of time, of the dangers of busy-ness. The others mention the quandary of living gentle and wisely in this hot-wired, fast-paced culture so even if they are not about time, they are perfect selections for this BookNotes list and utterly germane. I’ve read all four of these beautiful, good books and invite you to read my essay about them.

As usual, we have these on sale for our BookNotes readers and you can easily order them by clicking on the order link at the end of this column. It’s easy and secure.

Allow me to ease into this issue of BookNotes by inviting you to read these books conscientiously and perhaps a bit slowly. At least three of these demand an intentionally slower pace. The first – ironically, the one that deals most directly with the sickness and dangers of hurry – can be read quickly as it is written in a light, clever way that keeps you turning pages easily. But don’t be fooled, breezy as The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry may be, it is serious and profound. As you will see, I very, very highly recommend it.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer (Waterbrook) $23.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $19.19

In “So Far So Fast”, one of the stand-out songs on I Am Easy To Find, the brilliant, recent album by The National, the driving, building, rhythm keeps the song moving but the slow vocals are anguishing. Parts of the song almost make me cry, it aches so. They sing “There’s so much that drives me crazy,” but then confesses how it helps to “talk to you.” And then the plaintive: “can you get away to talk to me?” That is, can you find the time?

In my more melancholy moods I hear myself as the singer — lonely, needy, wanting to connect with somebody who cares. But, truth be told, it’s usually the other way around. I’ve got plenty of people who (for whatever reason) want to talk to me.

And, too often, I’ll admit, I feel like the esteemed religious leader in the story of the Good Samaritan who is too busy to stop. Too busy to listen. Too busy to care. Or maybe too exhausted, because I was too busy the week before.

In those moments I realize the damages on a life of viewing going “so far, so fast” as a virtue, or even as normal. After spending quality time with these four remarkable new books I realize that it is not too late to deepen my resolve to pursue – in the famous words of Dallas Willard from which John Mark Comer took the title of his amazing new book – “the ruthless elimination of hurry.”

Comer, by the way, admits (although I would have wished for a bit more emphasis) that hurry is often called for. I don’t know if Willard was just a privileged college prof with tenure who didn’t have to burn the candle at both ends but those of us who have to work two jobs or those whose work is not routine – teaching three days a week – often have little choice about our pace of life. Sometimes slowing down is a luxury some can hardly afford.

Still, the many consequences of the addiction to hurry are well known and we all must grapple with our failures to live within our God-given limitations and our God-ordained rhythms. We are glad that there has been a discovery of ancient practices of Sabbath-keeping and books about rest. We have a large section of books about Sabbath and can recommend some if you want.

(And there are plenty of other books like this new one by Comer. Last month we recommended Rebecca Lyon’s Rhythms of Renewal: Trading Stress and Anxiety for a Life of Peace and Purpose and I think we’ve mentioned the one-of-a-kind, amazing book about youth ministers addressing their young friends about this propensity to overwork called Wrestling with Rest: Inviting Youth to Discover the Gift of Sabbath. Just last week we got the new book by Jefferson Bethke called To Hell with the Hustle: Reclaiming Your Life in an Overworked, Overspent, and Overconnected World. As a preacher of a gospel-centered, grace-filled way of life, I suspect he means this quite literally.)

John Ortberg (who has served as a bit of a mentor to John Mark Comer and wrote a great forward to The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry) has told how when asking Dallas Willard for advice about his spiritual life (while he was serving one of the fastest growing churches in America with much on his plate and a life of pressing demands) and Willard told him to (ruthlessly) cut out his addiction to hurry. Ortberg asked, “What else?” Comer tells it as well as Ortberg, but after a pause, the answer was blunt. There was nothing else.

Beth and I got to hang out once with Dallas before a function. It was years ago, and I didn’t realize at the time that Willard had mentored one of my own heroes, Richard Foster, and encouraged him and prayed him through the writing of The Celebration of Discipline. I viewed Willard as a heady philosopher and apologist, not quite a contemplative, but it became evident that he was, as we say these days, present. He was intrigued about our bookstore, interested in our lives, attentive (when he didn’t have to be.) He was smart but he was also calm and kindly. His thoughtful approach to being apprenticed by Jesus – described so accessibly in Renovation of the Heart and most carefully in Spirit of the Disciplines – shaped him in ways so that everyone who knew him felt cared for. Having read his other books and watched his DVDs and having gotten to know him a bit by perusing the wonderful books about him (Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon and the anthology of testimonials, Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Teaching on Faith and Formation and Gary Black’s Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me about Living, Dying and Eternal Life I see why so many people esteemed him so.) John Ortberg has been Willard’s chief popularizer, though, and the older friend to John Mark Comer. I can only underscore Comer’s great appreciation of how Ortberg guided him to Willard.

Ortberg quipped that his splendid book The Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People could be called “Dallas for Dummies.” Years later, before Willard’s death a few years ago, IVP released a DVD from a conference with the two of them: Willard would lecture and then Ortberg would follow up in a gee-whiz sort of way and explain “this is what Dallas was trying to say.” (And, conversely, sometimes Ortberg would lecture and Willard would say, “let me tell you more about what John was trying to develop.”) They were quite a team, both excellent communicators, and both in agreement that evangelicals needed the broader church teaching on spiritual disciplines and formation for whole-life discipleship. Each chapter of Ortberg’s wise and wonderful book (and DVD series) Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You starts with a story of a conversation he had with Willard. He notes that that book could just as easily be entitled “everything I learned from Dallas Willard.”

Enter John Mark Comer, hip Portland mega-church preacher and creative writer and energetic speaker. Some of us met him at our Pittsburgh Jubilee conference last year (watch him here) and he lived up to his reputation as a good thinker and good speaker. (Beth and I so appreciate it when speakers actually browse our conference bookstore and we bonded over books as he gave us so much enthusiastic support and encouragement!) Comer is perhaps best known for his book Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human and for a writing style (even a book design) that brings to mind the aesthetics of a young Rob Bell. The books are punchy, with short paragraphs, a few pages of reverse black/white printing, lots of white margin, sleek, simple fonts, no fussy, old-fashioned dust jacket. The minimalist vibe served his young readers well in Loveology and Garden City and God Has a Name and it works very well – in an ironic kind of way – in this new volume about being too fast paced. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry seems to be written for those in a hurry, which perhaps is as it should be. Not everybody can wade through Willard’s dense and thick Divine Conspiracy. After a busy, draining day I just don’t have it in me to dig into my Merton.

But let me be clear: cool and hip and funny and snarky as Comer is, he is wise beyond his years, honest about his journey, realistic in his description of our fast paced lives and our personal foibles that to a large degree are formed by our crazy lifestyles. He understands the anxiety many of us feel and he knows it is related to our chronic busy-ness. He talks candidly about being too tired to pray, about binge watching Netflix and crushing Candy Crush. Maybe he worries about drinking too much wine late at night. He knows his youngish Portland congregation, and, I think, knows much about you and me, too. I’ve never once played Candy Crush, but I waste time in my own ways and have huge regrets about the state of my interior life. Ya dig?

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry is written in three major parts, and they are all tremendously interesting. It is easy to read as he translates the latest research on our malaise in these digital days and as he describes the draining impact of days of go, go, go, go. He brings an informed understanding without getting bogged down in too many scholarly details.

In the opening pages Comer reveals a bit about his own crisis of near burnout and I was hooked. My hands shook as I turned those first pages. I’m no mega-church CEO or a world-travelling speaker, and I live in a small town and have few aspirations of a living a fancy-pants, big impact lifestyle. But, man, I could relate to the honest angst and real pain suffered by John Mark. Sometimes one’s job and calling and choices propel us on and on and we realize we’re exhausted, stuck on the proverbial treadmill in ways that are anguishing. Said treadmill might be deeply meaningful and entail good, important work. But too much of even a good thing, they say…

And so Comer details his near breaking point, the deep questions of what to do — one can hardly just quit one’s job if it is too stressful, especially if it a job one is called to. But surely, things can be done, changes can be made. There are answers.

And here’s the thing: rather than jumping to the quick fix, resourcing us by guiding us towards sane plans of “ordering your private world” and towards useful tools like Margin (by Richard Swenson) or Greg McKeown’s Essentialism (which Comer does eventually recommend) or even big picture reminders like Richard Foster’s overlooked Freedom of Simplicity or Matthew Sleeth’s 24/6, Comer nicely takes us back to the Willard quote about hurry and, importantly, what lies behind it and beneath it.

Comer knows what Ortberg knows: for Dallas Willard, we eliminate hurry because it is dangerous, bad for our hearts and for our souls, but more, because it is not the Way of Jesus. And this is the key to Comer’s invitation: we are invited to take the easy yoke of Jesus our Rabbi/Teacher and learn his ways. We are to be disciples, after all, which implies that we are apprentices. We don’t just slow down a bit to regain our health, catch our breath. We slow down because it is the way of Jesus and we are to be like Him.

We who are in Christ, part of His church, are to be life-long learners who are shaped in a pattern or lifestyle that is Christ-like, in all aspects of our lives. (That is, not just in “religious” or “spiritual” matters, but about the very ethos and habits and texture of our regular, daily lives.) Yes, there is theological and Biblical content to learn for those following the Jesus way, but more, the way of Jesus is just that – a way of life, not just a system of doctrine. (See The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way by Eugene Peterson for a rich and serious study of this.) And, it is not just a “relationship” as if that’s all we need to say. What is obvious in our marriages, Comer reminds us, should be obvious in our relationship with God: we have to slow down, take time, show up, talk; we must simply be together.)

