Practices of Love (Kyle Bennett), Costly Love (John Armstrong) and God-Soaked Life (Chris Webb) ALL ON SALE — up to 30% OFF



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Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World by Kyle David Bennett (Baker) $16.99



Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus by John H. Armstrong (New City Press) $15.95



God Soaked Life: Discovering Kingdom Spirituality Chris Webb (IVP) $16.00



In our last BookNotes we mentioned why we love talking about books on integrating faith and work. Christian faith is all-encompassing, not just about going to church once a week, not just about worship or prayer or Bible reading, but is a full-orbed worldview and way of life. The Bible repeatedly reminds us that “The Earth is the Lords” and that God “so loved the world” and that Christ calls us to be “in the world” (if, granted, not “of” it.)

Some college students I was teaching this past summer teased me about getting a tattoo and I said if I ever did it would be some manifestation (following one of our daughters) of Romans 12:1-2 which invites us to fully-embodied worship in the world, non-conformed, with a renewed mind, in truly down-to-Earth spiritual service. And as anyone who knows Romans 12 knows, this includes showing love to others, even enemies.  We show in our very bodies what God’s perfect will is, and it’s clear in Romans that that includes the call to love.

(And, as we will see in one of the books described below, Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus by John Armstrong, this is always and everywhere central to our faith and, yes, it is demanding; costly, even.)

Talking religiously about down-to-Earth stuff like work (or gardening or art or science or sex or cooking or city planning) reminds us, in the immortal works of the hokey-pokey, that’s what it’s all about. We glorify God by bearing God’s image well in the world that is so loved.  We are glad that the stunningly creative and colorful, fun and insightful, DVD curriculum about a sacramental worldview where all of life is to be explored called For the Life of the World asks what our salvation is for. The answer, alluding to Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s book of the same title, is “for the life of the world.”

Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World Kyle David Bennett (Baker) $16.99

Kyle David Bennett ‘s brand new book has that same phrase in the sub-title, which is in a sideways kind of way, about practicing spiritual disciplines. It is a truly ground breaking book, or at least it seems to present itself that way. (He is not the first to explore the social and cultural implications of a rich interior life, but he does seem to be the first to explore it in the manner he does, working out an approach to spiritual practices, informed, it seems, by James K.A. Smith’s writing about loves and habits and practices.  In this regard – although it is a very different sort of book – Practices of Love has certain similarities to the wonderful Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. If you liked that book – which we loved, as did many of our customers – you have to get this new one!)

Bennett bluntly reminds us that classic spiritual disciplines are not to be viewed like a drug to get us high (even if intimacy with God, union with Christ, and even spiritual ecstasy are commendable) but are better understood as training tools to help us love our neighbors.  And that is both more urgent and a bit more complex than it sounds.

Drawing powerfully on Isaiah 58 — I assume you know it – Kyle Bennett boldly implies that if our spiritual formation disciplines don’t bear fruit in real love for others they are not only distorted but fraudulent. Isaiah 58 isn’t the only passage in the Scriptures that speaks of the hypocrisy of those who enjoy rigorous worship but are complicit in social injustice. Bennett comes on strong on a few pages here, reminding us that our lifestyles of consumerism may be vicious and that we often oppress others; he is more blunt than even some outspoken justice activists in saying this and I was almost taken aback in a few rebuking paragraphs.  He takes it as a given that in our modern world we are implicated in unjust social structures, global economic systems, hurtful policies and even personal habits that are demeaning to others.  Can prayer and fasting and meditation and solitude and Sabbath-keeping equip us to live “in the world but not of it”? Can we be formed to be people who are more caring, more compassionate, more astute in our stewardship, more just in the actual things we do? That is the question; otherwise our spirituality will be indicted by the God of the law and the prophets, the God seen in the Christ who wants a seamless integrity flowing between Sunday and Monday, worship and work, prayer and politics, spirituality and society. (And we know that Jesus teaches that mercy and justice are “the weightier matters” as Matthew 23:23 puts it.) How to re-figure our views of and expectations about and actual experience of historic spiritual disciplines so we might be shaped into people with new desires and habits and ways of being in and for the world – that’s what Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World is all about.

Bennett’s friend and mentor James K.A. Smith explains the theological substance of this book (naming Bennett’s influences in a way that Bennett himself does not) in a fabulously positive foreword:

Imagine a unique tree – one that grows in the soil of church fathers such as John Cassian and Gregory the Great, with roots that trace back to “old vines” in Abraham Kuyper and Soren Kierkegaard, and branches grafted from Dallas Willard and Richard Mouw.  The fruit of such a tree is this book: a vision for how to do “life in the Spirit.”

Jamie then says something that nearly any thoughtful contemporary author would be proud to have said about his or her work:

If I could, I’d insert Practices of Love as volume 1.5 in my Cultural Liturgies trilogy.


Smith continues:

Giants such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster showed us the significance of the spiritual disciplines for sanctification: Jesus invites us to follow him by doing what he does not just thinking God’s thoughts after him. In Desiring the Kingdom (and You Are What You Love), I tried to provide an “ecclesiological assist” to their spiritual disciplines project, arguing for communal, gathered practices of worship as the hub for those other spiritual disciplines – that sacramental worship is the heart of discipleship. But in Practices of Love, Kyle Bennett expands the frame and shows us another part of the picture: all these disciplines are undertaken not just for our own relationship to God but also as a way to love our neighbor.

[An aside: the third volume of this magisterial, pioneering, much-discussed Cultural Liturgies trilogy by James K.A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, will be out this November.  I’ve been working through an advance version of the manuscript – yes, I do love this part of my job, thank you very much – and you can PRE-ORDER it at 20% off from us if you’d like.  It follows the influential and much-discussed  Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom and for a while had the tentative title Embodying the Kingdom. The official title now is Awaiting the King. It is very much about public theology.  No wonder he likes Kyle David Bennett’s little book.]

Bennett, like Smith, is a philosophy prof with a PhD. For those few among our readership that would remember, he did his undergrad work at Geneva College under the late, beloved philosophy professor Dr. Byron Bitar, who, alongside the “every square inch being redeemed” worldview of the Dutchman Abraham Kuyper gave him a love for the Dane, Soren Kierkegaard.  In fact, some will notice that Bennett’s book has a title close to Kierkegaard’s famous Works of Love.

There are indications in the book, easy to read as it is, that Bennett is pretty philosophically minded, and it makes the book very interesting: he asks what things actually mean, what they should look like, how they fit together, how they work. He asks this about spiritual disciplines – what’s really going on when we fast or feast? what is the relationship between solitude and socializing? how does meditation help us prevent mal-formed thinking? what really is silence? what is the point of work? Without being scholarly or arcane he asks pretty foundational questions and this is good; rare, even.

Kyle is obviously a gifted teacher, too, so he introduces useful words to help us further understand our mal-formed ways and to think and speak better about what others might call virtues and vices. For instance, in a section on fasting and food he not only talks about our “tummies” but “gormandization” which is another word for gluttonous eating. He also talks about “miserly” eating, which is a helpful way to think about certain distorted practices. He is a thinker, a teacher, and has a colorful, practical, even humorous side.

And he tells some really entertaining (admittedly brief) stories of philosophers, explaining cool stuff about how people thought Diogenes was a mad-man because he wanted to live a better quality (and less materialistic) life. He tells some informative bits about Socrates’ life, quotes Thomas Aquinas and, in a footnote, at least, cites postmodern philosopher Merleau-Ponty and an often-repeated line from Simone Weil.  He’s a smart dude.

But don’t let this propensity to introduce some colorful vocabulary and quote heady scholars and a few big words fool you.  In fact, Jamie Smith tells us not to worry:

Bennett’s lively prose and passionate verve will make you forget every caricature of the tweedy, elbow-patched philosopher. This is feisty Christian thinking with wit and wisdom and both eyes fixed squarely on the nitty-gritty realities of the proverbial ‘real world.’ Above all, this book is a thoughtful invitation to live like the new creatures that we are.

Smith could have pushed this point more: Kyle really, really is down-to-Earth, in a blue-collar everyman/everywoman kind of way. He talks about a fight he had with his wife, describes how he felt as a youth when his dad’s dad was killed in a car wreck, mentions often his love of basketball and Little League baseball, even counsels about how to better use time in the bathroom. (I know, you didn’t see that coming.) And he quotes movies – and not just high-brow ones, either. (He mentioned Elf! He mentioned Elf!) He quotes rural Wendell Berry novels and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. He draws on the children’s books of Roger Hargreaves, like Little Miss Chatterbox. It isn’t every book that has a heavy line from Nicholas Wolterstorff about the relationship of justice and liturgy and a long footnote about Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck even as he is talking about TV shows like the British detective drama Luther and the intriguing question his daughter asked of what animal is the laziest of all. He encourages us to love our neighbors in the “itty bitty” things and asks how we feel when we “veg out” all weekend. He talks about working (not very successfully) as a bricklayer and having a crummy time working at “slapping meat on stale bread” at Subway.

So, again, passionate and broad-minded and fun-to-read and down-to Earth raw as it is, Practices of Love is asking readers to rethink our assumptions about spirituality. Faith-formation doesn’t just happen in church and it just doesn’t happen in quietude and daily devotional times. In fact, he wants to see all of life as deeply spiritual, all human endeavors as related. Spiritual disciplines aren’t to be compartmentalized as discreet activities, really, since all that we do is spiritual (see — I started off with that Romans 12:1 verse for a reason! In a way, this book is asking what does spirituality look like if Romans 12:1 about all of life, what Eugene Peterson calls “our everyday walking around life” being worship is really true.)

Bennett’s approach assumes a view of the human person that is obviously embodied, cultural, social, and multi-faceted and that all the dimensions of our lives – feeling, thinking, spending, consuming, talking, working, resting, and the like – are all uniquely unfolded before God. (He even has a few illustrations making the point.)  We should not consider spiritual disciplines as some eccentric, monkish formational habits for the super-pious or introverts who just want to get away to work on their so-called “spiritual life.” Our methods of coming more deeply to know God are embodied in various dimensions of our God-ordained creatureliness.

In fact, the book challenges what most of us think about the practices of spiritual disciplines because he insists (over and over) that they are not something other than what we ordinarily do as humans.  It becomes a refrain that we aren’t being invited to do new or different things, but to do ordinary things differently. We are mal-formed in each side of life and we need to be re-formed, re-calibrated, re-directed away from self and idols and towards love of others.  In this approach we don’t so much adopt esoteric spiritual techniques to gain spiritual feelings but just enter into ordinary life in a new way, inspired by the transformed heart and habits nurtured within us, making us more Christ-like. With attentive practice, the image of the Triune God more powerfully is reflected in our walk through the world. Bennett implies that the early church fathers and mothers knew this – he avoids those mystics that focused on esoteric encounters or who sought after ecstasy — and that we can take their ancient pastoral advice to heart, even in our modern times.  For instance, he writes, after a clever string of apparent differences between a modern and an ancient person,

What hath fourth-century Egypt to do with twenty-first century El Paso? Our lives may take different shapes and twists and turns but the cashier and the cenobite, the hedge fund investor and the hermit, the nun and the nurse are not so different.

After all, the commonplace human experiences of the ancients – their joys and temptations – are similar to ours.  Bennett continues,

Like them, we do basic, ordinary activities every day. We get dressed, we buy things and take them home, we think, we eat, we hang out with friends, we talk (a lot), we work (a lot), and we rest.

In fact, he uses some version of a long phrase several times (and as the chapters unfold you see why) to explore these universal human experiences. He writes about how we all think, eat, socialize, talk, own things, work and rest. Each of these things can be transformed into acts of true love and grace as they are infused with new spiritual energy and virtue.  For instance, the discipline of practicing silence helps us speak better; the ethic of service infuses how we work; the attitudes of simplicity helps us steward better those things we do own, fasting helps us feast well. You get the picture, I’m sure, but he helps you connect the dots.  The helpful insight he has as we learn about this is remarkable.

I suspect that if you are at all like me, you will find some things to disagree with in this provocative book.  A few sentences made me stop reading to ponder why a word was chosen or an attitude conveyed. I frankly think that some of it might have been edited a bit differently – I’m sure when he talks about the public square and the common good and mentions “blankets to be shared in common” he doesn’t mean what is sounds like.  And why sound so glib in saying “Dying for another person is quite easy compared to living for another person.” An easy martyrdom? Weird.

As much as I agree with the stellar blurbs on the back – from remarkably thoughtful folks like Dennis Ockholm, John Wilson, Rebecca Konynkyk DeYoung, Vincent Bacote, and Gideon Strauss – I need to struggle more with the first few chapters where he doesn’t offer the sort of clear definitions that I wished for. I found his logic a bit convoluted, even though some of the writing was powerful. I really like his energy and all the major points he makes. But I really have to ponder his meaning a bit more.

The heart of the book is comprised of a set of chapters each showing how a certain spiritual discipline can reform our habits and practices in that side of life (again, meditation helps us think, solitude helps us socialize, and the like.) These are brilliant, wise, curious, fascinating, each making the case that spiritual formation is about love. He reminds us in creative and compelling ways that while there is a “vertical” dimension to spiritual disciplines, we should explore with equal vigor the “horizontal” or “sideways” implications of how our spirituality shapes how we relate to others, from strangers and neighbors to co-workers and enemies.  In this he is not dissimilar to others who have invited us to find God in the ordinary, to consider uniquely Christian practices, doing typically human endeavors in distinctively Christian ways, being intentional about how they help build a better world by loving others properly.  As David Naugle puts it in his brilliant book, we need Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives. 

Or as John Ortberg writes in The Life You Always Wanted, spiritual training through contemplative discipline isn’t about our  (so-called) “spiritual life” but is just about our life. Our real world life.

But yet, as I say, I have to ponder more about what Bennett really means as he conflates spiritual disciplines and Christianly animated human practices.

If he had consistently used the language of how our spiritual disciplines – fasting, practicing times of silence, meditation, worship, and the like – shapes and fuels and reforms our ordinary activities of daily living, then I’d fully understand and would offer an easy “Amen!”

But he only puts it that way some of the time. More often (especially in the first few chapters) he says it is not that way at all: the spiritual disciplines are not discrete activities (that have an impact upon other things we do) but are disclosed within the ordinary things we do themselves.  I suspect he is trying to give some nod to the brilliant chapter of Al Wolter’s seminal Creation Regained that differentiates between “structure and direction.” He surely wants to offer a non-dualistic view of spirituality — there is no “sacred” part that “informs” our “secular” activities.  So it isn’t that we (first) pray for inner guidance, say, and then we vote or work well; we don’t sit in solitude and then go out and socialize better, but, rather, he suggests that our prayerfulness is expressed in voting or working justly and our inner strength of solitude is practiced and nurtured as we love others well. (This curious resistance to conventional approaches to the spiritual disciplines is suggested in the very first page when he tells a story of talking a guy out of fasting.) Bennett really is offering a new vision of spiritual disciplines, it seems to me, even if he seems less than consistent in how he explains it.  Anybody interested in this field or who has been involved in spiritual formation projects or spiritual direction really should ponder this book.

Of course, I appreciate any move towards integrated and seamless coherence, practicing the presence of God in the mundane and all, but it still seems to me that he minimizes – or just doesn’t concede — that we do need to do certain disciplines, alone, in a point in time. (We practice scales, sometimes, and we perform concertos, sometimes, even though, technically, both are playing the instrument, for real.) Sure my prayerfulness follows me throughout the day, but only if I have actually prayed. My learning about silence helps me be a better listener to others, but only if I’ve actually spent some real time working on the habits of keeping quiet.  In other words, I think Kyle is wrong about the spiritual disciplines just being ordinary life done “in the Spirit” and re-formed. I think those are the results or fruit of practicing conventionally understood spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster – just to name one classic writer – described spiritual disciplines (in his classic Celebration of Discipline) under the rubric of those that were directed God-ward, those that were centered inward, and those that moved us outward. New ways of actual living for the sake of others, including the poor and oppressed and the Earth itself, is certainly central to all of Foster’s contemplative writing.

In insisting that spirituality is about formation for life, It’s not like Bennett is saying something fully novel – Ruth Haley Barton, James Bryan Smith, David Benner, Jan Johnson, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, Marlena Graves, Richard Rohr, Donald Whitney, Gary Thomas, Joan Chittister, Ronald Rolheiser, Gordon Smith, Marjorie Thompson, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Robert Mulholland, Howard Thurman, James Houston, Eugene Peterson, and nearly any other respected spiritual writer these days insists that our deep experience of God results in new ways of being in the world, attentive to God’s creation and equipped to be passionate agents of social change. (I thought of of this, I must say, when early in the book Bennett caricatured one who does spiritual disciplines in some sort of self-pleasing, self-absorbed gnosticism, and, although I’ve mocked such straw men myself probably more than he has, it didn’t ring quite true. Nobody I know well approaches spirituality in such utterly interior, selfish ways and few contemplative authors or spiritual directors guide others in such inappropriate ways.)

That is, Bennett is adding a good voice — admittedly construed in some pretty interesting ways — to the on-going conversation about spiritual formation and an intregal way of responsible living before God in the real world, accompanied by Spirit.  He can take his place in this on-going conversation, but he isn’t utterly novel.

Which brings me to a final small critique of Bennett’s Practices of Love. I noted that he is bold in citing Isaiah 58 and insisting that the Bible calls us love our neighbors in ways that are concrete, seeking justice, resisting violence, being agents of reconciliation and the like. He offers powerful cultural criticism and incisive prophetic denunciations of the idols of the age.  But yet, as much as he brings us to the point of seeing spiritual formation as the fuel to fire our love for others, as much as he wants us to pursue a life with God that has social implications, he doesn’t give many pointers about social and political change.

He cites the Biblical material about justice, he cares for the poor, and tells us to share our food; he gives obvious advice like how we should visit shut ins with a good meal and how we should have integrity at work and how our buying habits should be more conscientious.  But at some point we have to dig a bit deeper and if our dispositions have been changed and we truly “desire the Kingdom” and want to be used by God to bring help and restoration to the poor and the Earth itself, we have to work out ways to shop ethically and invest in local businesses, support nonviolent start-ups, resist the military industrial complex, alter our energy usage, resisting complicity in the principalities and powers that so damage our commonwealth. Perhaps I was hoping for some engagement with the kind of piety expressed so beautifully in The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnection Ancient Spiritual Practice, Evangelism and Justice by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling and to connect with the missional energy of books like To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities by Michael Frost and Christiana Rice.

I know the heart of this book is to re-construe how we think about spirituality and to particularly show the connections between spiritual practices that can transform our daily habits. But if these ordinary habits are going to be reformed for the purposes Kyle says he wants — love and mercy and stewardship and public justice — it would be helpful to list practical titles that show what it looks like and how to navigate the contemporary counter-pressures once one’s habits are newly re-directed towards love and service and the work of shalom. I just itched for some citation of books such as Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most by Mark & Lisa Scandrette or Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy by Douglas Hicks or Julie Clawson’s informative, faith-based buyer’s guide, Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. I think we would all do well to revisit Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger if we want to think about the spirituality of loving our neighbors in this needy, needy world.

I think of the stunning ways Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat creatively explore resisting the idols of the culture and the forces of destruction in their close contemporary reading of Colossians in Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and how Richard Rohr teaches about the relationship of prayer and political protest in A Lever and a Place to Stand.  Heck, Martin Luther King has a book called Strength To Love that could have been held up as a useful guide.

And as most BookNotes reader’s know, we think Steve Garber’s mature and eloquent book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good asks how we can “for love’s sake” live in the messy world, implicated as we are, showing God’s faithful, covenantal love for the world.  I see some of Garber’s deep insights in Kyle’s approach, in fact. I think you might, too.

Perhaps I am stretching a bit here, but it might have been good to have some engagement with something like Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit which, in a spirit of gentleness and grace, invites citizens to deep conversations about the common good and the reclamation of local citizenship. If we are shaped into practices that guide our hearts to want to care for the common good, then how do we express that love in our contested political spaces?  Geesh, you’d think Kyle at least would have given a shout-out to one of the lovely little books of another of his mentors, Dr. Richard Mouw, who wrote so wisely about the inner disposition of civility that could make us better neighbors and citizens and conversation partners in society. Bennett’s Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World seems to be moving in the same direction as Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. 

I hope Practices of Love make us better citizens for the life of the world, better neighbors to the immigrant and the outcast, more loving and compassionate as we contend with those with whom we disagree, so full of Christ-shaped love that we are intentional about our social practices, resisting the idols of the age, working for fair public policies for the hungry and needful and excluded.  But if it does help us in this way — what next?  I’d say we will need books like the great anthology about all sorts of social issues edited by David Gushee, A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good or the inspiring Live Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changing Making Celebration by our old friend Tom Sine or maybe the brand new The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action by Michelle Ferrigno Warren.  As we practice “practices of love” and see our formation “for the life of the world” it will surely lead us to grapple with what it means to be a peacemaker in these hard times. Perhaps a great follow-up to these three books I’m reviewing in this BookNotes column will be the brand new Mending the Divides: Creative Love in a Conflicted World by Jon Huckins & Jer Swigart of The Global Immersion Project, a peacemaking training organization.  Jon is the author of Thin Places that — not unlike Bennett — ruminates on spiritual practices and postures that can create missional communities that care for the world.

To the book’s great credit, every chapter in Practices of Love has a prayer included at the end – meaty and beautiful and formative – and a bunch of “side steps” (a phrase playing off his horizontal or “sideways” look at the disciplines. Cool, eh?) These are practical steps to take, things to do, ways to work out these generative insights about the relationship of a certain spiritual practice and renewed, restorative, daily living. If we danced into even some of those steps our lives would be richer, our world would be served, and God – just like in the promises at the end of Isaiah 58 — would be near and present to us.  If and when people of faith are better known for presenting a new reconciled way of life in and for the world, based on this rich sort of Christ-like maturity and compassionate character in service of the broken world, as described by Kyle David Bennett, God will be glorified (Matthew 5:16, Ephesians 2:10) and this book will be part of the story.  It is very highly recommended, with much hope.


Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus John H. Armstrong (New City Press) $15.95  I will tell you more about this later, I hope, but I truly wanted to list it here. This is one of the most provocative and thoughtful and thorough studies of the Biblical teaching about love I have yet seen. It is serious and well researched, drawing on writers both ancient and new, from across the theological spectrum.  John is a big supporter of our bookish effort, an old Wheaton College grad, a former super-strict Puritan-esque Reformed scholar and revival preacher. I liked him even when he came on a bit too stridently with his overly confident theology.  Since those days, John has shifted considerably – in part motivated by studying and taking to heart a profound essay on the rightness of ecumenism by conservative Anglican J. I. Packer — and wrote one of my all-time favorite studies of this topic, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. Under the auspices of his ACT3 Network, John has been advocating, preaching, praying, writing, and networking others for more gracious and fruitful inter-denominational conversations. It is rare to find one with such conventionally evangelical theology so robustly engaged in collegial conversations and partnerships with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, with Pentecostals and the Eastern Orthodox, with Mennonites and Methodists.   John knows all kinds of people and meets with everybody, even though it sometimes breaks his heart that others don’t share his enthusiasm for learning to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or political/cultural tendencies.

Such relationships has softened him, so to speak (or toughed him up, since he no longer only hangs out with those like himself.)  He has learned to be civil and gracious and recognize the good stuff God is doing in communions and ministries unlike his own.

It is a longer story to share another time but John has come to very deeply understand – he feels it in his bones as much as anyone I know – that for Christian community to develop and for something even approximating Godly unity (of the sort he calls “missional ecumenism”) will take a lot of healing, a lot of honest conversations, a lot of humility, a lot of grace extended. We desperately need to understand, encounter, and manifest God’s love. John 13 couldn’t be clearer about the urgency of Christians loving others – see Francis Schaeffer’s lovely little The Mark of the Christian or Art Lindsley’s Love: The Final Apologetic for starters on this extraordinary truth – but it seems we are ill-equipped to live out that kind of Christian love for one another.  And, oddly, those who seem to know the most about the Bible and about theology are often themselves the most stubborn and hurtful when it comes to resisting efforts to tear down the dividing walls.

Surely the answer to this broken situation, this tragic violation of the new commandment of John 13:34, is love. God is love, after all. As Kyle David Bennett so creatively spells out in his book Practices of Love, our spirituality must yield the fruit of love.  Out of Armstrong’s own frustrations and eagerness to press towards greater conversations and shared ministry, he set out to study love. It is the essential mark of the Christian disciple, of course, so it is important for any and all of us.  But it was especially urgent for him and his new call into ecumenical, missional fidelity.  It seems odd that so little of much depth has been written directly on this topic.

And so, Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus is the fruit of several years of study and several years of writing. John is a studious scholar, and a fine, upbeat writer. This book is – I don’t say this cheaply – a true labor of love.

I had the great privilege of writing an early endorsement of Costly Love, and I hope to describe it for you in greater detail, later. For now, please know of its good back-story, its semi-scholarly tone, its great, great worth. I hope you consider buying this from us – it is published by a fine Roman Catholic publisher, and the beloved Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin wrote the foreword. (It’s not every day that an evangelical like John ends up on a Roman Catholic press, but that, too, is a sign, it seems of how special this book is and what it represents.) This book needs to be better known in our (mostly Protestant) circles and I commend it to you.

There are many solid endorsements of this book from a wide variety of important women and men, theological and church voices.  For instance:

Good books make you think, great books provoke you to change John Armstrong has given us a great book that has the potential to transform churches and leaders. Costly Love presents a vision of life that is biblically faithful and consistently congruent with reality. This is as timely a work on this subject as any I have read. This is surely a book we all need for our divided times.                                                                                                                Rev. Tyler Johnson, Lead Pastor, Redemption Church, Phoenix, AZ

Love is the best thing we have – and yet we struggle to describe it, let alone live into it. That’s because love is a cross and an empty tomb; love is knitting the church back together and saving the world. John Armstrong is perfectly placed to write about love – with evangelical zeal, catholic wisdom, and erudition without obscurity.                                            Dr. Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology and Duke Divinity School


God Soaked Life: Discovering Kingdom Spirituality Chris Webb (IVP) $16.00  I can only hint about this now as I have not yet read it in full., but I am confident it fits in well with this column. In fact, I think it may be an absolutely perfect companion volume for Bennett’s Practices of Love as it ends up (and I suspect is pervaded by throughout) with a strong section on the politics of love. It draws on the literature and stories of those who have lived well in the public square inspired by deep spirituality and God-given love.  In some ways it gives examples of the sorts of neighbor-loving, creation-caring, justice-seeking humble saints that Bennett’s construal of spiritual practices hope to evoke.

This final set of chapters in God Soaked Life, in fact, are vital, since this is a central part of the vision of “Kingdom spirituality” as described by Webb. That is, like with Bennett and Armstrong, above, we are called to live out daily lives of great love, shown forth in concrete practices and a lifestyle of compassion and grace. We are citizens of a Kingdom of Love, bearing the image of a God who is Love. Here, in fact, are the evocative final chapter titles in God Soaked Life all offered in this final section called “The Politics of Love.”

Against the Darkness

Glorious Possibilities

The Kingdom Today

There are seven such units in God Soaked Life with three chapters under each (and an “over to you” section which includes conversation questions, reflection pieces and other good stuff to process the material.) The sections include chapters about a “God Soaked Creation” and an invitation to life in God’s delight; there are moving chapters about “heart renewal” and it seems that Webb is particularly honest about our hurts, our brokenness and the need for what he calls “soul healing” with several such chapters on our hurting human condition.  This leads to some good chapters on “Fearless Honesty” and then what it means to be “Close to the Father’s Heart.” These short chapters all look beautiful and rich — perhaps not uncommon insights, but really, really nice. Our journey to God needs these kinds of promptings and guides and I think even the discussion parts are themselves so very, very good.  Webb is a very good writer and I personally look forward to reading this slowly (and putting it into conversation with Bennett, as well.)

Webb reminds us that spirituality isn’t a solo project and has several chapters under the heading “Creating Community” and, gladly, shows how all this is lived out in the quotidian, with chapters about attentiveness and “learning to see.”  Yes, yes, God is in all things – Webb reminds us of beauty, wonder, joy, and the gospel-based redemption of all things! But there is this hard fact that we live in a damaged world; things are not as they are supposed to be.  So we truly need God, we need community, we need eyes to see and then we need those final chapters, “The Politics of Love” because we must be agents of this God-drenched goodness into the world.  We must “learn to love in gentleness” he writes, and I think as a Benedictine Anglican priest – and former president of the Richard Foster-founded Renovare USA – he knows what he’s talking about.

Do you know his previous book, The Fire of the Word: Meeting God on Holy Ground which was about reading the Bible with an eye to spiritual formation? In a way it was an extended introduction to lectio divina and was a beautiful, helpful book beloved by many of our customers. This brand new one similarly proclaims that God is near.  It is “written with verve, depth, and uncontainable joy.” This invitation to “live in the reality of God’s presence in everyday lives” is so nice, and so needed.

Barry Hill, an Anglican rector colleague of Webb’s in Leicester, UK, says:

Chris Webb models God’s beautiful call to grow as a disciple with our head and our heart, our whole bodies and our whole lives, without division or separation.

Gary Moon – director of the Dallas Willard Center at Westmont College – agrees, saying That God Soaked Life is  “a beautifully written and immensely important book about living life with God.”  He continues, saying it “sets aglow everyday life with the light of Kingdom living.”

Yep, that’s what love can do.  Bennett, Armstrong and Webb can help you live love


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Disruptive Discipleship: The Power of Breaking Routine to Kickstart Your Faith by Sam Van Eman ON SALE NOW

Sam Van Eman starts his fabulously interesting and very helpful new book, Disruptive Discipleship: The Power of Breaking Routine to Kickstart Your Faith, helping us understand his curious project,  giving us a hint even in the opening acknowledgements page.  He tells about a guy who approached some of his Christian buddies, calling them together at a diner, admitting to them that his faith was on auto-pilot, so to speak, a bit meh.  Over coffee, his friends asked him some good questions, helping him discern what was wrong, what he might do to kick-start his faith again, ratcheting  it up to a more conscientious level.

A little communal discernment like that might enable any of us to diagnosis the doldrums or enculturation in our faith journey and with the right kind of guidance we might be inspired to set up a plan, maybe disrupt our routines, getting intentionally outside of our comfort zones to see what God might do.  Who really wants to be stalled or bored in the life of faith?

Disruptive Discipleship is about this exact thing, how we can encounter opportunities for change and growth – pressing on to Christian maturity – by creating experiences that stretch us, by entering into some intentional effort to experience some new things, or experience ordinary routines  in some fresh ways.  Disruption, at least the sort that is explored here, is a good thing – or it can be, if managed well.   It isn’t rocket science, really, but Sam has been at this a long time, working for the Experiential Design (XD) team of the Coalition for Christian Outreach campus ministry, and has created outdoor adventures, wilderness experiences, mission trips, and other designed programs that heighten participants openness to growth.  By studying managed risk, community building activities, and a thoughtful approach to enhanced, interactive learning, Sam has honed his extraordinary gifts in setting up and leading these kinds of events.  Disruptive Discipleship tells some of those stories.

And I couldn’t put it down.

Here are just a few  comments about why I liked this book so much and why I think our BookNotes readers and Hearts & Minds customers will want to pick it up.

You can obviously order it from us by using the secure order form link shown below.


Firstly, perhaps you are not like me, but I have an aversion to these kinds of things, somewhat philosophically, maybe, and temperamentally.  I hate it when a lecturer says (usually with newsprint and markers in hand) “Let’s break into little groups and talk about this.”  I think, “No, let’s not break into little groups and talk about this.” Give me a good lecture in a classroom any day.

Now there’s a pitch for a book sale — it’s about something I don’t like.

But hear me out.

On my high-minded days I might (feebly) try to make a (unsustainable) case that contrived experiences are not to be trusted; they aren’t authentic;  learning should be natural, not forced or manipulated.  So, well… uh;  this is just dumb of me. Education obviously happens in a variety of contrived ways, and creating outside-of-the-comfort zone activities is a fine thing.  The literature on learning has shown this, over and over. Sam talks about growth and change that can happen in ordinary life, in our natural rhythms and daily routines, but (like the guy he mentioned in the beginning) sometimes we get stuck. We have to create some fresh opportunities which rock our own boats with purpose.  So Sam helps us determine when we need such interventions and tells of such opportunities, explaining wonderfully what to make of them.

Often these learning experiences have dual purpose – the point of a mission trip is, firstly, to serve others, obviously, not  to navel gaze or team-build;  but surely such service trips are opportunities for  learning and growth, hopefully receiving  insight about those being served, maturing into mutuality and a commitment to social change alongside others.  But they also  present opportunities to learn about one’s own self, one’s biases and fears and judgements and weaknesses. The best mission trippers keep journals and leaders offer time to debrief, not just about the service/mission itself, but the interior and relational lives of those experiencing the details of the trip together. It is nearly a cliché to hear folks say that although they go to serve, participants come back enriched in their own lives, somehow changed, more aware, deeper as people having experienced something together.

Often, teams on such trips grow in relationship as they bear stress together and talk through hard stuff.  There is nothing inauthentic about this team-building process, nothing wrong with being guided to consider what’s going on in one’s interior life, forced to grapple with feelings that arise because of the proximity to poor folks or being in the environment of a mission trip or working alongside people unlike yourself.  What does it mean to behave generously and well when there are limited resources, when others in close proximity become annoying?  It’s pretty obvious that deep learning on trips of this sort happens well, especially when guided by mature facilitators.  Sam is such a leader and hearing how he does it is amazing.

And he does it not just on mission trips but on backpacking expeditions and bicycle rides, and in the day to day of his own family and marriage.

So, my instinct to say that learning has to be natural or is best when occurring in ordinary life (or a traditional classroom) is debunked: going on trips or creating learning environments to work on certain outcomes can be a very effective thing, and I was inspired by Sam’s good stories.  You may be too – certainly if you like this sort of “disruptive” growth or maybe, too, if you, like me, are reluctant to change, don’t want to be disrupted, and use some intellectual argument against contrived learning.  Maybe less skilled or shallow facilitators have given some of us a bad impression of experiential designs, but in the right hands, as shown in the stories Sam tells, breaking routine for intentionally taking up interactions for growth, can be an extraordinary gift of grace.


Secondly, although he doesn’t dwell on it for more than a few wonderful pages, there is ample philosophical theory behind this kind of experiential education, this gift Sam has to design participatory learning via outside of the classroom experiences. The wholistic and multi-dimensional  underpinnings of Van Eman’s pedagogy were mostly learned from older leaders within the CCO, drawing from epistemologies that are more than rational, philosophies that are informed by the likes of Calvin Seerveld (Rainbows for the Fallen World) and Al Wolters (Creation Regained), Jamie Smith (You Are What You Love and the others in his “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy) and Andy Crouch (Strong and Weak.) Esther Meek, a philosopher who has taught the ways of knowing described by the world-class philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi (see her Little Manuel of Knowing) is an example of this deeper way experiencing knowledge (with head and heart unified) and what it means to learn to care about what one learns.  Parker Palmer’s beautifully rich To Know As We Are Known: A Spiritual Education and Steve Garber’s  profound Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior seem not far from the surface in the CCO’s conversations about experiential education.  Learning, like life itself in God’s world,  is multi-dimension, and learning happens best in community, shall we say, in collaboration. Deep transformation gained from profound engagement with theses truth truths, the really real in God’s good but broken world, is always more than gathering more data in our brains; such typical ways of learning are reductionistic and finally shallow. The learning theories that underpin Sam’s delightful book are mature and thoughtful and effective and, I think, deeply, profoundly Christian.

Van Eman’s Disruptive Discipleship is decidedly not an academic or philosophical book, but it has been written from within a context where a group of very sharp folks have been hammering out this stuff for decades.  It is dedicated to the founder of the CCO’s wilderness and XD program, Paul Harbison, who is legendary in the world of Christian outdoor education.  And Paul has as profound and natural a Christian world-and-life-view as nearly anyone I know.  Sam’s dedication page is a huge sign for those who know, that this book stands within a longer conversation about ways of knowing, transformational learning, embodying truth, being playful in life, and what it means to grow into full-orbed, mature, honest, Kingdom people.


