READ the Introduction to Serious Dreams: Live Well, Do Good, Be True

You can read for free the serious introduction from Serious Dreams by scrolling down a bit. Or, enjoy my bit of background explanation and sharing my appreciation for the support we’ve seen for this new project, first if you’d like. I did a thorough explanation of it and its various authors and chapters at the last BookNotes blog post, here.


BB and BB.jpgBeth and I (and our friends at the publisher of my new book, Square Halo Books) are truly gratified by those who have said so many nice things about the recent release Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life  (Square Halo Books; regularly $12.95; on sale here for $11.50.) Facebook and Twitter have been aflutter with good wishes and we are grateful for friends who have celebrated this milestone with us. (Special thanks for the champagne the big day the boxes of books arrived, Derek!) 

We are so appreciative of those who follow our work, who value the BookNotes reviews and website lists, and the authors and ideas and visions we try to promote here through our small town bookstore.  That some have said that they value our store, so want to have my book no matter what it is about is, well, almost embarrassing.  I am also deeply touched by the loyalty and friendship of our customers and friends in the publishing industry. I wasn’t prepared for the mix of feelings about all this; that could be a column itself, I suppose. I know other artists and writers and I now realize more then ever what it feels like to put yourself out there, and see what happens.


We are glad for those who have bought bunches of the new book to give as gifts to those graduating from college (or other kinds of schools) this season – or other young adults who are perhaps transitioning into new stages of their lives or careers.  As a collection of graduation day speeches by famous and thoughtful evangelical Christians who are known for the integration of faith and thinking, for being wise about the relation of the Bible and life, for their passion in nurturing a worldview that includes key notions of calling and vocation, helping clarify a spirituality of work and social engagement, well, you can see why we think it is great as a graduation gift. It has more substance than those little collections of aphorisms and, given how very relevant it is, its size and shape and feel, we think it has a chance of actually being read by those to whom it is gifted.  

If you see yourself as part of the movement that has been talking about these things in the last decade or so, if you love books as we suspect you do, if you want to help others catch the vision of this lively and generative whole-life-discipleship, we hope you will help us get the word out about this little volume.  Is there somebody you can give it to?  Can you ask your own church to considering honoring their college grads by giving out a few Serious Dreams?  Heck, I’ll even autograph them if you want.


Serious Dreams cover.jpgBut, there’s more.  (You’d be disappointed if I didn’t do my earnest book-selling pitch, wouldn’t you?) You see, we truly are confident that this collection of relatively short reflections can be enjoyed by nearly anyone.  The speeches really are that good.  The authors are worth knowing and considering. Reading or sharing this little book is a simple way to offer a great introduction for yourself or for those you care about to a handful of important voices you should know.  Maybe it is like those “best of the year” album compilations where in one CD you can get all the hits of that year.  Well, these little talks maybe weren’t big hits across the country, but these authors are stars, and I am proud to have had the opportunity to curate this project, selecting  wonderfully inspiring talks that cohered, by women and men I admire. We think it deserves a wide reading.

So. Serious Dreams is a collegiate graduation gift, certainly, and yet because it is a short collection of reflections/essays about calling and work and the gospel of the Kingdom, it is a way to hear some of the thinking about these themes by the finest writers doing this kind of work these days; again, it is good for anyone who wants a short book of robust thinking, motivational passion and Biblical vision for serving God in the contemporary culture.  The questions for reflection at the end of each chapter make it particularly useful to read devotionally, too.


A couple of friends asked me about how I came to do this, or what it was like working on it.  I’ve written a page or two here about that, but if you want to skip down and read my introductory chapter to the book, please do. I hope you enjoy it.

Writing well is hard work.  I know that, of course, but since my BookNotes reviews are composed on the fly, in between customers and conferences, I admit that they sometimes could use a second or third draft. 

Good grammar is not my love language, anyway, and too often the ideas come faster than my fingers can type. (And I do often take solace in the great chapter in Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies called “Love the Long Sentence.”)  editing-symbols-632x345.jpegUsually, I’m not crafting beautiful prose for the ages – although I try to make it interesting – since most days my job is to alert readers to new and worthy book releases. When a waiter explains the catch of the day or the special soup, she uses a few lovely adjectives, but the recitation is designed to get the job done.  