After the powerful ruminations on how hard contemporary life can be with our speed sickness and habits of haste and then some very interesting and relevant cultural analysis deepening our understanding of our modern mess, Comer shifts to his winsome invitation to solve this problem.

And, so, he preaches on being an apprentice of the Lord Jesus, the nature of a formational faith where we are transformed by living like Jesus lived. In ways I’ve only partially considered Comer reminds us that Jesus was never in a hurry. The gospels report that Jesus spent time in solitude, in silence. He prayed, he partied, he dined, he slept in, he embodied what Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama calls “the three mile an hour God.”

I often make a big deal that Jesus is God incarnate, that the idea of and reality of the incarnation is essential grist for understanding our own humanness and our human dignity.

(We recommend a small booklet, What Is the Incarnation? by our friend William Evans, for starters, or the classic On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius, of course. Will Willimon even has a short and fabulous little study simply called Incarnation. And there are plenty of great introductory books on the humanity of Jesus, too, such as Trent Sheppard’s fabulous Jesus Journey or Patrick Reardon’s The Jesus We Missed.)

However, we must – as Comer makes delightfully clear – not just affirm that Jesus was fully human, but we must pattern ourselves after the particular kind of human life he lived.

Follow me, Christ says. For some of us that mostly means the so-called Great Commandment (loving everyone) and for others it tends to mean the Great Commission (preaching the gospel news to everyone). For Comer (as we know from his books and podcasts) it is all that and more. But in this book, it is this: we are to act like Jesus acted, and that means to walk slowly, to breath deeply, to not worry about speed and pressure and performance. To be attentive to others and to carve out time to pray. This spiritual lifestyle is no detached mindfulness in keeping with Buddhist disinterest but is a deeply, vividly alive way to be human in the world. Welcome to the Jesus way of transformation, learned by practicing the slower habits he Himself exhibited. Surely there are these nearly mundane, practical lifestyle implications of our union with Christ, of abiding in Him.

Comer has a really helpful section of four “practices for unhurrying your life.” These are preceded by a great couple of pages (in reverse white on black printing perhaps to signal its significance) called “Wait, what are the spiritual disciplines, again?” Ha. The next unit on the four practices explores silence and solitude, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Whether this is the first time you’ve read about these rather counter-cultural habits or whether you are well-schooled in writers like Ruth Haley Barton and Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Ronald Rolheiser and Richard Rohr or Donald Whitney and Marj Thompson, this stuff is sweet. It’s upbeat, honest, clear, funny, even. This is a call to think about “A Rule of Life” as you’ve never heard it before.

John Mark Comer is a book lover and I really appreciate how he describes (sometimes with great verve) the books he is citing. The footnotes are a blast. (I’m telling ya, don’t miss reading them!) He’ll tell you why he is quoting a book and then tells you where to start with that author. He even contradicts himself, I think, which makes me grin. (And, like me, in his righteous exuberance, says that is his favorite author or this one is the best and you’ve got to read that one. He likes a lot of books and they are all golden choices. He’s reliable and insightful and motivational, truly enjoying these helpful resources. I sort of like it when he says to just close his book and read, instead, Spirit of the Disciplines or that what he’s trying to say is already said in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality or that Alan Fadling’s The Unhurried Life and The Unhurried Leader says what he’s trying to say, but better. Ho! But he’s not quite right there, as The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry has things that none of those books do (and, did I mention, easier to read and more fun than any of ‘em.)

Sure, JMC is not the only one plowing these fields, calling us to reconsider our Christian growth in the ways of Jesus by slowing down and paying attention, and there are others who write more thoroughly. But ya know what? Comer is really, really appealing and he’s really processing this stuff in his own life and he is speaking honestly about it all. He knows the hardships, he knows the temptations, and he’s glimpsed healing hope that things can be more sane. We can have an emotionally healthy spirituality, but it has to be (as we say these days) intentional. And under the (easy) yoke of our leader, Jesus.

I think you will enjoy this book. It’s loaded with witty comments that are worth taking to heart. And some simple experiments and playful ideas. For instance, in a section about “unhurrying” he says,

Come to a full stop at stop signs.

None of this California nonsense.

By the way, next time you try this, notice how hard it is. Maybe that’s because I’m from California. But maybe it’s because I feel like I’m not moving fast enough, or even because I’m not enough…there’s that disordered heart, right under the surface of my hurry.

Or, how about this?

Get in the longest checkout line at the grocery store.

Aah, you’re all hating me now! In an efficiency-obsessed culture, why would we do that? That’s literally wasting time on purpose.

Well, here’s why I do it…

I thought he was going to be a “loving resistance fighter” a la the late great Neil Postman and his rousing counter-cultural call in Technopoly. And there’s a little of that, just throwing a wrench in at least our own systems of rush and hurry. But Comer also notes that there is a deeper motivation:

He continues,

It’s wise to regularly deny ourselves getting what we want, with practices as intense as fasting or as minor as picking the longest checkout line. That way, when somebody else denies us from getting what we want, we don’t respond with anger. We’re already acclimated. We don’t have to get our way to be happy. Naturally, this takes a while for most of us. So start small, at aisle three.

So, hurry up and get this book. Read it right away (I’ve only got my tongue half in my cheek.) And then read it again, slowly, ruthlessly. As extreme as that sounds, believe me. We’ve got to give up trying to get so far, so fast.

Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $20.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $16.00  If the new John Mark Comer book, sans dust jacket, is upbeat and breezy in a very cool, conversational style, with goofy asides and postmodern allusions and pop culture references, Dr. Os Guinness’s book (with an old school hour glass on the cover) is rather scholarly, full of historical and sociological allusions – with references to Greek thinkers and Roman historians through Shakespeare quotes and lines from his beloved American Founding Fathers to contemporary academics like Peter Berger or Francis Fukuyama and intellectual leaders such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and John Ralston Saul. Comer, in admitting his lack of serious commitment to long distance running jokes about how he’d look in spandex. You aren’t going to hear Os Guinness quip about that.

Still, he is a man of great joy and I’ve seen him laugh loudly. He is kind to everyone he meets. He has a refreshing hope in His Lord even though he has seen – as he says in this book – two of his brothers starve to death as youth in China. Seventeen million died in the horrendous Japanese invasion of China and he and his missionary family were there. Let that sink in.

So, when Guinness – an esteemed scholar who has offered his astute observations through dozens of important books about the American condition and the times in which we live – writes about purpose and zeal and meaning, seizing the day, redeeming the time, we should listen, and expect something more than motivational pizzazz to do your thing. He has earned the right to be heard well and deeply considered. Agree always or not, he is, as BookNotes readers surely know, one of my favorite writers and Christian leaders who I count as a friend.

When we announced this book months ago and offered to take pre-orders we summarized it as the publisher had suggested, and it was not untrue: Os himself says this is sequel to his seminal, must-read 1990s title The Call: Finding Meaning and Significance. (It was, as we have heralded, re-issued earlier this year in an anniversary edition with some new chapters.) To “seize the day” does, indeed, seem to sound like a book about living out one’s call, finding one’s vocation and taking off into Kingdom initiatives.

Yet, let me be clear. To take up one’s calling, to live into visions of vocation, to “seize the day”, one has to know what time it is. (That is, by the way, the fifth “worldview question” that New Testament scholar N.T. Wright added to the “four worldview questions” proposed by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton in Transforming Vision and Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be. You may know Wright’s rich discussion of the “five worldview questions” that everyone implicitly answers and lives by in his New Testament and the People of God, the first big volume in his massive “Christian Origins” series.) The question of what time it is – something’s happenin’ in the air, CSNY used to sing — can only be answered, though, when one knows what time is, how it works, why it has been so mysteriously potent in philosophical thinking down through the centuries. In Carpe Diem Redeemed Guinness is not giving us a guide to discerning our careers or a plan to maximize our impact. Nope. He is pondering how we might be timely. Or – you’ll have to read it yourself to fully understand – untimely, as the case may be. In a sense, this book is drawing from his lesser-known, small, potent treatise called Prophetic Untimeliness, which is, in fact, the title of his fifth chapter.

For years Os has been a dynamic public speaker, mesmerizing his audiences as he speaks flawlessly without a note, listing the significance of this, the pressures of that, the obstacles and the opportunities, moving effortlessly through nearly byzantine outlines which gel brilliantly by the hour’s end. His books are no different, offering the joy of logical argumentation, wrapped in the beauty of rhetorical persuasion. I will read anything Os writes for as long as he writes and for as long as I am able.

He is sometimes a bit stern, it seems. He calls us to be “implacable” in Impossible People which is to say he warns us not to be placated, appeased. We dare not compromise, we must not back down; he exhorts us to be sturdy. Although he writes on civility and eschews talk of culture wars, he knows well the Biblical assumption that we are in for a fight. The Christian faith, the cost of discipleship, is to be lived out through blood, sweat, and tears, and although he preaches about and stands in merciful grace, he has a stout bit of Winston Churchill in him. He doesn’t mess around. He knows what time it is. It’s no wonder he has books that sound an alarm of warning even about our American republic – one is called A Free People’s Suicide and another is Last Call for Liberty.