A third thing to keep in mind about Disruptive Discipleship is that Sam is himself very vulnerable in telling stories of his own need for change in his own life.  It isn’t all colorful narratives of dramatic mission trips or vivid wilderness adventures (although the caving story literally made my heart pound faster as I read it!)  There are stories of serving the homeless and stories of rock climbing and back country hiking, but much of content  is almost mundane, stories of giving up watching football on Sunday afternoons for a season, stories of helping his daughters learn to push themselves to hold their breath longer than they thought they could, examples of fairly common place stuff that can be marshaled for our spiritual growth.  And he tells of some things of his own life – he was raised by a single mom in poverty and to this day struggles with certain issues (even needing to have a snack around at all times.) I’ve known Sam a long time, and knew much of this, but was deeply, deeply touched by his sharing so candidly about his own inner life, his fears and foibles. This is a good thing in a book, getting a glimpse into the real story of the author and I compliment him for it.  You will, too.

So when the author talks about designing experiences, he is aware that many of life’s biggest opportunities for growth just come at us. Isn’t our walk through this hard world and our own suffering what one theologian called our “school of discipleship”?  If we’re attentive, can’t nearly anything become an opportunity for growing in faith, hope and love? Do we really need to go looking for disruption?  Isn’t there plenty in daily life to keep us energized for the journey  of Christ-likeness?

Well, yes.  And, again, Sam does address that – much comes at us in life but we have to be seasoned, practiced, at making the most of it.  We can practice growth, actually, by creating these episodes, activities, experiments, adventures.  From camping programs with ropes courses to the classic spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, from a service project far away to a renewed commitment to simply reach out to a next-door neighbor, many kinds of adventures await us, and we can plumb them for greater growth if we know how.  Sam’s book – with a perfect blend of narrative storytelling and direct teaching even with bullet-pointed guidelines – helps us learn how to do this.  It seems rather simple, but processing what we’re learning, applying insights to our real lives, actually growing and maturing in our faith is the point, and too few of us know how to do that.  Disruptive Discipleship is a great handbook for basic Christian growth, for Kingdom maturity, for spiritual formation.

This doesn’t all have to be dramatic or painful, either, although at one point Sam suggests that a plan for growth should “cause a bit of anxiety in anticipation of being shooed from the nest.”


To help us realize out how anxiety- producing episodes (even minor ones, with low-levels of anxiety) can be a vehicle for growth, he talks about how he and his wife, Julie, worked at a Christian summer camp, serving as outdoor adventure coordinators.  They took cabin counselors and campers hiking, biking, rock climbing, caving and such.  Most camps do this – but what real transformation comes of it? Pondering this, they deepened the approach, which he describes like this:

This involved converting the activities from thrill-seeker entertainment into catalysts for connections, from independent focal points to integrated waypoints.

Wow.  Read that line again!


The book is divided into three major parts: first, about Growing Restless, where we admit to feeling stuck, explore our options for what to do about it, and make a plan – a part that I’m sure  most of us overlook.  He even has some exercises we can do to diagnose our malaise.  I’m sure this will be life-giving and helpful for many.


The second unit within Disruptive Discipleship is called Growing Deeper.  Here is where we hear about stepping out in faith, working on trust, testing our endurance, and experiment with service.  These chapters  offer profound insights into the nature of hope and love, especially, and I’m sure you will find them thrilling.


The third part is entitled Growing Up.

Here Van Eman teaches about “translating change” and “navigating valleys” and “getting unstuck together.”  All of this is wise and insightful and – to be honest – not spoken of as much in most circles as we ought.  This is good pastoral wisdom, pushing folks on to deeper more faithful living, but not many of us get so down-to-Earth about seeking how we actually change. Really, this is solid, helpful stuff and it was a blessing to hear Sam say it so bluntly, back it up with Biblical teaching, and compliment it with stories both hilarious and hairy.

Whether you are one who wants to grow up a bit or if you are one who is tasked to make disciples of others, helping them grow, there is good information for you here. There is, by the way, a very good small group study guide, making this an ideal book to use with others.

JAMES 1: 4

Sam has two epigrams in the front page of the book.  One is a favorite verse, James 1:4, which is a guiding text for this exploration of disruptive type discipleship.  It reads: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it? With some grit and determination – at least intentionality – we can allow God’s faithfulness to bring us to greater maturity. (And, as he says later in the book, that can best be measured by the rubrics of faith, hope, and love.  Nice! )  So that is one of the Biblical guides for this project: a work of perseverance that has to be finished, a goal of growing where we don’t lack spiritual maturity.


Also on that frontispiece, he writes something to “all who have suffered (a little or a lot) with me on purpose.”  I liked that, that we can suffer on purpose. (He says, too, that he’s “ready to go again” whenever they are ready, and you can just sense the gleam in his eye as he anticipates another adventure, messy and difficult as it may be.)

The interactive experiences of intentional growth aren’t all heavy introspection about suffering or filled with gritty, dogged determination. Most  are joy-filled and stimulating.  Once you have the right attitude, disruption can sometimes be a blast.  And this book, prodding as it may be, calling us to make a plan to get out of our doldrums, moving deeper and into more authentic maturity by trying some experiential educational experiments,  will be a thrill ride of a read.  I’m confident  you will enjoy it.


Just to give you a flavor, here is a bit from early on in the book:

If this book is broadly about going somewhere when we feel stuck, it’s more specifically about growing up when we’ve been acting like children. How might this happen outside of persistent prayer or life’s unwelcomed challenges that force growth upon us? One way is by adding intentional, out-of-the-ordinary disruptions to our daily routines. Disrupting every day’s routines would lead to chaos, but an occasional shift in the schedule can offer a world of good.

In the Coalition for Christian Outreach, we refer to these intentional disruptions as “designed experiences.”  In fact, I work in a department called Experiential Designs – XD for short – which has a forty year history of delivering customized learning moments for groups, like six-week mountaineering trips for college students and interactive retreats for board members. We don’t create this stuff from scratch – not all of it, at least; we adopt work others pioneered before us and alongside us.

So, again, it is this XD work from within the CCO that has shaped Sam’s vision for helping us “grow on purpose.”  Again, here is how he puts it:

Whether planning an overnight hike or nixing chocolate for Lent, designed experiences help us uncover what curbs and what catalyzes our growth as followers of Christ.

The book is just loaded with memorable lines like that.

He reminds us of the basics, but speaks plainly about our need for growth:

…if we want our road rage to decrease and our compassion to increase, worry to be replaced by serenity, and financial fear to meet generosity, and if we have any desire to learn to wait, forgo, remain calm, listen, forgive, press on, or practice self-denial, we must place a high value on maturity.

Disruptive Discipleship aims to show you how to grow up – and how to do so on purpose.

I want to say two more things about why you should consider buying  Disruptive Discipleship.


For many of us who are leaders, educators, those who work with groups, want to build community or nurture teams, this could bring professional insight about experiential education  to stimulate your own fresh ideas about your own disciple-making plans. Reading this (and working on the study guide and reflection questions, especially with a friend or colleague) will bring some focused, creative energy to your own designing of growth opportunities for those you seek to impact. Disruptive Discipleship has a personal growth focus, but I’ve called it a resource and tool on purpose.  If you work at a camp or do youth ministry or disciple or mentor others, or need to think about how to make your teaching more engaging or fruitful, you need to be stimulated by this experiential educational model and Sam’s good stories.

I think Disruptive Discipleship is a good book for your small-group, Bible class, youth ministry, church camp, spiritual retreat, campus leadership group, non-profit board, or team-building workshop.


I think some of you might be thinking this is a tool for those who are just starting out on the Christian journey or for idealistic young people who are super eager to take risks and learn well.  Maybe you’ve been at this maturing in Christ stuff for a life-time, or are a seasoned pastor, or have a highly-trained spiritual director.  I want to suggest that this could be useful for you, too.

But more, I want to suggest that no matter how mature you seem to be in faith, hope, and love, no matter how much you sense God’s presence, how much you value liturgy or spiritual formation or realize that the gospel is transforming you from the inside out, we can all use a little fresh help. Those who are wise in the ways of the Lord know this already – we all need as much assistance as we can get and it doesn’t all come from just reading books;  we need on-ramps, means of grace, perhaps, to prod and help us process and apply and live what we’re learning. This is one such resource for your own formation in the ways of God’s Kingdom. It is a tool not just for the stuck, but for anyone wanting to grow, wanting to deepen their faith, wanting to move forward.  It can be adapted to whatever life stage you are on, applied in varying situations and environments.  Maybe you just feel “under-utilized” (an interesting phrase Sam introduces,  one that rings true for many fairly mature Christians, I’d bet.)

Or maybe you are in transition in your life.  Sam writes about that as well.

He writes:

You’ve accepted a new job, you retired last month, you’re graduating, or you adopted a child. You’ve entered or are about to enter a new season – exciting or terrifying, minor or major – and you want to make the most of it.

Or, as he also says, quite evocatively:

There are moments in life when faith falls out of its old container. Heading off to college can cause this. Being unemployed can cause this. Losing a loved one can cause this. What once worked – comfortably, I might add – suddenly doesn’t. The neat little box that held all of faith’s parts in one organized place cracks across the bottom, and the pieces spill onto the floor.

So, you see, Disruptive Discipleship, clever and interesting as it is (even with a Bible study offered as an appendix called “What Jesus Knew About Experiential Education”) is really a book about maturing in Christ, growing as a self-aware person, and becoming a real agent of God’s redemptive work in the world, no matter who you are or what condition your life is in.  Don’t you want to grow up, to be a self-assured “wounded healer” and Spirit-guided agent of hope?  This fun book will help you, as Sam invites, knowing that suspending normal can be scary and disrupting routines can challenge the status quo, nonetheless, we should “take the risk and sign up.”


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Over 40 novels briefly described. Wow. ALL ON SALE at Hearts & Minds

Hearts &  Minds friends,

I’d be sad if you didn’t notice, but we’ve not done a new BookNotes newsletter in a few weeks.  There have been stupefying technical aggravations and our computer dude is moving us to a new platform and server, blah, blah, blah.  The old BookNotes blog posts are all still archived at the website, our order form page there is still super secure, and we hope that you might support our mail order business now that we’re back in the technical e-saddle.  Sorry if there are unforeseen aesthetic glitches, too.  It feels like we’re flying without a net here, at times.

As always, we send this out with a prayer for God’s peace and a hope: read for the Kingdom!  Thanks.

I hope you enjoyed our last post naming a whole bunch of particularly pleasing non-fiction reads. These were books selected because of their lovely writing or fun style or interesting subject matter. I can’t imagine not liking those books about rock music or Michael Perry’s wonderfully crafted rural essays, but I know even with these entertaining titles, a few of our customers wanted some ideas about fiction.

I’ll admit that it is hard for me to describe what I like in a good novel; what exactly was it that so captured me when I tore through massive stories like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See or Dan Vyleta’s amazing Smoke which I reviewed last year this time, or the brilliant 500 page The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert? Why does Beth so often recommend the huge 1920’s Norwegian novel Kristen Lavransdatter? Why are some very demanding books — just think of the never-ending Crime and Punishment or the complex James Joyce classic, Ulysses, or rather unusual ones like The Confederacy of Dunces or Infinite Jest — the very ones that fans most passionately defend?  But they aren’t all for everyone, I know.

I ask this (what makes a good novel?) not exactly rhetorically. I’m wanting to note that this curiously curated list includes some I just love telling folks about, a few that are important this season that we’ve not yet read ourselves, and a few that we have on sale and wanted to offer at a good discount. A few are older, but most are quite new. So, there is a blend of recommendations here guided by a number of criteria and for various sorts of readers.  I won’t say too much about them, but will try to help you decide if they might belong in your hands this summer.  Really, there is something for nearly anyone here.  Enjoy.

When the Emperor Was Divine Julie Otsuka (Anchor Books) $13.95  I know of a group of clergy that are reading this fairly short novel together so I thought I’d read along from a distance. I experienced it in one long sitting on a sunny Sunday afternoon and was truly, deeply captivated.  One reviewer had written that “Otsuka’s novel grabs you with its first sentence and doesn’t release its grip until the last page… Her writing cuts like jagged glass.” It is about a Chinese American woman and her two children who are taken to an internment camp in 1942 – her husband was already taken to a prison, so we learn of him through his letters to the children. I have never read a book so terse and lean in its style, and, in any event, have never read anything on this topic.  The reviewer from the Los Angeles Times said When the Emperor Was Divine is “a story that has more power than any other I have read about this time.” 

Homegoing  Yaa Gyasi (Vintage) $16.00  This has been on my list for a while, and we’re glad it is out in paperback.  Although the story starts in a slave market in eighteenth century Ghana, it follows two half-sisters whose lives are so very different, and it shows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations – up through the Jazz Age in Harlem.  The Washington Post called it “dazzling, devastating, truly captivating.” NPR said it “brims with compassion… Yaa Gyasi has given rare and heroic voice to the missing and suppressed.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates says “Homegoing is an inspiration.”


Long Way Gone  Charles Martin (Thomas Nelson) $15.99  I don’t recall what small publishing house Martin was on when we first discovered his earthy prose years ago, but he has become a big name in inspirational fiction, doing good work usually set in the south.  He has become a USA Today best seller and titles like When Crickets Cry and Chasing Fireflies are exceptional. This one is about a musician and singer-songwriter named Cooper O’Connor who “took everything his father held dear” and drove 1,200 miles to Nashville, “his life riding on a six-string guitar and the bold wager that he had talent.”  I don’t know if it is fair to compare this to the country-music soap opera Nashville – which we loved, by the way -but it seems like that kind of story.  It claims to be a radical retelling of the prodigal son story, taking us from tent revivals to the Ryman Auditorium and the broken relationship between a father and son. 

The Angels’ Share James Markert (Thomas Nelson) $15.99  Okay, speaking of guys who write well in the “Christian fiction” world, this new author is on to something pretty amazing. This is a story about an illegal whiskey distillery in Kentucky during the prohibition.  And, it is full of mystery, including this: “Some believed he was the second coming of Christ. William wasn’t so sure. But when that drifter was buried next to the family distillery, everything changed.”

Set in Twisted Tree Kentucky. Angels’ Share is said to be a “story of fathers and sons, of young romance, of revenge and redemption, and of the mystery of miracles.” This is southern fiction, and it’s wild.  Who doesn’t want to hear about a book described by Julie Cantrell, bestselling historical fiction author of Into the Free, like this:

“Bullets. Gravel. Southern church pews. An illegal distillery and a slew of small town secrets… I’d call that a strong brew.”



My wife swears by these hard-to-put-down, charming stories, heart-warming but not overly sentimental, thoughtful, but not too highbrow, heavy at times, but not devastatingly so. She fell in love with A Man Called Ove and, since it isn’t particularly Christian, or even admirable — Ove is a crusty character, I’m told — she at first was a little reluctant to tell others how she enjoyed the book and appreciated Backman’s style and vision.  And then she found other folks, conservative evangelical folks, even, who similarly raved about the stories and how they enjoyed them.  Recently, a Christian leader was recommending them in a workshop.  So we’re on a roll, now, inviting everyone to consider these engrossing stories.

I will mostly copy what the publishers or other reviewers have said to help you understand the basic plot of each of the five.  The descriptions aren’t my words…

“Backman is a masterful writer, his characters familiar yet distinct, flawed yet heroic…There are scenes that bring tears, scenes of gut-wrenching despair, and moments of sly humor….A thoroughly empathetic examination of the fragile human spirit.” —Kirkus Reviews 

A Man Called Ove (Washington Square Press) $16.00 I suppose you should start here.  I love this quote: “There are characters who amuse us, and stories that touch us. But this character and his story do even more: A Man Called Ove makes us think about who we are and how we want to live our lives. A Man Called Ove seems deceptively simple at the start, yet Frederik Backman packs a lifetime’s worth of hilarity and heartbreak into this novel. Even the most crusty curmudgeon will love Ove!”–Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowse.

Here is how one Booklist reviewer described it: 

He’s a curmudgeon–the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? 

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations. 

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year, ‘ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down”

Britt Marie Was Here (Washington Square Press) $16.00  Here is how the publisher describes this good story:

Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others–no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. 

But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes. 

When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg–of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it–she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs? 

Funny and moving, sweet and inspiring, Britt-Marie Was Here celebrates the importance of community and connection in a world that can feel isolating.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: A Novella  (Atria) $18.00 This short one is described as “an exquisitely moving portrait of an elderly man’s struggle to hold on to his most precious memories, and his family’s efforts to care for him even as they must find a way to let go.”  In the book, the old man asks, as he sits in the square looking at a child, “Isn’t that the best of all life’s ages, an old man thinks as he looks at his grandchild, when a boy is just big enough to know how the world works but still young enough to refuse to accept it.”

Lisa Genova, author of the powerful novel about Alzheimer’s, Still Alice, says,

“I read this beautifully imagined and moving novella in one sitting, utterly wowed, wanting to share it with everyone I know.”

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (Washington Square Press) $16.00 And, here, yet another charming, warm-hearted novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller A Man Called Ove, translated from Norwegian.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy–as in standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal. 

When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s instructions lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and old crones but also to the truth about fairy tales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

Beartown  (Atria Books) $26.99  This is the most recent, the eagerly anticipated hefty hardcover.  Beth loved it.  Here is how the promo copy tells about it:

“People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the workingmen who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected. 

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.”

Meals From Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence Ben Sciacca  (Multnomah) $14.99  I held this high in front of 2000 college students last year after we heard challenging messages from hip hop artists and activists, LeCrae, Propaganda, and Sho Baraka. These hip hop stars brought solid Christian conviction about God’s work in the world, about Christ-like reconciliation, and about the need to focus on racial justice (among other things) in our sadly broken culture.  At that Jubilee conference we feature mostly non-fiction books and we had shelves and shelves about race, justice, mass incarceration, criminal reform, domestic poverty, and more, but I thought maybe the students would respond to a story.  And did they ever -we sold a bunch of these.  The story’s plot is fairly simply: a black guy from the ‘hood who is on the run from the police has taken a white guy hostage in his car, and they spend the night driving around, mostly talking.  They become honest with one another, truly listening, back and forth, back and forth, trying to figure out this matter of injustice, police violence, urban disadvantage, white privilege, law, order, grace, goodness, and the possibilities of peace and reconciliation.  Sho Baraka has an afterward in this book, making it particularly relevant for many of us. 

The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha Diane Glancy (Excelsior Editions/SUNY Press) $14.95  This slim book is from the award-winning Native writer Diane Glancy, continuing the project she began in Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears and Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea, two other equally captivating, short novellas of historical fiction. We received a brand new book of hers in the store the other day (a nonfiction reflection about love) and I was reminded that we wanted to highlight this one. It was inspired by her reading of an old biography of Tekakwitha called Mohawk Saint. The wonderful cover art, by the way, is by CIVA member Mary McCleary.

The Chimera Sequence Elliott Garber (Osprey Press) $15.99  We have lots of best-sellers and well-advertised books in our fiction section, but we enjoy stocking indie presses and some self-published work by friends we admire.  Elliott is the son of Steve Garber, one of my best friends (and author of the must-read Fabric of Faithfulness and Visions of Vocation.) Yet, I would suspect that Elliott wants this book to be known for its own merits, not just because his dad is a good writer (and his mom is a librarian.)  Well, it is deserving – one New York Times action/adventure writer, Maria Goodavage, says “I couldn’t put down Garber’s engaging, rapid-paced, action-packed thriller.”

The New York Times author Dr. Marty Becker (known as “America’s Veterinarian”) says, “Not since Jurassic Park has a science thriller of this magnitude been written…

Holy smokes, what an accolade!

Elliott Garber is a veterinarian himself and a military officer currently on active duty with a special operations command. He has lived in India, Egypt, Mozambique and Italy and he has traveled to over 50 other countries, including a recent deployment to Iraq.  You see, he is a highly-trained veterinarian who works with animals for the military all over the world – and so, he knows much about how diseases are carried in the animal populations.  In this novel, there is a humanitarian aid hospital in war-torn central Africa which diagnoses a very dangerous disease in humans that is also killing endangered mountain gorillas nearby. The Chimera Sequence quickly becomes a thriller of international scope, moving from a cargo ship in Sudan’s largest port to a Lebanese restaurant in DC and beyond.  It’s tracking a “looming global menace” and the story becomes what one reviewer called “a thrill ride” of a story.

The Psalms of Israel Jones Ed Davis (Vandalia Press) $16.99  I don’t know how we discovered this rare story about “secrets and snakes, rock and gospel, guilt and grace”but I’m glad we did. It’s published by an imprint of the West Virginia University Press which does some stellar Appalachian fiction.

Maybe I read a review by Lee Abott who wrote:

I love this book, not least for the zillion writers and religious thinkers I find in it, among them Dickens, Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, Jimmy Swaggart, and Walker Percy. The plot is straight out of On the Road with the same moral risk and ambiguities and the prose is rich.

Imagine Me Gone Adam Haslett (Back Bay Books) $15.99  This came to our attention when it was long listed for the National Book Award (we try to stock most National Book Award winners.)

One reviewer, Peter Carey, says it is “literature of the very highest order.”  But I’ll admit — don’t say you’ve never done this — I was attracted mostly by the cover. Just the tip of that house? The missing letters?  And, when reviews come in like the ones below, aren’t you intrigued?

“Superb… Haslett is one of the country’s most talented writers.”  Wall Street Journal

“The novel’s most rewarding surprise is its heart.” The New York Times Book Review

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale Ian Morgan Cron (Zondervan) $16.99  Since we listed a new Ian Cron book in our earlier, fun non-fiction list (his recent co-authored book on the Enneagram, The Way Back to You) I figured I’d remind you now about his older novel.  It offers a great premise – a disillusioned pastor of a megachurch heads to Assisi to renew his faith.  (His name is Chase, by the way.)  In Italy he goes on a pilgrimage re-tracing the steps of St. Francis, meets up with some simple Franciscan friars, and, well, you can imagine what happens when he returns home, wanting his church to live into this sort of simple, radical faith. You know Cron is funny and full of pathos (his memoir Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts is an all-time favorite and will make you laugh and probably cry!) This fiction story is full of spiritual hunger and a bit of history and a yearning for hope. Not every book carries blurbs on the back from writers as diverse as Rachel Held Evans, Eric Metaxas, Fr. Richard Rohr, Mako Fujimura, Rowan Williams, and Shauna Niequist. This shows just how widely it is respected and how many folks have really enjoyed it. Don’t miss it (no matter what Enneagram number you’ve got.)

Incorporation Will Willimon (Cascade) $29.00  Speaking of books about the troubles and possible revitalization of churches, who better to try his hand at writing a church novel poking at our modern foibles than born storyteller and world-renowned theologian, preacher, and former United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon? This story is about Hope Church (its colorful clergy and its people, of course). But, well, from the title you might guess this is a feisty dig at the crowd-pleasing, worldly businessy approach to church. Michael Malone (himself a great novelist) says “Imagine a contemporary variation on Trollope’s Barchester Towers, set in a small American town with a big church.”  You’ll find plenty of real human messes here, even what the back cover calls “ungodly shenanigans” which includes drunkenness, adultery, even criminal malfeasance. This is quite a story, entertaining, witty, blunt, by an author who is quite aware of the irony of it all.  Will there be a final accounting? Is there a God around?

The River Why David James Duncan (Sierra Club Books) $14.99//new edition $15.99  If we’ve talked about fiction, together, ever, I am sure you know that this remains one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read. It is wonderfully funny, oddball, full of truly great writing, including some beautiful glimpses of nature, and a well-rendered encounter with God, one of the best I’ve ever read. The book is about fishing — both fly fishing for trout and worm fishing for bass — and, well, two differing visions of the meaning of life. I’m not kidding; it is about fishing and the search for the meaning of life.

Publishers Weekly called it “A veritable epic… moving, rhapsodic in its intensity.”  You’ve got to read it — please!!  Beth and I agree that this is an author we most love telling people about.  Let us know what you think.

The Brothers K David James Duncan (Dial Press) $18.00 If The River Why is my favorite David Duncan book, it is my wife’s opinion that this, Duncan’s second novel, about a family of baseball-playing boys, set during the painful Viet Nam war era, is even better.  I think that many readers agree, but everybody agrees that you should read both of these extraordinary novels.  If you like baseball, you’ve got to get this (it is better than Owen Meany, which itself is grand and exceptional.) Is this a homage to The Brother’s Karamazov?  You tell me. Many reviewers have waxed eloquent about the meaning of this great story and we very highly recommend it.

Sun House (Little Brown) TBA  This is what we think will be the name of the long-awaited book coming from Duncan…  or so the New York Times announced late last year. We have been waiting decades for this, literally. He has some memoiristic ecological rants, a collection of short stories that we stock, and he continues to write and teach and speak, but we haven’t seen a new book in ages, let alone the long-awaited third novel. I swear, this book has been anticipated more than any novel I can think of in our 30-some years of bookselling. At least we know the title. We heard it was to be out this fall, but, alas, no word yet.  Pre-order it from us now if you’ve been waiting. Unless you already did in, like 1998 or so. If you haven’t, get The River Why and The Brothers K and be prepared to enjoy two wonderfully quirky, moving, well-conceived, unforgettable novels.

Silence Shusaku Endo (Picador) $16.00  Maybe not light fare for happy beach reading, Silence is one of the most acclaimed novels of the late 20th century, the basis for the epic and much-discussed film by Martin Scorsese. (Scorsese has a very moving new foreword to this “Picador Modern Classics” edition.)  Although we have carried it for years, our own tribe has come to love this in the last year or so in part because of the remarkable book about it by our artist friend Makoto Fujimura, whose own faith was kindled when he read Silence during a study trip to Japan. (Mr. Fujimura’s award-winning book about it is called Silence and Beauty:Hidden Faith Born of Suffering and is itself very, very, highly recommended.) The point of the Endo novel is complex, but its basic plot is simple: it is about the persecution of seventeenth century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and their Christian converts who are brutally tortured for their faith. Why does God seem silent amidst their suffering? This powerful story of “enduring faith in dangerous times” is considered one of the finest novels every to come out of Japan.  

The Abbey: A Story of Discovery James Martin, SJ (HarperOne) $14.99  I hope you know Father Martin, a popular Catholic writer who has done books on all sorts of theological topics, from a wonderful book about Jesus to one called My Life with the Saints to a really great book about humor.) His newest is a short and sensible one called Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. That is very nicely done, and short, btw.  We are fond of Martin and his many good books.

 As far as we know, The Abbey is Fr. Martin’s only novel and it is now out in paperback. The fabulous author Ron Hansen (his Mariette in Ecstasy is amazing!) said it is “a sheer delight – funny, engaging, deep, and moving.”  Memoirist and poet Mary Karr loved it (“a triumph from one of our best writers working like a master in a new form.”)  And Brendan Walsh happily called it “unputdownable.”  So there ya go — give it a try.

Thirteen Reasons Why Jay Asher (Razor Bill) $10.99  We’ve stocked this since it came out, and gave a brief overview of it a few years ago in a list of books for older teens. Kirkus called it “brilliant and mesmerizing” and YA dramatist Ellen Hopkins says it is “a book that you can’t get out of your mind.”  Now here’s the thing: since it was turned into a very graphic Netflix show, it has become an even larger cultural phenomenon, certainly one of the most talked-about and fiercely debated shows of the year. I was asked by a local TV commentator to comment on the show, which we have not seen, so I couldn’t comment on it, although I hear it is graphic.. I do realize that it shows some truly awful stuff. The book itself is harsh and hard – you know it is about a set of tapes sent to 13 high school classmates by a student who took her own life; the tapes outline their crimes of bullying or betrayal or apathy in the face of sexual violence, in effect blaming them for her despair.  This is eerie and suspenseful and well-crafted and necessarily disturbing. If you know any troubled youth today, you should read this.

When Girls Became Lions Valerie Gin & Jo Kadlecek (When Girls Became Lions) $14.99  We have touted this from time to time and wish it were better known… independently published, it is very well done and a lot of fun.  One of the co-authors is a legendary women’s soccer coach, her co-author a former athlete who mostly makes her living as a writer.  Together they’ve given us a great story about women’s collegiate sports, starting with a rag tag group of girls playing soccer in 1983 and what happens when 25 years later a coach learns about their small-town, mid-Western championship. This really shows the impact of Title IX and the “triumphs and struggles of women in sports.”  There aren’t many books like this, so well done about women’s sports, and think it would make a great gift to any teen or college athlete you fan you know.

The Writing Desk Rachel Hauck (Zondervan) $15.99  This is intriguing, entertaining stuff within the genre of “Christian fiction” — that is, mostly inspirational stories published by evangelical publishing houses. Hauck has become a New York Times bestselling author (she is known for a moving trio of novels called The Wedding Dress, The Wedding Chapel, and The Wedding Shop.)  I thought some of our customers will like this not only because of the wholesome tone but because it is about writing and publishing. It uses a creative device – Tenley Roth’s first book was a runaway bestseller, but she is “locked in fear” as her deadline for the second book approaches.  She is “weighted with writer’s block.”

And soon enough, you discover another story about another woman writer who wrote at the same desk with hopes and fears of her own.  Born during the Gilded Age, Birdie Shehorn wants to tell stories, write novels, make an impact on the world. The dramatic back cover copy tells us “Tenley and Birdie are from two very different worlds, but fate has bound them together in a way time cannot erase.”

A Land Without Sin Paula Huston (Slant) $27.00  Slant is a classy imprint created for thoughtful fiction by Gregory Wolfe of the Image Journal. (The latest from Slant is a serious hardcover called Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by the wonderfully thoughtful Daniel Taylor. It is, by the way, on the surface, a crime novel about the murder of, get this, a postmodern literary critic – yep, a real deconstructionist. ) Slant’s Land Without Sin came out about five years ago and at that time I named it as my favorite novel of the year, as I recall. It was named by Publishers Weekly, in fact, as one of the “Best Summer Books” of 2013.  It is a grand and important story, set among aid workers in Central America, struggling with revolution and liberation theology, inviting us into exciting plots with (as one novelist wrote) “the depth of soulful inquiry of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  WE HAVE THIS AT A SPECIAL SALE OF $10.00 OFF.  Our sale price is just $17.00 — while supplies last.

In the Absence of God Richard L. Cleary (Xulon Press) $24.99

Bridging the Abyss  Richard L. Cleary (Xulon Press) $15.99

I have mentioned both of these apologetic thrillers from time to time and we’ve had Mr. Cleary — he is called Dick by his friends — to the store to present on both of these books. They always create good conversations and a lot of fun. Dick is nearly a neighbor here in Dallastown and was one of the earliest supporters of our bookstore and is one of my best friends.  He is a former high school football coach, the former head of the science department at our local DAHS, currently a college philosophy professor, a Lutheran church-school teacher, avid birdwatcher, and a great husband, dad, grandfather, and near constant conversation partner with me, on everything from bio-ethics to intelligent design to the ethics of war and peace to the complexities of contemporary politics. I say all this to remind you that we really are blessed when we get to support a local author who is so supportive of our store, and whose work we respect.  In these two novels, Dick is doing what C.S. Lewis recommended — stealing past watchful dragons, as the Oxford don put it — by using a good story to raise huge questions about ethics, philosophy, and finally, the question of the meaning of life without a caring creator God. 

The first book, The Absence of God, is pure Cleary.  The story revolves around discussions (personal, among relationships, and also in public forums) that happen on a college campus, with questions about whether or not we can say something is truly “wrong” without any transcendent truth on which to base any such claims. One character in the book wants to insist there is no religious truth, but yet wants to opine about all mattes of things such as war and global warming and racism.  Well, how do we know something is wrong, if there is no God? Who says so?  There is much philosophical and scientific conversations among the characters in this book and for those that enjoy listening in to a good feisty dialogue, the characters here — in between sports and a crime on campus and some personal problems among the staff, including a trip to see an aging parent in Baltimore — really go at it.  I think Cleary would hope that, besides an interesting story, readers of the book might clarify what they believe and why they believe it, learn to debate well, and even be prepared to raise important questions in their own real-world conversations. This fun story can help you learn the art of apologetics, especially around questions of ethics and law and truth.  

In the second book, Bridging the Abyss, a character or two from the first book show up, and in that sense it is somewhat of a sequel.  But for this one, Cleary pulled out the stops and decided to have a more developed plot, more interesting character development, and a lot more action. This is a suspenseful read, fast paced, dramatic, with some degree of violence, with kidnapping, ransoms, rogue black ops, and more. I think when it came out I said there was little offensive for those that watch Breaking Bad or any number of popular shows like Criminal Minds. But here’s the thing: again, Mr. Cleary the college teacher, the Christian apologist, the rational thinker, wants to use this plot as a device to get at this big question: again, can we really know something to be good and true, or ugly and wrong, without basing it on some outside revelation by a God who is Supreme?  Is Dostoevsky correct when he said that if there is no God, anything is permissible?  And, how do we come alongside those who don’t believe in God, but feel the human sadness when there is tragedy, especially if they have no point of reference for finding meaning in all their sorrows? We all live in this world, such as it is, with the yearning for the good, the true, the beautiful, and more.  Can even the rough stuff explored in this suspenseful crime novel help us learn how to bear witness to a worldview that provides reasons for these very things? The Absence of God may be a bit deeper than some may want, but Bridging the Abyss with its contemporary issues of crime and fear and the seeking of resolution, just may be the way to enter more deeply into these questions of truth and questions of ultimate meaning.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats Jan-Philipp Sendker (Other Press) $15.95  Just holding this new paperback makes me want to start the story – it is an international best-seller, set in Burma.  There is Eastern mysticism, romantic encounters, deep mystery.  It has gotten some great reviews, but I can’t quite say more. We are very excited to stock it here at the shop.

Caroline Leavitt (author of Pictures of You) says of this much discussed novel,

“No matter what I ev
en attempt to say, I can’t possibly capture the absolute magic of this book. Like a spell, it haunts. Like love, it’s going to endure.”

Jesus Cloned  William Hagenbuch (Archway Publishing) $28.99  Well, didn’t I say we sometimes like to carry some uncommon books that you may not have heard of elsewhere? Hagenbuch is a colorful UCC pastor with a MDiv from Boston University’s School of Theology.  He’s a first time novelist with a big passion for telling this story, which is too complex and dare I say wild to explain simply, here. The short version is that nineteen-year-old Joe O’Dell is about to learn he is not who he thinks he is. Granted this is fantastical but it has to do with, among other things, a creepy Orphan Black type organization which has some two-thousand-year-old DNA that may be…. wait for it… from the body of Jesus Christ!

There are twists and turns and subplots, but the big question this brave story dares to host is one about the very nature of Jesus. I suppose many of our theological readers know about the hypostatic union and all that “fully God and fully man” talk from the Nicene Creed. Yep. There’s that.  And, as it says on the back cover, “Through their losses and gains, Joe and those closest to him reveal to themselves – and all of us -how far God’s love reaches, and how much that love heals.”  This is a large, sprawling story by an interesting, progressive pastor who wants to raise important questions about God, Jesus, incarnation, and about life and grace and redemption.  WE HAVE A LIMITED SUPPLY THAT WE WILL SELL FOR $10.00 OFF while supplies last.  SALE PRICE = $18.99

A Second Baptism of Albert Simmel Rodney Clapp (Cascade Books) $19.99  I don’t know if you recall the books from maybe a decade or so ago that we raved about by Rodney Clapp, back when he was working at IVP and did the exceptional, and still important Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options, or when he became a founding editor of the significant Brazos Press imprint, now affiliated with Baker Books.  He did some books on pop culture, is known for knowing much about the blues, and he did a wonderful book about being fully human and finding God’s presence in the ordinary called Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels. Mr.Clapp did a good book on Johnny Cash (or is it really about the contradictions at the heart of American culture?)  We still stock all of these.  Anyway, he has a novel, now, recently published by his latest employer, Wipf & Stock publishing. 