When I set out, though, to craft a talk or sermon, I usually don’t write it out fully, but work from an outline of sorts.  A year ago, however, when I was given an honorary doctorate from Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and had the grand privilege of doing the commencement speech there, I realized that the big occasion demanded a line by line manuscript. It was a manuscript to be delivered, out loud, though, and my speaking style is very different then my customary writing style.

When I had to edit said (lengthy) manuscript a half-a-year later to be included in this book idea I cooked up – – well, I learned how little I knew about serious editing.  Yes, I curated the volume, selecting and arranging those that fit the purpose of the book, but the details of trimming mine down to size was, shall we say, daunting.  Tweaking it is the inelegant word we used, but to allow it to sound right on the page (no matter that it received great reviews as a speech) took more than tweaking.

The legendary, passionate civil rights leader, John M. Perkins, never preaches from a manuscript, I learned, and although he only has a third grade education (he was raised in the Mississippi delta, a son of poverty-stricken black share croppers) he has been awarded a number of honorary degrees. He has long been one of my heroes and we were so honored to have his involvement.  Dr. Perkins gave a tremendous, passionate, commencement address at Seattle Pacific University, and was kind to offer us a transcript of his talk.  Again, I learned something about the art of editing an orally-given, live speech, one laden with off-the-cuff asides, ebonics, black preaching moves. It was fun tweaking that one a bit, allowing it to sing on the page as well as it did in when performed in person.

Other speeches in Serious Dreams were presented by academics, those who routinely craft manuscripts that read well out loud, but that were also perfect for the printed page.  To have me, of all people, check the grammar and tenses and participles of scholars as renowned as Nicholas Wolterstorff (whose books are published by world-class, serious publishers such as Eerdmans, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press) or the exceptionally concise and always clear Richard Mouw, or the  eloquent and profound Steve Garber, reminded me these last months that God must surely have a sense of humor.  Amy Sherman’s years of work on her magisterial book Kingdom Calling allowed her to present an impeccable presentation; we have met a time or two and she trusted me and we were so glad to have her remarkable speech. Dr. Claudia Beversluis, of Calvin College, also had a manuscript that was just perfect — I’ve said it before, but it was watching her moving speech drawing somewhat on a Wendell Berry poem that inspired me to compile these talks.  But still, I had to work on them all, of only a bit.

I felt a little like Moses who told God that he couldn’t speak well enough for such a job.  Who me? Moses asked God.  Yes you, came the Divine reply.  Of course, Mo was given a well-spoken sidekick, and Beth was obviously my learned partner in crime in this part of the project. ( And some late nights we texted our grammarian daughter, Stephanie, who is pretty much the most savvy grammar geek I know, who helped us puzzle a way out of a few verbal quagmires as we edited one line, creating rippling effects of other lingual inconsistencies.)  All the while I kept thinking of the lovely autobiography of the late great Lewis Smedes, My God and I, which tells of Smedes finding himself becoming a Reformed thinker at Calvin College more then half a century ago ago because he learned there that “God loved participles.” 

And so, under the microscope these pieces went, and – no surprise – most were nearly impeccable, and we concluded that we’d bring them into the book largely unedited.  

Early on in this project I had to figure out what to do about the idiosyncrasies of these speeches that were delivered live in a particular place.  Should I leave in the names and lingo of that place, as the speech was delivered, or edit out stuff that may not be germane for other readers? (Mine was maybe the one that spoke the most about the social location of the speech, naming faculty members and a bit of the legacy of Geneva College there in the Beaver Valley of Western Pennsylvania, even celebrating certain connections to the CCO and the beloved Jubilee conference.) I didn’t want readers, especially younger ones, to be distracted by odd jargon or in-house references.

To explain my choice to leave some of the local color intact, I wrote a little forward for Serious Dreams called “A Word About Speeches” which made the case that listening in to speeches delivered in other people’s settings, is a good thing. Among other things, I wrote,

We edited out a few of the congratulatory comments at the start of each. The speakers, of course, named the college Presidents, thanked everybody on the dais, made nice with the Trustees. They are all earnestly polite and we wouldn’t want you to think otherwise. We did leave a number of the particularities of each speech intact, not to bore you with details of those specific places, with their own heroes and lingo and traditions, but because they were germane to the actual speech, and to illustrate that these were real talks, messages crafted for a certain group of people, in a particular place. That’s how it often works: we lean in and listen to others, even if their locations and situations are a bit dissimilar to our own. Their storied specificity actually keeps us from being too abstract and lofty. Christian faith is always embodied, down to earth, real. We think these are good examples of that.