So, in Carpe Diem Redeemed Guinness offers a bit of criticism of the popular and often shallow pretenses that pass for vocational insight and the “making of meaning” in these secularizing times. He knows we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that we need more than a shot in the arm (or a call to relax.) Both the emotive, bohemian “be yourself” creative voices and the more corporate, business-world advice-miesters about becoming entrepreneurs or captains of industry are both woefully inadequate. We need an approach rooted in more substantive, deeper, sustainable truths. What is this day we are supposed to seize? What’s the point? Is there such a thing as destiny? Can we really discern the times while in our own time? Could a more fruitful perspective be found in the Judeo-Christian view of time as essentially unfolding and meaningful?

To understand and live by this appropriate, wiser view of time, we must guard against what he calls “distorting the past” and “distorting the future.” Offering a Biblically-guided view of generations, he objects to much of the trendy talk about Millennials and Generation Z and Boomers and so forth. It’s a section well worth reading and discussing.

Always a teacher, Os often says that “differences make a difference” and helpfully compares and contrasts different worldviews. One of my favorite books to suggest to serious seekers is his The Long Journey Home which looks at the essential differences between three “families of faith” that have very different views from each other about the nature of things – the Eastern, the secular West, and the Judeo-Christian. In that book, to make the point that what we believe about fundamental things really matters, he compares their respective views of death and dying, grief and hope.) In a brief but essential section of Carpe Diem Redeemed Guinness discusses the differences between the Eastern and secularist views of time (which are very different!) and shows how a reorientation to a Christian view would be a boost to our own sense of dignity and agency, worth and purpose. But, again, this is no cheap sloganeering but a deeply coherent view of purpose in light of a Christian view of history and history-making based on a Biblical view of time itself.

“Thus we can,” it promises on the back cover, “seek to serve God’s purposes for our generation, read the times, and discern our call for this moment in history.”

I am sincerely not trying to balance out a lightweight and a heavyweight book in pairing The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and Carpe Diem Redeemed. I’m hoping to put for you Comer and Guinness in conversation. (Maybe over a Guinness, but I digress.) Comer is a hoot to read, but remains substantive, important. Mr. Guinness is a different sort of thinker, has a different calling and audience, and brings a rare (but not quite rarified) viewpoint to the big questions about the nature of time and of our times. Carpe Diem Redeemed is a good supplement to Comer’s Elimination of Hurry book. Os Guinness, by the way, has shared the stage with Comer’s big influence, Dallas Willard, and both men respected each other deeply and were friends and colleagues, so while Comer & Guinness are stylistically miles apart they are simpatico. Both books worry about the anxiety produced in a milieu that Guinness dubs “survival of the fastest.” He almost sounds like Comer when he talks about “the tyranny of time.”

As the pop culture and media journalist Steve Turner asks about Carpe Diem Redeemed,

“Most of us feel instinctively that we should seize the day, but is the day worth seizing and should it be grabbed so unreservedly?”

This is a huge question. It is related, I think, to Comer’s invitation to unhurry our lives, to see our apprenticeship to Jesus as the central context for how we live and what we do. Guinness is no quietistic contemplative (and as the head of a big church with multiple sites, Comer is no monk, either.) I suspect both should read Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison, a book I think is brilliantly insightful about the gods of efficiency and speed and how they have deformed our faith communities. Still, in Carpe Dime Guinness is asking us to think about one of the most basic things in our lives – time – in light of our knowledge of God and God’s Word. This itself takes time, takes a willingness to be shaped by the liturgies of church and the rhymes of spiritual discipline and to do some serious pondering. It is interesting to me that both Comer and Guinness have been influenced by the legendary Jewish mystic and civil rights activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is perhaps best known for a dense, passionate book on the 8th century Hebrew prophets and the little gem on time, The Sabbath.

As Guinness ponders what it means to “partner with God” and to find “undimmed hope even in the darkest hour” he invites us to “long-term thinking.” (There’s a time-related metaphor for you. And it is one rooted, I might add, in patience, itself a virtue related to our coping with the passing of time.)

Such hope-filled long-term thinking comes from our profound grasp of the Biblical teaching of covenant. Guinness writes,

“For those who live and act within covenantal time, two immensely practical implications flow from this principle.”

You’ll have to read the book yourself to hear more about the implications but they are connected to this notion that we can be long-term in our thinking. (He warns against “the all-at-oncers” or “impatient hotheads” as well as the “never neverers.” Okay, one can’t be elegant in every sentence.) The second implication of a covenantal view of time is that we are “always reliant on God for the final outcome.” He draws a distinction between being responsible but not self-reliant. The end of history is not up to us; “there is a promised time as well as a promised land.”

Only Os Guinness can wisely quote Jane Austen and Soren Kierkegaard in the same sentence:

“Time will explain,” Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion, and Soren Kierkegaard was right that “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Only the perspectives of time allow us to distinguish the trivial from the important, the passing from the permanent, and the random from the significant.”

The book is searching, eloquent and I highly recommend it. The closing afterward in Carpe Diem Redeemed is worth the price of the book, a few beautiful pages I’ve read several times.  It closes with the marvelous lyrics to the majestic hymn by Isaac Watts, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” Inspired by Psalm 90, which poetically reflects on a Godly view of time, it’s a perfect ending to an important, thoughtful book. You’d be wise to take time to read it.

 

When Faith Becomes Sight: Opening Your Eyes to God’s Presence All Around You Beth & David Booram (IVP/formatio) $17.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60  When a new book on spiritual formation, written by seasoned spiritual directors and retreat leaders comes out, I take notice. However, I will be honest: there is so much being released on spiritual practices and attentiveness to God and the spirituality of the ordinary, and discerning God’s guidance, and so forth that it is hard not to grow almost cynical. What more need to be said? How many more resources do we need in this genre of contemplative spirituality? Curiously, the Booram’s themselves wondered this as well, it seems, and I am delighted they overcame their initial reluctance and released this beautiful, touching, gentle, helpful book. With blurbs on the back from giants like Tilden Edwards and the artfully Celtic Christine Valters Paintner and the amazing Phileena Heuertz and the popular podcasting enneagrammer, Suzanne Stabile, you really need to pay attention.

And paying attention is much of what When Faith Becomes Sight is about. It really is a guide to nurturing in our deepest habits of our heart of hearts, our mind’s eyes, the ability to see. Is God breaking in to our mundane days? Is the Holy Spirit prompting us, wooing us, pushing us? Are we taking notice? Perhaps we are just too tired to care. Or too distracted.

Distraction. That has been a theme of the upbeat John Mark Comer book, even though he (in his hip, whimsical way) speaks hard truth about the urgency of changing our deadly habits the cause us to give in to superficial distractions. Os Guinness, in his more academic and sociological voice, is inviting us to be attentive to God and God’s ways (not the shimmering ways of the world or false dreams of being superficially relevant and timely) and thereby see more faithfully. But this lovely new book is directly about recognizing God’s presence, about learning what to look for and how to look for it. Urban activist Juanita Rasmus called When Faith Becomes Sight “the equivalent of spiritual LASIK, offering improved vision.” Exactly.

I was drawn into the adventure of this book by its very structure. It is nicely written and wonderfully organized. There are a handful of chapters that comprise each section. Part One is called “Looking For” and is about “recognizing the signs of God.” With discussions of transcendent moments and “slender threads” and a chapter called “The Fertile Void” I was very impressed. I hope we are never too busy to look for God’s presence, but, well, we all know better.

Part Two is called “Looking Through” which is about discovering what they call “our unconscious and conscious lenses.” I’m still pondering some of this but it is rich and thoughtful, without being too deep. With chapters like “expectations and assumptions” and “The Holy Flame” it really does invite us to God, to Jesus, even to the Holy Book itself. What good stuff.

The third part is called “Looking Within: Entering the Deep Waters of Your Soul.” I was glad it started with “(Dis)Orientation” (a nod to Brueggemann, I suppose) and a chapter called “Befriending Desire.” I’ve not yet finished the chapter “Night Work” in part because it evokes much and I have to sit with a bit more. There is a lot here. It is a book to read slowly.

This journey to actually experience “when faith becomes site” presumes we have time and calm to be attentive to this work. With or without a spiritual director or soul friend, or even without a healthy tool like this guidebook, we still, sooner or later, have to come to grips with our schedules, our time, our hours and how we fill them. We have to be comfortable with “unhurrying” and even entering periods of sustained silence. We have to slow down and take time to reflect. I myself skipped over the reflection questions mostly because I wanted to get done and move on. To my detriment, I can get “so far so fast.” Sigh.

“God is on the lookout for you,” they say. I trust that that is true. So, curiously, even in the midst of a busy, busy life, thanks to God’s own initiatives, we can learn to practice the presence of God and be able to see what might be true moments of transcendence. We can discern God’s role in our own lives. We must slow down and be attentive, and When Faith Becomes Sight, by trustworthy guides, can help.

Helpfully, the Boorams’ good book includes a special appendix that offers a page or two about the role of experience. Beth Booram co-wrote a fabulous IVP book with J. Brent Bill about using your senses to be awakened to God’s presence (and even another, Starting Something New, which told her own story of hearing and following her calling) so they know something about this.  I’m not at all kidding -that small piece, too, is well worth taking the time to ponder deeply and discuss with friends. This is a book that is a joy to read but will best be absorbed slowly, with others, even.

Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic Steven Bouma-Prediger (Baker Academic) $24.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99  Have you ever hugged a book? I mean, right in the middle of it you are just so grateful, so glad, so appreciative that you just hold its pages to your chest and smile and whisper a prayer of thanksgiving?

If not, I hope you don’t think I’m too weird, but I did this with the new release by Professor Bouma-Prediger. It’s hard to explain why I am overcome with joy for this title but I suspect it is partially because I’m so glad for a book that is truly pioneering – making a reader feel like he or she is in on something vital and groundbreaking and redemptively new; the Lord doing that new thing promised in Isaiah 43 perhaps? It is also my gladness for seeing a scholar that writes so well, a good storyteller who knows his philosophy, a professor that is as keen on telling about kayaking technique or his love for the Northern Lights as he is on the history of the sacred-secular dualism in Western rationalism or the scholarship behind certain schools of theological thought. Further, I am nearly verklempt whenever I see a seriously Reformed Calvinist who is fluent in Catholic theology and spirituality and when I see an evangelically-oriented Bible scholar who cites so widely across the theological spectrum (in this case, from Lutheran Joseph Sittler and German Reformed Jurgen Moltmann.) He so deftly weaves into his scholarship gracious moments by citing the likes of poetry by Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver and profound excerpts of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Sylvia Keesmaat and Tom Wright. I believe this book’s content and teaching is exceptionally important and I commend it urgently; aside from its significance, I recommend it for how it is a model of generous, interesting, relevant, elegant scholarship.

I have read Steven’s excellent book on creation care For the Beauty of the Earth and the extraordinary co-authored volume (with Brian Walsh) called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement. (We even stock his deep Oxford University Press book The Greening of Theology where he compares the ecological models of Rosemary Ruether, Joseph Stiller and Jurgen Moltmann.) He is a scholar who you should know and has done books you should read. Listen to A.J. Swoboda, author of Subversive Sabbath:

“Bouma-Prediger’s groundbreaking For the Beauty of the Earth woke me up to Christ’s call to care for the earth. One might struggle to imagine how he could top that prophetic book. He has done it. This book will change the way we think about discipleship. And it will change the way we think about how a discipled people can transform the world.”

Listen to Jonathan Moo, environmental science prof at Whitworth University, (who co-authored the splendid Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World with his father, the famous New Testament scholar, Douglas Moo) who says:

“This book cements Bouma-Prediger’s reputation as one of our best thinkers and writers on the most important issue facing Christians today: how we relate to God’s creation and care for it well in a time of profound crisis. This important book will now be required reading in my environmental ethics courses.”

You should realize that this book really is covering a topic that is unlike any other accessible Christian creation-care book we know: it is, as it says, about character, about virtue ethics.

In a moving story in the beginning Steven and some students are hiking and as they come to their wilderness campground, the find the place nearly trashed — litter scattered, burnt logs and ashes scattered, bark stripped from the glorious white birches. “Who kind of a person would do a thing like this?” a student cries? (And, conversely, he revisits the story and comes across a wonderfully well-kept spot, protected, nurtured, stewarded. And the question remains: “What kind of people do something like this??

And so, we start a journey that I found very helpful and – as many have said in recent decades – is exceptionally important; namely, a study of virtue ethics. That is, we need more than the standard sort of right vs. wrong mentality that asks us to do the right thing out of duty, obedience, a proper response to the rules. Rather, some have said (perhaps you’ve heard of Aristotle, or, in our day, Alistair McIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas) that a more helpful and fruitful and lasting kind of ethics isn’t just merely our duty to do right, but the question of being a good person; that is, a virtuous person who wants to do the wise and good thing. It ends up, there is a large difference between a person who is dutiful to obey the rules, to do good, and a person who desires to be good.

(Some Hearts & Minds friends heard Karen Swallow Prior introduce us to this when she visited here and described the first chapter in her splendid On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books and many more have read it. I myself sometimes recommend the wonderful rumination on all this by Dennis Hollinger in his book Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World. And of course, there’s the lovely, late Lewis Smedes and his very practical, down-to-Earth reflection called Choices: Making Right Decisions in a Complex World. Perhaps an author who has helped us all at least start thinking about this, even though he isn’t an ethicist as such, is James K.A. Smith whose You Are What You Love is a supremely excellent study of character formation, how stories shape our imaginations that in turn call us to live out a certain sort of vision of the good life. We live our of our hearts desires, he explains, which is shaped by some assumption and longing for and construal of the good. It’s a great introduction to the discussions of virtue and character and how we live.)

Bouma-Prediger is a great teacher and he not only explains what is meant by virtue ethics and how that school of thought (about character formation, not merely obedience to ethical principles) is an important aspect of uniquely Christian and deeply human ways of being a good person. And then, just when it was getting interesting, he makes it even all the more interesting by telling us about a recent school of thought in our generation about Environmental Virtue Ethics, known as EVE in the biz, apparently. Who knew?

So, within the environmental studies field there is some insider baseball stuff about whether we need to go deeper than passing environmental legislation and policies to save the planet but to the question of what kind of people we must be if we are going to serve our fellow creatures in that capacity. And, of course, to answer that, even though Aristotle and other virtue ethicists can help, people admittedly need deeper, perhaps more sustainable voices, calling us to a view of our selves and our role within creation. Perhaps our sacred story revealed in the Bible can help.

I love that Bouma-Prediger writes unashamedly as a person of deep Christian faith. He is an evangelically-minded professor at a Christian college (Hope College is affiliated with the Reformed Church of America.) And yet, he writes as if any seeker or nature lover or person curious about ethics and living well, might be listening in. He is like one of his heroes in this regard, the late, great Lewis Smedes. Smedes was a Dutch neo-Calvinist at Calvin College who did seriously Reformed work in Biblical studies and theology, alongside friends like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw and Alvin Plantinga. He, near the end of his days, was writing delightfully wise articles for places like Readers Digest offering all sorts of readers a Biblical worldview without the lingo. Smedes asked us to be “pretty good people” and guided us towards virtues and hope and goodness with grit and grace, in language the whole world could understand. Bouma-Prediger is perhaps more interested in Biblical exegesis than Smedes was, and remains a studious scholar, but he has this charming sense that in writing about Christian ethics and Biblical perspectives and theologically-informed virtuous ways of being in the world, he is not just calling out to church-folk and Christ-followers but all who care about the state of the Earth.

Earthkeeping and Character, then, could be – Lord, please! – a major contribution to two conversations, received by two main audiences. It will surely deepen the Christian work of thinking about – and doing something about – the crisis of the creation and our call to steward well our role in creation’s ecology. Anyone in the Christian tradition writing about creation care or Earthkeeping or environmental stewardship and the like will simply have to grapple with his wonderful insights and vital proposals. This includes not just ecologists and activists, but Bible scholars, theologians, outdoor education leaders (that’s you my XD friends!), those in camping ministries, youth pastors and more.

But, secondly, E & C could be a contribution to the broader world of environmental studies and those working on EVE. Dr. Bouma-Prediger knows the major textbooks and other people of Christian faith who have contributed wisely, profoundly, to this developing academic discipline. (This, too, is a remarkable feature of the book, how he interacts with these other key texts and figures, religious or otherwise, making some serious stuff so very interesting.) May this book be seen not as an in-house religious resource for church folk only, but the serious contribution that it is to mainstream environmental ethics. We need all hands on deck and only the most fundamentalist secularist would ignore this helpful vision for having something substantive to offer.

(One small thing that I really like which all might ponder: he does not like the world environment, much, and prefers the more wholistic, nuanced word ecology. He explains why, using the Bible, naturally, and he cites Saint Wendell on this – I hope you know Berry’s rant in Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community. Bouma-Prediger’s pages explaining this is simply wonderful and we should consider well his linguistic insight here.)

I wish I could walk you through his marvelously ecological vision of virtues and vices, showing how such character traits have such vast repercussions for our role in God’s creation. I suppose it should be evident, but nobody has written this stuff with such passion, wisdom, and verve. He looks at wonder and humility, self-control and wisdom, justice and love, and courage and hope. The stories and examples are thrilling, the trajectory of this both exciting and a bit challenging, if not overwhelming. Can we become these kinds of people, the kind the planet needs? And how does it happen?

Can we make the time to slow down, to experience creation, to reflect on who we want to be in our vocation in our watersheds and places?

Well, it might happen as we, at least, follow in the ways of others. Character ethics are transmitted like that – by mentors, in community. (Ahh, remember Steve Garber’s Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior which showed how young adults, especially, move from “head” to “heart”, from abstract convictions to ways of life, by watching a mentor?) And so the good explanations of virtue and vice, the ruminations on character, the teaching on how classic Christian virtues apply to our stewardly care for fellow creatures, adept analysis of various aspects of how the creation is groaning, are illustrated by stories, examples, episodes, people. Yes, by slowly working with this profound book – as Karen Swallow Prior said about great novels – we can be changed. In fact, not only does Steven introduce us to places and stories and people, he himself is one such model for us all.