What’s it about?  Well, it seems sort of dystopian, with a “sub” person who, well…  just get a load of this:

Then comes shocking news that changes his life and leads him on a journey across what is now called Old America. Along the way he will encounter a buffalo stampede, attacks of bandits and pirates, the violent practices of a scape-goating religion, the so-called meta-Indians, the last movie in a gentle small town, and a host of colorful characters. Throughout his arduous travels he intriguingly ruminates on the riches–and challenges–of a life of faith. At once science fiction, a western, a comedy, a love story, and a novel of ideas, The Second Baptism of Albert Simmel is filled with suspense and vivid scenes, and takes the reader on an unforgettable journey.

Once in a Blue Moon: A Novel Vickie Covington (John F. Blair Publishing) $26.95 Speaking of Southern fiction writers and folks who have been around the horn a bit, we respect Vickie Covington so much.  We discovered her – as so many did – firstly in Salvation on Sand Mountain, the amazing non-fiction book about snake handling in Appalachia that her eloquent husband at the time, Dennis Covington, wrote about their involvement first reporting on, and then becoming friends with, a weird West Virginia Pentecostal church.  She went on to co-author the stunning book about their marriage difficulties, Cleaving.  She has written essays and novels, and, as far as I know, this is the first book she has done in a long while. There is a vibrant and fun blurb on the back by the indefatigable Fanny Flagg who says Ms. Covington is “one of the most gifted and talented writers of the New South.”  Mark Childress (author of Crazy in Alabama) says, “This is a lovely book, full of delight and real feeling. I can’t think of another quite like it.”  If you want to enter Southside Birmingham for a spell, joining her “community of lost souls who find each other in a season when hope and change seem like real possibilities” – that’s an allusion to the time period in which Once in a Blue Moon is set, right after Obama’s first election victory — this could be a wonderful read for you or your book club. It’s the kind of book that is getting buzz in indie stores that curate special selections that maybe don’t come up readily in the dumb amazon algorithms  or bestsellers lists.  You heard about it here!

Camino Island John Grisham (Doubleday) $28.95  I don’t have to say much about this other than that it is wonderful to be able to highlight a book by a Baptist Sunday School teacher who is known and beloved in both popular best-selling book selling venues (from airports to discount chains) and in thoughtful literary circles, for being a fine writer, a good storyteller, and a decent man. Would that all authors had such a personal reputation for being serious about their art but also for their integrity and charm.  Further, it’s fun to tell about books about books and writers, and this one is not a legal thriller, but a book about an author and his writer’s block.  Well, there’s a heist of some exceptional books from Princeton and a rare books dealer, too. In it, Grisham reveals some of his own issues, his own tricks of the writing trade, and channels some of his own advice to aspiring writers to his stuck, stuck character. This is selling well throughout the country, and we’re happy to offer it as well.

Spark: The Firebrand Chronicles Book One       J.M. Hackman (Love2ReadLove2Write Publishing ) $14.99  I am really, really happy to tell you about this for at least three big reasons.  Firstly, I’m happy to admit, the author is a cousin of mine, and we watched her grow up, crossing paths at family reunions, weddings, funerals, and such. She’s a devout and serious Christian in a small town evangelical church and her degree in writing is from a very impressive department in a respected college.  So, there’s that: our family is really proud of her, and, gee, it isn’t every day we get to tout a published volume by a family member.  So cheers!  We hope you consider giving it a try.

Besides, Ms. Hackman is a thoughtful gal, a good mom, and has been working away at her craft for years.  She’s got a chapter in a remarkable anthology of speculative fiction and has dabbled in some historical fiction.  This, her first major work, is a YA novel, fun and upbeat, accessible, but with some hints of some very serious thought behind the fantasy plot. I respect those writers who keep at it, writing, blogging, developing their fan base. She is increasingly known in the world of wholesome YA stuff, and other fantasy writers have said fabulous stuff about this first volume of a planned trilogy. The series will become known as “The Firebrand Chronicles” and you’ll learn why early in Spark. The next one is going to be called Flare and you’ll be awaiting it like her other big fans.

And here is the third reason, besides being related, and that she’s a hardworking, up-and-coming author that is earning respect among fellow writers and YA fiction readers – and about this I just have to be honest: I don’t read much fantasy stuff at all and although we’re fond of the YA genre, we don’t read as much as we’d like. Beth adored all the splendid Harry Potter books, of course, but I’m still stuck on my beloved early books by Katherine Paterson and Gary Paulson and Gary Schmidt and Lois Lowry. I realize I’ve limited myself, but my favorite fantasy novels are by Madeline L’Engle and, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia.  The only thing we read more to our kids growing up, I suppose, were the exquisite and highly recommended Little House books.

 And so, when I was immediately taken with this book, I was surprised.  It’s written in a funny sort of cadence and slang, like a cheery, smart teen girl with some attitude might really talk. It’s hilarious, actually, and Brenna’s got lots of good chutzpah.  The opening sequence where’s she’s a normal kid in school and fire starts blazing from her fingers, and then she finds a portal – yeah, like, they are a thing – well, I was hooked.  Who know this could be so much fun! Here’s what I had the privilege of saying on the inside cover:

As a bookseller who reads bunches of books, I have rarely been so captured by an alternative reality fantasy as I was from the very first page of this marvelous new book. I was smitten with Brenna, the snarky, confident, sixteen year old who exhibits wit and grace (and fire – you’ll see.) You will love this fun story crafted by a great writer who chooses wonderful words and colorful phrases, sometimes with stunning results. As the drama unfolds, you will learn why Hackman started Spark with the apt line from C.S. Lewis that there are no ordinary people. Wow.

This Heavy Silence (Paraclete Press) $14.95  Well, I hope you know – hear this now if you haven’t yet heard it – we have stocked all the books by Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry that we can, and we had a selection of his nonfiction, fiction, and poems, the day we opened 34 years ago. But I didn’t know his novels well until a customer pressed into my hands our own store’s copy of The Memory of Old Jack twenty-five or more years ago. Of course everybody loves Berry’s lovely, slow, deeply wise Jayber Crow and it remains one of my all-time favorite novels.  However, Beth and I both agree that we liked Hannah Coulter even better!

Well, we say all this for the record, but also because of this: there are other authors who have written about rural life with care and conscientious prose, there are other stories about farming, and other novels about loyalty to a place that are deeply spiritual without being preachy or pushy, and Nicole Mozzarella’s wonderfully rendered This Heavy Silence is one of them.  It got a coveted starred review from Library Journal and Christianity Today awarded it the “Debut Novel of the Year” in 2006 when it was released in hardback.  We’re glad to remind you of this “mesmerizing portrait of betrayal, forgiveness, and the mysteries of grace” that unfold in about a decade of life in the rural Midwest as a woman struggles to raise a troubled child and keep the spring-fed beauty of her family farm. Yes, yes, read Wendell Berry, all of his novels and short stories, and the rest.  But read other novels of rural life, too.  And this one is beautiful. It would make a great book to enjoy this summer, or, in fact, this coming fall harvest season.

The Underground Railroad: A Novel Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) $26.95  I don’t have to say much about this, and cannot, as none of us here have read it yet. It has been on our radar since it first came out, when it garnered some stunning reviews, and then when it won any number of important awards last spring. It received the National Book Award, which is further indication of its significance in the publishing landscape. Colson Whitehead is a prizewinning and best-selling author and his story of a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South has been called “a magnificent tour de force.” It was an Oprah’s Book Club selection for 2016; you can see why when you read blurbs like these:

A potent, almost hallucinatory novel… It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift…He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.

–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead…A book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era…The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.
–Ron Charles, Washington Post

Stunning reviews appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and on NPR and People and more. I have to ask myself: what am I waiting for?  You too?  This is one of the most praised and popular novels of the last few years.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Arundhati Roy (Knopf) $28.95  Again, this is one we are very proud to tell you we have, one of many on our “new fiction” display.  This author is legendary for her exquisite prose and her remarkable memoirs and essays. I am not sure it is fair to call her an activist, but she has been outspoken about human rights and the things that matter much in our world.  I hope you know her name (and her most awarded novel The God of Small Things.)  As Junot Diaz (whose book I reviewed a year ago) says, “If you want to know the world behind our corporate-sponsored dreamscapes, you read writers like Arundhati Roy. She shows you what’s really going on.”

This new one (her first novel in 20 years) is an epic story about.. well, literary fiction of this caliber isn’t “about” one thing. But the plot seems to revolve around a romance, in the context of war and peace in India as it “takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.”

One reviewer noted that “it is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh.”  USA Today called it “fiercely unforgettable” and Slate called it “deeply rewarding.”  I have hardly read more interesting reviews of any book in a long while — it is called “stunning” “fearless” “a great tempest” “compelling”  “ambitious”  “a masterpiece” “musical”  “humane” “powerful and moving” “glorious” “lustrously braided” “gorgeously wrought”  “a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace” and  “the unmissable literary event of the summer.”   I sort of wonder how many other Christian bookstores carry it, and how many church-based book clubs would take up such a complex and ambitious book?

Man Who Met God in a Bar: The Gospel According to Marvin Robert Farrar Capon (Mockingbird) $16.99  I alluded to this one in that previous blog as I was so glad that Mockingbird brought out another rare one of Capon’s — a book of sort-of-fiction, a set of feisty conversations between two characters that were essentially alter egos for the late Father Capon and his wife, Valerie. That book of discussions between Pietro and Madeleine, More Theology and Less Heavy Cream, is a sequel to the previously published Light Theology and More Heavy Cream that were firstly published as installments in the Christian satire journal, the late great Wittenberg Door.  So I mentioned those in that post, and will announce this one, now.

Capon was a prolific writer, theologian, film reviewer, New York Times food critic and is most known for his deep, extraordinary theology-of-food/leg of lamb recipe book, Supper of the Lamb. Okay, that said: this newly released Marvin one is another of the previously unreleased works of Capon that was written later in his life, and recently offered to Mockingbird by Valerie Capon.  It is wonderful to see this slim novel in print offered somewhat as a companion to their fabulously fun …and Less Heavy Cream.  

What’s it about, you ask? After explaining this colorful Episcopal foodie priest, this storytelling, movie-loving, recipe-making theologian, you really need details?  Just buy the thing and go along for the ride. You’ll have a blast and your spirit will be uplifted and you’ll delight in the word-smithing, you’ll learn something about the goodness of life, the weirdness of our times, and the beauty of grace.  What a joy, having this rare little novel with its brand new cover.

Behold The Dreamers Imbolo Mbue (Random House) $17.00  I’m glad this is now out in paperback and that it is a honored selection of the Oprah’s Book Club for this year.  My-oh-my, we need novels like this, storytellers that through the power of a well told tale allow us to glimpse into another’s life, see things from a different angle, have our hearts touched.  We become more empathetic, I’m sure of it, by reading well, and reading this kind of story — about marriage, immigration, and the lives of a young couple from Cameroon, living in New York City.  I am sure you will be a better citizen, a better neighbor, a better Christian by entering into the worlds of others like this. Take it up with your book group and see what happens.  And let us know how it goes!

Freedom’s Ring Heidi Chiavaroli (Tyndale) $14.99  There are so many inspirational novels within the “Christian fiction” genre and although we stock more than most stores, my own imagination isn’t captured by most.  Yes, we have Amish stories and faith-based historical romances.  Some are truly a blessing to readers, and some authors have their devoted fans.  But every now and then a writer comes along within that sub-culture that perhaps deserves to be known more widely.  This looks like a fascinating bit of historical fiction, a clever and curious device, connection Boston in 2015 when the Boston Marathon bombing put an entire city on edge and Boston 1770 when the Boston Massacre sparked the American Revolution.  In Freedom’s Ring, Heidi Chiavaroli weaves together the past and present, starting with the grief of a runner Annie David and her wounded niece,  and a colonial woman named Liberty Caldwell, whose brother was killed in the deadly fray.  It is a love story as well, “women’s fiction”, they say, which “haunts and heals long after the last page.”

The Widow Nash Jamie Harrison (Counterpoint) $26.00 Counterpoint is a smallish, literate publisher (known for doing many of Wendel Berry’s books, so you know they are people of integrity.) This novel is curious, serious, said to be “deliciously ambitious” and written with “technicolor, vibrant prose.”  Known for memorable characters and unexpected adventure, it is an ambitious story.  There is history, here, but more: in fact, it could be considered a feminist take on the classic Western. Or, perhaps, it enters this historical period to offer “a compelling novel of reinvention and the seismic sacrifices we make for difficult family.”  Carl Hiaasen loves the widow Nash in The Widow Nash, and says “this shining book is flat-out terrific.”

Do Not Become Alarmed: A Novel Maile Meloy (Riverhead) $27.00 This publishing imprint is respected for doing often exquisite books of well-written fiction and non-fiction, and this author has been lauded by The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and other such outlets (for both her adult and middle grade novels.) She has that rare ability to be a fine and fun storyteller, with a thoughtful, literate streak. Helen Fielding of Bridget Jone’s Diary fame says, “Here is that perfect combination of a luminous writer and a big, page-turning story.”

But I’ll admit, even though I am attracted to the theme of being responsible to keep another safe, it was this endorsement that drew me in and made us just have to stock it, from novelist, bookstore owner, and book lover extraordinaire, Ann Patchett:

This is the book that every reader longs for: smart and thrilling and impossible to put down. Read it once at breakneck speed to find out what happens next, and then read it slowly to marvel at the perfect prose and the masterwork of a plot. It is an alarmingly good novel.

Beren and Luthien J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, with illustrations by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) $30.00 Okay, for some, we’ve saved the best for last. Just in, this is, yes, an early book not previously released by Tolkien, but one whose story serious Middle Earthers will recognize. 

Here is what they say about it:

“The tale of Beren and Luthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the world conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the Battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year.

Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Luthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Luthien was an immortal Elf…  [her father was a great Elvish lord, who imposed on Beren an impossible task in order to prove his worth to wed Luthien.] This is the kernel of the legend, and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Luthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.

In this book, Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Luthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded, but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this “Great Tale” of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterward lost.”


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Pleasant Learning: 22 Fun Non-fiction Books to Enjoy This Summer ON SALE

As a non-fiction geek I have to admit — insert eye roll here, if you’d like — that I really, truly, loved reading the books I’ve recommended lately.  I know they were intense: serious Christian engagement with the ethos of modern art, Biblical insight about racial inequality, Bob Goudzwaard & Craig Bartholomew deconstructing the entire Western culture.  Even John Van Sloten’s delightfully inspiring book about finding God in the work-world that is upbeat and unexpected, enters an exceptionally serious subject: spiritual formation and whole-life discipleship as it relates to the vocation and calling and our often difficult jobs. I know these aren’t simple books, but I just loved turning the pages, learning, being inspired to think. It is part of my job to tell others about them, making a case that this sort of book should be bought and studied and talked about. Granted, sometimes these books are slow-going, but the rewards are notable.


And yet I also need books (and TV shows and CDs) that are taken up for the sheer pleasure of it, books that are chosen not primarily to learn or study or engage or find God or serve the common good, but because they provide just old fashioned, good-old entertainment.

Novels come to mind, obviously, so I’m going to skip suggesting those for now.  

Rather, here are nonfiction books that you might enjoy on these summery days.  Maybe you get some vacation (I know, some of us don’t) but I suspect your schedule and lifestyle feels a little different in these new few months.  Here are some convivial books that we think you might get a real kick out of.  Oh, and by the way: you’ll learn something too.  A few might even be transformational.  What a bargain!

the revenge of analog.jpgRevenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter David Sax (Public Affairs) $25.99  Oh man, what a book.  From the first chapter about a new record store (that’s real records, a store selling vinyl, like I used to in the early 70s in the Platter Palace shops in Hanover and Gettysburg) that opened in his Toronto neighbor, I was hooked, absolutely hooked.  Sax visits the manufacturing plants that make vinyl, discusses the rise of the sales of record players, and weighs in on why the listening experience via vinyl is superior. (I almost cried when he explained how, despite his own huge digital music library he just doesn’t listen to music much anymore; there are too many choices, too much to dip in to, and it can be so incidental.  Selecting an album, among a limited selection, and putting it on carefully, brings an full-orbed intentionality, and something deep within me resonated.)

In other chapters Sax uses the creative nonfiction styles of memoir and sociology, reporting and interviews, to weave a narrative that moves from the Moleskine plant in Italy (in a fascinating chapter called “The Revenge of Paper”) to a fabulous chapter on schools and the debate about the over-use of digital technologies in education.

If you love bookstores you will love the chapter called “The Revenge of Retail” as he walks us through several small shops, critiques the ubiquity of Amazon, and listens in to readers as they talk about their Kindles. Is there a way to humanize and make more really real the e-commerce experience? (We try, here, which is why I always reply to our on-line orders with a personal email.)  There is a really great chapter in Revenge of… on board games (which, if you are youngish, you know are on the rise) and a great chapter on film, where the shift to digital was swift and decisive; but guess what?  There is a chapter called “The Revenge of Work” and the book ends (I skipped ahead) with an epilogue called “The End of Summer.”  This is happy, narrative non-fiction at its best, interesting and informative and at times exciting.

Two years ago we reviewed at Booknotes and promoted a book about basic Christian living that explored artisan and maker culture called Jesus Bread and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmaid Faith in a Mass-Market World by indie rock reviewer, musician, bread-maker and craft beer aficionado John J. Thompson (Zondervan; $15.99.) A number of our customers continue to tell us how much they enjoyed it; well, if you liked that one, you’ll really appreciate this.  

more theology 2nd.pngMore Theology and Less Heavy Cream: The Domestic Life of Pietro and Madeleine Robert Farrar Capon (Mockingbird) $16.00  Okay, I can’t review this thoroughly now, but will just set it up for you. It’s more or less a follow up to a nonfiction book, so although it isn’t non-fiction, I’m listing it here now.  I hope you know the award-winning, wonderfully written and rather intense theological cookbook by Capon called Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Moder Library; $16.00.) It is exactly that, a memoir about cooking, including a large leg of lamb recipe, by theologian and Episcopal priest, the late Fr. Robert Farrar Capon.

(To appreciate the impact a book like that can have, read the breathtakingly good chapter “And She Took Flour: Cooking Lessons from Supper of the Lamb” by our friend Denise Frame Harlan, in the spectacular collection of essays The Spirit of Food: Essays on Food and Faith edited by Leslie Leyland Fields [Wipf & Stock; $32.00] which is  one of my all time favorite books.)

You might know that alongside the food writing for the New York Times and the aforementioned classic Supper of the Lamb, Capon wrote a novel or two, several works of Biblical studies, and a handful of very interesting theology books.  Only his best fans, though, know that Cowley Press released, with a woefully silly cover that did not do the book justice, a collection of fictional conversations between Pietro and Madleine that originally had been published in the wickedly funny and now folded Christian satire mag The Wittenburg Door. (Yes, yes, it was misspelled.) That book remains in print and is called Light Theology and Heavy Cream: The Culinary Adventures of Pietro and Madeline. At this point it is helpful to know that the blowhard Pietro was Fr. Capon’s alter ego and Madeleine was his wife, Valeria Capon.  More Theology and Less Heavy Cream is, in fact – drum roll please – a collection of never-before-published essays featuring the two colorful characters, at it again.  As it says on the back cover, “Armed only with oven mitts and a razor-sharp wit, this unforgettable couple spars over God, food, grace, and everything in between.”  Kudos to Mockingbird for bringing this into print.  And, speaking of kudos, we can thank them for bringing out in a slim colorful paperback, the rare Capon novel, The Man Who Met God in a Bar: The Gospel According to Marvin.  We’ve got it in stock now, but we’ll tell you more about it when we list some fiction favorites, soon.  For now, know of this hilarious newly released, grace-filled, bit of clever theology from Pietro and Madeleine.  Bon appetite.

A Perfect Score.jpgA Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st Century Winery Craig and Kathryn Hall (Center Street) $26.00  I have been trying to learn more about wine in recent years, but my budget and stubbornness insist that I stay at the budget bin, buying stuff that even those who aren’t fervent wine snobs cannot imagine. I have a few foodie friends and I’ve got pals who gush over the latest craft brew beers, too.  It’s right and important, even, in God’s good world, to appreciate such gifts and I’m glad for their enthusiasms.  (Read Capon’s chapter on the glories of the onion in Supper of the Lamb if you don’t believe me, or just the preface to Calvin Seerveld’s classic Rainbows for the Fallen World.)  But, still, for me, I enjoy a lot of things vicariously – in the new creation there will be plenty of time to enjoy stuff unhindered – so reading a book about wine is, for many of us, delicious in its own way.

I know there are oodles of books about Napa Valley and French wine country trips and memoirs about wine-making.  We raved about the significance of the important The Spirituality of Wine by Gisela Kreglinger with its marvelous foreword by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans; $24.00) but, I’ll admit, as tasty as it was, it didn’t always glow on the page. This one is captivating, told with a light touch. Many reviewers talk about being on the edge of their seat as they learn how the Hall’s run their winery.  As they write, “Our personalities and passions, along with those of our team, have dictated our decisions and shaped everything from the design of our wineries to the taste of the wine itself.” Granted there’s a bit about how their work represents “the intersection of art, nature, globalization, and technology” and there’s some discussion of state-of-the-art equipment.  Still, this is a fine book about a husband and wife team who recount their twenty-year climb from amateur winemakers to recipients of an “exceedingly rare” perfect score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.  Nice.

Books for Living.jpgBooks for Living Will Schwalbe(Knopf) $25.95  I announced this book about books and recommended it heartily when it first came out a half year ago, but I want to highlight it here, now, if only briefly.  I want to say as clearly as I can that this will be loved by nearly any book lover, that it is a delight to read – a perfect shape and feeling making it even a delight to hold and page through, as we do with books we love and want to just dip into serendipitously.  You may recall Schwalbe for the wonderful book he wrote about the books he read with his dying mother — both voracious readers — called The End of Your Life Book Club.  We so loved that and it is worth owning. This one is somewhat of a companion volume with Will sharing stories from his life, his loved ones, people he knows (his mom shows up again on occasion) all woven through what are almost book reviews.  I call him Will, by the way, because he has revealed much about his life in these essays and he feels like a friend.

When Books for Living first came out I over-simplified it by saying it was a collection of book reviews, how various books can help one live well.  It is that, I suppose, and each essay ruminates and revolves around a particular book. But while the wonderful Bird By Bird chapter does explain a bit of how Anne Lamotte came up with that marvelous line in her beloved book about writing, Will’s chapter strays from Bird quickly, touching down and nicely citing a number of other books by Lamotte, who he adores and commends.

Most chapters are lovely, beautifully rendered, anchored in a well told story that brings his life into conversation with the book and/or the author in question.  From his passion for the characters in David Copperfield to the impact of E.B. White’s classic Stewart Little to a riveting piece about his coming of age in the gay community in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic (and the book The Gifts of the Body) these chapters read like memoir mashed up with review.  He is a sharp and open-hearted reader and could be an astute critic, but this isn’t academic literary criticism.  These are stories about life, a good life in many ways, informed by books.

Each chapter of Books for Living has a one or two word subtitle, a bit of homage to classic self-help books, preceded by the book that will inform the advice subtly offered in that essay. For instance, his extraordinary telling of the YA book Wonder by R.J. Palacio has the subtitle “Choosing Kindness.”  Gift from the Sea is followed by the simple “Recharging.”  The chapter on Zen and the Art of Archery has as its subtitle “Mastering the Art of Reading” and the advice gleaned from Reading Lolita in Tehran is on “Choosing Your Life.”  Interestingly, “Praying” is the theme of his reflections on Death Be Not Proud and he draws lovely insight about “Finding Friends” from The Little Prince. 

I know it sounds extravagant to say that a few pages are “worth the price of the book” but I am not exaggerating to say that the long introduction on the importance and joys of reading, how we can learn and take great pleasure as well, is, indeed, worth the price of admission.   For what it is worth, I am going to quote an extended page or two in a workshop I’m planning, and if you do any teaching or need to motivate yourself or others to be more intentional about making time for relaxed reading, these first 20 pages will be very useful.  

This book is a pleasure and a joy and while I may not pick up every book he recommends, the way he tells how these books affected him and others is itself a lesson to absorb, and it very well introduce you to some important new authors.  Most of these pieces are written with a straightforward, nice touch although a few are adamant.  Will gets a bit preachy at the end, which I like, and it’s worth quoting:

Books remain on of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny – but only as long as people are free to read all different kinds of books, and only as long as they actually do so. The right to read whatever you want whenever you want is one of the fundamental rights that helps preserve all the other rights. It’s a right we need to guard with unwavering diligence. But it’s also a right we can guard with pleasure. Reading isn’t just a strike against narrowness, mind control, and domination. It’s one of the world’s great joys.

How ’bout that, Hearts & Minds friends and supporters? 

Will Schwalbe continues:

How we live is no trivial matter. Racing around in a state of agitation and greed and envy isn’t just wasting our lives; it’s a symbol of much that is wrong with our world. And reading all different kinds of books is not simply reading all different kinds of books; it’s a way of becoming more fully human and humane.

When I read, I’m reminded to be more thoughtful about how I approach each day. And that’s not just important for living; it’s the least I can do for the dead.

The First Love Story.jpgThe First Love Story: Adam and Eve and Us Bruce Feiler (The Penguin Press)$28.00  I’ve already mentioned this national best-seller a time or two and I want to remind you that it is nearly the quintessential book of fun, informative, non-fiction.  We don’t know where to put a book like this in the store – yes, it’s good for self-help type readers as it is about marriage and relationships, gender and sexuality.  But yet, we don’t think it quite fits in with our marriage books and it isn’t a full-on memoir. He’s an upbeat reporter, intrepid, happily investigating his topic, exploring by travel, taking us along, offering tales and insight as he discovers insights from often unusual sources.  And, yes, it is sort of a memoir, with Feiler chronicling his days traveling around the ancient Near East. (Who literally goes looking for Eden, except maybe archeologists and nut-jobs, for crying out loud – what a hoot!)  And although it is about Adam and Eve, it isn’t a Scripture commentary, so it doesn’t go there on our shelves.   Its nonfiction reporting, offering history and science and philosophy and Bible study and travelogue and storytelling and marriage advise along the way.  This book is fun, and it is helpful.  What a good book to take on vacation with just enough bold storytelling and just enough serious content, shared by a respected and talented writer.  Creative non-fiction, fun summer reads, learning with a laugh.  Get The First Love Story, and then backtrack and read other books by this wonderful, upbeat, educated author.

There are plenty of rave reviews of this substantive work, but the endorsements are peppered with words like wit, grace, wisdom, joy.  James Martin, the very funny Jesuit scholar, says:

Mr. Feiler has the unique ability to introduce readers to the insights of art, history, and theology in a way that makes a seemingly hidebound topic come alive and the oldest Bible stories seem fresh, inspiring, even exciting.

Roughneck Grace- Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, .jpgRoughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty Michael Perry (Wisconsin Historical Society Press) $18.95  I know I mentioned this before, but Beth, my wife and Heart & Minds partner, has declared this her favorite reading experience of the year -and, man, does she love her Fredrik Backman; she’s still talking about that man Ove and she finished Beartown in like a day. But she’s a big Michael Perry fan and I, too, want to chime in saying how much I admire this great, great writer.  Almost everyone I know who gives Perry a try enjoys him, and his full-length nonfiction romps through rural life – Coop, Truck, Population 483, Meeting Tom. He is known for funny storytelling mixed with really poignant observations about life and times and things that matter most (including a nearly palpable sense of his being an earnestly good father, the kind of dad I admit I wish I had been.)  This collection of brief essays from his Sunday Wisconsin State Journal column is a perfect introduction to Perry’s oddball look at life and his touching writing style. It would be a great book to take with you if your heading out this summer, or a good one to read a bit each night, perhaps outside on a lawn chair.

 I want to say a couple of quick things about this marvelous book: it is wholesome in the very best sense; Perry is a good man, who cares about his neighbors and children and land and he does so not only with very good humor, but without being self-righteous or maudlin about it.  I can hardly think of a more delightful writer, somebody who brings a smile for his big heart for his small place and the pleasure he takes in noticing stuff in his day to day world.  What a joy that he can go on and on about whacking apples with a golf club and the different sorts of detritus or can write a whole column, actually several whole columns, on how cold it is in his parts.  (Yeah, his parts.)  I love this short essay genre, and Perry is a master, pleasant and interesting, drawing some kind of meaning from the mundane.  For instance, he does one on lawn mowing (“Mower Maintenance”) that starts like this:

I am not your leading lawn guy. Don’t get me wrong – I admire a neat lawn, in very much the same way I admire a nicely knotted tie. Looks good, good for you for doing it, and I’ll be over here in my ratty old T-shirt.

So, he’s a roughneck slob, a real small town guy who writes about hunting and fixing trailers and the tire swing he made for his children. (And, I might add, it’s the best tire swing thing I’ve ever read.)  He writes well about the glories of nature.  His nature writing really is beautiful, but not in an Annie Dillard way, if you know what I mean; I adore his wordsmith in describing pheasants and spring melt and ordinary stuff like getting foolishly stuck in a chapter called “Mudded Up.” He talks about “brush-hogging the burdock and wild cucumber that are lately threatening to overtake our farm. They have become the kudzu of the North.”

His clever wordplay and cadence and how he often brings his ruminations back to an early trope or phrase strikes me as brilliant. How do writers have the ability to do this, tie a package together, connecting the dots like that?  I so enjoy writers that are not deep in some fancy-pants literary way, but still have a way with words with something to say.  Consider this, for instance, in his piece called “So Long Summer.” The whole bit works, but I loved how he writes “its shoulder to the sun” and how it ends up being about his daughter growing up.  

And yet as our hemisphere enters the time of turning its shoulder to the sun, I am not impervious: On a cool autumn day when my elder daughter was four years old I found her sitting in her backyard rope swing, disconsolately sobbing. Between deep breaths she told me she was sad about the falling leaves. I said something about autumn bringing us new and pretty colors. This only refreshed her tears, and she exclaimed, “But I want summer to be here every day!”

Today she is a teenager taller than I and just got asked to homecoming. I couldn’t be happier for her…even as I wish summer could be here every day.

There’s some rock and roll stuff that goes on here – he knows a bit about alt-country and old Americana, too. He admits to taking “guilty delight” to having once written that “Johnny Paycheck is to Kenny Chesney as corn whiskey is to wine coolers” but then notes that “Mr. Chesney’s career did not waver in face of my wit.”  (What a line!) Perry continues, with typical self-deprecation, “Should we ever meet I will apologize personally. Then we’ll rap out a nice set of ab crunches. If he wishes, I’ll hold his ankles.” 

Perry is very funny, but not exactly a humorist (although, granted, his only novel was called The Jesus Cow about a calf born with a picture of Jesus on its hide.) He’s often out on book tours, doing readings in swanky places (well, in grange halls and county fairs, too, I suppose) so it isn’t all small town goofiness.   I enjoy and admire this blend of personality and worldview and I, again, Beth and I both adore his well-honed craft, his writing abilities.  Not a few of the pieces talk about his writing shed, his deadlines, doing readings, and the stuff that happens when one has a vocation of being a writer.  Unless you don’t want to read about Fruit of the Loom tube socks or sheep hoofs whose claws had “overgrown and curled under like a bad Frito” I would highly recommend Roughneck Grace and anything else by Michael Perry.  He’s got another Wisconsin Historical Society collection coming at the end of the summer, so get going on this now.  You’ll want more, later, for sure. 

Downstream- Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing .jpgDownstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing and the Waters of Appalachia David L. O’Hara & Matthew T. Dickerson (Cascade Books) $18.00  In creating this list of fun reads for summer, I didn’t mean to suggest they’d all be silly or funny.  This one, for instance, is charming but wonderfully written, by two seriously Christian environmentalists, fishermen, and scholars.  O’Hara is a professor of philosophy at Augustana College (he has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the late, great, Books & Culture, and the literary environmental journal, Orion.) Dickerson is a professor at Middlebury College and prolific as a writer of literary works about C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, a wonderful survey of epic fantasy (From Homer to Harry Potter) and a trilogy of his own creative fantasy.    I say all this to assure you that this is thoughtful and mature, sophisticated, even, in vision and literary quality. But yet, at the end of the day, it is a set of narratives about fishing (including some wonderful pages about Central Pennsylvania, for those that know Spruce Creek and Bald Eagle Creek and Spring Creek near State College.  There is an afterword, by the way, by their friend the nature writer and activist Bill McKibben who – although not a fisher himself – says:

This gentle book is no activist’s tract. It’s better than that, by far. It bears witness to what we have right now, the beauty that surrounds all of us who live in the rural East. It bears witness to the stories of those places in the past, and to their possibilities for the future. The prose is calm, composed, and strong: appropriately, there’s a strong and deep current that runs through the book, a current of care. It swept me along, start to finish.

love lives here.jpgLove Lives Here: Finding What You Need in a World Telling You What You Want Maria Goff (B+H) $17.99  I hope you know Love Does by Bob Goff, a book that would go on this list in a heartbeat if I haven’t mentioned it so often before.  Goff is fun, funny, inspiring, profound, even, even though his book is loaded with whimiscal antics and love-you-neighbor shenanigans.  He mentions his Sweet Maria often in his books and talks, even though she rarely goes with him to wage peace in war zones or to start a school in Uganda or when he uses his high-powered lawyer skills to chase down child traffickers. She’s a ying to his yang, I suppose, and an introvert to his super, super extroverted outgoing style.   She says Bob is “all gas and no break” and “his favorite number of people to be with is more.”  Her, not so much. It even surprised me to hear she was writing a book.

When Love Lives Here came I wanted to announce it promptly so gave it a good description after having only dipped in a bit, skimming a couple of pages. I quoted others who raved and said what they said. I noted nice things that were true, but I hadn’t really been captivated by it at that point.

Now that I’ve read it, I want to just shout — shout! — how much I enjoyed it, how good it truly is, and how much I like the gumption and style and freedom of this courageous wife and mom.  She tells some remarkable stories, and while she always draws lessons from each — and they are lovely, nice, encouraging, empowering, brave lessons — her honesty about her life is what just blew me away.

This book deserves to be discussed and a review that does it justice would necessarily describe every chapter. Not a one is a let down, and several are very deeply moving. 

And they are all fun. Man, does Sweet Maria have a load of wit. Reading these stories is a blast; the episodes are great.  How could they not be, as Maria invites us into their extraordinary lives.

The first chapter left me stunned: I had not heard that their beloved Lodge in British Columbia that has served so many people as a get away and retreat center burned to the ground. How they coped with the loss and grief was so Goff, so real and raw and yet trusting in God and finding something to laugh about.  This is a theme of Love Lives Here that created a life and home and community of love takes risks and it will not be easy.  Just read what she learned when they bought their wedding ring from a guy who had just been shot; see how she balances an exuberant joy in living with a realism about hurts and pains and the baggage we all bring to our relationships, including her own insecurities.  Maria tells early on in the book about her experience being in rehab for an eating disorder; she does not trivialize the trauma but does not dwell on it, either. She is about honoring our hurts and moving on, working hard to be real about our limits but always being guided by the Holy Spirit to become more like Jesus.

Being like Jesus; it’s that simple and that hard, living love.  There’s a chapter about Bob proving to her that he had inherited an old gold mine.  She explains a bit about the hot trip to the desolate territory where they found his little whole in the ground mine, and we learn a bit about gold mining.  Miners often found gold in big veins of quartz.  Follow the quartz and your find the gold.  In other words, dig in for the long haul.

There are fun stories here — their first date almost ended in a stove fire on a boat, their second was rock climbing (even though Maria is scared of heights.)  She talks about loud early mornings with their kids, likening it to the New York Stock Exchange and their colorful personalities (and has them each write a short contribution at the end which is nice.) There are tender bits about being who you are, the struggle to realize God loves us — she was held back after her fifth grade year due to a learning disability and wore orthopedic shoes, which didn’t help her self esteem. There were hard times growing up with a hard to get along with father. There are moments that will make you smile, and there are moments that might have you pondering your own life, as she is honest about the mess.

Love Lives Here is a great book to read straight through, or to dip into, reading each chapter by itself as you can.  It feels to me like a summertime book, a great book to read and talk about and share.  One of the chapters advises us to find good friends — okay, it’s a little more interesting than that, as it always is in their interesting life.  Maybe this book will inspire you to do life well with others. It would make Maria happy, I’m sure, to hear that her stories brought a smile, and deepened your own love.

Refractions_coverE-380x570.jpgRefractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture Makoto Fujimura (NavPress) $24.99  Many of our friends now of our fondness for the art and the art advocacy of the esteemed Japanese-American abstract painter, Mako Fujimura.  We have promoted his books over the years, including a wonderful small book called Soliloquies showing his art in comparison with reproductions of some previously un-shown works of George Rouault, his serious study of suffering in the Endo novel Silence (entitled Silence and Beauty) and his broad and wise manifesto of faith-based cultural renewal called Culture Care. This older book, though, is in ways lighter, more fun, more engaging than any of those – as good and wonderful and important as they truly are.  This very handsome paperback book (it includes much of his early work, nicely reproduced on heavier glossy paper) is a set of almost 30 reflections, ruminations — “refractions” he calls them.  Consider them a collection of essays or an anthology of his early writings about faith, culture, life, joy, sorrow, awe… Some were written after the 9-11 attack near his home in Manhattan, and through the displacement and grief of those months he helped organize some public spaces for art to be created and displayed, so there are some essays about that, heavy but glorious, about aesthetics and peace and suffering and hope. But other pieces are about films or novels or art shows or making good stuff for the common good; there is an essay on paper, a story about experiencing Christmas in Japan, a lovely refraction on Peter Pan, among other things.

I so enjoy this and every so often get to show it to a customer and am reminded afresh what a lovely, wise, wonderful book it really is. Ian Morgan Cron calls it “elegantly penned” and Nancy Pearcy says “his translucent prose warrants close, meditative reading” while Jeremy Begbie calls these dispatches “at once bold and gracious.” As Rev. Susan Johnson of Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago writes of how it evidences Gods healing and grace and that “even in moments that seem to beg for closure, he pleases for a certain openness and wonder.”  Openness and wonder – how’s that for a description of pleasurable, meaningful, fascinating, creative non-fiction.  Highly recommended.

Fire and Rain- The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY .jpgFire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 David Browne (De Capo Press) $16.00 This wonderful book may not appeal to most of our readers, but if you have any interest in the late 1960s as they morphed into the early 70s, as seen through the most popular pop stars and the biggest-selling albums of that era, this book will hold your interest and bring loads of insight from the very first page.  I lived through that era and this music truly is among my all-time favorites.  Reading this was beyond fun, it was deeply meaningful and interesting and even though I knew every and artist and album mentioned, the studio musicians, even most of the producers, I learned so much about my one-time heroes.  And, wow, there’s a lot to learn.

Think of it: the largest bands and entertainers the world had known at that point – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Still, Nash and Young – broke up that year.  They each released defining albums (Let It Be, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Déjà vu — each created amidst drug abuse and interpersonal animosity and new sorts of recording possibilities.  The break-ups of the groups gave rise to solo albums, records that remain perennial favorites.  What a year which yielded solo work in 71– the first releases by John Lennon, by Paul McCartney, by Ringo, and of course Harrison’s three-album set,  All Things Must Pass, not to mention the wonderful first album by Paul Simon and soon enough, the solo Neil Young release (After the Gold Rush followed by Harvest), the exquisite If Only I Could Remember My Name by David sweet baby james.jpgCrosby and Songs for Beginners by Graham Nash. And Stills, with that odd stuffed giraffe on the cover. In the background of all if this is, sometimes literally, (well, yes, Joni Mitchell) was none other than a rising star named James Taylor.  Most of his fans know his first (unsuccessful) album was the first release on the Beatles own fated Apple Records; his drug and mental health problems plagued him even as he became the number one singer-songwriter in the world. Did you know that three or four other acts had covered “Fire and Rain” before his label released it as a single in February of 1970?

This book shifts back and forth as these world-class artists create their masterpieces, fall apart, get back together, fall apart, and release solo material that changed the face of popular culture.  And the story is told in light of the big changes in society, the inevitable backdrop of Bridge_over_Troubled_Water_(1970).pngthe rise of counterculture, anti-war activism, and back-to-nature communes. (Even Dylan went country with his Nashville Skyline album.) From the campus uprisings of 68 and 69, the nihilistic, terrorist bombings of The Weatherman, the horrific Manson murders, the massacre of students at Kent State by the National Guard,  to the oddly calm campus culture in the fall of 1970, Browne, a long-time journalist for Rolling Stone, tells the story of the shift in music, too  Did the rise of quieter singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens and Carol King and, of course, James Taylor, help tone down the uprisings and protests, or did the calmer times give rise to more introspective sounds?  (Ahh, the old question about art and culture, shaping or reflecting the zeitgeist?)


Those of us baby boomers who lived through these years surely know this music. You’ll get a kick out of hearing not only big picture stuff, but fabulous details (like the old fashioned, Civil War era cameras used for the cover of Déjà vu that had that black corky cover designed to resemble an old Bible or hymnbook, or the way Carole King and JT became friends, or which Beatles played on whose albums, usually without credit.) What an entertaining, informative book about important, wonderful, music.

Beatles 66.jpgBeatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year Steve Turner (Ecco) $27.99 I can’t talk about that 1970s Fire and Rain book that features a lot about the Beatles breaking up and going solo without giving a shout out to the respected rock critic Steve Turner and his amazing book about the making of a “new” Beatles image, the year, he says, everything changed.  As the subtitle insists, the most revolutionary year for the fab four was 1966.  Turner knows the Beatles well, and has written mainstream, respected stuff on the backstories of their songs.  He also has a fascinating book called The Gospel According to the Beatles and several great books on a Christian view of the arts, such as the recently re-issued, expanded Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts and the very helpful PopCultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainment.
(That Steve spent some of his early Christian years being mentored at L’Abri should tell us much about his wholistic and culturally-engaged worldview.)

Anyway, this big book was hard for me to put down, even though the earliest Beatles work has never been that interesting to me. (I know, I’m sorry. Give me The White Album over Revolver any day, although reading Turner gave me a whole new interest in that period.)  With extraordinary research and exceedingly rich insight about the culture – what books were being read, what artists were in which galleries, who was buying what fashions in the London scene, and why – Beatles ’66 unfolds as an amazing look at the rise of the Beat and Mod scene, and what quickly became the counterculture. 

Before the back-to-the-land denim of CNS, the beards of The Band, and the long flowing dresses of the hippies of 1970, say, there was the frilly Edwardian fashion and psychedelic, colorful stuff of Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper.  But, as Turner painstakingly documents, their shift to those iconic looks and sounds and all it represented for our world wouldn’t have happened without the transitions of 1966, a year so important he insists on calling it “revolutionary.”  So many things changed for them that year, from small details of how they recorded to the fact that it was the last time they performed live. (Revolver was, in fact, the first record they created not to be performed live but to be listened to as an album and it was signaled extraordinary new recording processes and the use of new instruments and arrangements.) Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66 book offers cultural studies, social history, music and fashion, and a hard-to-put-down, joyfully interesting study of that year in the lives of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. What a year, and what a book!

Day Alt Music Died.jpgThe Day Alternative Music Died: Dylan, Zeppelin, Punk, Glam, Alt, Majors, Indies, and the Struggle Between Art and Money for the Soul of Rock Adam Caress (New Troy Books) $16.99  I reviewed this a year or so ago when it first came out, and then we named it one of the best books of 2015.  I cannot review it in full here so commend my sprawling BookNotes review to you, here.  If you like rock music and want to explore how labels and commerce and cheap imitation of serious artist’s work – a pendulum swinging back and forth from this style to that – you will adore this wild ride through decades of rock music.  Granted, it is centered in the question of what we used to call “alternative” – that Seattle grunge sound and all that is spawned – but it starts with the singers of the 1950s, the rise of rock journalism in the mid-60s, spends some time with Zooropa-era U2, and ends up almost 300 pages later with a candid reflection on indie rock in the digital age.

The Day Alternative Music Died and its hefty subtitle is a blast to read, a must-have for rock music aficionados. It is not only a great read for fans, but a must for anyone interested in the business of music.  It happens to be very well written by a thoughtful cultural critic, a friend who teaches at Montreat College, an evangelical Christian college in North Carolina.  It ought to be better known that it is as it is a very important book, fun as it is. Sven Birkerts, eloquent author of the acclaimed Gutenberg Elegies, says it is “chillingly persuasive.  A carefully wrought and necessary book.”  Enjoy. 

At Home in the World by Tsh O.jpgAt Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering Around the Globe Tsh Oxenreider (Nelson) $22.99  The subtitle is “And Adventure Across 4 Continents with 3 Kids, 1 Husband, and 5 Backpacks.”  You know how I wrote above how I don’t buy fancy wine, but enjoyed that book about winemaking?  Ditto with this: I don’t travel, let alone with backpacks and kids, but I so enjoy books that take us vicariously on these remarkable journeys.  This is a handsome, wonderfully-crafted, generous, and thought-provoking story.  Shauna Niequist – no slouch of a traveler or writer herself – says that At Home in the World is “A beautiful reminder of how travel shapes us, how beautiful the world is, and how parenting doesn’t need to mean the end of adventuring.”   Jefferson Bethke wisely says, “This isn’t a stereotypical travel memoir about ‘finding yourself’ – it’s about a family that adventures because they already have.”  It’s a really good read, perfect for your summer days, especially if you don’t get to go on such wild adventures.   Highly recommended, with pleasure.

Jackie Robinson- A Spiritual Biography --The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero.jpg 42 Faith- The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story.jpg42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story Ed Henry (Nelson) $24.99 and

Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero Michael Long & Chris Lamb (WJK) $17.00

 How can I invite you to some summer pleasure reading without naming something about baseball? Well, this is a big year to recall Jackie Robinson, and in keeping with this BookNotes theme of pleasurable words with good content, these are both extraordinary volumes, full of stories and information, background that you most likely will enjoy learning about.  It I hard to explain which of these is better – it’s a toss-up, really – although I previously announced the Long & Lamb one, in part because it focuses more on the progressive faith that inspired Robinson (and others that make appearances, from Martin Luther King on) to be agents of desegregation and social justice.  I think we sometimes forget the hard, hard work that goes into radical experiments for social progress and Long and Lamb (who have published a previous book on the letters of Jackie Robinson called First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson) know this advocacy work well.  They are both scholars as well as huge fans and have researched racial issues in American baseball and have both written widely; in fact Ed Henry draws on Chris Lamb’s seminal work, Blackout about Jackie Robinsons first Spring training.  So, I’ve pushed the “spiritual biography” for promoting his radical “boundary-breaking.”  

However, the Ed Henry 42 book captured me from the first page.  The author is himself a journalist (and the book opens with an admirable conversation he has with President Obama, with the President asking Henry to relay a message to Jackie Robinson’s wife, who was still alive, and who Henry was going to be visiting.)  Maybe that is part of the difference between these two biographies: Ed Henry allows his own story to enter into the book as he tells of visiting this person or reports on the trip to that stadium or as he explains how he felt meeting this old-timer or interviewing that one.  Clearly, both are excellently researched, and both draw upon little known papers, including a manuscript by Jackie Robinson himself that was never published.   Both are really informative, well written, captivating, especially if you care about either race relations during the civil rights era or Christian faith or baseball.  

Maybe I’d say this: 42 Faith is the work of an expert communicator, a modern-day TV journalist, and carries a foreword by Larry King (who interviewed the great Jackie Robinson more than once) and a powerful forward by Juan Williams.  Blurbs on the back include raves from Jim Brown and New York Times bestseller Brad Thor. Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography carries endorsements on the back by preacher and activist James Forbes, investigative journalist and cultural critic Tom Krattenmaker, and the important Lee Lowenfish who wrote one of the definitive biographies of Branch Rickey.  Both of these books are a treat, both are fun to read, and both are important.  Maybe 42 Faith, a sturdy hardback, is the one to start with.  But please, please, don’t miss the more intense, important work by Long and Lamb.  

The Seventeen Traditions- Lessons from an American Childhood .jpgThe Seventeen Traditions: Lessons from an American Childhood Ralph Nader (Harper) $13.99  The politicos among us might know Nader’s manifesto, The Seventeen Solutions.  You surely know Nader as a consumer activist, a liberal-leaning populist, a leader cited by The Atlantic as one of the hundred most influential figures in American history.  This is part memoir, part civics lesson, part a reminiscence of when families taught stuff like the tradition of listening, the tradition of charity, the tradition of civics, work, patriotism, simple enjoyment.  Such family traditions, Nader says, “challenge the notion that the fads, technologies, how-to manuals, and addictions of modern life have somehow taken the place of the time-tested wisdom fashioned in the crucibles of earlier generations.”

It is a delightful read, a perfect summer dip into older ways – ways that we need today, perhaps now more than ever.  Called “warmly human,” The Seventeen Traditions is a surprising book, highly recommended.

The Moth Presents- All These Wonders.jpgThe Moth Presents: All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown Foreword by Neil Gaiman (Crown Archtype) $25.00  I suppose you have heard of The Moth Radio Hour, put together by Atlantic Public Media.  It is simply a cultural phenomenon, a modern-day storytelling festival on public radio. All These Wonders presents forty-five unforgettable true stories about risk, courage, and facing the unknown, drawn from “the best ever told on (The Moth’s) stages.”  As it says on the back cover, these talks have been “adapted to the page to preserve the raw energy of live storytelling.”  These stories feature voices familiar and new, speaking with pathos and humor, bravery and a touch of weirdness.  When we wanted to list fun books for summer, I knew I wanted to highlight this – truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, and honest testimonials of human courage can sometimes be the most important things we can enjoy taking in. 

The Tao of Bill Murray- Real Life Stories.jpgThe Tao of Bill Murray: Real Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party Crashing Gavin Edwards (Random House) $26.00  What an odd book.  As Danny Rubin, screen writer of Groundhog Day says, “Reading The Tao of Bill Murray is like spending time with Bill, but probably safer.”  No one will ever believer you” is the famous line Bill Murray says when he shows up at somebody’s wedding reception or hospital room or pickup basketball game. The famous actor’s adventure off screen are, for some, as entertaining as his movies, and his antics rival the most popular of popular culture. Is there some plan behind all this, some point, something earnest and real?  This book insists that it is “more than just a collection of wacky anecdotes.” It puts the actor’s public clowning around into a larger context. It has plenty of celebrity gossip and movie-set stories, but it is also a “sideways mix of comedy and philosophy.” I’m not endorsing Murray’s behavior, let alone his philosophy of life, whatever it is. But this is a fun book full of surprises and maybe even some insight.  Here’s what I wonder: what would it be like if Bob Goff, author of Love Does and popular storyteller and advocate of whimsical escapades for Christ ever met Bill Murray.  Who would surprise whom?  Ha.  

I'll Push You- A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends,.jpgI’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair Patrick Gray & Justin Skeesuck (Tyndale) $15.99  I can’t wait to read this – maybe I’ll tell you more later in the year once I do.  But I’m telling you, it looks just fantastic. A trusted friend inside its large publishing house assured me that it was his favorite book of the many they’ve released this season.  There’s a documentary about the guys, too, that got some buzz at a few festivals, I’m told.  It’s said to be “full of love, humor and faith” which sounds, I know, a bit tame.  But I’m telling you now: this is a book about two life-long buddies, one now in a wheelchair, who go on a spiritual pilgrimage on the legendary (and difficult, I’m told) Camino de Santiago spiritual pilgrimage through the rough terrain of northern Spain.  There must be a dozen books on the Camino, and the trail and the pilgrimage was made more popular by the wonderful movie with Martin Sheen called The Walk.  This new book looks like a lovely and even powerful read, with pictures, a discussion guide, and a website full of extra content.  Learn more about it here. The foreword is by Donald Miller, who says, after reflecting on his own love of stories and his studies about what make good stories work,

Rarely have I encountered such a story lived out in the everyday, where the hero – or in this case, heroes – could easily be you and me, ordinary people choosing to embrace an extraordinary life.

Well, I don’t know about that, since I can’t ever imagine myself doing such a thing. (I’ve pushed my share of wheelchairs through rough terrain, by the way, thanks to the opportunity for shenanigans at the Easter Seal Society’s now-shuttered Camp Harmony Hall.) But, whether we could do this thing or not, these guys really did. And that’s gotta be a blast to read about, an inspiring and fun story.  As Miller says, noticing less about the arduous adventure, but the intimacy of true friendship and community, 

They show us the redeeming power that exists in giving others the opportunity to love all of who we are, in spite of our flaws and imperfections… Be careful! When you choose to read this incredible testament of life, friendship, and faith, you will be challenged and will begin to look for those adventures that are already part of your life, the ones you haven’t embraced. 

Blue Highways- A Journey to America .jpgBlue Highways: A Journey to America William Least Heat-Moon (Back Bay Books) $16.00  This book was a huge bestseller when it was released in the early 1980s, and we so enjoyed stocking it then.  Back then, as now, folks are sometimes surprised to see books that aren’t on Christian publishing houses or aren’t “religious” on the shelves of a Christian bookstore.  This was a book that we’d tell folks about for the sheer joy of it, the profundity of the journey, the great writing. It is considered a masterpiece of American travel writing; it is an exploration of backroads.  Annie Dillard says, “Heat-Moon is a witty, generous, sophisticated, and democratic observer. His modesty, kindly humor, and his uncanny gift of catching good people at good moments make Blue Highways a joy to read.”  

And, local friends, catch this Heat-Moon line, describing his journey to, “those little towns that get on the map – if they get on at all – only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia, New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.”  

A group of pastors that do a book club retreat each year are reading this together this fall, which reminded me how much we enjoyed selling it.  The newer edition has a nice foreword by Bill McKibben who says it is a book “that makes writers want to weep.”  Even Walker Percy had an endorsement. 

The Book of Joy- Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.jpgDalaiLama-and-Tutu-12.jpgThe Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World the Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu (Avery) $26.00

Wow, His holiness and the Archbishop on joy – what an idea for an interfaith book!  Both men are known for their overall happiness and fun, spry, spirits.  I haven’t read this yet, but I can’t lie – I’ve smiled every time I’ve turned it over to peek at the back cover of them dancing.  You have to love that.

The first page says this:

To celebrate one of our special birthdays, we met for a week in Dharamsala to enjoy our friendship and to create something that we hope will be a birthday gift for others. There is perhaps nothing more joyous than birth, and yet so much of life is spent in sadness, stress, and suffering. We hope this small book will be an invitation to more joy and more happiness.

They insist that “no dark fate” determines our future. The remind us that lasting happiness cannot be found in pursuit of any goal or achievement, but in the human mind and heart.

The book itself is co-authored by Douglas Abrhams, a legendary editor, who interviewed the two throughout their week together, and then wove together the stories and interviews that he drew out of them.  He knows and understands them well.

He writes,

During the week their fingers were often wagging at each other teasingly, moments before their hand were clasped together affectionately. During our first lunch the Archbishop told the story of a talk they were giving together. As they were getting ready to walk on stage, the Dalai Lama – the world’s icon of compassion and peace – pretended to choke his spiritual older brother. The Archbishop turned to the Dalai Lama and said, “Hey, the cameras are on us, act like a holy man.”

Yep, even holy men have to fool around, and then have to determine to act like holy men.  Can we act up, learn to be real and fun and people of joy, for real, by living into it? This hoot of a book can help. Enjoy!

The Road Back to You-  An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery.jpgThe Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery Ian Cron & Suzanne Stabile (IVP) $24.00  As I was creating this list of fun non-fiction, making a case that learning can be uplifting and that we can read stuff for the sheer fun of it, but also be inspired along the way, I right away knew I wanted to include this. Yes, it is about the enneagram, so you might think it is a nearly tedious methodology to practice some self-discernment, being coming more self-aware about your deepest motivations (perhaps even drawing from your deepest hurts.)  And you would be right about the self-awareness stuff, but it isn’t tedious at all.  Yes, this could be described as ancient psychology meeting contemplative spirituality. Yes, it sounds a little weird if you aren’t used to it.  But trust me: this makes the Meyers-Briggs tests seem dry and mechanical by comparison.  In the hands of these two very clever writers, this topic comes alive. The Road Back to You is a ton of fun, offers lots of healthy insight and a bunch of stories.  A whole lot of stories. Some of the stories are funny, a few are very touching, and a lot of them will help you know yourself more accurately and live better, with greater centeredness and, I suspect, a greater joy.  It’s not about joy, per say, but it offers a window into knowing yourself in a way that sure is interesting. It’s a curiously popular book, in part because it is a fun read.  Check it out.

By the way, there is a participants workbook for Road Back… that you can get to go along with it; we often don’t promote extra books but in this case, at just $9.00, the study guide is a very wise investment. Highly recommended. 



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A review of a book that brings a truly new insight, making it a must-read: “Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses & Astronauts Tell Us About God” by John Van Sloten ON SALE AT HEARTS & MINDS

Every Job a Parable Banner.jpgEvery Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses & Astronauts Tell Us About God John Van Sloten (NavPress) $14.99

It is fascinating to me that there seems to be always new, fresh ways of saying important things.  Granted, I sometimes grow a little cynical about publishers who release yet another lack-luster book full of basic stuff about Christian living or having a happy family or how to read the Bible; do we really need yet one more on our already crowded shelves that seem to offer little that is new?

But then, just when we’re pretty sure there isn’t much more to say in a particular field, new titles come out that become must-reads for anyone wanting to think deeply and enter a national conversation.  Just take another look at our BookNotes newsletter from a week or so ago that not only offered bunches of links to bunches of books about the faith and the arts, but named three recent titles that are extraordinary and important, fresh and new and good.

Or recall our most recent post, again offering a handful of links to many previous books (on race, racism, multi-cultural ministry and such) which then suggested that the newly released The Myth of Equality is an instant classic that you really ought to get.

Every Job-a-Parable-829x1024.pngAnd so it is that I now want to announce that the new book by John Van Sloten, Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses & Astronauts Tell Us About God is a must-have, gotta-read, truly remarkable new book in a field that has become nearly glutted in the last year or to; it brings something new to the table, as they say, and captured my attention from the very title and cover.  Just when I thought we might not need any new books on this topic for a while, this is an exceptional contribution, surprising for how good and fresh it is.

 I’m not complaining about the many books that have appeared in the last few years as part of the faith and work conversation – that we can even speak of a national conversation and a movement is in itself one of the most remarkable and notable things on the religious landscape in North America these days.  (By the way, I’m speaking at an annual conference on these very things in Denver this fall.) The many recent books that have come out have emerged interested generated by those who in the last decade have taken up the project of teaching about the integration of faith and vocation, calling and career, worship and work.  From seminal late 20th century activities (including the work of the Laity Lodge in Texas, who now promotes The High Calling blogging community, the publication of a series of books in the 1980s by Augsburg-Fortress inspired largely by Bethlehem Steel Executive William Diehl who wrote Thank God It’s Monday, and the Dutch neo-Calvinists in Canada whose uniquely Christian, principled, labor union (CLAC) published periodicals and organized conferences and released books about serving God in the work world. Os Guinness’s brilliant, game-changing book The Call was a major work recovering the dynamic of the Protestant understanding of calling and books like Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation by Paul Marshall (who had written for CLAC often) spelled out a distinctively Christian view of work, rest, and how discipleship might be lived out in the spheres and careers of education, art, politics, business, science and more.  Marketplace ministries, as some have called at least one aspect of this movement, were promoted through organizations like IVCF and the CCO (and their Jubilee conference, founded in the late 1970s with this topic as an integral part of its Kingdom vision of reaching college students with the cultural implications of the gospel) and, always, at Regent College in British Columbia. In the late 1980s the good publisher of this new book, NavPress, had a great book (now out of print) simply called Your Work Matters to God, and we featured it often.  We here at Hearts & Minds put together a little gathering at our own church decades ago called FaithWorks. 

And now we’ve got vocation-oriented think tanks and regional work-world ministries, and video series for church use (such as the brilliant, serious, REFRAME DVD series from Regent College) and all kinds of good stuff that was unimaginable a few decades ago.

Since we’ve often offered lists of books about vocation and calling and about faith and work (see a massive list HERE or a little essay about two jobs I had 40 years ago (complete with a James Taylor video clip and a review of Keller’s Every Good Endeavor) HERE or, more recently, a useful list HERE) we don’t have to list a lot more here. I put together some “industry specific” book lists for Redeemer Presbyterian’s Center for Faith and Work which you can see, HERE.  Just know that there are plenty of resources, and they keep coming.  In just the last year or two, we’ve recommended many, including these:

    • (Re)Integrate Your Vocation with God’s Mission Bob Robinson (Good Place Publishers) $12.00 Of the many books on this topic, this is the only one that really offers a big picture and a specific conversation for relating faith and work, designed as a small group resource complete with a leaders guide included. Nothing like it in print, and, gratefully, it is really well done. Yes!

    • How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work Hugh Whelchel (Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics) $13.95  This book is not as well known as it ought to be but spells out a faithfully Biblical vision as clearly as any book we know. Concise, solid, and very helpful.

    • The Gospel Goes to Work: God’s Big Canvas of Calling and Renewal Dr. Stephen Graves (KJK Inc. Publishing) $10.00   For the price, this brief and very handsome book is a treasure.  Really insightful, practical, upbeat and nicely designed.

    • Henry’s Glory: A Story for Discovering Lasting Significance in Your Daily Work John Elton Pletcher (Resource Publications) $19.00  Written like a novel, a parable or sorts, helping church folks realize that common work matters.

    • Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work Tom Nelson (Crossway) $16.99 One of our most recommended titles, this tells the story of what happens to a local church when a pastor commits to equipping folks for all-of-life-redeemed faith and work-world mission. 

    • Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture Paul R. Stevens (Eerdmans) $16.00 Although Dr. Stevens (of Regent College in Vancouver, BC) has written much about faith, work, calling and such, this small book offers bunches of Bible explorations. Just wonderful.

    • Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor Ben Witherington, Jr. (Eerdmans) $19.00 It is so good to have one of our best New Testament scholars weighing in on a Christian philosophy of work.  Very nicely done.

    • Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work  Timothy Keller & Katherine Leary Aldsdorf  (Riverhead) $17.00 One of the very best books in the field. Important for anyone serious about this topic.

    • A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World  Katelyn Beaty (Howard Books) $22.99  The only really good book on a Christian perspective vocation, calling, and work written about the role of women in the work-world. Highly recommended for men and women.

    • Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good Amy Sherman (IVP) $18.00 Oh my, this is perhaps the thorough study, offering various levels or models and ways to relate faith and work, being good stewards of our vocations for God’s sake. A truly significant volume.

    • Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure Nancy Nordenson  (Kalos Press) $14.95 We love this because it is so eloquent, so lovely and wise, a deeply spiritual and literate rumination… 

    • Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steve Garber (IVP) $ Eloquent, mature, thoughtful, beautiful, Garber tells stories of those who endure in God’s call upon their lives even when things are broken and hard, because of their deep awareness of God’s covenantal relationship with the creation and Christ’s grace, giving their lives deeper meaning and purpose, living in the world as it really is. Few books have  so richly captured the imaginations of so many in recent years, as Garber weaves together insights from Wendell Berry and Bono and other thoughtful writers and theologians, framing his storytelling of real folks he know well.


The Day M came to Church.jpgAnd so it was that when I heard that John Van Sloten was doing a book on work, I was eager to read him — he’s a truly great writer, colorful and dynamic, even, as you can see from his fabulous book about pop culture called The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everyday God in Everything (published by Square Inch Press; $14.99.) I really trust his perspective, too.  But I was also a little nonplussed, if truth be told.  “Do we really need another book on faith and vocation, serving God in the work-world,” I asked him.  After the earliest voices being mostly ignored for a few decades, this topic has finally taken off and the many good books that are coming out are going to start sounding the same.  Is there really anything new that must be said?

John replied that he thought he had a unique viewpoint, something fresh, an angle that hasn’t been deeply explored lately.

And, wow, does John deliver in this exact way, providing a new way into the conversation, solid, Biblical teaching, and lots of interesting inspiration for anyone wanting to find God in the day to day and serve Christ in ordinary jobs.  Ordinary jobs?  Maybe I said that wrong — perhaps, a la C.S. Lewis’s line about mortals, there are no ordinary jobs.  In Van Sloten’s well-crafted chapters, every job sounds like a symphony, every work place holy ground. 

Every Job a Parable - straight.jpgSo, here is how he brings new insight and consequently new energy for thinking and talking about Christian calling in our working lives. The subtitle isn’t just rhetoric or a cleverly-worded stand- in for “another “Christian perspective work.”  No, he really, truly, does talk about the textures and tasks of these different jobs. He’s interviewed all kinds of folks who work at all kinds of jobs.  It isn’t generic. It is specific, and the jobs explored are so vividly shown that no matter what your own job is, you will be blessed by reading about these other callings and careers.  I’m not kidding – on the face of it, hearing how brothers and sisters in Christ find ways to see their day to day as holy callings and frame their sometimes mundane jobs by their faith is a blast.  You will love hearing about a judge and a landscaper and a florist and an asphalt company executive and a custom automotive restorer.  Who knew that being a language translator or nephrologist or middle manager could be so interesting!


If that was all this wonderfully written book did, that would be enough.  Like an overtly Christian version of the also inspiring Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (created by NPRs StoryCorps, edited by Dave Isay and now out in paperback published by Penguin; $16.00) it is just a blast hearing about all these remarkable moments in the day to day of our friends and neighbors.  Not too many of us, I suppose, have had earnest conversations about the joys and struggles of being a scientific researcher or farmer or photographer or forensic psychologist, so when we listen in to Van Sloten’s stories, we are getting a window into amazing part of our social fabric, God’s good world teeming (as Genesis puts it.)  It’s just a delight, and I think inspiring, and reading about police officers or emergency room physicians or labor negotiators will make you a better citizen and neighbor and church friend when you have a clue about what others do day by day. It’s fun to read and it’s truly informative. I hardly know any other Christian book that so nicely introduces us to our friends and neighbors and what they do.

And in all of this, to use a splendid phrase he introduces in the first chapter, Van Sloten wants to spark a  “renewed vocational imagination.”  

However, Van Sloten’s project is more than to just affirm varying careers as holy callings, more than just offering a word of encouragement or window of insight into Christian living in the work-a-day world.

To catch his deepest intent, you have to take literally his title, that jobs can be parables. And you must notice a phrase in the colorful subtitle; he is exploring what these various careers “tell us about God.”  


Like any good parable – and wasn’t Jesus a master teacher using parables as the core to his Kingdom instruction – we must hold it up to the light, ponder its multi-faceted nature, its luminosity, its pliability.  Every Job a Parable is divided into four main parts, and one part (comprised of two chapters) is called “What Is a Parable, and How is Work a Parable?”  In this part we are taught how to “notice God’s unnoticed presence” – and he does this by telling us a great story about a sanitation worker.  Another really interesting chapter in this part is called “The Iconic Nature of Vocational Parables: How Reversing Your Perspective Changes Your Vocational Point of View.”  This is rich, curious stuff, inviting us embrace his experiment – can we find God at work? Can we learn something about God at work? Can our work become parabolic?  Can they be, literally, iconic?


Allow me this one sidebar comment: I think John makes it clear what the best books on this topic make clear — that we don’t have to add on some extra spiritual layer of God-talk on top of our ordinary day jobs.  We don’t have to sanctify them by “bringing” God into the “secular” work world.  We don’t have to do evangelism on the job, we don’t have to somehow spiritualize them with religiosity.  Being made in God’s image and tasked with culture-making, it is simply what we do, coram deo, as humans.  We make or manage stuff; we reflect God’s own care for the world as God’s partners, vice-regents, stewards.  We work because we are blessed to do so (the command to gently “take dominion” and to “tend and keep the garden” was given to our primordial parents before the curse of the fall, of course, making it what Al Wolter’s calls “the foundational command.”) Work may be hard, even awful, in a fallen world but it is still in principle a fundamental good, a wondrous human trait in a God-ordered if distorted world.  So a Christian view of work always starts with the inherent dignity and meaning of labor.

Of course in a world that has (mis)understood and framed work as something other – an idolatrous way to make meaning, find identity, or get rich, or something bad (“a necessary evil” which we try to avoid, and about which we say derisively, TGIF) – we really do have to proclaim a new vision.  Books like Every Good Endeavor and Work Matters and Kingdom Callings help us offer a proper framework.  Which is to say, we all need to be able to articulate a Christian perspective to counter the world’s unhelpful and erroneous narratives about the meaning of work. To be motivated by a truly Christian perspective about work and to be able to explain that to our family and colleagues and neighbors really will give us a huge opportunity to bear witness to God’s work in our lives.  But, again, to counter a misguided narrative with a more wholesome, winsome, healthy view of work as inherent to the image dei and our office as stewards of God’s good work, is not to say work is barren and secular and we have to somehow bring God into it, or justify our work because it is a spiritual thing or a mission field.  To paraphrase what Hans Rookmaaker said about art, “Work needs no justification.” 

Van Sloten gets all this and he explains it wonderfully drawing on the very best theologians and writers such as Richard Mouw, Cornelius Plantinga, Jurgen Moltmann, Norman Wirzba, Miroslav Volf, Nicholas Wolterstorff.  As a Christian Reformed Church pastor he draws on Calvin and Luther and Kuyper and Bavinck.  As a contemporary thinker, he knows sociologists like Fredric Jameson and Barbara Ehrenreich and Alain de Botton as well as popular authors like Luci Shaw, Rob Bell, Scot McKnight, Kathleen Norris, and Tom Wright. His love for pop culture sneaks in, such as when he tells about the cult-classic, oddly moving documentary about a one-hit rock wonder, Searching for Sugar Man. I love a book that is well-researched and cites interesting sources, and this book is fabulously done in this regard, quoting not just Reformed theologians and contemporary thinkers about the work-world, but exceptionally interesting writers like Marilyn Robinson and John Donne and scientists and reporters and artists and monks and mystics. But, more importantly, these wisely incorporated quotes and citations are added on to his own utterly excellent perspective on work, culture, society, understood and related to God’s gospel story of creation, fall, and redemption.  Van Sloten is a good thinker and a good writer.



Van Sloten is fully reliable (did I mention he quotes Wisdom and Wonder by Kuyper, a book I even have an endorsing blurb on?) and yet he writes provocative stuff grounded in this reformational worldview, stuff that I am still pondering like this, which comes early on in the book:

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the idea of working for the common good  — for the good of your neighbor, society, classmate, environment, and world.  A lot of people think this is the ultimate objective when it comes to work.

While working for the common good is an important part of a balanced vocational worldview, it is not all that work was meant for. In fact, it can get in the way and become an impediment to work’s chief purpose: a real-time knowing and experience of God. When this happens our jobs can become nothing more than a works-based means of vocational salvation. Work becomes something that is based on what we do for God, as opposed to who we are before God.

I don’t think he intends to make work into some super-spiritual experience, or a pretense for something else, as if doing the work doesn’t matter; not at all. And he insists that our work and faith should impact our world well. In fact, he emphasizes that, in God’s common grace, doing the work indeed matters.  But he wants to prevent us from overstating some world changing result, something extrinsic that makes work matter.  Most of us, in fairly ordinary jobs, just don’t have that sense of “making a difference.”  And, again, this is what makes this book shine — Van Sloten tells the stories of such non-dramatic, ordinary jobs, such as a flyer delivery person, a Walmart greeter, an electrician, hairstylist, food server, a residential landlord, and so many more.  