Listen to his friend Brian Walsh, who has also written a bit about Biblical virtue and ecological crisis in the recent Romans Disarmed:

“Bouma-Prediger can only write about the shaping of ecological virtues because his own life is such a brilliant testimony to the character of an earthkeeper. He has gifted us with a philosophically astute, ecologically attuned, and biblically profound meditation on ecological virtue.”

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Short Reviews of a Big Bunch of Brand New Titles You’ll Want to Know About — almost all 20% OFF

Welcome, BookNotes readers. I’m going to actually put it in writing as a way to help remind me: this column is going to be (relatively) brief. [Addendum: it didn’t work. Sorry.] What I mean is that I’m not going to indulge my keen interest in telling you lots and lots about the following books. In order to trumpet a larger batch of new books, I’m going to have to keep it moving. I’m sorry, as I do have opinions about these, and hope in a quick sentence or two I can give off clues as to whether any of these are for you; most are very, very good. Read widely, we say, so here ya go.

It has been fun this past season sending out books that we announced way in advance – books that folks pre-ordered. Helping create a bit of an advanced buzz on a forthcoming book is fun, and we thank those who allowed us to send to the books like Jamie Smith’s On the Road With Saint Augustine, Diana Butler Bass’s Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship, Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson’s artsy prayer book, May It Be So: 40 Days with the Lord’s Prayer, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon by David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock and, of course, Os Guinness’s Carpe Diem Redeemed. These were our biggest selling books in the early fall, and we hope you know about them.

There are plenty of other good books we’ve received in the last month or so, and plenty good ones to come. Here are just a few highlights of our in-store selection.

History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology: The 2018 Gifford Lectures N.T. Wright (Baylor University Press) $34.95 ** no discount on this item The scholarly community respects the legendary Gifford Lectures (which often bring together the world’s finest minds on faith, science, natural theology and such.) They are always published and are often immediately esteemed. It is not surprising, but it is still remarkable, to see N.T. Wright now standing among this illustrious list of philosophers and scholars who have done a Gifford.

But I don’t know of many who start explaining the notion of these famous lectures to his elderly mother who says “I’m glad I don’t have to listen to those lectures.” We love Tom Wright.

Scholars from throughout the West are raving about this deep dive. John Cottingham of the UK says it is Wright’s “crowning achievement.” Frances Young says it is an “extraordinary reappraisal.” A theologian from St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Seminary calls it a “tour de force.” Miroslav Volf says it is “Wright at his best – an exegete, theologian, churchman, and public intellectual.”

Friends of Hearts & Minds might appreciate this review by Brian Walsh (most recently co-author of Romans Disarmed) who has been a long time pal and colleague of Wright’s:

With a stunning breadth of research Wright takes his Gifford lectures as an occasion to deepen the paradigmatic shift in biblical studies that he has shaped over the last thirty years. Wright offers a model of historical exegesis that just might release us from our Platonic bondage. This book combines breathtakingly creative brilliance with a lovely eloquence. Since an ‘epistemology of love’ is at the heart of Wright’s natural theology, we wouldn’t have expected anything less. Read this book, then read it again. It takes its place in the esteemed tradition of Gifford lectures becoming classics.

DVD + study guide The New Testament You Never Knew: Exploring the Context, Purpose, and Meaning of the Story of God N.T. Wright & Michael F. Bird (Zondervan) $51.99 for book + study guide together. Our 20% off sale price = $41.59. This eight-session video curriculum is filmed on location in the Middle East, Rome, Greece, Turkey, and captures not only the geography and places where the New Testament developed, but a brilliantly succinct overview of the bigger Story of God of which the New Testament is a part. There is solid teaching on the canon of the NT, great preaching about Jesus, about the early church and the apostles and Paul. Spectacular.

The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians N. T. Wright & Michael Bird (Zondervan Academic) $59.99. Our 20% off PRE-ORDER sale price = $47.99. This major text will be coming out mid-November. There will be a workbook one can buy to go with this selling regularly for $22.99; our pre-order sale price = $18.39. DVDs of the seminary level classroom lectures that go with the content of the book will also soon be available (regularly $47.99; our sale price = $38.39.) Wow; imagine: you can sit in on serious lectures of N.T. Wright and Michael Bird! Pre-order the book, the workbook, or the DVDs and we’ll send them out promptly.  (The more popular level, filmed on location DVDs called The New Testament You Never Knew listed above are available now.)

A Big Gospel in Small Places (Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters) Stephen Witmer (IVP/Praxis) $18.00 Our sale price = $14.40 This is one of those books that we need so badly – I can count on one hand a few good books on rural and small town church ministry – that I’m truly thrilled to be able to tell you about it here. In fact, I had heard so much about it from mutual friends who trust this author and his good work (Small Town Summits) that I was willing to announce it at a recent conference, trying to garner pre-orders, before I even laid eyes on it. I had heard enough to know that this author is evangelical and very thoughtful (he’s an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon Conwell) and that he was a beloved small church pastor in Massachusetts. He has a heart for what God is doing in small towns and rural places.  I was struck by the audacious claim by Echard J. Schnabel (of Gordon Conwell) who said about A Big Gospel in Small Places:

This is one of the more important books written about the gospel and missions in recent decades.

He continues:

Stephen Witmer takes the gospel seriously: he is more interested in the good news than in church-planting strategies. He takes people seriously: he is more concerned for people than for programs. He understands success in terms of faithfulness to God’s calling rather than in terms of fame, in terms of the transformation of people’s lives rather than in terms of the numerical size of a congregation. Here writes an academic who wears his scholarship lightly, a pastor who challenges his audience to think deeply, a follower of Jesus who follows Jesus to all the places where people live. Witmer explains that strategic thinking about ministry must acknowledge one of the great truths about God who lavishes his grace on city people, on small-town people, and on village people alike. This book is a pleasure to read, indeed a must-read for professors, students, and pastors who think about gospel ministry in the twenty-first century.

Reading Buechner: Exploring the Work of a Master Memoirist, Novelist, Theologian, and Preacher Jeffrey Munro (IVP) $18.00  Our sale price = $14.40  We have long been waiting for an authoritative, charming, wise and thoughtful guide to the many sorts of writing done by the imitable Frederick Buechner. I ran across some letters of correspondence with Buechner that a woman in my church had given to me before she died and was again struck – existentially, so – how important of a voice Buechner was, bridging the worlds of literary fiction and mainline Protestant thinking and the best of modern evangelicalism, whose institutions (such as Wheaton College or King University in Tennessee, say, or the famous Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing) honored him more than anyone. There is a lovely, powerful forward by visual artist and writer Makoto Fujimura and blurbs on the back of this book are from the well-known Marilyn McEntyre, Michael Card, John Wilson and Calvin University English prof and co-director of the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing Jennifer Holberg who commends it to both newcomers and longtime readers of Mr. Buechner. What a gift this brand new book is; I’ve paged through a bit and it nearly got choked up. I, like many of you, I’m sure, can’t wait to read it.

We hope we sell a bunch which, in turn, gets people reading Buechner again. It’s as easy as ABC. (And if you are mystified by that allusion, you really need this book!)

The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Other’s Eyes C.S. Lewis (HarperOne) $19.99  Our sale price = $15.99  What a fabulous idea this is, a brilliant idea, really, taking so much that Lewis has written about reading and writing and putting it together in one small, very handsome hardback volume. Kudos to David Downing (co-director of the Wade Center) and Michael Maudlin (of HarperOne) for bringing this little treasure chest together. Anyone who loves Lewis, and anyone who loves reading, will be beyond thrilled.

The Reading Life follows on the heels of a few others where they’ve gleaned from Lewis’s large body of work (from essays and sermons to letters and speeches) and compiled his insights together topically. For instance, there is one called How to Pray and another compilation, How to Be a Christian. So these gathered collections showcasing a theme are great. And this gem just  appeared last week!

C.S. Lewis was, famously, a reader. A lover of books, of good writing, of the reading life. He was a literary critic and writer of nearly every genre. But he loved to read and advise othres on reading well. These pieces honor that aspect of his life, and invite us to the joys of literature, learning to follow in his footsteps in being a better student, a more vibrant lover of the printed page. This little hardback will inspire many, and would make a truly lovely gift for any book lover or Lewis fan you know. Cheers!

Tending Soul, Mind, and Body: The Art and Science of Spiritual Formation edited by Todd Wilson & Gerald Hiestand (IVP Academic) $25.00  Our sale price = $20.00  Here is another tremendous volume from the Center for Pastoral Theologians; their previous conferences yielded tremendous collections – such as the amazing Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World. This brand new one should be of interest to anyone who does spiritual direction, who is interested in the interface of psychology and spirituality, and who longs for a deeper, human, and integrated faith experience.

And, there’s a special Hearts & Minds connection: there is a chapter by a Presbyterian pastor friend, Rachel Stahle, who we knew as a neighbor girl who visited our shop decades ago. So nice to see her appropriating the old insights about the soul from Jonathan Edwards (about whom she has written her own book) and offering them in this thoughtful collection! Congrats, Rachel! Dallastown is proud of you!