EveryJobAParable_ParableJob meme.jpgSo, having said that, we can now safely, without misunderstanding, proceed to Van Sloten’s main point, that work is a parable that teaches us and the watching world something about God. As I’ve suggested, in the hands of a lesser thinker or more simplistic writer, this would come across as if work itself doesn’t really mater, that we live in some dualistic world made up of the ordinary, material stuff and then some super-spiritual added on aspect, and that we have to somehow balance body and soul, sacred and secular, work and spirituality, with the spiritual encounter bit being above and perferred to the mundane down to Earthier stuff. To be clear: he does not say that because he does not believe that.  Work matters, we serve God in ordinary ways, we find our meaning as humans doing real-world, EveryJobAParable_Present MEME.jpgdown-to-Earth stuff, imaging God in this good if fallen world.  But, yet, by mirroring God and partnering with God, we can indeed experience God in the midst of all this: it is not merely that we work and honor God in this task of being human.  We honor God and serve the common good and learn more about God by observing the very structures of reality and the ways different jobs work.  Just like the Bible says we can learn something about God from the stars or from other aspects of creation (Job suggests we talk to the fish and Isaiah says farmers are instructed by God how to learn about seeds!) Van Sloten says we can learn about God by opening our eyes and seeing what’s going on in our workplaces. Work is an icon, work is a parable, work is a school for spiritual formation, work is the venue for knowing God.

And all I can say is wow.  Every Job a Parable takes what most of the best books on work all suggest and develops it well, vividly and practically, making this a book as much about spirituality as a book about calling, a book about faith formation as much as a book about careers, and a book that unites love of God and love of neighbor in ways that no other book about vocation/work has so successfully attempted. It is a book that anyone involved in this faith-in-the-work-world movement or leading this faith/work conversation simply must get.




I want to bring this celebration of Every Job a Parable to a close by saying one of the most important things about it, other than it is rooted in a solid and wholistic worldview that affirms the dignity or work and that it offers a unique spirituality of work, helping us not only think faithfully about our callings in the work-world but how we can come to know God better within our job sites.

And it is this: that Van Sloten created this book out of a major project in his church (New Hope Hillside Church in Calgary, Alberta) where he preached sermons inspired by various careers and jobs that he set out to learn about.

Allow me to say that again: he preached a whole series of sermons inspired by various careers and jobs.

There is a page in the back of this book that is itself worth twice the price of the book, and that is the list of website addresses to the videos of Van Sloten’s sermons inspired by these various jobs. You can find them at youtube, too, so do check him out and see what inspired the book.


And, wow – what careers and jobs he explores.  And what creative sermons they are.  There you can watch sermons about a police officer, a journalist, a city mayor, an optometrist, and audiologist, a human resource manager, a development worker, a university professor, a software engineer, a group of seven artists, a midwife, a custom car restorer, a radiation physicist, a professional skier and base jumper, an Olympic breaststroker, and a teacher.

Every Job a Parable - straight.jpg

There is on page 210 and 211 a nifty index of vocations mentioned, chapter by chapter throughout the book.  And, I might add, these are not passing references to a craftsperson or neuroscientist or investment banker, but really interesting explorations of the parabolic or iconic nature of these jobs, how they point to some aspect of God or Christ’s redemption.  You will have to read the book for yourself to see if Every Job a Parable rings true and is helpful in doing this or if he’s stretching to reach these conclusions.  Is he over-reaching to make these jobs teachable moments?   Maybe not all of the stories of work and workers he explores are as compelling as some, but I think he’s really, really on to something here.  There is no other book like it.


Just to entice you just a bit more, some of the chapters explore what we can learn not from insightful and generous saints in the marketplace, but from, well, a crooked lawyer, an immoral federal politician, and a befuddled accountant.  He interviews and develops insights from an atheist writer, too. (Not only is he serious about the broken nature of work and the messes of this life, but also he really does believe that God shows up “everywhere in everything.”


Further, happily, there are those whose callings take them to vocations that aren’t traditional paid employment – he tells of a father, a mother, and a man with Down’s syndrome.  There is one nice story about the vocation of a child.   

Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses & Astronauts Tell Us About God is a book that has been waiting to be written, and I am grateful that John did his homework, interviewing software engineers and optometrists and, yes, a professional skier and doing those sermons.  I’m glad that the book added other stories of other workers and callings.  He was well-equipped to do this because of his being so well informed by his own tradition in the Dutch Reformed community, drawing on Kuyper and his rich theology of “common grace.”  That is, his first book – The Day Metallica Came to Church – set the stage for this book.  If he could plant a church inspired by this assumption that God shows up everywhere and that we need eyes to see grace and goodness (and sin and forgiveness) in every square inch of God’s world, then surely he could do that in varying fields, spheres, careers, and jobs. 


Come to think of it Every Job a Parable is a natural follow up to The Day Metallica Came to Church.  Compare the subtitles of the two – the Metallica one has as the subtitle “Finding the Everywhere God in Everything” so both are about finding God’s grace everywhere, even in the culture, serving Christ in the quotidian, being empowered by the Spirit to live well in the world and encounter God in doing so. Van Sloten is a master writer and great preacher with this gift for helping us connect the dots between God, God’s world, our lives in society, and the ragged glories of our culture.  Talk about deepening formation by applied theology and nurturing everyday spirituality or the “liturgies of the ordinary.”

As it says on the back cover, ” All work matters to God because all work reflects some aspect of the character of God. God created the world so that it runs best when it mirrors him. we find the most fulfillment when we recognize God behind our labor.”


Listen to John as he explains some of his own feelings about visiting people at their job sites, about helping them connect the dots between their faith, their spirituality, and their work in the world.  How many books do you know about work world stuff that talks about conversations that are numinous?

When I name that connection, something holy happens. It’s as though God is naming his presence at person’s work.

At this point, in the vocational-exegesis conversation, there is always a pause. I love seeing the look in people’s eyes when they realize that God really is moving through the work they do. At first they’re surprised, and then there is this beautiful sense of goodness and gratitude that washes over them. It’s as though they are becoming more of their vocational selves right before my eyes. In that moment I experience God’s delight.

It is such an honor to be a part of that process. I get to be God’s listening and naming voice. And all of those workers get a glimpse of what God thinks about them and what they do. God cares deeply about them, made them to bear his image in a unique way, and wants them to know him and experience his love, strength, power, and wisdom in all things – including their work.

Some of the most numinous experiences I’ve had have happened on-site, a people’s job: naming God’s presence in their studio, office boardroom, farm field, or retail store outlet. When I step into their turf, it feels incarnational. I feel like I’m imaging the God who comes to us. When I’ve in these places, conversations feel intimate and close, and God’s word through a person’s job seems clearer, as though God were within earshot.

I suppose I don’t have to say this, but this would make a lovely gift to give to your pastor if she or he don’t speak of these things.  And if they do, from time to time, then this will encourage them, offering them a resource to do more effectively and winsomely.  I simply can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this book and I am sure that most would benefit from it immensely. Rejoice with us in the release of Every Job a Parable.  Help us spread the word about it, and have it become better known.

What this little video of John explaining why he wrote the book.  Love the pictures of the different job-sites, don’t you? Kudos to Van Sloten, NavPress, and all who labored on this great new book. 



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order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
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if you have questions or need more information
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                                 Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313

“The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege” by Ken Wytsma (and other books about racism) ON SALE

The Myth of Equality.jpgThe Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege Ken Wytsma (IVP)  regularly $18.00 ON SALE NOW  20% off  our sale price $14.40

I would guess that you have followed with a heavy heart the reports about the verdict on the trial of the police officer that shot Philando Castile. 

I’ve been frustrated by some of the ink spilled.

Some have written, not unreasonably, about how the system worked, saying we should trust the jury of peers, insisting we shouldn’t second guess our fellow citizens who listened, debated, and did their best to be fair and just with the evidence as they saw it. Others denounced the juror’s decision presuming that the jury was rigged, that the racial bias of even a few of the jurors rendered their judgments unreliable. (Add to that the evaluation of the outcome of the trial the critique — proper in my estimation — of how certain judges in these cases instruct the juries and how substantial, even legal, a priori support for police officers makes it difficult for juries to rigorously pursue justice the way they should in these kinds of cases.)

It seems to me that both “sides” make some reasonable observations and I am sad that there is increasing polarization in our discourse about race and criminal justice.

Anyway, you and I know that these are hard times, that we continue to talk — sometimes shouting, even — about race and racism, about racial profiling and mass incarceration, about race and class and gender, and often our discussions are not very well informed.  Of course we are free in this country to have and share our personal opinions but part of our task, it seems to me, is to learn how to listen well, to be eager to learn something beyond our own opinions. We should listen widely, even as we tune out the ugly extremists, the idolatrous ideologies — three cheers for the recent public denunciation of the alt-right by the Southern Baptist Conference — and yet remain eager to consider those responsible voices with whom we disagree, staying at the table of conversation even when dialogue is hard. 


For Christians, however, about whom the apostle Paul says “we are not our own”, we are called to more than spouting our opinions. We must be well-informed, repentant of our own ungodly attitudes, intentionally cooperating with the on-going sanctification that God’s Spirit is working within us, being increasingly shaped by what is true, by the insights of Scripture, and by an unceasing determination to work wisely for public righteousness and social justice.  That is, Christians aren’t called so much to speak their own mind and share their individual opinions in the public square, but to bear witness to, even if tentatively, God’s perspective, in tune with Christ’s goodness and beauty and grace. Which means we have to always be reminded of God’s view, especially on matters where our common discourse is so contentious.  As we often say here at BookNotes, we have to “think Christianly.”


(Only a little off the track, here, but allow me this little aside: one of the books we’ve promoted the most this year is the lovely little set of reflections nicely called The Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren (IVP; $16.00) because, in part, it shows how worship can spill over into ordinary life; we practice God’s presence and life in Christ-like power day by day because we’ve practiced it in ritual form in Sunday worship.  After passing the peace, Sunday by Sunday, we learn to be peacemakers in the world.  By hearing the liturgy of the ordinary.jpglitanies and prayers around communion, we learn to welcome all to God’s table. My confessing our sins week by week we get in the habit of being those who are able to lament and own up to sin in and around us.  By listening well to a sermon, you deepen your habit of being a life-long learner. You get the point: this wonderful book that reads like a memoir shows us how to translate worship theory and practice into ordinary living. At its best, good worship reminds us of God’s presence, announces Christ’s victory, and imagines the Kingdom coming, equipping us to serve well in the world. However – and here’s why I mention it – even in good churches with good rituals and healthy worship habits and solid preaching, I’m afraid we still don’t get around to hearing much about this stuff on most Sundays.  We need all the help we can learning about and being responsible within our racially troubled times. Being formed in worship well we should want to learn more, to be better servants of Christ in the world, we should desire to be better at loving our neighbors.  If you are worshiping well, and wanting to serve God with wisdom and vigor, you should want to buy some books and think this stuff through. Amen?)


As I’ve said often here at BookNotes, Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (Waterbrook; $19.99) is a book that points us towards what it looks like in many different sides of life where sin’s alienation and brokenness could yield to gospel-based reconciliation.  There is a new creation coming and God’s beloved community is to be an example of and ambassadors for this creation-restoring shalom. There are other good handbooks that remind us of what God’s redemptive shalom might accomplish in the already-but-not-yet of this world, but I think Lisa’s voice as an evangelical, black woman brings extra insight about all manner of things and would be very, very helpful to read with your small group or reading group.  Or alone, if you must. I’m glad to mention this book often, and look forward to hearing of folks using it.


You can find other good reads on lists that I’ve compiled about racial injustice and reconciliation HERE (which has some fairly recent titles) HERE or HERE (from the fall of 2015 where I first discussed Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me) or HERE, a big list, still great, from 2009. HERE I wrote about Jim Wallis’s important book, now in paperback, America’s Original Sin and even though the special offer mentioned is no longer in effect, the review is worth reading, and we stuff mentioned here in this review now at 20% off.

From the day we’ve opened we’ve stocked these kinds of resources and it would be our

the color of law.jpgpleasure to serve you further in finding just the right couple of books on this topic. And good stuff keeps coming.  Just a few weeks ago we got in a new book that further explores in scholarly detail how legal biases and institutional forces and even legal codes created segregation. It’s called  The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (W.W. Norton; $27.95.)  The eminent scholar William Julius Wilson says that “Rothstein has presented what I consider to be the
most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local
governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation.”


just mercy.jpgOne of the most important and powerful books I’ve ever read, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, was reviewed HERE. We described it again when we awarded it one of our Hearts & Minds Best Books of the Year awards. It’s now out in paperback, by the way — now just $16.00. Over and over this valiant public servant fights cases of those wrongly incarcerated and wrongly convicted, often due to overtly racist (even illegal) accusations. It is a eye-opening story, even for those who follow the injustices about criminal justice.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Pres; $19.95) is certainly one of the most discussed books of our time, and it is highly recommended. It shows that in any state in this nation it is not uncommon for black people to get arrested for simple drug charges where white people committing the exact same crime in the exact same situation are not prosecuted and, worse, that black people are given much harsher penalties and sentences than whites who committed the exact same crime. There is simply no excuse not to know this, now.

For an alternative study, see Fordham University’s law prof John Pfaff’s Locked in: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration–And How to Achieve Real Reform (Basic Books; $27.99) which offers a critique of her analysis. And for a serious theological study, see Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration by Amy Levad (Fortress Press; $39.00.)
For those that don’t want this kind of deep dive into that kind of heavy social science research and policy reform, though, Bryan Stevenson’s wonderfully written memoir is a great glimpse into the world of judicial injustice and the ministry of poverty law, legal aid, and institutional racism within the criminal justice system, told vividly.

If you haven’t heard Bryan Stevenson speak, check out his TED talk, or this thrilling talk at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York a year ago.  And kudos to our neighbors over at Messiah College who had him as their commencement speaker a few weeks ago.  


I am glad that some mostly white, typically conservative denominations are struggling with this.  Just for instance, some conservative Calvinist leaders in the PCA last year released Heal Us, Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church edited by Doug Serven (Storied Communication; $18.99) and just recently a book came out called Removing the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives (edited by Jarvis Williams and Kevin Jones, released by their denominational publisher, Broadman-Holman; $24.99.) The head of our own PC(USA) denomination recently asked Presbyterians to read Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Elephant Room Press; $19.99), a very interesting and educational memoir by Debby Irving.   Of course, we have them if you need them.


I often recommend that those who aren’t familiar with this topic start with something approachable and Bible-based that have basic calls to racial reconciliation. It is our suggestion that you have a few of these around your fellowship or church as you never know when a serendipitous conversation might open a door to share something to help.  Here are a few we most often suggest.

One: Unity in a Divided World Deidra Riggs (Baker Books) $14.99 Lovely, inspiring, honest but not overly hard hitting.  About unity as a Biblical and spirital theme; not just racial unity, either.  Nicely done by a very good African American writer — really useful and motivational for anyone.

Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity by Randy Woodley (IVP) $18.00 My go to book about God’s desire for multi-cultural reconciliation.  Exceptionally impressive.

Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World by Leroy Barber (IVP) $16.00  You should read anything Leroy Barber writes. He’s a strong and vocal preacher for justice, but this book is really inviting, showing for earnest care for all, working for shalom.  Love it.

Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. (IVP) $17.00  This is the first in a series of books about various sorts of reconcilation, commisioned by a center at Duke Divinity School. Wow, what a vision!

Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America Michael Emerson & Christian Smith (Oxford University Press) $19.99  Social science research backing up Dr. King’s famous claim that 11:00 Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. This focuses on evangelicals, particularly, but the data is vital, and the insights are valuable for all. One of the must-read books of our time.

Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism Drew Hart (Herald Press) $16.99 Dr. Hart tells of his work with young adults in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; he’s an old pal and a young leader I greatly admire. His PhD is from the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia and he now teaches at Messiah College.  This is a powerful, vivid, testimony.

Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities Into Unity, Wholeness and Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil (IVP) $16.00  Brenda is a hero of ours, a lively preacher and effective evangelist who always brings together (as one of her earlier books put it) “soul change and social change.”  This is a remarkably insightful book, brief, accessible, but full of her lifetime of study and activism.


Today I want to tell you about one of the most important books I’ve come across in this area, a book that I’ve highlighted already, but feel as if I should tell you about it again. It is not scholarly or difficult and while we are such fans of the one’s listed above, this one should be bumped up to the top of your stack. You should consider it sooner rather than later. 

The Myth of Equality.jpgThe Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma (IVP; $18.00) is a book that you simply must read. It is meat enough to satisfy nearly anyone who wants to study up on this, and it is accessible for those who are eager, but don’t have all summer to wade through a major tome.  Eugene Cho says it is “an important and timely book that helps us dig deeper on the journey of justice and reconciliation.” Yes, yes, that it is.

And, again, it is well done, sharp, honest.

It is a book about which Nicholas Wolterstorff says:

The Myth of Equality is written so skillfully that it’s easy to miss how much it accomplishes. The first part brings to light, with unflinching honesty, how deeply racism and white privilege are embedded within the founding documents and practices of the United States. The second part masterfully shows that this inequality violates the call of the gospel to justice and unity. And the third part offers some wise suggestions to those of us who are white Christians about how we can ‘lay down’ our white privilege. I have no doubt that some readers will be angered by the claim that they participate in and benefit from structures of racism and white privilege, well supported though that claim is. I predict that there will be more who are convinced and inspired by the patient, passionate, and non-defensive way in which Wytsma makes his case. It’s a book that someone had to write.


I am sure you’ve heard the phrase “white privilege” and I suppose you have some idea what it implies.  But here’s the thing: even many of us who see ourselves as agents of God’s reconciliation, who are interested in the experiences of others – we celebrate diversity and seek out friends from other ethnic backgrounds and long for a multi-ethnic church and get fired up when we read about the injustices described in Just Mercy — we still don’t quite have a solid handle on how to talk about white privilege.  

This is one of the more interesting blurbs I’ve read on the book – and nearly anyone I admire in this field has weighed in, affirming Wytsma’s good efforts – but please read what Scot McKnight says:

White progressives, evangelical and not, seem to enjoy feeling bad about racial injustice and wagging self-righteous fingers at others, but they often exacerbate the injustices of racism by hardening the lines of defense. Far too often the only solutions proposed are more laws, tightening existing laws, and social engineering through public education. What we need are not resolutions but solutions ? solutions emerging from real people in real settings, with leaders who have discovered the long, painful path that leads from white privilege and white invisibility to social integration, racial reconciliation, and churches abounding in fellowship across racial lines and celebrating the glories of ethnicities. Ken Wytsma is the kind of leader who offers real solutions toward social integration and racial reconciliation, and he comes from that kind of community and church. The Myth of Equality is a genuine contribution for those of us looking for ways forward.

I certainly agree with McKnight’s nice affirmation of Wytsma’s good hope for solutions.  But I suspect that some will denounce him for “hardening the lines of defense” for making things worse by talking about white privilege so overtly.

Why do so many folks get upset when we introduce this notion into our conversations?  Why do many well-meaning and otherwise socially astute white evangelicals have a huge blind spot here?  Is this a fruitful line of discourse to pursue or does it just accentuate our differences, perhaps even fueling what some call “reverse racism.”  (And is that even a thing, and if not, why not?)  Is Jim Wallis right to call racism “America’s original sin” in the book by that name? 

I cannot say in a short review the many reasons you should have a copy of The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege and the many good things that Wytsma brings to us in this clear, relatively brief book. (It is a trim size and, excluding the many footnotes, is under 200 pages.)


Allow me to suggest four things about it I really appreciate.


Firstly, it provides great Bible teaching about justice and injustice, racial diversity and Christ-centered reconciliation. The book is written in three parts and the second part – four solid chapters under the heading “Equality and the Kingdom of God” — does fabulous, big picture Kingdom teaching, naming some fairly-well known Scriptures about justice but also some fresh evaluations of why we too often miss the import of these texts.  Yes, he critiques Western individualism and a pie-in-the-sky view of heaven (and the subsequent “Salvation Industrial Complex”) and goes further in helping us realize a deeper, richer account of the Biblical story, the cross, the Kingdom, and more. 

Wytsma is really good on this; in fact, in the introduction he summarizes:

The central thesis of this book is that a misunderstanding of the gospel leads to a false dichotomy: we prioritize the spiritual and personal aspects of faith and devalue or nullify the material and communal dimensions that bind us to God’s creation and to our brothers and sisters made in the image of God. This twisting of faith has resulted in historic injustices that have terrorized and handicapped generations of minorities.  

I really appreciate this wholistic, truly Biblical approach. I loved his summary of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and how he puts that in conversation with Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright making for a wonderful and helpful chapter. This is the sort of telling of the gospel we all need under our belts and although Wytsma has a fuller book on this (Pursuing Justice) this middle section of The Myth of Equality gives us a very useful theological framework for talking about justice and, yes, white privilege as it has developed in our culture.


forgive us.jpgSecondly, the value of this book is exceptional in how it highlights the history of white privilege.  I know I have raved about and nearly begged our BookNotes readers to purchase and study and pray about and discuss Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith co-authored by Elise Mae Cannon, Soong-Chan Rah, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Troy Jackson (Zondervan; $22.99) about the vile history of injustices committed in the name of Jesus upon native peoples, immigrants, blacks, women, LGTBQ folks, the land itself…. I know this is heavy and offers the weight of hard history, so I appreciate that some simply don’t have the capacity to study all that. Even though I have a pretty breathy endorsement blurb on the inside. But it’s a lot, I know.

Enter Mr. Ken Wytsma.

The Myth of Equality.jpgIn a few short chapters of Myth of Equality one gets a bit about the history of how white people in the new world crafted worldviewish social imaginaries and tendencies and attitudes that placed themselves over and above others. He explains how in our society “we are deeply shaped by racial categories, yet we who are white remain mostly blind to how the undercurrent of racialized thinking affects our life as a nation and our own actions.”

He has a few great pages about how race was construed in late middle ages Europe and he ponders how black protagonists in Shakespeare (think, Othello) did or didn’t capture assumptions about skin color in that time and place. Even if it weren’t so painfully urgent, his overview of “color in the Western tradition” is utterly fascinating.  When did racism as we know it now begin?  How did it become such a feature of our Western imagination?  I suspect there is more to the story than he tells, but it’s more than enough to help us realize how things like this are socially constructed and capture our imaginations over time.

You may have heard of the utterly corrupt “Doctrine of Discovery” and you’ve heard a bit, I hope, about the injustices woven into biased immigration policies in the 1800s. (I learned about the biases against Asians in the history of immigration law when we became engrossed in advocacy for a large group of asylum-seeking Chinese from the Golden Venture ship who were imprisoned in our local jail for nearly a decade — see Patrick Radden Keefe’s epic book The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream and one of my old columns about it, HERE.)  Mr. Wytsma not only exposes these harmful policies that had huge implications for our nation’s handling of racial diversity and the so-called “melting pot” but also shows a bit about how bad attitudes and biases encoded into laws and policies a century or more ago still ripple down into our own current malaise.   

Naturally, he also does this historical study regarding slavery and the legacy of reconstruction and how the Jim Crow segregation stuff shaped generations of African-Americans.  He cites Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning (if mammoth – it’s still on my own waiting list) The Warmth of Other Suns to explore the social realities of the great migration north in the 20th century.  How urban blacks are perceived to this day is complicated and I think a more thorough study would have to look at the role of pop culture and hip-hop and the rise of thug fashion and gang culture to understand how our mental pictures have been developed.  Read, at least, Daniel White Hodge’s The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology for a positive take on the theologies within that cultural movement.)

Wytsma quotes the heartbreaking results of the Clark “doll tests” and explains some of the other tragic attitudes about blackness that swell around our culture.  You may have read some of this in Christina Cleveland’s important Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, a book you’ll want to have as a follow-up to some of this almost unbelievable bias that is commonly documented.) How Wytsma gets at this historical stuff in the relative brevity of this first third of The Myth of Equality is its great strength – with such an astute study from such a thoughtful, clear-speaking teacher.  We all need to know this historical perspective and I suspect that even those who have read more massive studies of the nature of white privilege will learn something new about the concept and about the unfortunate history of these realities in our land. I can say with confidence that the vital content presented here is offered with the right balance of research and clarity that you can hardly find anywhere else. 

Besides the early Western formation of racial biases, the unsavory history of European colonization, important immigration policies, the impact of the slave trade, stolen labor, injustice during the reconstruction years, the terror of lynchings, the KKK and such, there was the ongoing discrimination in the North shaping the attitudes of those in the middle of the 20th century. This is all really, really important to know; Wytsma explains how that shaped the rise of our US identity and the usually un-examined worldview of the dominant culture. Next, he has a brilliant overview of how our cities developed. There are a few little charts and maps that explain demographic shifts, the value of homes in the North, and a concise and essential explanation of redlining.  Again, less than thrilling facts about home ownership and loans and economic transfer and school policies all end up being key markers in a devastatingly real landscape and key aspects of a truly passionate story. 

By way of this overview, the construction of race and its impact on us all is explored concisely and honestly and I truly commend these first few chapters.  If you don’t know at least this material, I’d say you are not equipped to enter into conversations about race relations these days. If you’ve studied some of this before, consider this a positive and profitable review.


A third and very important reason The Myth… is that it is fully of really helpful stories.  Ken starts the book with a conversation he had with a white wannabe urban church planter that, frankly, demoralized me so much I smacked my book shut; can folks really be so unaware of how they sound when speaking about race and being so tone-deaf to how people of color have experienced discriminatory things (often!) that white people rarely, if ever, have.  Mr. Wytsma is often charming and always levelheaded, but he was stern in his response to a couple of conversation partners.  For instance, he is blunt and concise in insisting that a white person who took offense after being told that they cannot fully understand what some blacks have gone through, awkward or even painful as such a claim may feel, is simply not the same as racism or being harmed by discrimination.  White people must let go of misguided notions such as that being accused of insensitivity are equivalent – in terms of injury or anguish – to the stuff most people of color have gone through. It just isn’t.

And so with anecdotes and stories we are off to the races, as they say, deep into the harder questions of white privilege and implicit bias and institutional racism before we’ve even gotten past the riveting introduction. The stories that are told here are illuminating and always bring the theoretical analysis down to earth; this is real-world stuff, and I suspect that our typical BookNotes readers will recognize these kinds of conversations, as you’ve had them in your own families, Bible studies, campus ministries, and church groups. We’ve had these conversations in our own settings, in the bookstore, on the road. The illustrations and examples and case studies and episodes described in The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots… are helpful and informative, even as they ring true.  When he explains some recent research or tells about other bits of other books – like Brent Staples telling about his strategy of setting white people at ease in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do — you are given tools to think about this, stories to tell, ways to help others understand.  His work on the formation of identity is just really clear, really helpful, and the stories he tells make it come alive. Whether you agree or not with every formulation and interpret every episode as he does or not, this book models a candid discussion about all this, and it presents some basic teachings that we ought to be grappling with.


Fourthly, besides this book being both candidly forthright and instructional about the construal of race and the history of racial injustice and besides it being loaded with stories and interesting examples, it explores powerfully what to do about this situation of white privilege. Once we are more deeply aware of implicit biases and the privileged experiences of some of us in our world layered with unfair advantages and institutional injustices as it is, how to we move forward?

Theologian Scot McKnight says “Ken Wystma is the sort of leader who offers real solutions toward social integration and racial reconciliation.” Part of the solution is to own up to so much of this. To get woke up, as they say these days.

Wytsma in a few devastating paragraphs parses some recent Barna research about evangelical Christians. Despite the good work evangelical publishers have done on reader-friendly, Biblically-based books about reconciliation, white Protestants with historic, orthodox views of the Bible and Christian faith have a lower than typical view of the question of how people of color experience racism in our culture, so much so that one researcher studying these statistics says “More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters.”  This does not bode well, of course, for the church’s ongoing witness in this arena.

Yet, curiously, white evangelicals have a higher than average view that racial reconciliation is important and that the church has something helpful to offer which is fascinating.

Combining these bits of data, Wytsma writes:

Taken together, these findings reveal that those who believe they are most equipped to help with reconciliation actually don’t think it is needed as much as other American’s do.

white awake.jpgWow.

This is one of the big reasons this book is so very needed right now.

We can be glad that IVP asked Ken to write this and that they will continue to release helpful resources for this conversation. (I do not know of any other religious publisher that is so dedicated to releasing books on this topic.) See, for instance, coming this August (2017) a much-anticipated book White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means To Be White by Daniel Hill (IVP; $16.00.) You can, of course, PRE-ORDER that now from us. Just tell us at the order form page what you want and we’ll send it to you at the discounted price as soon as it releases.


Helping us to own up to our situation in the spirit of humility and willingness to learn is just the beginning of the practical stuff Wytsma’s book offers.  

Part Three offers three chapters under the title “The Challenge of Privilege” and helps us, again, firstly understand. There is a chapter that offers us a phrase well worth pondering: “When Racism Went Underground.”  The subtitle of this chapter may be disconcerting, and some may even find it unfair – “Implicit Racial Bias and the Stories That Hide Within Us.”

Do stories “hide within us”?  Of course they do – that has been one of the great insights of the movement promoting “worldview” thinking and Christian discernment in cultural analysis.  Many of us have been taught to read “between the lines” to see what presuppositions and values are lurking behind the ads and TV shows and professors textbooks, calibrating our hearts and minds in certain ways; we’ve realized that no news report or scientific claim or artwork is religiously neutral, that all of life is value-laden, conscripting us (as James K.A. Smith puts it in You Are What You Love) to a particular vision of the good life and a certain sort of way of being in the world.  One needn’t be a postmodernist or Freudian to understand how this works: we are people who see through a glass darkly, and our views and attitudes and assumptions and even our overt convictions are always formed in a mix of conscious and subconscious worldviews and social imaginaries, stories and myths and habits of heart that make us who we are.  Do we have assumptions and stereotypes and biases and prejudices (racial and otherwise) swirling just below the surface of our hearts? 

Anyway, Wytsma doesn’t overdo this, but he explores how we ended up here, what it might mean for those of us committed to justice, and how we can – yes —  “find ourselves in the other.”  Oh my, what a great closing chapter that is both inspiring and insightful, but useful in committing to taking next steps of unraveling these assumptions and attitudes of inequality and the social architecture and cultural structures that keep them in place.  He lists four specific things that are common sense and faith-based.  Laying privilege down may be harder than it seems and I wish he’d have written just a bit more about it.

Ken Wytsma.jpg

One of the strengths of this book is that it doesn’t pretend to be the authoritative voice or the only take or the final answer.  It is forthright and informed and it is evident that Wytsma is working hard at this, alongside colleagues and friends of color, so it carries some authority, I’d say.  Yet, he repeatedly reminds us that he’s just speaking from his heart, saying what we thinks is helpful, what he’s learned thus far. 

Early on he sounds this out clearly:

Iken wytsma and temple.jpg am not attempting to be the authoritative voice on race in America, and I can only really speak from a perspective of privilege and my experience. I am simply addressing a topic to which Scripture speaks clearly, a reality that in many ways has helped to shape my story. Indeed it has played a significant role in shaping the stories of all Americans, whether we know it or not. Speaking only to safe topics, where agreement comes easily, can’t be the chief goal of faithful witness. It wasn’t for Jesus. 

Indeed, the Bible calls us into honest and just conversations, to “speak the truth in love.”  Which sort of leads us to my opening paragraph, noting the varying responses to the lack of conviction in the acquittal in the Philando Castile shooting.  The title of the first part of Wytsma’s short “Conclusion” chapter is called “On Loving the Police and Believing Black Lives Matters.”  He talks how hard it has been for him as a pastor balancing an outspoken denunciation of police brutality and creating a culture within in his church that honors those in law enforcement; Pastor Wytsma describes sitting down with some police officers in his congregation, and this, again, reminds us how beautiful it can be when we move into these hard conversations rather than avoiding such awkwardness.  This book will help you understand our culture and our torn social fabric and the realities of inequality and privilege, but it will also help your church be a more faithful Body. It will help you lean to talk together well. 

 After telling a remarkably moving story about a Palestinian mother and Jewish woman talking, Ken reminds us of the beauty of sharing bread.  Hospitality, after all, is about welcoming the other.  “When we are in a posture of hospitality,” he concludes, “we can’t objectify those with whom we disagree. We can’t throw stones while serving bread. ”  

The Myth of Equality.jpg



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Hearts & Minds BookNotes review: “Contemporary Art and the Church” by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley and the recent CIVA conference // ON SALE

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to have a small book display at the biennial CIVA arts conference again this year. With the help of the main editor at Square Halo Books, Ned Bustard, we shipped a few heavy boxes last week to their event at Azusa Pacific University.   revealed.jpgNed himself did a workshop on print making there this weekend which gave him a chance to show off his own work as a print maker, some of which is seen in the adult Bible story book he created called Revealed: A Storybook Bible for Grown-Ups. (See our BookNotes description of it HERE.) We only wished we could have sent more books along, and that we could have joined Ned in talking with the participants there about our wares.

CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is an exceptional organization for serious artists, art historians, museum curators, art teachers, theologians of culture, and those who teach aesthetics. As a non-church-related Christian organization it is perhaps parallel to CLS (the Christian Legal Society) which networks, encourages, and resources people of faith working in the legal profession, or, ASA, The American Scientific Affiliation, a good group for Christians who work in the sciences.

CIVA is world-class, world-renowned, and ecumenical (although with roots in the evangelical community, starting over 40 years ago when a sculptor and art prof at Bethel College organized the first gathering in 1979.)  We have admired them from a far from the very beginning.

CIVA-2015-Speaker.jpgTwo years ago the CIVA conference was held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids and the brand new book in their series “Studies in Theology and the Arts” is a wonderfully edited collection of papers, talks, and even panel discussions that were held at CIVA 2015.  Entitled Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley (IVP Academic; $30.00) it is nothing short of groundbreaking, stunning, and almost one of a kind. I’ll try to explain why.

Unlike some other vocational fields, there are plenty of books about faith and the arts; we have shelves and shelves dedicated to this topic.  We have books that are simple and basic – that everyone should read if you care about living a good life in God’s colorful world – and some that are heavy, heady, and wonderful for those who are serious artists or working in the world of scholarly and academic discourse in the arts. (You can see a few of our older annotated lists of such books HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, or HERE. I did a review of Beauty Give By Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe HERE.)

Even though I can hardly write my name with much flourish, let alone draw or paint or dance, I love these books and have found the breadth and depth of my own faith and Christian world-and-life view deepened by reading in this evocative field. I’ve often said that if I were to be stranded on the proverbial desert island and could only take one book, it would most likely be Calvin Seerveld’s Rainbows for the Fallen World. I know many in CIVA circles look to Cal as one of their great mentors.

 Contemporary Art and the Church.jpgThe brand new CIVA book takes the “faith and the arts” conversation deeper into what they call contemporary art (which is to say, not “modern” art which is a very specific style and movement which started over a 100 years ago.) Contemporary artists work most often in mixed media, video, performance, installation stuff, and their work is often transgressive.  In the book’s excellent, rousing introduction it describes contemporary art as “artworks that employ narratives that feature marginal voices, transgressive activities, and the social and kinesthetic body.  From Jeff Koons to Ai Weiwei, these artists, unlike their modernist precursors, “call on practices that generally exist in reaction to a perceived Western art canon.” 

Not only is there serious engagement with this latest ethos within the art community, a second focus of Contemporary Art and the Church is, in fact, how the church might interact with the arts; that is, it explores significantly how artists these days might be more integrated into the life of local congregations and how local churches themselves might become more artful, aesthetically rich, creative.  We have several great books about wisely discerning how to think about the arts in Christian worship; see, for instance the very thoughtful Visual Arts in the Worshiping Church by Lisa Deboer (Eerdmans; $24.00) or the more practically-minded Creative Church Handbook: Releasing the Power of the Arts in Your Congregation by J. Scott McElroy (IVP; $20.00.) Most of the papers presented at the CIVA conference that became chapters in this new book are pretty scholarly, even if they highlight great examples and case studies.  It really is a remarkable volume.

In both the section in CAatC about Christian engagement with contemporary art and artists and the section about the church and worship, there were major keynote addresses and responses to those presentations. The responses are shorter but bring a different angle and offer very helpful conversation and much to ponder.  I am really out of my own areas of expertise here, and had to take some of this fairly slowly, but it is just so very intriguing and good.  Even if you’re not used to reading this sort of stuff about art history, a theology of culture, and the like, it is a very valuable education.  And it’s so good just knowing that this level of discourse is going on.  I think you could give this book to any college professor in the arts these days and they’d be impressed with the maturity of insight and the quality of scholarship.

Just for instance, in artist and scholar Wayne Roosa’s amazing chapter  — his insights about the Old Testament prophets use of subversive performance art and naming some contemporary social prophets sent me to the internet to look up more, by the way — he explains the much-discussed On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art by the important, esteemed, critic James Elkins. (Mako Fujimura’s International Arts Movement, convened an IAM symposium on this text several years ago and we have stocked Elkins’s books ever since.)  Roosa contrasted Elkins’s dour “not much conversation is possible” analysis with a more optimistic view found in Eleanor Heartney’s Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art. Along the way he draws in insights from Buber and Wittgenstein and Levinas, not to mention a stunning performance episode from Burning Man. What a chapter!

Linda Stratford (who coedited with James Romaine a book we carry called ReVisioning: Critical Methods for Seeing Christianity in the History of Art) in her shorter response called “Art and Spiritual Pilgrimage” shows that Roosa’s take on Elkins is more pessimistic than Elkins would have intended.

Her response is gracious, wonderfully expressed, and after a fascinating reflection on Andy Warhol she reminds us that:

It is time to cultivate a fruitful interplay between artists and today’s spiritual pilgrims. This requires that we adopt a posture more welcoming to the spiritual pilgrim, and in order to do that we must push back somewhat on Roosa’s contention that art and church are not a pair sharing “the same soil.” Both contemporary art and the church serve as arenas for contemplative awareness; both rely primarily on the revelatory power of expression; both serve as arenas for imaginative cultural change; and both serve as agents of social transformation. It is the nature of art that it discloses in an imaginative way; it is the nature of Christian faith that it is disclosed not only in a propositional set of beliefs but also in fresh, imaginative mode of questioning and searching… Transgressive art can serve the purpose of spiritual formation if we avoid the trap of labeling art “religious” or “not religious” and instead allow it to speak on its own terms.

Stratford captures much of the intent of the many authors in this book when she says:

With renewed lay and clerical training in our rich art heritage, and awareness of its generous theological breadth, we may indeed end up better equipped to invigorate the church’s missional posture. A renewed relationship between the church and the contemporary art world will have a wider impact than the dynamic between the two. Equipped with more richly informed, nuanced interaction with the contemporary art world, the church will find itself strengthened by adopting a posture more welcoming to the spiritual pilgrim than that of “The Church of the Ready-Made Definition.” 

There is much in Taylor & Worley’s Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds for art enthusiasts, patrons, collectors. The chapter “Artists as Witnesses in the Church” by legendary art collector and CIVA co-founder Sandra Bowden and Marianne Lettieri shares their own stories of installing shows, loaning art, collaborating with art historians to get art pieces described well, and eventually creating the CIVA-funded book Seeing the Unseen: Launching and Managing a Church Gallery. What a lovely, lovely, chapter.

And, there is serious theology.  The heady, obviously brilliant Ben Quash (Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit which was published the previous year by T & T Clark) was a big hit at the original conference and here his presentation is a major chapter that asks how contemporary art can be “devotional.”  The respondent was the book coeditor Taylor Worley (who, by the way, has a PhD from University of St. Andrews and is associate professor of faith and culture as well as associate vice president for spiritual life and ministries at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. He himself is coeditor of Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown.) Taylor’s reply to Quash is called “Graced Encounters.”  Nice, eh?

Although some of it was pretty philosophical, I adored the chapter “Something from Nothing: A Theology of Nothingness and Silence for Yves Klein’s Le Vide” by Christina L. Carnes-Ananias.  I had never heard of this seminal art experience, well described here, including a line about Albert Camus’s response when he attended the Le Vide show on April 28, 1958, which indicated how important it was and, I suppose, something about the driving spirit of much of this sort of work.

The section on worship is remarkably thoughtful and rich – Katie Dresser, whose PhD is from Harvard, and who teaches art at Seattle Pacific, has a great piece about the imago dei for the beauty of the church.jpgexpressed in worship. W. David Taylor’s response (“What Art? Which Worship?”) is worth reading twice.  You should know Taylor, by the way, as he compiled a wonderful little book for church folks interested in being more thoughtful and engaged in the arts called For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Art (Baker; $18.00.) He is an ordained Anglican minister and director of Fuller’s Brehm, Texas. (If some of this is new to you or your congregation, Taylor’s very approachable book includes great pieces by Eugene Peterson, Luci Shaw, Lauren Winner, Andy Crouch, John Witvliet, and Jeremy Begbie.  It is the kind of book that I’d think every church should have in their church library or resource center.)

One chapter in Contemporary Art and the Church by Chelle Stearns called “(Con)Founded Theology” offers a “haptic pneumatology for contemporary art.”  I didn’t know what that was either, so don’t worry. 

And there’s a chapter by David W. McNutt with the subtitle “How Karl Barth’s Ecclesiology Can Help the Church Embrace Contemporary Art.”  Right on!

One of my favorite chapters in the new CAatC book (again, academically rigorous as it is) is called “Art, Place, and the Church: Thinking Theologically About Contemporary Art in the Worship Space” by theologian Jennifer Allen Craft.  She draws on The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard and quotes Ricoeur and phenomenologist Merleu-Ponty, but most of us will be glad to see her footnotes including Wendell Berry and Brian Walsh and Walter Brueggemann’s The Land and that great book about an agrarian reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis.  Any chapter that quotes Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere and relates it to worship should cause us to take notice, eh?

Please know that although there is a lot of academic footnotes and lots of allusions to what will be for most of us obscure artists and art shows, and there is philosophy and theology and liturgics and aesthetic theory that may not be your own native tongue, there is also lots of plain-spoken and truly inspiring calls to be seriously engaged in the world, to bear witness to the cosmic reconciliation where Christ is redeeming His hurting creation, and there is much that even those of us who aren’t involved in any art stuff will appreciate.  In almost every chapter there is academic rigor and deep faith and testimony.  There is history and cultural studies and there are stories and examples, which is to say that even those of us not schooled in this discourse will find most of this really fabulous, informative, helpful.

A true highlight of the book for me was a lively panel discussion on the history, struggles and future of CIVA where philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (his book Art in Action remains a standard) invited four key figures to ruminate together.  And what a joy to listen in on such a candid symposium of remembrance and hope.  In this chapter you get the verbatim from Sandra Bowden, Ted Prescott, Calvin Seerveld and Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker. I have to admit I hadn’t anticipated having Hearts & Minds named as a sign of hope in these matters, and it made my eyes moist with encouragement.  Maybe it is just me, but I think for any of us who are leaders, social activists, agents of change, founders of organizations of any sort, hearing the stories of these good folks who felt so marginalized and misunderstood within their churches and religious institutions was moving and good. Learning how they banded together to work in this particular field in God’s Kingdom is inspiring and instructional. (I am sure that scientists and lawyers, just for instance, could tell similar stories of needing to band together for like-minded fellowship and mutual encouragement.) I simply have to praise God for this kind of stuff, knowing of the sacrifices and innovative leadership offered in this arena. 

There was another symposium/panel discussion at CIVA that year, and it, too, made its way into the book. It is a wonderfully informative set of stories by those practicing art making in these days.  Moderated by the very active new media artist and scholar Kevin Hamilton, we get to listen in on this conversation by serious artists talking about their wok in the public square.  For anyone in the church who is interested in supporting various careers and callings, this is a glimpse into the lives of artists that is well worth pay attention to.

seerveld at gallery in shirt.jpgAnd I must say this: I got choked up reading the vivid Biblical insights of Calvin Seerveld in a brilliant chapter near the end called “Helping Your Neighbor See Surprises: Advice to Recent Graduates.”  As one who edited a collection of inspiring, visionary commencement addresses helping young graduates (Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life, nicely published by Square Halo Books) I am particularly interested in the sorts of advice given to those moving into the professional spheres of their lives.  Seerveld is speaking to those with art degrees, of course, but I was still so taken with it I read it twice. He offers plenty of fresh insights, including about the hard work it takes to master a craft (“it takes almost monastic focus to achieve the technical competence basic to good artwork”) but also how we ought not allow our multi-dimensional human life to be swallowed up by being an artist.” This is a profound insight into the nature of things:

You are essentially the same person even if you are both a priest and a husband – but you should not wear sacerdotal robes when you sleep with your wife in bed. You may be both a mother and a first rate lawyer, but if you treat your home like a prison and the children as if they are on parole, the resulting distortion bodes trouble. Likewise, when it comes time to pay the bills, it is not right to say, “Sorry, but I’m an artist!” A person is never just or wholly an artist but always an artist and a citizen, a mystic, a hypochondriac, an intelligent person and so on…

Few have done more to write academically and Biblically about the arts and aesthetics than Cal Seerveld.  (See my review of a six volume set of books of his, here.) Of course, he is always clever and a bit playful (he says that “artistry is making merry with metaphor.”) But it takes a certain sort of chutzpah, or humble confidence in being an older brother to many, to remind a gathering of artists not to call themselves artists.  What?

And, not to overstate the role of the arts, either, blessed as it may be.  Seerveld writes,

It is also important to realize that the artistic responsibility to be imaginative is limited. The imaginative task is to arouse the twinkle of hope in your neighbor, and not, for example, to solve the societal disaster of widespread poverty. 

After movingly describing two passionate paintings that he surely showed on slides, about degradation and brokenness in the world, Seerveld insists that visual artwork that is normative and fulfills its limited creaturely task doesn’t have to preach the gospel or change the world.

God wants art to do subtle justice to what is good and bad in reality, and serve it up with a sparkle of colorful grace and a wink of mercy. Your artwork does not and cannot have to do everything you have the capacity for, but its limited offering can be a cover for thanking God. 

As is typical with Seerveld’s sort of reformational worldview, influenced by the neo-Calvinist all-of-life-redeemed vision of Abraham Kuyper, he preaches a bit about the reality of the Kingdom of God that encompasses all societal spheres. (Even in the panel discussion he kindly expressed a hint of frustration that CIVA was talking about “the church” and “theology” (two topics he knows a lot about and cares for deeply) as if that is what makes good art useful for Christians.  Christians with a robust vision of vocation will serve God in their work whether it is related to the institutional church or not, since the reign of God is creation-wide and not limited to the congregation as such.  After some excited reminders of God’s reconciling, restoring work in the world, he reminds us, then, how art can contribute to the coming of the city of God.  Even if you know a lot about the arts, you should buy this book to read what Seerveld nicely says about “jesters and ventriloquists” on pages 215-216. It was a great compliment to CIVA members old and new, and to all of us reading along in this important volume, to be called such things by Seerveld. I will be pondering this new description of my own calling for quite some time.  

The book ends with another truly exceptional chapter, a wonderful, informed, significant, and beautiful message by CIVA Executive Director Cameron Anderson.  It is called “Saving the World” and it offers much wisdom and insight for us all.  

Anderson explains his goal:

In this closing essay I invite you to consider how all that is rich and good in our respective cultural arenas, the artistic and the ecclesial, might be directed to love God and neighbor more completely.

Cam quotes John Chrysostom on I Corinthians 1: 18 about the role of the weak and misunderstood, perhaps the foolhardy saints now known as contemporary artists.  Wow.

 Contemporary Art and the Church.jpgAnd he explores the often-cited line from Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky that “beauty can save the world.”   I needn’t here recount the scholars and writers Anderson cites in his brief overview of the role of beauty in our lives, but he does hang out a bit with C.S. Lewis.  This is good, rich, stuff, and it must have been a joy and invigorating to hear this talk live.  It is well worth reading, well worth pondering, good for any of us.  I know it will be a stretch for some, but I highly recommend Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, edited by W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley.  It’s important.

I couldn’t quite work this in earlier, but there included in the book are some full color photographs nicely reproduced showing a handful of pieces done by some of the CIVA participants, such as  Bruce Herman, Tim Lowly, Karen Brummund, Marianne Lettieri, Erica Grimm, Roger Feldman, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, David Hooker, Jay Walker, Phaedra Taylor, Allison Luce, Scott Erickson, Many Cano Villalobos, Steve A. Prince, and Ted Prescott.  These are done on glossy paper as an insert in the book and illustrate some very allusive, interesting, creative pieces.


There have been two previous books in the CIVA “Studies in Theology and the Arts.”

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgModern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness (IVP Academic) $24.00  This book was a bit controversial when it released about a year ago;  it offers a long-awaited and some think much-needed discussion about the problems — at least according to these authors — of the 1970s classic Rookmaaker volume Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Jonathan Anderson, by the way, has a major chapter in the new one, too, and is a very significant scholar.  And William Dryness has bunches of other books that we stock. He’s a vital, prolific author who spoke this week at CIVA 2017. This book is a truly major contribution to the conversation about faith as it is seen within modern and contemporary art and along with books by Daniel Siedell (God in the Gallery:A Christian Embrace of Modern Art and Whose Afraid of Modern Art?) represent a major new level of discourse about Christian engagement in the 21st century art scene. We commend it for your consideration.  See my review of it HERE.

The Faith Artist again.jpgThe Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson (IVP Academic) $26.00.  I mentioned earlier that Cam has a wonderful chapter in the new one. He has worked in campus ministry with faculty and grad students, has his own MFA and is now the Executive Director of Christians in the Visual Arts.  This one was the second release in this impressive new CIVA-related series and, again, I cannot say enough about it.  I discussed it a bit at BookNotes when it first released and I only wish I had the expertise to give it its due. We respect Cam and his work very much and this book is very highly recommended.  We’ve mentioned The Faithful Artist several times in our BookNotes newsletters (including naming it among our “Best Books of 2016” listings) but I find this review by our friend Bob Trupe to be helpful in explaining it. Check out his review HERE (but come back and order it from us, as Bob himself nicely suggests.)

We are grateful for the chance to sell these kinds of books and hope that if you know anyone who might find this useful that you would alert them – or, better yet, buy a book or two for them.  Not many bookstores carry this kind of stuff, and we would be please to play a small part in your efforts to encourage others for whom these kinds of books could be a lifeline.



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Travels with Hearts & Minds: 21 great books I described in a recent workshop — and a bunch more mentioned ALL ON SALE NOW

refo books at Mercersburg 17.jpgLuther books at Synod 17.jpgIf you follow us on social media you may have seen a few pictures we posted from our recent flurry of doing big off-site books displays. We enjoyed being with friends from the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA where naturally we had a lot of books about Luther and Lutheran theology and resources to help them observe the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. Thanks to some local friends who volunteered to help us load in (on the beautiful campus of Messiah College) and to the many customers (pastors, church leaders, and lay delegates) who browsed our pop-up bookstore there. 

Mercersburg books 17.jpgThe very next day we ended up at Lancaster Theological Seminary who hosts an annual academic conference sponsored by the Mercersburg Society in the tradition of what is called Mercersburg Theology.  (This 19th century movement is curiously capturing the attention of many from various quarters these days; the founders, John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff, taught not far from us here in Mercersburg,  a small town near Gettysburg, PA, and then moved to Lancaster in the late 1800s.)

A theology student working on a PhD from Calvin Seminary gave a great paper, we heard from a leading Kierkegaard scholar (an African American woman influenced by Howard Thurman) and Dr. Bill Evans gave a keynote. (His book called Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology is a truly excellent doctrinal study with uniquely Mercersburg fingerprints all over it) I enjoyed meeting fellow PC(USA) theologian — I say “fellow” because I’m a Presbyterian, not because I’m a theologian — Douglas Ottati. The title of his remarkable Eerdmans book Theology for Liberal Protestants may be off putting to some (and I think it is a bit misleading) but he’s a writer to know. The theme of the Mercersburg Society gathering was somewhat related to the upcoming Reformation 500 commemorations so there was some serious study of the theme of grace. We had some serious books there, including introductions to Calvin and Luther and the other history-makers of the 1500s.  Perhaps we’ll do a BookNotes newsletter just about that later this summer.

No sooner did we pack up from this small but intense conference than we drove two Hearts & Minds vehicles to the Penn Central UCC Conference annual conference, an always interesting and enjoyable gathering among many of our Central Pennsylvania friends and local customers. The United Church of Christ is perhaps the most theologically and politically progressive but their clergy and certainly their membership are diverse, and we take books “right, left, and center” and, as we joke, with “something to offend everyone.”  It gets a laugh, but in this crowd there is respect, collegiality, and good conversation with everyone staying at the table (as they say) in Christ-centered unity. Penn Central tables.jpgpublic theology books at Penn Central.jpg

spirituality books at Penn Central.jpg

Most churches (although not all) of the mainline denominational variety are aging and shrinking.  Some are on the front lines of thinking about the nature of mission in the post-Christian, pluralizing culture, seeking creative ways to share buildings, re-tool their staff, seeking revitalization in fresh ways. (See the brand new Fresh Expressions: A New Kind of Methodist Church for People Not in Church for case studies of creative, missional communities that are serious about outreach and service and more.) Lutherans are of course more shaped by their more formal liturgy and polity. UCC folks of the Mercersburg heritage share a pretty serious interest in the “mystical presence” and skew a bit more liturgically rich than many Protestants.  Many UCC churches have a connection to New England congregationalism, though, so are less fancy in these matters.  Which is to say, our book displays serving both the Lutherans and the wide range of UCC congregations had many different sorts of books about ecclesiology, worship, and liturgy.  Worship is one of our keen interests and we are glad that mainline churches are often very thoughtful about these things.

But, to be honest, the heady theology and the missional church strategies and the sacramental theology and the books about leading worship well don’t sell that much.  

Most ordinary folks are looking for books that are upbeat and interesting, inspiring without being fundamentalist or simplistic. I’m a Max Lucado fan, for instance, and we always take some Go- Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith .jpgLucado books, and other accessible evangelical authors that aren’t too progressive or odd.  It makes us happy to sell books that are helpful in turning ordinary church goers into disciples of Jesus, titles like Think, Act Believe Like Jesus: Becoming a New Person in Christ by Randy Frazee or Bible studies like Discipleship Essentials by Greg Ogden or the new God Has A Name by John Mark Comer, or Eugene Peterson’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction, a classic. I was very excited when a Lutheran Synod staff member asked if we had Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith, a NavPress book by Preston Sprenkle.  As a matter of fact we did.

ghosbusters.jpgThere is a scene in the first Ghostbusters movie when the wacky battle with the green slimy ghost is starting and Dr. Egon Spengler informs the team that whatever you do, do not cross the streams of their laser beams.  The character played by Bill Murray wisecracks, asking him to clarify.  He replies, famously, about the “total protonic reversal” that “it would be bad.”

We were brought up in a religious context where this was more or less the assumption and, in some years of our lives, the specific admonition.  Mainline denominational folks were considered too theologically mushy and lukewarm to be of trusted by us evangelicals.  Other evangelicals might detract from the truth we Reformed Christians held so tightly.  Catholics and Episcopalians and other higher church denominations looked down their liturgical noses at everyone else. And mainline folks just had nothing to do with the independents, the ones who called their churches “Bible believing.”  Everybody feared crossing the streams.

But you know what? We cross ’em all the time and nothing much awful happens.  There are some sparks sometimes, shooting off into our seemingly calm atmospheres, but no lightning bolts. We put Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Life a Free and Authentic Life, a new book on humility by liberal Benedictine nun Joan Chittister and the new posthumous collection of Marcus Borg (Days of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the Twenty-first Century) right next to the lovely little pair Being Christian and Being Disciples by Anglican Rowan Williams, next to a few by PCA leader Tim Keller and even some writers who think N.T. Wright is too liberal. (I know.) We put C.S. Lewis there with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, two authors everybody has heard of but most haven’t yet read.  We show off old monastic spirituality and Puritan writers as well as modern contemplatives like Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr. Everybody gets along and we encourage reading widely, crossing the streams for God’s Kingdom’s sake.

Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal- Why the Church Should Be All Three.jpgWe even sold a copy or two of the new IVP Academic paperback Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by the reasonable and calm Gordon Smith, even though most of our Lutheran and certainly most of our UCC friends would hardly claim to be any one of the three, let alone all at once.  Such a book reminds me of the wonderful Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard Foster which tells of why we need each other’s strengths and sensibilities to have a balanced, Biblical sort of spirituality. 

So it goes, exhausting ourselves lugging boxes and setting up tables and squeezing books onto every square inch of display space we can muster. And crossing the streams, encouraging folks to read widely, and gladly being a part of the messy life of some of our mainline denominational church assemblies. 

* * *

At the UCC annual conference I was asked to do a workshop about books folks might enjoy.  I mixed it up with theology books and resources for church revitalization and memoir and titles Reading for the Common Good.jpgof social concern.  I first waxed about the value of reading, quoted the must-read book by Chris Smith Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. I told even laypeople they might enjoy Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga, a book any church-going book lover will cherish. I told a few stories of people whose lives were changed by reading, and how reading together can be transforming — I told about Wilberforce and Hannah More and Wedgewood and commended Eric Metaxas’ marvelous book Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery which illustrates how cultural renewal and social justice movements are sustained by communities who read. I hoped to inspire reading widely, thinking well, and enjoying the koinonia that develops when big ideas are in the air because people are reading books together.

Caring for Words, better.jpgWord by Word.jpgOf course, I held up high (and read the alluring table of contents of) Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn McEntyre and her newer devotional about words called, nicely, Word By Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice. These are nearly necessities for us, these days. I hope you have them.

This is one vital part of the recovering of a civil and morally serious culture: we simply must care about words, recall our very identity as people made in the image of a God who speaks, and honor those who are gifted as writers, storytellers, wordsmiths. Readers become empathetic, caring, helpful.

Well, all that was prelude to a little show and tell seminar I did. Here are just some that I highlighted for this particular crowd.  I wish you could have heard my explanations, why I thought they’d be good reads, what to watch out for, what to appreciate, sense my passion about this. I even read a few excerpts out loud.  Time ran out, of course, and I felt like those ghostbusters after the battle with the big marshmallow, splattering their good stuff all over.  It was a mess and it was a blast.  Maybe you’ll find this list interesting.  Order from us today.


All Things New- Rediscovering the Four Chapter Gospel.pngAll Things New: Rediscovering the Four Chapter Gospel Hugh Whelchel (Institute of Faith, Work, Economics) $6.99 This six-week Bible study explains the full story the Bible presents, cover to cover – the goodness of the blessed creation, the ruination of the sin-wracked creation, the decisive victory over death in Christ’s atonement, and the full-orbed promise of the restoration of creation. The next two studies invite conversations about how the gospel is best expressed in this full four-chapter story (and not the truncated middle two parts) and why this matters.  Liberal or conservative, progressive or old school evangelical, nobody gets this quite right and I think this little Bible study resource would be revolutionary, rocking your group with fresh insights and new resolve to live out a hopeful faith in all areas of life.  Not too many people bought it – maybe mainline churches don’t have many small group Bible studies going on.  We’ve got plenty and hope you order it soon.

REINTEGRATE - book cover mockup 1-23-17.JPGReintegrate Your Vocation with God’s Mission Bob Robinson (Good Place Publishing) $12.00  This is also a small group Bible study resource, a great book for those who want to have both a book to read and lots of Bible verses to look up and discuss. It has just a bit of content each week, sidebars and good quotes, and excellent discussion questions.  This, like Whelchel’s more concise booklet above, covers this four-chapter plot of the Bible and then goes to wonderful measures to show us just why this matters, especially for our vocational lives, relating worship and work, Sunday and Monday, so to speak.  There is simply no small group resource like this in print and we highly recommend it.  Full disclosure: Bob is a dear friend, he kindly re-publishes many of my Facebook posts, tweets, and BookNotes columns, and I have a rave endorsement on the back of this little book.  

The Very Good Gospel.jpgThe Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right Lisa Sharon Harper (Waterbrook) $19.99  This is a book that came out about a year ago and we take it everywhere we go. Lisa is a friend, a hero in many ways to Beth and me, and we enjoy explaining this book. It is rich, full of big ideas, but yet intimate and even tender at times, as Lisa shares about this question haunting her: does the gospel as it is typically explained come across as truly good news, especially to those who are hurting, who have been oppressed or marginalized. She is a strong African American woman with some Native American blood and she re-imagines the gospel story using the same sort of “unfolding drama” of four chapters that Whelchel and Robinson commend above, showing how the promised restoration brings a promise of shalom.  Indeed, her description of the Bible story uses really helpful language, telling how God gave us blessed shalom, our sin brought alienation, and Christ’s redemption brings reconciliation.  Isn’t that a great way to understand things? The second half of the book explores the implications of gospel-reconciliation for race relations, creation care, injustices between men and women, even international tensions.  God’s good news is a very good gospel, indeed, and her call to be agents of reconciliation in all aspects of life is really, really worth reading.  If I were the head of the UCC, I’d have everybody reading this together. It is good for evangelicals who need stretching a bit into a more wholistic and socially engaged gospel and it is good for progessive activists to root them clearly in the Biblical story. And it is good for all of us, who need a truly good, good gospel.  Highly recommended.

uncommon decency.jpgUncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World Richard Mouw (IVP) $16.00 As you may know, I really, really like this book and recommend it often. I thought that just showing it would cause it to fly off our shelves — we had a bunch.  I expected a bit more lament and expressions of frustration with the quality and tone of our current statecraft — we did sell a few of the brand new Preaching in an Age of Trump by (Chalice Press) — and although it is true that many of us feel we must speak clearly against immorality, narcissism, dishonesty, and bad policy in high places, as Christians we must always be gracious and fair.  Anyway, this is a book we take everywhere we go and it is shown off with hope that folks will read it and take it to heart.  

the Call.jpgThe Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life Os Guinness (Word) $17.99  I often highlight newer books in these little book workshops but sometimes I pull out an old chestnut like this and get all verklempt telling why it means so much to me.  This, truly, is one of my top five books ever, and it is so eloquent, wise, insightful, rich, and important that I take it almost everywhere we go. I am sad that many in mainline churches don’t know his big body of work – we had his newest Impossible People about being steadfast and faithful, Renaissance about being hopeful God will bring God’s own renewal to us in Christ’s own way, and that exceptionally thoughtful Fool’s Talk although, truth be told, nobody bought any.  I did convince a few to try The Call, perhaps because they liked the idea of reading a book by a relative of the Guinness beer family or just because I insisted it was one of my own favorites.  One chapter is called “Everyone, Everywhere, Everything”  and captures the dynamic of the social revolution of the Reformation that liberated the laity to use the language of calling and empowered all of us to serve God, for His glory alone, in all that we do, everywhere. The discussion questions in the back are exceptional, making this a book I recommend most heartily.

liturgy of the ordinary.jpgLiturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life Tish Harrison Warren (IVP) $16.00  I’ve raved about this book before, often, having been one of the first to review it late last December when we got it in.  (You can revisit that BookNotes column, here.) Her wonderful book shows how she finds God in the ordinary stuff of a daily day of her life, mostly by drawing on worship practices and stuff we “rehearse” in church.  What a beautiful telling of why worship matters and how Sunday spills into all of life as we discover God’s presence through the whole live-long day.  I think this was one of our best-selling books in this latest stretch of shows, admittedly because I told anyone I could about it. I wish we had sold more!  If you haven’t read it yet, get on board. It is wonderfully fun to read and may be life-changing.  Andy Crouch, by the way, has a really nice foreword, and Jamie Smith’s brilliant You Are What You Love shows up a bit.

moveable feast tt.jpgMoveable Feast: Worship for the Other Six Days Terry Timm (Imagination Press) $12.99  One of the brilliant features of the above mentioned Liturgy of the Ordinary is how Tish Warren relates worship practices to daily life, mostly a day in her life as a homemaking mom.  Here, Rev. Terry Timm, pastor of a great church in Pittsburgh, reflects on the “front end” of this equation – how to worship well, how to plan worship, and how to frame church as a formative center which shapes us for our vocational callings in all of life the rest of the week.  I do not know of any other book that does this so nicely, so thoughtfully, so accessibly.  Every pastor and worship leader should be thinking like this, and I believe it could be helpful to anyone who plans, leads, or attends worship.  Yep.  We’re happy to tell folks of any faith tradition about this gem.  For some more comments about it, see my BookNotes review here…. just scroll down to the bottom of the list.)

Break Open the Sky- Saving Our Faith from the Culture of Fear.jpgBreak Open the Sky: Saving Our Faith from a Culture of Fear Stephan Bauman (Multnomah) $15.99  Do you recall my naming this in that big review I did of the Goudzwaard & Bartholomew Beyond the Modern Age just two weeks ago?  I was listing books that offer a bit of cultural discernment, naming where we’ve been and what’s going on.  Bauman is not heavy-handed and the book is a delight to read, inviting us (by way of moving stories and solid Bible exposition) into a spacious world where fear need not bind us so. I really loved this wise book, found it enjoyable and challenging, and I can’t say enough about it.  It would make a great book club title, pushing us to be aware of the pressures of our world and allowing faith to give us fresh insight, courage, resolve, and love.  Yes, love. I told all about it during this workshop, but I’m not sure I did a great job so I’m commending it to you here, now. Give it a try, I’m sure you’ll be touched by it. 

The Myth of Equality.jpg Ken Wytsma (IVP) $18.00  I hope you know this author – Wytsma is important; he’s an excellent thinker and a fine writer.  His significant book Pursuing Justice came out of the annual Justice Conference that he developed a few years back, and his deeper book about faith, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, actually, is amazingly splendid. He did a great little book on creativity (Create vs. Copy) and now, this, on what has become known in the conversations about race as “white privilege.”

Listen to these three thoughtful endorsements of this brand new, very enlightening book:

It is impossible to deny that Christ is moving his church today toward racial reconciliation. It is likewise impossible to deny that many white Christians like me are not as comfortable with that movement as we say we are. In The Myth of Equality, Ken engages a visceral topic with clarity, compassion, and inspiring conviction. He prompts us to engage the deep and bitter roots of racial bias and privilege in American faith. A must-read resource for those beginning to feel that ‘the way things are’ is not okay. A readable, well-reasoned push toward Christ’s justice.  

Paul J. Pastor, author of The Face of the Deep

The Myth of Equality is written so skillfully that it’s easy to miss how much it accomplishes. The first part brings to light, with unflinching honesty, how deeply racism and white privilege are embedded within the founding documents and practices of the United States. The second part masterfully shows that this inequality violates the call of the gospel to justice and unity. And the third part offers some wise suggestions to those of us who are white Christians about how we can ‘lay down’ our white privilege. I have no doubt that some readers will be angered by the claim that they participate in and benefit from structures of racism and white privilege, well supported though that claim is. I predict that there will be more who are convinced and inspired by the patient, passionate, and nondefensive way in which Wytsma makes his case. It’s a book that someone had to write.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University, senior research fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia

Ken Wytsma is a white evangelical man from a conservative white evangelical world, and he is doing his homework on race. I’ve witnessed Ken’s journey toward deeper understanding of the construct of race, its impact on individuals and communities of color, and what redemption requires. I’ve witnessed the wrestling and the transformation as aha moments have moved him into deeper love, more solid commitment, and earnest work toward the healing of our world. Through The Myth of Equality, Wytsma offers a peek at his homework. But this is no cheat sheet. It’s a journal of discoveries shared with humility, grace, and unrelenting commitment to truth. 

Lisa Sharon Harper, chief church engagement officer, Sojourners, author of The Very Good Gospel

The Tech-Wise Family.jpgThe Tech Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in It’s Proper Place Andy Crouch (Baker) $13.99  I simply held this up and said that anybody who cares about family life should have this, and anybody who works with children or youth should have this and anybody who has grand-kids should have this and, well, anybody who uses the internet at all really should consider this as well.  Yep, I want to say that this is the best brief book on the role of screens and digital devices in our technological world and it is a wise guide into this brave new world of ours.  I so enjoyed this, found it richer and more interesting than I expected (and you know I esteem Andy Crouch very, very much, always pushing his books Culture Making, Playing God, and the more recent Strong and Weak.)  Read any of his good books, I implored my friends in the workshop, but this one is a must for most of us.

The First Love Story.jpgThe First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us Bruce Feiler (Penguin Press) $28.00 What fun having this New York Times bestseller on our display at these kinds of church events. Feiler is known in many circles for his breakout hit book and PBS documentary series Walking the Bible. We’ve carried all his books since even before that one, as we love his “creative nonfiction” journalism where he travels around and describes what he sees, searching for meaning and clues and signals that point us towards a good life. Yep, this starts near the Tigris and Euprates Rivers searching for the mythical Garden of Eden.  He is on the ground in some exciting territory — should he be wearing a flak jacket when he goes into ISIS war zones? — and he covers scholarly, historical, religious, emotional, fruit of the sacred texts that talk about Adam and Eve.  These really are our founding stories, we Jewish and Christian believers, at least, and Feiler playfully but wisely explores the implications for love and sexuality and family of this grounding narrative. 

The many great, great blurbs endorsing The First Love Story are from smart writers and thought leaders such as Andrew Solomon and Jon Meacham and Rabbi David Wolpe and the Jesuit James Martin.  Even the Muslim Jesus scholar Reza Aslan chimes in saying it is “eye-opening look at one of the most famous stories of all time…” He suggests is forces us to “rethink our understanding of sacredness and profanity.”  It’s compelling, written with plenty of his characteristic wit and earnest grace.

The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea- Monuments, Missteps, and the Audacity of Ambition.jpgGreat Wall of China and the Salton Sea: Monuments, Missteps, and the Audacity of Ambition Russell Rathbun (Eerdmans) $21.99  I mused about this a bit, citing the lovely and insightful foreword by Nadia Bolz-Weber (who they most likely know, if only from her great Krista Tippett “On Being” interview, and her spicy memoir Pastrix.) I explained it is a memoir, but also a travelogue, as our intrepid writer moseys around these two massive monuments to ambition and hubris.  From a rumination on the Tower of Babel to a reflection on why we like to look at pictures of ruins, from his own family’s connections to the massive failure that created the Salton Sea to his visits to China, Rathbun gives us an entertaining, quirky, and very moving book that is creative in its conception, creative in its writing, and very serious in its message for those that may have the ears to hear.  What a great book. If you’d like to see another short review I did of it, find it here among others in this big BookNotes list.)


Hallelujah Anyway- Rediscovery Mercy.jpgHallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $20.00  We hardly had to introduce Annie to anyone in this crowd. She is the sort of religious writer many appreciate – honest, colorful, culturally liberal, but very serious about expressing the love and grace she discovered from Jesus.  Few writers are as expansive in their big hearts and few are as honest about their own sins and foibles and fears and stupidity. She owns it, and I think that may be why many relate to her.  This book is about mercy.  It was one of  our biggest sellers at these events.

great spiritual migration.jpgThe Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian Brian McLaren (Convergent) $21.00  I think those who tilt conservative and traditional theologically should read this because he is naming what is, in fact, a bit of a shift in the American religious landscape.  I don’t know if it is as widespread as Brian suggests – otherwise the UCC might be growing in more lively ways – but I do think he is documenting a huge conversation that has been going on in recent years.  I suggested to my UCC friends in the workshop that although I might wish they would also read more conventional evangelical formulations, this former evangelical pastor understands their own DNA and describes their theological tradition’s strengths. They would do well to study this and see if it gives a coherent voice to their own “God is still speaking” ways.