The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying the Our Father Wesley Hill (Lexham Press) $15.99  Our sale price = $12.79  For starters, realize that this is the second in a series of handsome compact hardcovers, the first being the nuanced, compelling, and surprisingly popular volume The Apostles Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism by Ben Myers. The Lord’s Prayer is brand new in the “Christian Essentials” series. We so respect Wes Hill, who teaches Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and is exceptionally astute, eloquent, and very well-read. He is increasingly known in his field and is a gracious, good guy. With blurbs on the back of this small book from the likes of Marianne Meye Thompson and Matthew Levering, you can be assured that he is thoughtful and solid and that this book will bring some new passion for this old chestnut of a topic.  No lesser preacher and scholar than Fleming Rutledge commends it.

Indeed, listen to what Rev. Fleming Rutledge says:

Most Christians say the Lord’s Prayer with great frequency and familiarity, so that we scarcely know what we are saying. In this treasure of a book, Hill opens up the prayer with great freshness for the ordinary reader, so that we seem to hear Jesus himself speaking to us, showing us how to pray to his Father in the same spirit that he himself does. This little volume will enrich a reader’s life immeasurably. — Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion and  Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God Sarah Bessey (Howard Books) $26.00  Our sale price = $20.80 This should be one of the most talked about books (at least in some circles) this season. It may help to know that Sarah launched this book at the “Evolving Faith” event put together each year (this year in Denver, just a week or so ago) by Nadia Bolz-Weber and the late Rachel Held Evans. Bessey’s earlier books were very well written and I liked them a lot, including Jesus Feminist and the reassuring Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith.

I assumed this eagerly anticipated one is a bit of a follow up, but one of the important things to know is that Sarah was in a serious car wreck the damaged her body, and shook her faith; chronic pain can do that, you know. Realizing this back-story makes me want to read it all the more…

The blurbs on the back are truly notable and, we think, inspiring:

“Sarah Bessey is a writer of remarkable gifts. Beyond her ability to make a breath-taking sentence, and to tell the truth about the dying and rising of faith, she can tell a story as if she is whispering it straight into your heart. She is, by her own definition, a dangerous woman, with wisdom to spare about learning to love the broken miracles God offers us once we’re honest about where it hurts.”–Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark and Holy Envy

“Sarah Bessey’s Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is immediately one of my favorite books. I can’t think of a single other work that brings together such raw, vulnerable pain with such a real sense of enchantment. Sarah is not too pious to tell us the truth about suffering, but not too cool to tell us the truth about the magic, either. In this trail-blazing, bush-burning book, anything can happen: the Pope shows up, and God does too . . . except of course, when God doesn’t.”–Jonathan Martin, author of How to Survive a Shipwreck and Prototype

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things will surprise and delight you. Sarah’s writing is so breathtaking, sometimes you think you are reading poetry. The story is so thrilling, sometimes you think you are devouring a novel. And the Spirit she describes is so compelling, you’ll swear you experienced a revival. You won’t put it down once until you close the last page. We are so lucky to be readers in the era of Sarah Bessey.”–Jen Hatmaker, author of For the Love and Of Mess of Moxie and 7 Days of Christmas

“Sarah Bessey, the self-described introvert, has given us all a witty and intimate personal reflection on faith and life that borders on liturgy. She walks the walk of an evolving faith, with power and vulnerability, guiding us through the common experience of listening to God’s nudge (and painful jolt) so we can relearn God again and again, and in so doing witness our own process of unbecoming and re-becoming people of faith. Thank you, Sarah, for putting yourself out there!”–Pete Enns, author of How the Bible Actually Works

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery Mark Charles & Soong-Chan Rah (IVP) $17.00  Our sale price = $13.60 This is a big, serious, and very (very) important work that, despite its heavy, hard-hitting content, is readable, informative, and well written. It has been very highly anticipated and long awaited, offering, as it does, a distinctively Christian critique of the old European “Doctrine of Discovery” with the blunt assertion that “you cannot discover lands already inhabited.” Healing from the trauma of colonization, slavery, genocide, and dehumanization, they suggest, may take something akin to a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission as we so famously heard about in South Africa and, more recently in Canada. I hope to tell you more about this eventually, but for now know that we think it fills a real void and will be a gift for readers willing to take it up. Endorsers include a wide array of Christian leaders, including John Witvliet of the Calvin Institute on Christian Worship and Gene Green, a NT scholar at Wheaton, and activist Kathy Khang. The back includes Native theologian Randy Woodley (who says it is a “righteous and integral narrative” and from Andrea Smith (who serves on the board of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.”

Historian Mark Noll writes, wisely, I think (as one who doesn’t agree with all of the book), the following important recommendation:

Why should I endorse a book when I do not agree with some of its historical judgments? Answer: for the same reason you should read it. Charles and Rah attack a pernicious principle (the Doctrine of Discovery), review an evil history (the United States’ treatment of Native peoples), challenge a persistent stereotype (American exceptionalism), and psychoanalyze white America (in denial about the nation’s history). The entire book, even when you think things could be evaluated differently, will make you think, and think hard, about crucially important questions of Christian doctrine, American history, and God’s standards of justice.

Acts of the Almighty: Meditations on the Story of God for Every Day of the Year: A 365-Day Devotional Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan) $18.99  Our sale price = $15.19  I hardly have to say anything, I trust, about this famous writer, a Lutheran pastor, fantasy writer, poet, Bible teacher, and recipient of the National Book Award (and a New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year Award.) I’m sure he’s gotten a few Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year Awards over the years, too… and this one looks as good as any of his many marvelous books. It is, as it says on the back, “God’s grand story. Told in Single Moments.”

Oh my, this looks just splendid, creative, insightful, reading “the Bible’s expansive and arresting story in a brand-new way.” Beautiful cover, too.

Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith through a Volcanic Future Leonard Sweet (NavPress) $17.99 Our sale price = $14.39  It is almost impossible to adequately review a Len Sweet book – they have to be experienced first-hand! – and it is even harder to do so briefly. He uses images and metaphors in ways that are unlike any writer I know and he is entertaining, thought-provoking, (and sometimes, maddening.) He plays with words, interprets data in fresh ways, and cites more scholarly (and poetic) literature than anybody you’ll read, always with a preacherly bit of exhortation. It is a robust reading experience, to say the least. The footnotes are a major part of the book, too, and not to be missed; Sweet is a polymath and it is a delight to just soak in his vast knowledge. In this creative wake up call to the nature of our times and the coming future, Sweet invites us to a sweeping study of what’s a-coming in the 21st century. (And he makes a good joke about brooms in admitting how sweeping his observations may be.) Many who are born these days, he reminds us, will live to see the 21st century, (think about that) and the church simply has to be better prepared to not just cope but to offer fiery leadership in this era of volcanic eruptions in economics, communications, technology, bioethics and such. And he describes here in special chapters in Rings of Fire, a lot of cultural hotspots.

I will have to do a longer review after I’ve read more of this. I’ve read the first two chapters twice and studied the footnotes — which is another reason this latest BookNotes has been delayed.

For those that follow Sweet, I might say that with this book, he’s back in full. Big time. For the last several years he has offered a valuable stream of fine, smaller books, each lovely and exceptional and marked with that sweet wit and big picture insight. All of these books in the last decade have been potent and unique in the marketplace of religious titles, such as the short biography of his mom, Mother Tongue, and the compact book about community, From Tablet to Table, and his clever Bible study about the “bad” stuff Jesus did or the one about relationships or The Well Played Life, a theme he has often memorably taught about. (One doesn’t “work” at the violin, after all, but “plays” it, so he recoils about “working” at one’s marriage or life…) But they have all been fairly brief and somewhat conventional, super-smart and above average with his trademark connecting-the-dots style, but accessible and limited in focus. But none would be called magisterial. (Except maybe Giving Blood, which was about preaching, with that limited, specific audience in mind.)

With Rings of Fire, though, Len has given us a major work, akin to his previous, award-winning, meta-mega-monumental manuscripts, Faithquakes (1994), the unforgettable and still relevant Soul Tsunami (1999), and 2001’s Carpe Manana (we still promote this – he suggests that if we “seize the day” we’re already too late; we must seize tomorrow, which will be, by the way, multi-ethnic in a way many of us still haven’t realized. You should order one while supplies last! And then follow up that one with his very clever Soul Salsa, using the metaphor of the dance, not the condiment, although he writes about that, too.) Rings of Fire is hot, on fire offering what he is most known for, semiotics and future-studies, quantum faith engaging with the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink, for instance. We might need to get Earth-shaking verses like Nahum 1:5 in view as we join this master futurologist into this volcanic, seismic age. He wryly notes:

Rumbling, erupting, and exploding volcanoes signal the time for volcanic drive and cyclonic energy among us, to carve anew some breath-giving vistas of the future. Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s They Are A-Changin” may have worked for the twentieth century, but the soundtrack for the twenty-first century may be Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Or, if classical music in not your thing, try Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”

Rhythms of Renewal: Trading Stress and Anxiety for a Life of Peace and Purpose Rebekah Lyons (Zondervan) $24.99  Our sale price = $19.99  We have long enjoyed the speaking and writing of Rebekah (who is also part of the team that runs the gloriously interesting and important Q gatherings, with her husband Gabe Lyons.) We’ve promoted her other books that are so honest about her own panic attacks, anxieties, and the complexities of raising four children, two with Down syndrome. Her first book was Freefall to Fly and her next was You Are Free.  

It seems that this new Rhythms of Renewal is very practical, offering colorful, fun, essays of advice arranged in four sections, describing four kinds of rhythms, what she calls “Rest Rhythms”, “Restore Rhythms”, “Connect Rhythms”, and “Create Rhythms.”