The three big shifts McLaren describes are:

  • The Spiritual Migration: From a System of Beliefs to a Way of Life
  • The Theological Migration: From a Violent God of Domination to a Nonviolent God of Liberation
  • The Missional Migration: From Organized Religion to Organizing Religion

Here is just one of the many rave views this has gotten by thoughtful thinkers, pastors, seekers:

Brian McLaren is a leading thinker in articulating the disenchantment so many of us feel regarding Americanized Christianity and the hope we have that there is, as McLaren says, “a better way to be Christian.” The Great Spiritual Migration calls us, not to wander aimlessly in the wilderness of pseudo-spirituality, but to follow Jesus forward into the promised land of a more authentic Christian faith. I applaud this important and encouraging book                                           Brian Zahnd, author of A Farewell To Mars

Love Let Go- Radical Generosity for the Real World .jpgLove Let Go: Radical Generosity for the Real World Laura Truax & Amalya Campbell (Eerdmans) $21.99  I’ll admit we don’t quite know what to do this with exceptionally interesting, really fun and fascinating memoir, a creative telling of a church that was given a boatload of money and basically said “we don’t want it.”  That part of the story is interesting enough, and makes for a provocative read, but that’s just the very beginning of this enchanting and radical tale. Church leadership decides to take the money and give $500 to every parishioner with the instruction to “do something good” with it.  Wow, this is paying it forward, writ large! Love Let Go is the well-told story of what folks did, how it affected them, and the lessons learned about generosity, greed, philanthropy, development, and more. It is a great story, but could be valuable for anyone involved in thinking about entrepreneurship, church-based mission, and congregational vitality through generous stewardship.

The Road Back to You-  An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery.jpgThe Road Back to You:  An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile (IVP) $24.00, hardback //$8.00, workbook  Many who explore contemplative spirituality know Richard Rohr’s (or others) works on the Enneagram. The Enneagram is an ancient, spiritual sort of personality assessment tool, sort of like an older, deeper version of the Meyers Briggs personality tests, which mainline Christian folks also know well.  So to tell people that this is the best (and most fun, by far) book on the topic is easy.  I will put it to you like I did in my workshop: if you know the Enneagram, you will love this upbeat and fun and very helpful study of it (and you’ll want to get the workbook, too.)  And if you are new to the Enneagram, you’ll want to start here.  I’m not even sure what I think about all this, but the book is a bundle of stories and wisdom and a little bit of Bible and spirituality and faith formation and psychology and relationship advice, with some famous-people gossip – speculating about what number various celebrities are, just for fun.  It is interesting to me the buzz on this book; almost everywhere we go somebody asks about it. The authors have great podcasts that will make you want to buy the book.  Even at one of these events last week a customer rushed up to the book table wondering if we had this (of course) because he had heard about it at a writer’s conference he attended at Princeton.  It really is a fascinating book.

When Kingfishers Catch Fire- A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of Go.jpgAs Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God Eugene Peterson (Tyndale) $24.99  As a former PC(USA) pastor, Eugene Peterson is respected within most mainline denominations and is claimed by many evangelicals.  After his long stint as a pastor and a decade teaching spiritual theology at Regent in British Columbia (taking a professorship alongside the likes of James Houston and J.I. Packer and adjunct teacher Marva Dawn) he has earned the right to be considered one of the most respected and appreciated religious writers of the last 50 years. This is a new book of sermons that were preached in the late 60s and early 70s at the church start-up he did in those years, Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air Maryland. There are a few new essays where Peterson puts these old sermons in context. This is worth having and savoring.  (Do you know the poem from which the title is drawn?)

The Soul of Shame- Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves.jpgThe Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Tell About Ourselves Curt Thompson (IVP) $22.00 We named this one of the Hearts & Minds very “best books of the year” a few years back and continue to feature this almost everywhere we go. I think some who browse are not sure if they want to pick it up – it could be a bit intense to grapple with such heart level stuff – but we are earnest in describing how well it is written, how deeply Biblical it is, and how insightful Curt is (he is a psychiatrist and knows quite a bit about neuro-science.) It is a marvelous book – very highly recommended, as is his previous one, The Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices Than Can Transform Your Life and Relationship. We have raved about this before, and any number of customers have told us how much this book means to them. It is an enduring, deeply and profoundly Christian resource that we continue to promote. Whether you carry deep shame or not, this is very highly recommended.

Be Still- Departure From Our Collective Madness .jpgBe Still: Departure From Our Collective Madness  Gordon Stewart (Wipf & Stock) $21.00  Oh, how I wish I had had time to read some of these short pieces out loud during my “show and tell” workshops about books these days. They were all written by a Presbyterian pastor – his brother is a UCC pastor, and I flubbed a joke about God calling one of them to a better denomination – but were crafted to be spoken out loud on “All Things Considered” and an NPR feature on Minnesota public radio.  Can you imagine someone trained in the best tradition of mainline Protestant seminaries, reading the likes of Augustine and Aquinas,  Luther and Calvin, Barth and Niebuhr, spicing up their radio op ed ruminations with contemporary writers and poets like Buechner and Updike, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry?  Stewart is nearly what one might call a public intellectual (if only he were better known.) In these well-crafted short pieces, designed for a public listenership, he draws connections from the things that matter most to the things most on our mind these days.  He writes about racial injustice experienced by urban youth, and hospital ministry with the dying.  He writes about fear and doubt and goodness and hope.  The title might make you think it is mostly about politics — it was written before the resist Trump movement, I might add — and there is plenty of public theology for the common good in here. But these thought-provoking pieces are more than just a sane rant again the “collective madness” of our contentious discourse these days. It may be more like Thoreau, short reflection on what he sees, what he deeply knows, and what we can do as we ponder together ways to make our lives more sane.  I’ve appreciated these calm reflections a lot and have been taken to re-reading a few for the sheer joy of spending time with a well-crafted essay.  Nicely done.

Leave it to Walt Brueggemann to come up with a really nice blurb, and then the prayer-maker poet J. Barrie Shepherd:

This wondrous collection of rich snippets would be of interest and
value if only for the rich source material that Gordon Stewart quotes
from, as it must be an inexhaustible memory and/or file. But the many
words he quotes are no more than launching pads for Stewart’s expansive
imagination and agile mind that take us, over and over, into fresh
discernment, new territory, unanticipated demands, and open-ended
opportunity. All of that adds up to grace, and Stewart is a daring
witness to grace that occupies all of our territory.
–Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

‘Gordon Stewart has a way with words, a clean, clear, concise, and yet
still creative way with words, a way that can set the reader almost
simultaneously at the blood-stained center of the timely–the urgent
issues of our day–and also at the deep heart of the timeless,
eternal questions that have forever challenged the human mind. Stewart
looks at terror, Isis, and all their kin, from the perspective of Paul
Tillich and, yes, John Lennon. He moves from Paris, Maine, by way of the
town drunk, toward the City of God. This is strong medicine, to be
taken in small, but serious doses. Wear a crash helmet!
–J. Barrie Shepherd, author of Between Mirage and Miracle

Rebuilding-the-Foundations.jpgRebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox) $20.00  A certain generation of UCC leaders knew Brueggemann well.  His father was an E & R pastor (before they merged into the UCC in the 50s) and Walt himself held membership in the denomination of his youth.  He publishes a lot, but this is fascinating.  As I described in our BookNotes when I first announced it, Rebuilding the Foundations is co-written with his son, the Department Chair and Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College.  He is a scholar about inequalities and has a book called, curiously, Rich, Free, and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America.  Here, Walt and son John explore what Rabbi Michael Lerner in Tikkun called “a startlingly insight and important book” which “addresses some of the most important issues facing the human race today.”  Okay, so there’s that.

And, who wouldn’t find it interesting to combine a sociologist and a Bible scholar, exploring together how these ancient texts in the Bible might help guide us to re-construe our own social problem?

Mark Mulder, professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Calvin College writes:

Rebuilding the Foundations offers a clear-lucid, and compelling discussion of current social issues with insights from the intersection of biblical interpretation and sociology. A profound syntheses of the sociological and prophetic imagination. 

Revelation- A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World .jpgRevelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World Dennis Covington (Little Brown) $26.00  Covington is one of my favorite writers, classy, thoughtful,  yet intense and vivid. His searing books such as Salvation on Sand Mountain are on many people’s list of all time favorites. My copy has post-it notes stuck throughout as I dreamed about reading moving excerpts in my little workshop. Of course I ran out of time and rather in-eloquently shouted out that it is about this guy who travels around the world to some of the most violent spots, wondering how, oddly, religion is a cause of some of the world’s worst stuff, and, yet, seems also to be the only real answer to averting the awful violence we humans commit. In high-octane, energetic prose, Covington takes us to drug cartels and ISIS camps and sneaks across borders in places the State Department would not have permitted him to go. This report back is part travelogue, part war-on-terror journalism, part seekers heart cry, trying to figure out the meaning of faith in a troubled world. Highly recommended. 

Well, there were others.  But you get a sense of the various sorts of interesting titles we like to promote for this particular sort of tribe. Please know we are smiling and energetic, standing ready to recommend many kinds of books for all sorts of readers.  We’re at your service.



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Sometimes, as in last week’s BookNotes, I try to tell you a bit about the authors of a particular book, explaining why their past work remains important, and why a new book (in that case, Beyond the Modern Age: An Archeology of Contemporary Culture by Bob Goudzwaard & Craig Bartholomew) is so very urgent.  I do my best to explain about it in some detail, making a case that at least some of our readers should purchase it right away.  Such reviews are sometimes a bit sprawling, I’d admit.

This time, without much ado, I’ll list 10 recent books about church life that seemed particularly interesting or useful. We have a large selection of other titles in this area, so give us a shout if we can help you or your congregation.  All listed below are in stock here in Dallastown, on sale at 10% off if you want us to send them.  Just use the link to the order form page at the end of this column. 

Sundays and Seasons Year B Worship.jpgSundays and Seasons Preaching.jpgSundays and Seasons: Guide to Worship Planning Year B 2018 (Augsburg Fortress) $39.00

Sundays and Seasons Preaching Year B 2018 (Augsburg Fortress) $29.00 

These are very popular among liturgical worship planners and lectionary preachers —  as the publisher says in their description of the worship planning one, “Worship planners and leaders, preachers, presiding ministers, worship committees, musicians, visual artists, sacristans and altar guilds, and those who create congregational worship folders, will find an indispensable companion in Sundays and Seasons as they prepare for worship each week.”

We have nearly any series like this done by mainstream denominational publishers that open up the annual lectionary texts for creating liturgies with relevant, thematic prayers and Biblical and preaching insights for the lectionary texts —  Feasting on the Word, the Abingdon Preaching Annual (this new edition for 2018 is edited by Scott Hoezee), the Abingdon Worship Planning Guide, and books of lectionary based prayers form authors like Yvonne Baylor, Ruth Duck, or the series done by David Sparks for Woodlake Press (such as Pastoral Prayers to Share.) There are more.

The two in the Sundays and Seasons set, though, are done annually by the ECLA publisher Augsburg Fortress so are a bit on the sophisticated end, liturgically.  They are exceedingly highly regarded. There are indexes and many great features — more than you expected — for anyone planning services, choosing music, or creating messages.  These for the next church year (which, of course, starts in December 2017 with Advent and goes in to most of 2018) were just released and we are happy to offer them to you.

Worship in the Way of the Cross- Leading Worship for the Sake of Others.jpgWorship in the Way of the Cross: Leading Worship for the Sake of Others John Frederick (IVP) $18.00 It is not a cheap shot, although it is increasingly said, that  “worship” must be more than “just the music, an onstage performance that puts the spotlight on the worship leader.”  I know many worship leaders who are essentially musicians who lead songs of praise and they don’t want to be in the spotlight, but the very structure of the worship event puts them there.  (In other traditions it is the preacher who is in the center of the up-front activity and the church becomes very preacher-centric.)  In any event, whether one is in a hip urban church plant or an old school, denominational preacher in a smaller church, the question of what constitutes artful, high-quality, and theologically faithful worship is pressing. It needs to be revisited regularly, and — given that it is one of the most important and routine things local churches do — I’m surprised that pastors and worship leaders don’t read and study and revisit this topic regularly.  Maybe they do, but we don’t sell that many of the oodles of books on worship that we stock, and I wish they sold better.  I wish ordinary folks who attend worship and participate would read up a bit on what it’s all about.

Well, here is one that really should be on the short list of any library of books about worship.  It develops the theme made clear in the title — the shape of worship that is formed by the way of the cross — with Biblical exposition and practical insights.  As it says on the back cover, Frederick (who has a PhD from St. Andrews in Scotland, by the way) “explores a cruciform theology of worship as the cross demonstrates the nature of God, worship in the way of the cross transforms us into the image of God who is love.”  Let that sink it: this paradigm for thinking about workshop helps us become deeper disciples because “worshipers and worship leaders alike can come to embody the other-centered humility of Christ.” 

I like that it promises to help guide “how worship leaders and pastoral staff relate to one another and for renewing the artistic output of the church.”

Michael Card — who is always worth listening to — says,

This is a book the American church has been hungering for a very long time. It is a wonderfully balanced and biblical engagement with contemporary culture and the very church… I believe it will deeply impact the worship life of any church that takes the time to engage with it. 

If you read our BookNotes column regularly, you know that we have been long-time fans of the serious New Testament work of our friend Michael Gorman (of St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore, MD.) You should know his scholarly book Cruciformity which explores a New Testament Pauline spirituality of radical discipleship.) He, of course, likes this book.  

Read what Gorman writes on the back:

In this readable yet theologically rich book, John Frederick sharply challenges numerous misguided contemporary understandings of worship, the church, and the Christian life. He replaces them with a vision of cross-shaped worship and it’s result: communities of Christlike disciples living and loving for the sake of the world. Pastors, worship leaders, and all concerned about worship need to engage this book seriously.

Last, to understand the importance and some of the value of this volume, listen to Robbie Castleman, author of Story Shaped Worship. I like her insights here:

Worship in the Way of the Cross offers insights into the importance of story and affirms the congregational community as a matrix for discipleship… Frederick fosters critical thinking and challenges worship leaders to elevate excellence and service to the congregations a countercultural witness in the world. 

An Unhurrield Leader better.jpgAn Unhurried Leader: The Lasting Fruit of Daily Influence Alan Fadling (IVP) $20.00  This is a must read for pastors or other church leaders or anyone involved in ministry, or in leadership of any kind. What a great, great idea for a book, and what a fine writer to do it. 

Perhaps you have seen this author and his previous book, The Unhurried Life, at book tables or in the shop (if you visit us here) as we’ve promoted it often. It is a positive, important book that many have appreciated.

Fadling is a fine writer and his book resonated with many as he explored a “grace-paced” lifestyle. Our hectic and hurried ways leave trouble in its wake and isn’t, finally, helpful for us or those around us. He invited us to and outlined a less stressed way of being.  Here, in this brand new book applying his vision to those in leadership and ministry, he asks us to resist the temptation, An Unhurried Life.jpgwhen faced with so many responsibilities and opportunities to do good to “frantically take control of situations in hopes of making good things happen.”  Rather, he offers good examples and guidance for alternative ways to lead; as Mindy Caliguire puts in, “to lead from a place of overflow rather than deficit.”

I know I need this and I bet you do to.  It is too new for me to have read it yet, but the ten chapter titles are intriguing and seem serious and important. The footnote citations are fabulously interesting, so I know it will be a well written, thoughtful book that you will enjoy. What does “unhurried influence” look like? Can you be an “unhurried leader”? If you long for that, I’m sure you’ll need some help.  This may be transformative for you.

The Church Guide for Making Decisions Together .jpgThe Church Guide for Making Decisions Together Terence Corkin & Julia Kuhn Wallace (Abingdon Press) $22.99 Allow me to suggest that this is a very, very important book for anyone on a journey to put into place more — what to call it — spiritual ways of being together as the Body of Christ.  Much has been written about how the church is not just any institution and we ought not borrow without caution any old strategic plan from the world of business or corporations.   We need uniquely Christian spiritual practices to guide and shape us to be the kind of people God desires, and to be in tun with the new work the Holy Spirit is doing in and through us.  So, yes, we all know that — even if we are slow to enact fresh ways of doing stuff day by day in our church. I know church polity courses that still teach from Roberts Rules of Order, which, I suppose, isn’t a bad thing, if it is supplemented by organizational practices informed by more faith-based, spiritual disciplines.

And so, a book like this becomes an extraordinary gift, a must-read, even, to either counter our overly secularized view of church practice, or at least to supplement whatever guidance our denomination or tradition already gives us. The Church Guide for Making Decisions really does give a “new way of making decisions” that should be read alongside important recent books such as Ruth Haley Barton’s wonderful Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (IVP; $21.00) and Elizabeth Liebert’as The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (WJK; $18.00.)

The authors of The Church Guide for Making Decisions Together themselves each have notable experience in both small decision making bodies and within smaller, local, nonprofit and church groups as well as larger, national-level organizations.  Terence Corkin is an ordained minister in the United Church of Australia (UCA) and has served for fifteen years as the general secretary and CEO of their Assembly. He consults on consensus decision-making for many congregations and judicatories in the US, Europe, and Australia.

Julia Kuhn Wallace is a layperson in the United Methodist denomination who has served on staff with their impressive General Board of Discipleship at their national headquarters in Nashville. Her areas of expertise include mediating disputes, assessing congregational vitality, transforming conflict, choosing viable options for declining congregations, and leading strategic visioning and change. 

Every church I know has had to deal with conflict, and some conflict develops, it seems, in what might be an otherwise exciting time of strategic planning. Often, it seems, explorations of congregational vitality or capacities for adaptive change bring out some deep questions and hard stuff. 

As one denominational leader put it on the back cover, “We are often mired in decision-making processes that limit our thinking and dreaming — processes that emphasize making legislative decisions over community discernment. Corkin and Wallace offer a better way…

David Alan Bard continues,

This book is intellectually sharp, eminently practical, insightful in its understanding of Christian faith, and quite simply a joy to read.

I think this book will be appreciated by those looking for what one called “a kinder, gentler, more faith-grounded way of making decisions and building consensus without our faith communities.”  It will help us find ways of making decisions in the church that are more collaborative and more life giving.  It says that “form follows function” and that all our work should “be caught up into the saving purposes of God for all creation.” 

Breaking the Huddle- How Your Community Can Grow Its Witness.jpgBreaking the Huddle: How Your Community Can Grow Its Witness Don Everts & Doug Schaupp (IVP) $16.00 This is a surprisingly excited book, a really interesting read that is based on some creative research and new descriptions of sorts of communities and stages of faith development within congregational life.

“What kind of community are you?” it asks. Even though we believe in outreach, most communities tend to focus on our own needs.

So this book argues that we end up becoming “insular groups without many relationships with outsiders. So evangelism is occasional and conversions are rare.”

Want break out of the huddle?

Here is what you may want to know. Everts is a popular, colorful author who has written so great books, such as Jesus with Dirty Feet and the tremendously energetic call to discipleship called Go and Do. He is now minister of outreach at a Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield Missouri and his co-authors (who work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) have together written a previous book that was much-discussed among those who do young adult ministry and, particularly, among those who do campus outreach. It was called I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus (IVP; $16.00.) In that important book they survey literally thousands of young adults I Once Was Lost - good.jpgwho had come to Christian faith out of an utterly secularized and postmodern background.  What were the steps these folks went through to come to a point when the Christian gospel could even be considered as interesting and plausible? What stages did they go through from being disinterested to interested? What were the common paths they took from religiously apathetic (if not out and out skeptical) to becoming a seeker to being one who took the claims of Christ seriously, to actually finding themselves to be Christians? As you might guess, that book documented the role of kind and caring friends that helped seekers navigate these stages of the journey and walked with them towards increasing belief.  I Once Was Lost is a one-of-a-kind book and remains a great read for those who are serious about reaching post-Christian young adults with plausible and meaningful and fruitful conversations about deepening faith.

It may not surprise you, then, that they ask here, in similar fashion, what kind of people we must be and become if we are going to move from being an insular church to a more outward focused one, to being a congregation with limited witness activity, to becoming a true inclusive community where conversion and growth from evangelism becomes a new normal. 

I agree with Rick Richardson (of Reimagining Evangelism) who says 

If you liked I Once Was Lost on the five thresholds of postmodern conversion, you will love Breaking the Huddle, which applies those insights to whole communities, helping them break their inward-focused huddle and ultimately become a conversion movement for the kingdom of God. Who wouldn’t want that?

This is, of course a book about evangelism, although they, gratefully, have a wholistic and truly Biblical vision of the broader understanding of that. It is interesting to me that most books about how to be more comfortable talking about our faith, about doing apologetics or even “inviting people to church” are written to enhance the comfort level and skill sets of individual people who want to be motivated to share a personal witness. Breaking the Huddle stands with that smaller group of books that help congregations and faith communities become fellowships that together are bearing witness and that together are inviting people into experiences of transformation.

Fresh Expressions- A New Kind of Methodist Church for People Not in Church .jpgFresh Expressions: A New Kind of Methodist Church for People Not in Church Kenneth H. Carter Jr. & Audrey Warren (Abingdon Press) $14.99  I’ll say it right away: despite the fact that this has “Methodist” in the subtitle, I truly think it is suitable and valuable for nearly any congregational type. If you are interested in creative outreach, even church planting or para-church ministry, this tells some great stories which you can apply within your own context and theological tradition.  I can’t tell you how excited I am that this documents a “wave of new Methodist churches emerging to reach unchurched and dechurched people who live in a culture that is increasingly nonreligious and multi-religious.”  And what it is documenting is, in fact, deeply ecumenical.  The “Fresh Expressions” movement began in the United Kingdom where it ignited over 3,000 new faith communities.

There have been other books published in England about the Anglican and Methodist movement that is doing “outside of the typical church” sorts of ministry. From coffee shop Bible studies to worshiping in the outdoors, to ministries of the arts within the art world, these para-church and fresh expressions of church are vibrant, often quite theologically robust, and seems to me to bring a different voice than what some of us hear when we talk about outreach and church planting.  That is, I suspect that some church plants in the US are theologically fundamentalist and strict, even if their leaders sport tats and hipster beards and serve craft beers at their Bible studies. Others may be theologically ambiguous, unconnected to a serious theological tradition and are emerging into God knows what.  The Fresh Expressions movement offers a thicker sort of spirituality and a theological tone that may be more robust and ecumenical and interesting than the fundamentalists on the one hand or the progressives on the other.

Fresh Expressions has really taken off in the US, and we’ve been privileged and delighted to sell books at some of their events.  In the USA, if seems to me, Fresh Expressions are happily ecumenical drawing on connections in several denominations from Baptist to Anglican.  Their recent event included a special guest speaker, a Roman Catholic Bishop from Italy was held in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg and also included speakers from Anabaptist and Eastern Orthodoxy traditions as well. 

Anyway, Fresh Expressions by Carter & Warren would make a fine group study for anyone who is serious about God’s mission, who appreciates ecumenical and global tones, and who can extrapolate from the United Methodist stories to your own context. It is one of those rare books that is good for inspiration and motivation, tells lots of upbeat and illuminating stories, and yet has some solid Bible study and is instructional and informative.  In just six chapters, this is very nice!

It includes impressive Bible study and well-crafted discussion questions, so it is very well suited for small group use.  Endorsements are from Jorge Acevedo (lead pastor of Grace Church, a huge and diverse congregation in Southwest Florida) and Duke Divinity School Dean, Elaine Heath, who commends it nicely.

Listen to Kenda Creasy Dean (professor of Youth, Church, and Culture and Princeton Seminary)

If you’ve felt God calling your church into a new kind of mission but you haven’t been sure how to go about it, this book is a great place to start. Get ready for a dose of hope.

Welcome To Dinner Church.jpgWelcome to Dinner, Church Verlon Fosner (Seedbed) $9.95  We love the fairly recent publishing house created in affiliation with Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.  They do great little books, an array of liturgical, Biblical, and spiritual resources for growing Christians.  The Fresh Expressions USA movement has partnered with them to publish some books, and we stock them.  This one is quite new, and it was the most popular book we had on sale at the Fresh Expressions conference in Harrisburg that we’ve mentioned.  Verlon and his lovely wife were at the event, and although they are from the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Washington) they have done some helpful church consulting here in Pennsylvania.  We are delighted to know them and delighted to tell you about this powerhouse of a little book.  It is compact and short and perfect for a small group read. 

Verlon founded the “Dinner Church Collective” which seems like a Fresh Expression sort of church planting network, a movement focused on Jesus’s own mealtime strategies, and a Biblically theology of food and meals.  What would church look like if it was truly revolved around meals, if the practice of eating together was a core practice? Fosner has an Assembly of God background and knows well about church renewal and the power of the Spirit and all kinds of energizing stuff, but nothing has worked as well, he says, until they — nearly out of desperation, in a story he tells in this interesting book — they started doing dinner church.

Leonard Sweet writes this on the back cover:

“What is God up to?” is the question I’m most often asked. “Have you heard of the dinner church movement?” is my most common answer. Read Verlon Fosner to become part of the on f the greatest God-stories of our time.

If after you order this, you like it, order more — we’ve got ’em.  But keep an eye open for more Dinner Church resources, including a DVD guide and workbook. Let us know how we can help you launch your own dinner church movement.

Evangelical, Sacramental & Pentecostal- Why the Church Should Be All Three.jpgEvangelical Sacramental & Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three Gordon T. Smith (I(VP) $17.00  I wish I could say more in this short space about how much I value the rich, deep, mature, theological and spiritual writing of evangelical mystic Gordon Smith. He is wise, thoughtful, ecumenical, and I have read almost all of his many good books.  (He is now the President of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, Alberta where he also teaches spiritual theology.)  He is hard to place as a minister in the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, but I might suggest that he would appeal to anyone that likes his friends Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson.

And so, don’t be scared off when he invites us to be evangelical and sacramental and Pentecostal.  We need not identify with the singular overstatement and toxic abuses of these three streams within the greater Body of Christ, but, taken lightly and appropriated wisely and blended together  —  we don’t have to choose between them, you know! — we can become a church that is truly faithful as the church God has ordained and commissioned. 

As the publisher’s good description insists, “The need for an integrated vision of the community as evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal becomes ever more pressing in our present context.”  

Recovering-from-Un-Natural-Disasters.jpgRecovering from Un-Natural Disasters: A Guide for Pastors and Congregations After Violence and Trauma Laurie Kraus, David Holyan, and Bruce Wismer (Westminster John Knox) $20.00  Oh, how sad that we need a resource like this, and oh how great that somebody has compiled such a seasoned and practical guidebook.  

The key to realizing why you should get this book is in the title, which I hope you picked up: “unnatural disasters.”  We stock a few books about the churches role in natural disasters — floods and hurricanes, say — but I do not know of anything like this in print, explaining the role congregations can play after a school shooting or a sexual abuse scandal or a local hostage crisis. Written from a disaster-recovery framework, these authors bring together some remarkable insights, theological views, and tons of practical, doable, actionable ideas so that you know just what to do when a human-caused disaster or trauma strikes.  With gun violence, racial incidents, publicly reported suicides, and sexual abuse exposes, becoming all to common in our communities, we need guidance on what to say, when and where, how to help and how to help over the longer term as we seek recovery, healing and hope and perhaps make contributions to local reform and solutions.

These authors are involved in Presbyterian National Response Teams for disaster assistance and Holyan has also been an adjunct teacher at Eden Seminary.  Although they are situated within the mainline Protestant tradition, I think any church of any kind should have this, if only to stimulate your own thoughts about leadership — both public and pastoral — if (or should I say when) a local tragedy strikes next. 

This handbook for church leaders guides readers through four phases of a response to human-caused disaster which they call (starting the minute it happens) “Devastation and Heroism” and then “Disillusionment” which can give rise to plans for “Reforming” and achieving “Wisdom.”   They offer sample worship resources such as laments and prayers and music and sermon suggestions that are appropriate to use during these different phases and periods of trauma and recovery. 

Whether you buy this for a pastor or other church ministry staff person, a first responder or public community leader. I think you will be glad you’ve been proactive here, having this resource a bit under your belts for when you may need it next.



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REVIEW: Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture by Craig Bartholomew & Bob Goudzwaard (IVP Academic) ON SALE – 20% OFF

Beyond the Modern Age Goudzwaard.jpgBeyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture by Craig Bartholomew & Bob Goudzwaard (IVP Academic) $35.00  Our sale price $28.00

I really want this review to capture your interest because the book under consideration is important, perhaps one of the most important releases of the year.

I’ve spent probably too much time worrying about how to start: should I extol the qualifications of the co-authors, or tell about my own history with at least one of the authors who I view as a hero, hinting at why those that admire our work here at Hearts & Minds should be interested in this bit of backstory and buy the book from us, of course? Or should I just dive into the substance of the book?

Readers of all sorts should be happy to hear that this pair of authors are colorful characters who are themselves exceptionally good scholars and at least Goudzwaard can properly be called an internationally-esteemed public intellectual. Readers usually like to know of the qualifications of the authors and these guys are excellent.


drama of scripture.gifPerhaps you have read some of Craig Bartholomew’s many books; he has edited or written a wide array of excellent titles, in Biblical studies mostly.  He has made some pretty major contributions to the world of Biblical scholarship, including some extraordinary, major commentaries on wisdom literature, an impressive book on hermeneutics, and he has done some insightful but brief, popular level books – one on praying the Psalms, a short one on Job, another little one called Excellence in Preaching.  Just last week (in my BookNotes review of Keeping Place by Jen Pollock Michel) I described his almost one-of-a-kind serious work on a theology of place called Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today.  Perhaps Craig is most known for his role in what has become one of the most popular introductions to the Bible in use these days, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. That excellent book has been adapted and abridged into a more youthful, much shorter and approachable book called The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama.  

living at the crossroads.jpgBoth of those were co-written by Michael Goheen, with whom he wrote two follow-up books to The Drama of Scripture. The first sequel is called Living in the Crossroads which is a mature and thoughtful guide to what we mean by a Christian worldview (an impressive book that is not as used as much as it should be among us, I’d say) and then a guide to how a reformational worldview might lead to a distinctively Christian approach to philosophy simply called Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction. It’s really quite interesting.


One does not have to read this Bartholomew trilogy (that moves us from Bible to worldview to philosophy) to appreciate his new Beyond the Modern Age but it helps to know that he works out of this broad worldview of “all of life redeemed” that is informed by a wholistic and narrative approach to the “true story of the whole world” found in the plot-line of the Bible that, in turn, funds a serious engagement with the history of philosophy, the world of ideas, showing why such intellectual work is important if we are going to effectively live out of a Biblical story, a Christian worldview, at the crossroads of our modern and postmodern cultures. Yes, being aware that Bartholomew – who studied under the professor of aesthetics and art critic Calvin Seerveld, who schooled him in Dutch neo-Calvinist philosophy affiliated with the names Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven – is that sort of Bible scholar with a view to deep cultural engagement in the line of Kuyper and other such thinkers will help you realize the weight and linage and significance and relevance of Beyond the Modern Age.  Interestingly, he was born in South Africa, and may have met Goudzwaard there decades ago when Bob was leveraging his global significance as a leader in Dutch politics to help create a post-apartheid society there.


One doesn’t have to read all of Bob Goudzwaard’s many books either, but knowing something about him may help not only inspire you to want to pick up this new volume but to do so with great gratitude for his public witness. 


bob goudzwaard.jpgThere is a beautiful appendix in the back of Beyond the Modern Age that is written by one of my old, dear friends, Mark Vander Vennen (co-author of the popular Advent of Justice devotional) which tells of the intellectual and political service of Goudzwaard, who has served as a Member of Parliament in his native Holland.  Bob is a trained economist and even has a prestigious think tank in Holland named after his own unique brand of Scripturally normative, multi-dimensional, stewardly economics. He has worked with the Kuyperian political party in the Netherlands, served as both activist and researcher for the alternative Christian labor union both there and in Canada, and has moved in circles leading ministry conversations between the World Bank and the World Council of Churches.  To say he is one of the most unsung but significant Christian public leaders of our time is not an overstatement and reading Mark’s short tribute to Bob’s dedicated life of service is inspiring and serves as a model of the sort of engaged, influential, impactful participation Christian scholars and leaders can have. (The previous book which Goudzwaard co-authored carries a lovely, very positive introduction by none other than Desmond Tutu which further illustrates his global reputation.) I suggest buying Beyond the Modern Age and starting with that appendix in the back. Framing what is going to be a pretty serious academic read with that kind of extraordinary testimony of public involvement (born from great sacrifice and notable humility) will help you realize how all this might play out. It shows how knowing important theories and scholars and philosophers and their influence, understood in light of a seriously Christian perspective, can nearly make one a 21st century prophet. 


(I share the story often that I was irrevocably struck in the early 70s when a friend gave me a book by the Episcopalian priest and social activist Malcolm Boyd called Are You Running With Me, Jesus? who said that while we may read the Biblical prophets in our Sunday schools and Bible studies but we wouldn’t recognize one if he showed up at our church.  Well, we evangelicals didn’t study Amos or Habakkuk or Jeremiah much, to be honest, in those years, but as some have, we have also learned to discern at least a bit of what the Spirit is doing in our midst now.  I think I can say that I am not alone in seeing the Word of the Lord coming to us today through gentlemen like Bob Goudzwaard.   I hope you recognize that about him and his co-author as well, that these are truly vital thinkers, prophets, almost, for our time. Their “Archaeology of Contemporary Culture” is not only well informed and educational, it is nearly an act of prophecy, bearing witness against the idols of the age, and pointing to positive developments which bear the possibilities of renewal and shalom.)

I’ll admit to a very small connection to the work of Goudzwaard, too: his first two books in English were life-changing for me. I read in maybe 1973 A Christian Political Option published in Toronto by Wedge Publishing that invited a distinctively Christian view of politics and principled citizenship (this long before the rise of the so-called Christian right or the Christian left and long before authors like David Aid for the Overdeveloped West.jpgKoyzis and James Skillen) which left its mark in ways that to this day have kept me disenchanted with simple bipolar partisanship. And Goudzwaard’s wise, justice-oriented set of punchy essays Aid for the Overdeveloped West forever (along with Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Art Simon’s Bread for the World) influenced how I thought about structures and ideologies that shaped and moved our world’s economic arrangements and how such systems are never neutral, but informed by values and priorities that may indicate the presence of false gods and distorted ideologies. These two books reminded me that (just for instance) simple charity is inadequate to fight poverty and simple living and recycling isn’t enough to fight global environmental disasters.


After the publication of his sadly now out of print Capitalism & Progress, a diagnostic study of the history of economic ideas showing that Karl Marx and Adam Smith agreed on much that stemmed from the secular Enlightenment (so Christians should be suspect of any naïve approval of either socialism or capitalism) Bob was led to write a bit more about the very nature of ideas and idolatry.  In idols of our time.jpg1984 IVP published a controversial and widely discussed book, a small paperback called Idols of Our Time with a forward by Howard Snyder. After its first publisher dropped it, for a while Dordt College Press kept it in print, until it became too outdated, in part due to its discussion of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, the nature of which changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in those years.)  For what it is worth, I helped write one paragraph of that book – my friend Mark Vander Vennen was translating it from the Dutch and he needed a few lines about US arms manufacturers since Goudzwaard’s Dutch version cited European corporations and policies and data.  That I helped with a few sentences of one page of Idols of Our Time remains one of the great privileges of my life.


The content of those two seminal works (Capitalism & Progress and Idols of Our Time) on the role of ideologies that become idols that become encoded in policy has been updated significantly and has found its way in this near magnum opus 21st century project.  It would be wrong to say that Beyond the Modern Age is a mere update to C&P and Idols… but that foundational stuff about how ideas become ideologies and thereby fail to give an adequate account of our times and what needs to be done seems to inform this edgy new volume.

And so, dear readers, these authors are intellectual giants and they are leaders of a deeply Biblical sort.  They may not be as well known as other Christian public intellectuals, but they are of the highest caliber.  And I have been influenced considerably by both of them.  For these two reasons I’d like to think that if you are reading this column, if you follow BookNotes or shop at Hearts & Minds, this is a book you should consider.

Beyond the Modern Age Goudzwaard.jpgBeyond the Modern Age: An Archeology… will be a major purchase for you and I suspect it will take some time to work through. It will be worth the effort.  It has, at times, a breezy, conversational style, but the study is substantive, to say the least.  If you’ve been out of college a while, it will be a great opportunity to exercise the old gray matter again, like enrolling in am adult education master’s class in the history of ideas and their contemporary social consequence.  Both authors are capable teachers and usually clear (despite a few quirky phrases and some odd editing choices that I’d have cleaned up a bit.) They are gifted at making very complex philosophies more accessible and they are often helpful at showing why it matters.  It makes for a scholarly book brimming with the excitement of learning and the energy that comes from grappling with important stuff that matters will help any thoughtful and motivated educated reader realize the benefit. It is the kind of stuff you just aren’t going to find anywhere else.



Allow me to share four things about it, and why it is helpful for you to have this information under your belt, why this is good book in which to invest your time. The first is the one I need to say the most about.



First: this book looks at philosophers who have shaped the modern era (yes, we’re talking Locke and Hobbes and Kant and Hegel and Marx and Weber and so many more) as well as those who have thought deeply about its internal religious-like character and the ways in which its faith in false gods has often deformed Western culture.  They draw on cultural critics as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Ellul, Charles Taylor, and Slavoj Zizek, ranging from early critiques of modernity from the likes of John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and Pope Leo XIII to some as contemporary as the recently published Rod Dreher, Chris Hedges, Miroslav Volf and Naomi Klein. Most of these names will be recognized, at least, but if you are like me, you may need a score card to see who is for or against this or that movement of modernity or what each thinker proclaimed.  Are they late modern or post-modern?  Are they useful allies in the effort to discern a wise and consistently Christian approach or are they fundamentally anti-Christian? What do we make of the array of scholars and voices and movements that have arisen to critique and reform the harsh aspects of capitalism, the wasteful and vile nature of arms races, the seemingly intractable problems of global poverty and environmental degradation?  This far-reaching book is more profound and more thorough in walking us through the voices and views that are “out there” then any other resource I know.

craig-bartholomew.jpgSo, first, know it is seriously philosophical and, like the good teachers they are, they go to great pains to explain very much about the thinkers they are teaching us about.  There were times (I beg your pardon if you’re a whole lot smarter than I) when I rolled my eyes when they apologized for skimming too quickly over this thinker or that book or some article they said was influential and we just had to know more about it, when I thought they had gone on at a bit too much length. Ha.  I think for most of us they are quite deep and thorough enough, and you may be tempted to skip a few pages along the way. I won’t admit if I did that or not, but I’m just saying this has moments of very serious critical engagement with assumptions and philosophies of some important thinkers.


Many of the thinkers they examine are major names in the Western canon and their unique critique is really, really helpful.  In an age when we don’t think about the past as much as we ought, nor investigate the genealogy and development of current ideas, this sort of reading is nearly a lost art.   I commend it to you.


Others of the thinkers they examine are representatives of certain counter movements to the grand rationalist Enlightenment project – the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school, for instance, or the views of law in political theorist such as Michael Sandel or John Rawls, or the rise of other critical schools. The way they show the logic of each person’s thought (and often critique it with Biblically-influenced insight) is nothing short of brilliant at times.

These portions of the book are important and not brief.  But they are moderate-level, maybe even introductory at times, teaching us in orderly fashion just what each bit means. But there are other scholars and movements they really spend time on, using their insights in what seemed to me to be innovative and remarkable ways, going deep.



For instance, they have nearly a whole chapter on the heady, brilliant work of the Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff. (You may recall, perhaps, that Rod Dreher cites him approvingly in a chapter in his recent Benedict Option.) In the hands of Bartholomew and Goudzwaard, this stunning thinker becomes lively and vital, and we realize the importance of his approach (using Freud a bit) to the relationship of culture and religion.  One section suggests he can help us “discern the heart of modernity” and walks us through Rieff’s profound analysis. (Rieff’s critique isn’t the same as Charles Taylor’s, but his deep and broad learning and his big picture assessment seemed similar, especially as it examined notions such as “sacred order” and the “loss of the vertical.”  Anyway, it’s that kind of stuff.)



Another major scholar that they examine carefully, with much positive appreciation, is Rene Girard.  Girard has an elaborately worked out approach to culture and its problems, stemming, most deeply, from how violence erupts (even as we use scapegoats) in our anxiety-filled desire to keep up with others. In other words, Bartholomew and Goudzwaard show us that Girard is a critic of misplaced desire. Many progressive and emergent theologians have recently discovered Girard although they have mostly applied his scapegoat theories to how we might think in new ways about sin and salvation, especially looking for nonviolent ways to understand the work of Christ’s death and the role of the cross in Christian theology.  Be that as it may, Goudzwaard is – although deeply spiritual and theologically informed – not a theologian but an economist, and Bartholomew, although mostly a Biblical scholar, is functioning here with his philosophical gifts pushing towards a cultural theory and a vision of social reformation. That is, they are looking at Girard in ways that are more foundational and perhaps more generative for cultural renewal than when thinkers like Greg Boyd or Michael Hardin or Denny Weaver use his work theologically.  Goudzwaard and Bartholomew work to understand Girard’s view of the person, insisting that we along with him ask what it means to be human?  (I think of Vaclav Havel, here, who built much of his art and his political leadership around this very question, the question of responsibility.)   Anyway, his work on Girard is a valuable part of the book and should intrigue many readers who have heard of this deep philosopher and wondered about him.

So, that is all the first reason to study this book: they tell us about key thinkers, helping us understand the intellectual architects of the modern world and the movements that have arisen to stand against some of the modern age.  Culture, counter-culture? Left, right, center? Modern, post-modern?  It’s hard to know where we are, culturally, and – as Brian Walsh put it in Subversive Christianity -to ask “what time is it?” We do not need cheap talk about being woke up.  We need to study this stuff to know deeply what’s going on.



Secondly, this is no mere philosophy class for the sake of learning about deep thinkers, valuable as that may be.  Actually, this is a book that is trying to help us understand the tensions and paradoxes of our culture, in order to open up our insights about seemingly inherent problems to our way of life.  The writers are looking below the surface to get the true lay of the land.


They ask:


The people who are now embarrassed or uncertain about the impacts of modernization – are they not the same people (or very similar to them) who earlier welcomed these developments? Are they not, just like us, the inventors, makers, producers, and promoters of these developments? What happened, perhaps even in the origins of modern thought, to produce such ambivalence today. 


Except for the naïve few who are cheerleaders for Trump-like bluster about easy answers, most of us have mixed feelings about the pros and cons of the modern era.  It seems that every technological blessing comes with a down side and unintended consequences.  Just refining our tools a bit, tinkering with the system, isn’t adequate. Excepting some high-tech computer solution isn’t realistic, either.  Bartholomew and Goudzwaard, incisive and insightful philosophers that they are, can see some of the problems inherent in the very thinkers and founders of the modern age and help us not fall for the basic assumptions and starting points that have help give rise to our social ills in the first place.

They remind us:

The invasion of modernity into contemporary life, thought, technologies, and economies in our societies and cultures is not a value-neutral phenomenon. Modernity brings with it its own mentality and spirituality. 


Listen to them well:


We could even say that if we are not willing to understand the mental and spiritual forces driving modernity – modernity’s “heart and soul,” as it were – we risk not understanding ourselves as modern people or the paradoxes in which we find ourselves mired. All of us, though we live in different cultures, are at least partially touched by the spirit of modernity. And by that spirit we have also tried to construct our own worldviews. 

They teach us that modernity is “the mother of not one but at least four different worldviews. These worldviews have emerged in a dialectical way, each eliciting the others, since the beginning of the modern era. Each of them has its own character and power by which is appeals to people today.”

If you are interested in this whole topic of worldview formation, how our culture thinks and works, what it believes (or, as they insist, how different folks and different quarters within the culture, since there is no one monolithic worldview running the world) Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture will be very significant for your study and reflection.  This book really offers a diagnosis and prognosis of our times.



Thirdly, we should read this book because, in a way, it is a response to the concerns of the rising generation.  They start out the book in the very beginning – and come back time and again – to a set of questions they asked students of theirs and the responses to their student survey.  These students from several continents were mostly young adults, I gather, and their views of the world and their sense of their prospects as they grow into it are fascinating to hear. 


Offering these student conversations in Beyond… are more than a device to help us value their project.  It is a pastoral and caring starting point: they care about what their students are thinking and feeling and are compelled by some duty to serve as elders to them, guiding them towards prospects of future hope.  In a way, I think we all owe it to future generations to hear well the concerns of the current rising young adults, and the way Bartholomew and Goudzwaard articulate the concerns and views revealed by their query of their students is important and enlightening.



Fourthly, as we’ve already implied, we should read this book if we really want to make a difference to make the world a better place.  I’m putting it rather plainly, saying it like that, and I trust you know the more profound way of explaining this motivation: we are called to be stewards of God’s good creation, to make history as “culture makers” and to be responsible as we know what we know about the nature of the world. We are called to live for God’s glory, taking up our vocations to serve as ambassadors of His Kingdom of shalom, and live into the restoration of all things as promised in the redemptive story of the Bible. As gospel-centered people who have accept God’s grace we must show God’s goodness to the world by loving our neighbors well.  We read books like this so that we might love God and love neighbor more faithfully.  Of course, caring for others with Christ-like love certainly means standing in the real world as we know it, advocating for justice, being agents of reconciliation, taking up the calling to be holy peacemakers, and to resist the attitudes and systems and machinations that hurt others people and other creatures.  

That is, if we are to show forth gospel love, we will care about the injustices of the world and try to create alternative ways of ordering our world. We will care about what some call the social architecture, and to reform that, we must redirect the engines driving the systems of the world, even as we think about institutions and ask questions about their role and impact.  To proclaim Christ’s resurrection power over the “principalities and powers” is not merely something we believe, but we have to work it out, show it forth, rebuild this fallen world within the shell of the old. If we care about global pollution, about terrorism, about the inequities of our culture, and the poverty of much of the world, we simply must figure out how to be more responsible agents of God’s transformation.


To faithfully image God in a fallen world means to care, and to care certainly means to know at least some of this kind of material.  We pray for God’s own sake and for the sake of the world that many customers of ours buy and grapple with this kind of book.



There is a very moving chapter in Beyond the Modern Age that draws on the insights of some liberation theology, which is a generous, bold move for these two Reformed evangelicals.  This chapter is called “The Starving Christ and the Preferential Option for the Poor” and they insist that poverty is a major crisis within modernity and that modern consumerism is not sustainable.  They explore whether the world is increasingly secularizing (as the secular prophets all predicted) and show that that traditional religion is in a time of resurgence.  And they happily show that religion – especially the Christian religion – has resources to bring fundamental change at the level of worldviews and ideas and values.  It is beautiful in seeing their comfort in talking about Christ and faith and Biblical teaching in a book that could easily be given to modern think-tank scholars or serious public leaders (if they read, which isn’t a given these days.) They weave together talk about the Year of Jubilee and international banking and micro-financing and stuff about agriculture and family life and foreign policy, and carbon emissions, as one seamless, integrated argument.  This is, obviously, a deeply Christian book but it draws into the conversation the best cultural thinkers and holds up the best social initiatives for political pluralism or renewable energy or solutions to global health issues.



In a way, this is even another reason to read Beyond the Modern Age. It models the sort of Christian scholarship that is principled but conversant with a world of varying voices.  It is respectful, stands in dialogue with others, and even invites us to such interfaith conversations and mutual efforts among people of good intent all over.  It really is a remarkable book, inviting us to live more generously, informed and open minded, even as we are motivated by the gospel of Christ. 

As this dynamic duo engage the contemporary crises they call us to find solutions from a place outside and beyond the quandaries inherent in the very assumptions of the modern age.  Again, it seems to me that if we want to love God we must love the world, and to do that, we have to understand it and find lasting, true-to-life, workable ways to foster flourishing and healing and hope. Beyond the Modern Age will help you do that.  It doesn’t provide a blueprint, let alone simple steps.  But it gives a deep down prophetic critique and some direction for 21st century reformation.  Like the Old Testament prophets themselves it carries a ministry of both denunciation and annunciation; it says no to some things and it announces some good news, too. 

Although this is not a preachy book, heavy as it is on analysis and explanation, Drs. Goudzwaard and Bartholomew do on occasion lean into inspiring calls to deeper faith. 


As they put it:

We encourage you not to underestimate the challenges involved in “living the solution.” We have, we hope, made a pervasive and concrete case for hopeful solutions to some of our most pressing problems. But as Christ-followers we are only too aware that one of the tragedies of sin is not that there are no solutions, but that we choose to ignore them. America, the powerhouse of globalization, if full of Christians but the privatization of religion resulting from modernity ensures that far too many of us confess Christ on Sunday, then live in ways that reinforce the worst elements of the classical modern worldview from Monday to Saturday. As authors, we readily confess our own complicity in this respect. The result is that the American church is too often like a sleeping giant, fast asleep while the idols of our day wreck havoc around the world. Mercifully, the options remain for us to wake up, recover the full dimensions of faith, and bring them to bear on the critical issues of our day. Nothing less than the glory of God and the well-being of creation are at stake.



So,  we should read this book to exercise our brains a bit, to engage heart and mind in some serious learning.  Most of us are not called to do high level philosophy, and this book will stretch you more than a bit, I’d guess. But it’s a good project.  Especially leaders need to be serious readers, so consider this a subscription to the mental gym. Just do it, friends. Godspeed.

Further, as I explained, we should read and struggle with this book because it does, in fact, inform us about ideas and ideologies and idols and bad movements that are hurting our world.  We don’t have time to mess around rearranging chairs in a ship that is sinking (and I do not think that a Benedict option of retreat and self-preservation is faithful or plausible, either.) We must be more radical, which is to say, we must be about getting at the roots of the problem. We need in-depth evaluation, good diagnosis, and profound insights leading towards real answers.  With God’s help, we can make a lasting difference in this time of civil frustrations, global climate change, international military threats, and extreme poverty, but we will need this sort of heavy background study if we want to do more than put on mere Band-Aids over the deep illness of our culture.


Here are just three important leaders who commend this book:


Goudzwaard and Bartholomew are two of the very best at interpreting Western culture. They dig deep to the religious foundations of our culture, which is so important for the church’s mission today. This is a very important book!” (Michael W. Goheen, director of theological education, MTC, scholar-in-residence, Surge Network, author of A Light to the Nations and Introducing Christian Mission Today)


This new book by Bob Goudzwaard and Craig Bartholomew provides an insightful analysis of the world in which we live?its paradoxes and the various worldviews that undergird our beliefs and practices. This timely book also offers a prophetic prescription for our (post)modern malaise, including both an honest critique of what ails us and hope-filled guidance about practical ways forward. Richly informed by the Bible and the Christian tradition, this urgent call to faithful countercultural discipleship is highly recommended.” (Steve Bouma-Prediger, professor of religion, Hope College, author of For the Beauty of the Earth)


Beyond the Modern Age is essential reading for all seeking to navigate their way through the complex cultural and worldview issues associated with the modernization of our world. Offering skillful and insightful analysis shaped and informed by the Kuyperian tradition, Goudzwaard and Bartholomew guide readers through the worlds of philosophy, economics, politics, theology, and culture in a compelling way. This volume is vitally important not because all readers will agree with the proposals and conclusions offered, nor because the authors provide us with a final word, but because Goudzwaard and Bartholomew have constructively advanced the conversation and modeled the kind of serious intellectual engagement needed by thoughtful Christians in our day.” (David S. Dockery, president, Trinity International University)


Beyond the Modern Age Goudzwaard.jpg


Bartholomew & Goudzwaard’s Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture is a book that I want to get behind, to promote and recommend, but I realize it isn’t for everyone, even at our discounted price. There are other books that offer at least a portion of this same kind of critique of the idols of the age and that offer a multi-faceted proposal for healing our most pressing global concerns, interconnected and strange and stressful as they are.  Here are some books that might be of interest while we are thinking about these urgent things.

strange days mark sayers.jpgStrange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval Mark Sayers (Moody Press) $13.99  Unlike the big Goudzwaard & Bartholomew book, this is casual, upbeat, easy to read, filled with personal anecdotes, and is pretty cool, even though it walks us through the unsettling days that are spinning so fast that things seem almost out of control.  I respect Sayers, who is very informed by serious reading and deep considerations, but he has a way to communicate (especially younger, energetic readers) that really works.  He has a wonderful book on consumerism and hyper-reality called The Trouble with Paris and another exploring the deeper sense of self in our glitzy culture called The Vertical Self.  He wrote an insightful book called The Road Trip That Changed the World which is about Jack Kourac and his influential book On the Road. Sayers’s last book was called The Disappearing Church which should be read by anyone curious about the decline of church life in our contemporary culture.  Anyway, this new book looks at global stuff a bit, speaks to concerns I know you have such as the fears of international terrorism and radical Islam, and the other forces that cause us to characterize our era as a time of upheaval.  If you’ve never read any books about the fast-spinning modern times and the array of social changes that bring anxiety and confusion to most, this is a fine, very interesting book with which to start. He says he “writes from the future” but I think this strangeness is upon us now.  I recommend it highly.

everything must change.jpgEverything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide  Brian McLaren (Nelson) $14.99  Several years ago Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen, and David Van Heemst, wrote a deep and thoughtful book about the relationship of global poverty, degradation of the environment, and the threat of terrorism and war. It was called Hope for Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crisis and we still carry it and try to sell it to those interested in these global concerns. In a way, HFTT predicted the deeper work found in Beyond the Modern Age as it asked us to understand the faith-like/ideological engine that drives, the fuel that is spent, in the running of the modern world. What convictions and forces keep it going as it does?  Can we see the interrelationship of our most pressing social problems and re-frame things in a healing and hopeful way? Well, Brian McLaren read that book and it moved him deeply and it stimulated his own thinking. Inspired by these three authors (which he playfully called the hopesters) he wrote his own version, which is, admittedly, more engaging and clever than Hope for Troubled Times. I really like this book and very highly recommend it.


Break Open the Sky- Saving Our Faith from the Culture of Fear.jpgBreak Open the Sky: Saving Our Faith from the Culture of Fear Stephan Bauman (Multnomah) $15.99 I had the privilege of having an advanced readers copy of this brand new release and I simply couldn’t put this book down; I hope to revisit it at BookNotes again before long. I think I can say that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, a study of global pressures, social concern, and why fear seems to grip us in ways that aren’t helpful or faithful.  Formerly the director of World Relief, Stephan and his wife have travelled all over the world and the stories here are from brave folks on every continent. This is incisive in its examination of why we are too often unwilling to follow God’s call into the world of need, offering service and faithfulness, and he inspires us gently to care more, understand more, give more of ourselves to be present to the pain and the joy of it all.  It ends up being – it doesn’t say this until the end and you then see it – a study of the Beatitudes.  What a great book about how to live well in our fearful, complicated, even dangerous times.

I respect Ken Wytsma (founder of The Justice Conference) and serious writer, himself.  Listen to what he wrote about it:

Rarely do I read something with such deep spiritual analysis, profound insight, and poetic storytelling as Stephan Bauman’s new book Break Open the Sky. For those who think they already know the good news of Christ but still long for more, this short, honest, and beautifully written book is what you have been waiting for. Break Open the Sky is a timeless contribution to Christian and human spirituality.

–Ken Wytsma, president of Kilns College and the author of The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith

I like this recommendation blurb by Bill Haley (brother of spiritual formation author Ruth Haley Barton, by the way) who runs a retreat center ministry called Coracle.  Bill writes,

In uncertain and anxious times, Break Open the Sky is a critically important book for those who want not just to survive but to thrive. It is for those who want to find joy and power and impact in any season, especially the challenging ones. This is must reading for anyone who wants to go deeper into God and deeper into the real world we live in. This book couldn’t be more timely.” 

–Rev. Bill Haley, executive director of Coracle

Completing Capitalism- Heal Business to Heal the World .jpgCompleting Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub (Berrett Koehler) $19.95  I am thrilled to tell you about this and hope to write more about it at BookNotes once I read it more carefully. Completing Capitalism  just released and we couldn’t be more eager to have you know about it.  Maybe the best way to introduce BookNotes readers to it is to remind you of some of the stories my friend Steve Garber tells in his extraordinary book Visions of Vocation about his work as a fellow on a team working with the Mars Corporation – yes, the family-owned candy company – helping them think through the world of work in that company,  he character of modern day agriculture, the nature of business ethics, the vision that might underpin a new way of thinking about profit and corporate sustainability, the integral aspect of social responsibility of the corporation.  These two authors – who are respected in high level economic circles, especially in Europe – have forged a manifesto of sorts that takes issue with a singular view of profit-making, insisting that the task and calling of a business, and the rubrics that measure its success, simply has to be about more than money-making.  They are not the first or only economists calling for a more multi-dimensional definition of business success (they’ve read Bob Goudzwaard on this, I’m sure) but this book is nonetheless very significant, fleshing out, as it does, what this might look like, even in a corporation like Mars, Inc.

You probably know the unchristian insight of free market guru Milton Friedman who wrote about how greed should, indeed, be our guide in business and how any notion whatsoever of social responsibility for a business (other than making money) is anathema. (That some Christian colleges and think-tanks teach this unbiblical nonsense is beyond me.) You may know the famous line written by the more liberal John Maynard Keynes (which is cited in the Bartholomew/Goudzwaard book) about how the “avarice must be our god a little longer still” as he advised us to continue our admittedly sinful economic ways. Keynes perhaps didn’t think this sort of arrangement was best, but he felt like we needed to continue to serve those false gods.  Well, anyway, this obsessive focus on a reductionistic view of the role of profit was a major cause of the abuses that nearly sunk the global economy in 2008, was it not?

Completing Capitalism attempts to re-frame the conversation about what a business is, what meaningful work is, what profit is, what the marketplace is, and how to measure the outcomes of a faithful, sustainable, truly successful business. This line of thought is a true gift.


Here’s what the always eloquent and wise Steve Garber says about it:

As human beings we long for the way the world is supposed to be, even as we make choices against that hope. For years Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub have been hard at work thinking and rethinking the way that business should be and ought to be–if we are to flourish as selves and societies, choosing a future that understands the grain of the universe. With a rare willingness to ask the most critical questions about the nature of business, their ‘economics of mutuality’ is a vision for doing good and doing well in the context of one of the most iconic brands in the modern world. Neither charity nor corporate social responsibility, but rather a way for sustained profitability, Completing Capitalism argues for making money in a way that remembers the meaning of the marketplace.


And listen to what Peter Block says of it:


A major breakthrough on creating an economy that works for all. The thinking is rigorous and backed up by careful research on how mutuality-based practices in social, human, natural, and financial capital can change the economic well-being of society. This work now sets the gold standard for how the private sector can go beyond lip service in making a major positive impact on the world.


The Gods in Whom They Trusted.jpgThe Gods in Whom They Trusted: A Foundation for Transitioning to a New Social World Arnold De Graaff (Heathwood Press) $37.99 When I first met Goudzwaard in the 1970s he was doing some teaching at the heady grad school in Toronto called ICS, the Institute for Christian Studies. Arnold De Graaf taught there then and, along with James Olthius, brought philosophical anthropology to the interdisciplinary learning community until he left to become a therapist.  Although De Graaf continues to work as a psychotherapist (perhaps because he works as a deep psychotherapist)  he is very much aware of the deeper cultural forces that hurt us and here he studies in a deep and transformative radical way the social dysfunctions that lead to stuff like the destruction of our land, air, and seas, the global climate change crisis, and systemic violence built in to many of our ways of ordering life.  This book is quite new, very thick (just over 900 pages) a project he’s worked on for years, apparently.  In the acknowledgements he credits Lambert Zuidervaart’s Artistic Truth: Aesthetics, Discourse, and Imaginative Disclosure which is curious (and reminds me of Goudzwaard and Bartholomew’s fondness for Calvin Seerveld, Zuidervaart’s mentor.)  Zuidervaart, by the way, has recently done his own scholarly book on how the study of philosophy might help evoke and social change; see his Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy.


Thank You for Being Late- An Optimists' Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.jpgThank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $28.00  Goudzwaard and Bartholomew are quick to suggest reading widely and, although as Christians we should be critical about answers that are too entwined with the very assumptions of Enlightenment rationalism and faith in progress that causes our most intractable global economic problems, it is still valuable to be aware of the world’s leading thinkers.  There is no doubt that the often cited, award-winning New York Times columnist is one of these world-class leading thinkers.  This is his new collection of pieces, a very engaging and important volume, especially because he is attuned to some of the oddly paradoxical forces of modernity that he describes as “an age of accelerations.” This is a provocative insight and I’d love to hear what Goudzwaard says of this angle.  In part, Friedman is concerns about “reconstructing social ties so that people feel respected and welcomed.” This has gotten rave reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review which said it was his “most ambitious book yet.” That reviewer said “after your session with Dr. Friedman, you have a much better idea of the forces that are upending your world, how they work together, and what people. companies, and governments can do to proser. You’ll have a coherent narrative for why the world is the way it is.”  Well, I suspect he hasn’t yet read Beyond the Modern World so I’ll take that line with a grain of salt, but it sure indicates the sweeping and important nature of this recent best-seller.  We’re glad to stock it here.


cultural_problems.jpgCultural Problems in Western Society: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $17.99  I did a long, breathy review of Seerveld’s stunning six-part collection of essays, lectures, sermons, papers, and articles, published as a series of “Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures” when they first came out. Three are about the arts and philosophical aesthetics, one shows forth his remarkable writings about the Bible, and one is mostly about education and the writing of history. This one, Cultural Problems, introduced by Barbara Carvill, looks mostly at European conditions, and some of the essays are, in fact, about the role of artists within the political and economic situations in Europe. Some of these pieces actually cite his good friend Bob Goudzwaard and a few have great resonance with the vision found in Beyond the Modern Age: An Archeology of Contemporary Culture. Some of Seerveld’s dense and colorful chapters were first speeches given to the European Union and a few look at issues such as “Human Multiculturality” and gender justice, and another is on the development of cities which explores “cultural dialogue as a human resource for the integration of Europe.”  If you are interested in how serious work on aesthetics and good art can play a healing, helpful role in a broken and injustice society, see another in this six part series of sundry writings, the volume entitled Redemptive Art in Society.  


subversive 2nd.jpgSubversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time Brian J. Walsh (Wipf & Stock) $15.00  When this was re-issued a few years back with a serious new chapter I did a pretty extensive description in BookNotes, and I started it off noting that Brian was friends with Dutch economist Bob Goudzwaard.  Which makes me naturally want to list it here, now.  I need to trim down what I wrote there, but hopefully my comments captures the energy of the prose itself. Subversive Christianity is a great, great, little book, a powerhouse.

As is clear in the four original chapters, Walsh thinks the true gospel
of God’s Kingdom offers a radical deconstruction of the wrong ideologies
and hurtful ideas and sinful structures that are the idols of our time
and that have facilitated human folly and dysfunction and dis-ease. The reign of God — the journey out of exile and through the desert and towards a new Jerusalem — is the penultimate story (Christ, his Jubilee inauguration speech, his move towards the cross, his passion and resurrection being the ultimate story) which should shape the imaginations and lifestyles of the people of God, and such a drama is truly a subversive message.  One cannot build a glad new world, or, more precisely, testify to its promised coming, unless one firstly renounces the grim news of the false gods, deconstructing and resisting the dominant narrative of the American dream and its bankrupt ideals.  Which is to say this gospel
story subverts the (ab)normal, frames our lives with new hopes and desires and dreams, which, of course, brings into greater clarity the cost of discipleship.  Being counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, subversive, revolutionary, even, is hard.  But such a discipleship, grounded in real life and real hope bears fruit in lasting, deep joy (even through shed tears.)

The shift from grief to hope, from Good Friday to Easter, isn’t easy, but it is the arc of the Biblical story, even though too many churches and Christian TV preachers and Christian books don’t push us too deeply to
consider these things. This book helps us with that, immensely so.

In the first pages of Subversive Christianity Walsh confesses to not dealing much with suffering in Transforming Vision and this personal remark is important. Indeed, the third chapter, about
grief and lament, was delivered the night of the death of a dear colleague, an IVCF staff worker at Brock University; again the pathos is palpable, as we lament the human condition, our own souls, and
particularly the sadnesses of a culture bent on war and materialism, led by scholars and leaders who promote false hopes and harmful ideas. This critical demeanor, grounded in grief, is abundantly clear in Walsh’s
feisty insistence that there is a malaise loose in the land, and that it is urgent to name it.  And name it he does.

From the false prophecy of uber-conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama
to the far left politics of Bruce Cockburn, Walsh draws on contemporary
thinkers, artists, ideas and trends, to bring into focus the
fundamentally subversive power of the Biblical texts that erode all
false gods and upset all false hopes. These passionate, playful,
creative, powerful sermons were worth their weight in gold, and became a
life-line for some of us who rarely heard such evangelical faith
proclaimed with such verve and guts.  This wasn’t merely Marxist
liberation theology, it wasn’t inspirational humanism or the incipient
social gospel, this was full on evangelical Bible study,
Christ-honoring, stuff.  Walsh’s good friend Tom Wright wrote
the foreword, saying it is a “powerful little book.” After extolling his
study of contemporary culture and his patient academic work, Wright
says of Brian, “he has also drunk deeply from biblical theology, and
provides clear and creative exegesis of several passages in a way which
breathes new life into them. Walsh brings together the Bible and the
modern world in a way which is as original as it is compelling.”  \

This is exactly right, and these chapters do indeed bring together very
insightful cultural studies and socio-political analysis with
tremendous, exciting Bible exposition.

The first of the four chapters is titled “Imaging God in Babylon” about
which he summarizes, “Christianity is a subversive cultural movement;
the Christian community and worldview conflict; we are called to image
God.” He offers a contextual rehearing of Genesis 1:26 – 28 that is
nothing short of brilliant.  I’m sure he thanks Richard Middleton for
some of this, who later went on to write the magisterial Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1
which is now footnoted in the updated edition.

Chapter two is called “Beyond Worldview to Way of Life: A Diagnosis.” Here he
explores the “worldview/way of life gap.” There is a profound diagnosis
of Western culture (by way of Bob Goudzwaard. Here, he invites a truly prophetic response and pushes
us to realize that merely getting a new “worldview” — incanting stuff
against dualism, affirming a wholistic gospel, realizing the connection
between creation/fall/redemption and the like – simply doesn’t seem to
carry the capacity to change lives and lifestyles. This frustrating gap
between a multi-dimensional, Kingdom worldview and the way those who
hold to such broad visions still live in the world – captive? — is
named and explored.

By the way, I think this talk was first delivered at the Jubilee
conference in Pittsburgh.

The third chapter of Subversive… is “Waiting for a Miracle: Christian Grief at the End of History” and, as
you might guess if you followed much-discussed books from those years, he contrasts the then-popular scholar Francis Fukuyma who released The End of History that year at first with Bruce Cockburn’s song inspired by Central American peasants, “Waiting for a Miracle,”  but then, surprisingly, in a brilliant section, with the true prophet, Jeremiah. This is a fabulous example of an incisive critique of a
modern scholar and his role in shaping North American political and
economic policy, and then a shift to profound Biblical lament.  

It is hard to say which of the chapters in this book is my favorite, but each offer profound insight, and reward repeated readings. And this one is stunning.

The last chapter is “Waiting for a Miracle: Christian Hope at the End of History” (notice the one-word switch in the sub-title.) In this chapter he cites Cockburn’s “pilloried saints” and Jeremiah (again.) I love the
“real estate at the end of history” piece, about the stunt where Jeremiah buys land behind enemy lines, and how Brian uses that as a parable for our times.  Wow! He insists we are all still “waiting for a miracle” but this time, with hope, hope that we can embody and live into.  

I have to admit when we got the new edition in a week ago, I turned to this chapter first. 

This brand new expanded edition offers a new chapter, oddly called a “post script” which offers much more than a post script, but which is a full on, serious piece. This new chapter brings us up-to-date
is called “Subversive Christianity 22 Years Later.” Here Brian asks “what time was it” and “what time is  t?”

Look, I read a lot of books (and many of you do too.) And most of us listen
to a lot of speakers, take in weekly sermons. There is hardly anybody
who writes or preaches like Walsh does, and I am more than happy to
commend this — I am compelled to.  It might shock you, you might not
agree, you may be driven to ponder your own faith community and its
cultural accommodation and the maturity of its prophetic imagination. I
know this is touchy stuff, and I don’t mean to sound negative or
critical, but the diagnosis and re-envisioning going on here is so very
useful. You will be better for it, I am sure of it.

Here is the last paragraph of the last page of the new post script, Jeremiah Revisited, so to speak:

Build houses in a culture of homelessness. Plant gardens in polluted and
contested soil. Get married in a culture of sexual consumerism. Make
commitments in a world where we want to always keep our options open.
Multiply in a world of debt. Have children at the end of history. Seek
shalom in a violent world of geo-political conflict and economic
disparity. This is Jeremiah’s word to the exiles. This is Jeremiah’s
subversive word to us. And in this vision we just might see, with
Jeremiah, a future with hope. (Jer. 29:11.) This is what is means to
work and wait for a miracle. This remains at the heart of a subversive


Makers of Modern Christian Social Thought- Abraham Kuyper and Pope Leo XIII .jpgMakers of Modern Christian Social Thought: Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper on the Social Question  Jordan J. Ballor (Acton Institute) $14.95  In my above reflection on how Goudzwaard and Bartholomew draw on so many old (as well as recent) cultural critics I mentioned that they draw on both Kuyper and Pope Leo XIII.  Both deserve more credit and discussion then this review allows, and I’m sure both Bartholomew and Goudzwaard would agree that in many ways there are overlapping themes among these two intellectual giants of the late 1800s.  Even as the Industrial Revolution was being exposed as a very mixed blessing  and danger (with oppression of the working classes, child labor, severe working conditions, and the like) Karl Marx cried out.  But his was not the only voice raised against the excesses of unrestrained capitalism, and many Christians talked about “the social question.”  In the year of 1891 Pope Leo developed key insights from the Roman Catholic tradition (most powerfully seen in his encyclical Rerum Novarum) and Abraham Kuyper gave his passionate speech “Christianity and the Class Struggle” to The Christian Social Congress.  (That Kuyper book has more recently been released under the name The Problem of Poverty. Ballor (with a PhD from the University of Zurich) knows much about the history of thinking about markets and such, and in this small, meaty paperback he provides a good overview of both of these seminal thinkers as they shaped some consensus between Catholics and Calvinists about the nature of a nuanced, gospel-informed vision of social theory and has a large excerpt of each of the two men’s writings. Ballor’s introductions are very helpful and the primary source material is vital. Very highly recommended.


Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition.jpgContours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction Craig Bartholomew (IVP Academic) $40.00  I would be remiss not to mention this recent, magisterial, definitive treatment of the theological and social tradition of the great Dutch Reformed thinker and leader, Abraham Kuyper. He was a remarkable figure in the early 1900s and it is significant that Goudzwaard worked within a modern version of Kuyper’s AR political party. There is nothing like this book and it serves as an excellent background book to understand why Bartholomew and Goudzwaard think as they do in Beyond the Modern Age. Some of their insight clearly is in the line of this great Dutch statesman and critic of the French Revolution and although they are exceptionally ecumenical, this reveals their deepest theological tradition. Apart of influence some of this has on Beyond the Modern Age, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition is certainly one of the most important theological books of the year and should be on the reading list of certainly any Reformed thinkers, and I’d say nearly anyone interested in contemporary theological trends.



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