New York pastor and author Jon Tyson writes,

Rebekah Lyons has given us a great gift. Rarely does a book combine a compelling vision, theological insights, and a vision of practical faith so well. This books touches a deep longing we all have for a more beautiful and sustainable life one lived to the depth and height of what God actually offers. You will find rest for your soul and strength for your heart in here.

For what it is worth, we have a DVD curriculum with Rebekah sharing this same content that would make a great small group learning experience or could be used in an adult Sunday school class.

Reframation: Seeing God, People, and Mission Through Reenchanted Frames Alan Hirsch & Mark Nelson (100Movements Publishing) $18.99  Our sale price = $15.19  Oh, man, I’m telling you, this is one of the most significant, rousing, interesting, re-framing books that have appeared in recent years within the genre of books about the missional/incarnational church. Alan Hirsch, as you may know, is a seminal voice in the missional church movement and is a vibrant and award-winning author of books on movements, organizations, congregations, leadership; his co-author Mark Nelson is lead pastor of a faith community called Crossings, in Knoxville. (He is involved with the Forge movement as well, serving their Knoxville Hub and on their American board.) Their playful messing with the word “reformation” and calling us for a new sort of reformation, that creates a full-orbed re-framing and an imaginative enchantment of our worldview is remarkable, if maybe a bit blustery at times and full of lingo like “paradigmatic” and “catalytic” and “movement practitioners.” It is fascinating with lots of intellectually stimulating excursions and lots of stories from the authors. It is, if anything, a full gospel manifesto. Much, much more needs to be said, but we encourage you to order this a start a conversation about it in your church circles.

Anybody who is anybody in this movement has offered wildly supportive blurbs for this new work. For instance, there are raves by hip activist writers such as Christiana Rice, Hugh Halter, JR Woodward, David Fitch, Danielle Strickland, Linda Bergquist, John Mark Comer, Mark Sayers, and, of course, Hirsch’s occasional co-author, Michael Frost (who wrote a glowing afterword to Reframation.) Others have weighed in, from Walter Brueggemann to Bill Hull to Christine Sine to Bishop Graham Cray.

There is so much going on in this book calling on us to re-frame and re-enchant our understanding of God’s work in the world (and, consequently, but not only, our understanding of the structure and mission of the church.) To “re-frame” is a hugely audacious response to the work of the Spirit, and this book offers a visionary, complicated, big-picture, ride through our post-modern/secular/mystical culture to find ways to re-frame how we think of God and God’s role in our lives and world.

I happened to an endorsement of these authors in the book, and here’s is what is printed next to a lot of much more significant figures:

Every once in a while a book comes along that is so audacious, so sprawling, so visionary, so learned, so fascinating, that one almost wonders what wild prophets could come up with such a work? Hirsch and Nelson have been at this ministry, playing in these fields of the Lord, for a long time, and they offer us a deep and wise manifesto of how we might reframe our view of God, God’s work, our human vocation, our hope, and yes, the church’s mission — so we might be faithful and full and fruitful in these times. Uber-contemporary reports such as Hirsch’s taking in The Burning Man festival and Nelson’s moving account of hiking the El Camino trail, to scholarly engagement with extraordinary thinkers like Von Balthasar, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Taylor, will add to the urgent conversations of our day about the quest for meaning, the proper understanding of gospel-centered faith, the nature and scope of redemption, the joy of beauty, and the goodness of longing for a better world. Serious scholarship is illuminated by the transcendental vibe of Blake’s poetry and awesome exegesis of Biblical praise songs, by tender stories and great quips and quotes.  In a hurting, searching, God-haunted world, Reframation is itself a signal of transcendence.

Semper reframation!

What Does Your Soul Love? Eight Questions That Reveal God’s Work in You Gem and Alan Fadling (IVP/formatio) $22.00  Our sale price = $17.60  I hope you know that we carry all the books in the remarkable “formatio” line. They without fail offer solid insights about spiritual formation, our interior lives, the way in which God can transform us from the inside out to be of great service in our broken world. Many are about prayer and solitude and the contemplative life, but some are more general, as this one seems to be. You may know Alan Fading from his wonderful (and wonderfully convicting, I suspect) Unhurried Life and The Unhurried Leader.

This book deserves greater explanation, but a quick look at the Table of Contents shows us it offers nuanced and evocative reflections on desire, resistance, vulnerability, pain, fear, control, joy, and other key emotions. The invitation to “change from the center” seems clear and the last piece (before some great appendices) offers us guidance about “staying on the path of change.” This has good “process stuff and invites us to be honest about what is getting in the way, what we are hiding, what we cling to, and how we might find something more real and healthy.

Retreat leader Will Hernandez writes of What Does Your Soul Love?: 

Books on the subject of transformation abound. What makes this book stand out is that Gem and Alan crystallize for us what real change looks like through their very down-to-earth, living examples–concrete and relatable. One comes away after reading their accounts–peppered with story after story–convinced that authentic growth in God is indeed possible when our souls are focused in the right direction. Not only inspiring but downright practical!

No Avatars Allowed: Theological Reflections on Video Games Joshua Wise (Church Publishing) $18.95  Our sale price = $15.16  We have a big section in our store about faith-based reflections on popular culture, books offering Christian (and other) thoughtful perspectives on advertising, film, Super-heroes, hip hop, and more. We have books like Brent Laytham’s Ipod, Youtube, Wii Play: Theological Engagements with Entertainment next to Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue edited by Kutter Callaway and Dean Batali. All framed by the best of the bunch, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture by William Romanowski. 

It’s a fun section in the shop with lots to browse through, but, to be honest, there are not many serious and thoughtful (and fun) Christian books about video games that are worthwhile. Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games is our go-to, and the author, Kevin Schut Professor Media and Communications at Trinity Western University, happily, has a good blurb on the back of the brand new No Avatars Allowed.

Schut writes:

No Avatars Allowed is a valuable contribution to discussions Christians are having about video games. Joshua Wise writes in clear and accessible language about important topics surround theology, philosophy, and gaming. He raises insightful points that will hopefully spur discussions around a part of culture that the Christian Church still struggles to come to terms with.

Another fun connection with Wise’s book is that it is dedicated to (among others) our young friend and customer, Father Benjamin Gildas, who has graced the book with a very nice and informative foreword. Fr. Ben helped Wise start a lively podcast about gaming and God (also called No Avatars Allowed) and has been at the center of conversations about theology and technology and pop culture for years. Both serve Holy Sacrament Church in Drexel Hill, Philadelphia, and Wise also is an adjunct professor of systematic theology at Villanova. He is, curiously, drawing on some of the Patristic Fathers here, and early on cites Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria. He offers a measure of George MacDonald, it seems, too, all in a study about very contemporary gaming. What a book!

Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers Shea Tuttle (Eerdmans) $23.99  Our sale price = $19.19  Oh my, just having this book face out in the store brings a certain calm and joy and pleasure. It looks so very good; we respect Ms Tuttle for her important work as co-editor in the “Lived Theology” project called Can I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice that came out from Eerdmans earlier this year. I raved about it at BookNotes earlier this summer, and I’m glad that she has taken up this project. I’m sure she brings a kindness but also a certain suitable gravitas to the study, although with a light touch.

As it says in the publisher promo:

In Exactly as You Are, Tuttle looks at Fred Roger’s life, the people and places that made him who he was, and his work through Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. She pays particular attention to his faith – because Fred Rogers was a deeply spiritual person, ordained by his church with a one-of-a-kind charge: to minister to children and families through television.

I trust you know the fabulous, hefty Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (now out in paperback) and I really hope you know the remarkable Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Central Pennsylvania religion professor Michael Long. Both are indispensable. But this brand new one, lovingly researched and wonderfully written, may now be considered one of the very best books on this amazing, amazing, Presbyterian Christian and media icon.

My Heart Cries Out: Gospel Meditations for Everyday Life Paul David Tripp (Crossway) $24.99  Our sale price = $19.99  Paul Tripp is a conservative, Reformed Christian/Biblical counselor who draws on the gospel truths of the Scriptures in everything he does and writes. He is very widely respected and appreciated for being raw and real and always rooted in the great news of the transforming power of the cross of Christ. The over-used phrase “gospel centered” can properly be applied to his approach and his many books illustrate these no-nonsense commitments to keeping first things first, even as he loves living in the real world and helps others cope with their hurts and foibles, sins and struggles.

So it is no surprise that contemporary, theologically rich, hymnodists Keith & Kristyn Getty have an endorsement on the back of this book of devotions, saying:

Tripp has the great ability to grasp the vast riches of biblical truth and distill it for us in creative, compelling, and wonderfully-practical ways.

It may be a bit more surprising to see hip hop recording artist and writer Lecrae write:

As an artist who uses words as expressions, I found joy in reading My Heart Cries Out. This work connects with the human condition in a unique and awesome way.

You see, these artists appreciate this book because, unlike Tripp’s other books, this is poetry. (And there are other endorsements from women and men who are artists, singers, hip hop guys.) Yes, it is offered as “gospel meditations” and it is somewhat of a daily devotional. But the form is sheer poetry. Written, as one observer notes, by a “sage with scars.”

By the way, kudos to Crossway for the nice design. the book is a bit larger than usual, with French fold covers, and some full color photography in side. It’s a beautiful paperback.

The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times George Weigel (Ignatius Press) $24.95  Our sale price = $19.96  Agree or not with the conservative Roman doctrine or the culturally traditionalist commitments of this remarkable thinker, his work is significant. (A blurb on the back by Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon calls him “a steady voice of reason.”) He writes mostly around the intersection of faith and culture, societal concerns, public justice, social ethics. In this heady collection he draws us to the questions of how to keep order when the very notions that sustain order are eroded. (For a recent, evangelical, Protestant book that follows similar grooves, at least in political matters, think of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide or Last Call for Liberty.)

Agree or not with his particular take on history and evaluation of the times and his conservative religious loyalties, you surely will be intrigued with a book by an author who garners a blurb like this:

Mary Eberstadt, Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute), says:

Every page in this book shines with moral clarity, literary pyrotechnics, and the illumination of history. The Fragility of Order proves once more that George Weigel is our Virgil through the dark woods of modernity.

Consumed By Hate, Redeemed By Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation Thomas A. Tarrants (Nelson Books) $24.99 Our sale price = $19.99  Our lives have been too busy, and I have felt badly that I have not reviewed for you this major release, truly one of the most amazing, God-glorifying stories I’ve ever heard. We are friends with the author, the President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington, DC. Tom is a good, good man, redeemed and made new by Jesus Christ, and when we first heard that he had been in jail for attempted murder in a violent KKK incident, I was stunned, breathless, sick to my stomach. Beth and I so admired Tom’s quiet and peaceful demeanor and his sharp, well-read mind. We had no idea of his background and found it hard to belief. We didn’t know much, then, but realized he was the guy who had once written a book about his racial hatreds with African American faith leader, John Perkins. It wasn’t terribly well known, but maybe you’ve seen it. It was called He’s My Brother and it only told part of this dramatic, wild, redemptive story. Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love tells the whole backstory in all it’s scary ugliness and amazing, amazing grace.

I surely will have to review this more carefully and thoroughly later, but, for now, know that this autobiography tells of Tom’s past, his anti-Semitism and racism, how he had engaged in what we now might call alt-right militia type activities. He was involved in shoot-outs with law enforcement and went to prison for an attempted bombing of a Jewish synagogue.

This bombing, an awful chapter in the US civil rights struggle, was something novelist John Grisham heard about as a kid growing up in Mississippi, and he later used it as a backdrop for his novel The Chamber. As the Southern Baptist Grisham writes, “Now, one of the bombers, Thomas Tarrants, tells the real story in this remarkable memoir.”

Grisham continues,

It is riveting, inspiring, at times hard to believe but utterly true, and it gives some measure of home in these rancorous times.

You will have to read his own well told story to learn how he got keep into this mess, and how, in prison, he found a personal relationship with Christ which transformed his identity and his racial prejudices. The governor of the state granted him clemency and he ended up working in a multi-racial church in urban Washington DC.  There is a lot more to this story, but we wanted to introduce it here, now. Listen to Russell Moore, who says Consumed by Hate, Redeemed… is a “riveting narrative…  the path from burning crosses to the cross of Christ himself, from raging hate to amazing grace.”

This astonishing portrait of captivity to a corrupt ideology and eventual authentic conversion is well worth reading. As journalist (and convert from a rigorous atheism, himself) Lee Strobel says:

Put on your seat belt and prepare to enter into one of the most extraordinary true stories you’ll ever encounter.

Not Home Yet: How the Renewal of the Earth Fits Into God’s Plan for the World Ian K. Smith (Crossway) $15.99  Our sale price = $12.79  Increasingly there are books which – praise the Lord! – show that the ultimate plan for the created order is re-creation and renewal. We are not going to be raptured to some ethereal heavenly plane but the Bible teaches that God returns to fulfill his promises, to heal the creation; the good news is one of restoration, not destruction. A few books and movements with this vision of “all of life redeemed” and “every square inch” reclaimed by Christ link it to what ought to be obvious: environmental concerns; but some do not. This little volume of Biblical studies is not primarily about stewardship of the environment, as such, but it frames our ecological concerns in light of this wonderfully robust, solidly Biblical vision of God’s faithfulness in the past and future to the work of His hands.

This has something to do with, and will be of great interest to those who have come to understand the descriptor “creation-fall-redemption-restoration” as the best over-view of the Bible’s story and the history of the plan of redemption. (Not Home Yet also looks at themes in the Old Testament about exile and homecoming and the temple being destroyed and restored.) Those four “chapters” of the Biblical story influence much, but few accessible Bible scholars have done good work on the hope of a restored planet. (The very, very best study of this, although a bit academic and lengthy for some, is the classic A New Heaven and A New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology by J. Richard Middleton.)

What is the nature of our “future home?” How might a high regard for God’s covenant and promises for the Earth influence our living, now? (Think of the good insights about these very matters in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.) Not Home Yet explores this all quite nicely. He insists that what we do now has value, because God values the Earth. This beautiful place is not “second best” as if we’re going “somewhere better.” This is, as Smith shows, exactly what the Bible teaches.

I love it that pious Scottish Presbyterians like Sinclair Ferguson endorse this little book. A highly regarded and fabulous Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman endorses Not Home Yet, by saying:

I have never seen such a clear articulation of the theme of creation and re-creation anywhere.

Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy Sayers Christine A. Colon (IVP Academic) $16.00 Our sale price = $12.80  I said I want to keep these announcements short. But oh my, there’s so much to say about Dorothy Sayers, her friendship with C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, her work as a Dante scholar, as a mystery writer (do you know the detective fiction featuring Lord Peter Whimsey?), her contributions as a playwright, her legendary letter writing, and her rise as a extraordinary and somewhat surprising example of a respected Christian scholar. One of her famous books was called, of course, The Mind of the Maker and many in the contemporary faith and work movement draw on her seminal essay about the essential dignity of human labor, called “Work Matters.” She is a figure we should know more about.

And so, I’ve wished for years for a book like this. And here it is. (If only I had time to dive in, which I surely will, soon.)  Choosing Community… as you might be able to tell, isn’t just a dry overview of the famous Dorothy Sayers and her many books. It presses us to grapple with Sayers’ life and work and learn from it how to thrive in our particular day and age, troubled as it may be.

Listen to these endorsements.

Christine Colón has written an original and thoroughly fascinating book on Dorothy L. Sayers and community. Sayers enthusiasts will appreciate her meticulous research, but even the general reader who doesn’t know Sayers will learn something about how people can live together in harmony despite the traumas of this world.” (Suzanne Bray, professor of English, Lille Catholic University)

“Colón wends her way through Sayers’s detective novels and religious plays in the context of her life and times to help us see what Sayers wanted us to learn about community and the work that God has given each of us to do with joy for the health of our communities ― especially the church. Sayers comes through as one who passionately grounded these insights in essential Christian doctrines, such as God’s triune existence and the atonement, during times of war and societal decay. At a time when we seem to be sinking into tribalism in a contentious world, there are lessons to be gleaned from Sayers thanks to Colón’s guidance. And this study might just prompt one to hurry to the bookshelf and read or reread a Sayers piece, seeing in it what otherwise would have been missed.” (Dennis Okholm, professor of theology, Azusa Pacific University, author of Learning Theology Through the Church’s Worship)

Near the Exit: Travels with the No-So-Grim Reaper Lori Erickson (WJK) $17.00  Our sale price = $13.60  Before I ran out of time, I had a plan: I was going to do a longer review of this in time for the Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies (now oddly celebrated all over the world) which mostly coincide with Halloween and, yes, All Saints Day. Near the Exit is a very vividly written, entertaining travelogue book where the author (known for bringing religious sensibilities to expert travel memoirs, like in her popular Holy Rover) explores how people all over the world dispatch their dead. It isn’t gloomy, but some readers might find it a bit creepy. On the very first page she is embedded in a Day of the Dead event in Chicago. Whoah.

When a world-renowned doctor who has specialized for a lifetime writing about care for the dying such as Ira Byock (Dying Well) writes that a book is “informative, insightful and thoroughly entertaining” it’s worth checking out. When an author is as witty and irreverent and yet deeply tender as Erickson is, she is, for my tastes, worth reading. This is one fascinating book.

She is honest about some of her immediate motives: her brother dies rather suddenly and her mother is in a dementia-care unit. (Some of the writing around that was very, very moving for me, having lost my mother recently.) Erickson moves from curious strolls through church graveyards to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings to Mayan Temples to a Colorado cremation pyre to writing about her own care for her own dying mother. Erickson is an Episcopal deacon so stands firmly within the broad Christian tradition, although some with traditional orthodox theology will find her cavalier writing about what happens after death a bit wanting. Still, if one can get past that this isn’t a theological treatise or Bible-based sermon, but a colorful travelogue (did I mention she has won writing awards in the Travel Books category) by a person who respects global faiths and diverse cultural customs – more an anthropologist than a theologian – it could be a real enjoyable read for you. And, who knows, in exploring how others including Erickson herself) process the mysteries of death and dying, maybe you will glean a bit more empathy for others and a bit more willingness to explore what you believe and why. After all, as she notes in the preface, to be human is to be mortal. We all, whether we enjoy it or not, have reason to be interested.  Near the Exit is one entertaining way into that big question…

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