Of course these were originally spoken and heard, live. They were each delivered at real places and have that story-telling energy and sermonic style, but we think they are universal enough to be of great benefit, here in print, in mostly unedited form. We think that the largest story of which they speak–the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom–comes through the details of these various places. We’re sure you’re smart enough to notice the instances where the unique setting shines through, and appreciate that for what it is: authenticity.

graduate2.jpg.CROP.rtstory-large.jpgMy first vision for this book, as I’ve said, was to create a gift book to give to graduating college seniors. I love college students, and, mostly through the CCO,  have come to be friends with a number of such students. There are many nice gift items for high school seniors, but fewer good ones for Christian students commencing out of college, graduate programs, trade school, or transitioning out of other contexts.  We were clear on early drafts of the cover that these were graduation speeches, even with a cool cover design showing iconic mortarboard caps flying in the air.  One early reader, though, thought these chapters were so good, so rich, so useful for nearly anyone entering the work-world, or setting out to make a difference in the world, that he convinced us not to risk the book becoming merely a souvenir of the big day.  That friend believed in our project, appreciated these authors, and insisted that we pitch it not only as a gift for graduates, but as a solid book that deserves to  be kept handy on one’s desk or bookshelf, carried,  shared, pondered deeply, talked about in book clubs, college fellowship groups and young adult ministry gatherings. These are all graduation speeches, and the epilogue specifically offers practical advice for those launching out right out of college, but we think that the speechshipp students.jpges are universal enough to be adapted to the printed page, and released as what we hope will become an enduring little collection.

And you’d be surprised at the dozens of possible titles we brainstormed. This title, that subtitle, and vice versa. Some art work had to be jettisoned once we changed the title. And vice versa. I knew this was complicated (and I know a number of good authors who had little say over the cover art of their precious book.) What a stressful, complicated process that was.

Serious Dreams cover.jpgWe messed around for weeks and weeks, with the cover, then, and Ned Bustard, the remarkable Creative Director of Square Halo Books and book designer, did a good job working with us. The cover font, he explained, has a youthful zest to it that counters a bit of the heavy pomp of the title. The meaning of the acorn/oak trees motif is obvious in a book designed to help launch young adults into the world, inviting them to bloom where they are planted.  One of the great chapters, in fact, given by Claudia Beversluis, a former Provost of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cites a Wendell Berry poem, “The Memory of the Seed,” using Berry’s poetic reminder of this insight: things of our past reside within us like seeds, soon to blossom in the future. (I wanted to allude to that poem and call the book What We Owe the Future but concluded it was a bit too allusive.)  Ned used graphic silhouettes of oak leaves before the title page of each speech, and the acorn from the cover is placed playfully at the end of each chapter to demarcate the short reflection questions we designed for each.  

The book is compact, hand-sized, and has a rich, tactile feel, making it very nice to hold.  The paper has a slight creamy tone, making it just a little nicer than some paperbacks without that touch.  It is a very handsome product, and we worked hard to bring it to you. 

Even though this is not a self-published book – Square Halo Books is a classy, boutique press that specializes mostly in books about faith and the arts – they are quite the indie, craft house. As my friend Keith Martel (who started a micro-publisher called Falls City Press, which released the impressive Storied Leadership a few months back) observed, people are these days all about the indie scene, craft beers, hand-made bakeries, micro-distilleries, local farmer’s markets.  We really should support not just independent bookstores, but indie publishers, too. 

 In a world where even the largest publishing ventures (from Zondervan to Penguin) are owned by yet bigger conglomerates, there is something good about supporting niche marketing projects that are not mere vanity presses, crappy pay-to-get-published insta-printing, or direct-to-amazon outfits, but real publishing houses lead by people who love books and love the craft of making real books and selling them fairly in real stores.  Which is to say we are happy to report that my first book, which we worked hard to compile and develop and edit, is released by a fantastic, if quite small, indie publishing house that is more about the book and the difference it can make than money or marketing charts.  Kudos to the small team at Square Halo Books for taking us on, and releasing our Serious Dreams in such a nice, nice way.  We are grateful, very, very grateful.

And kudos to my friends who work, or have worked, with students through the CCO, the campus ministry headquartered in Pittsburgh to whom the book is dedicated.

Oh yes, and to those who maybe haven’t lived into their hopes and dreams yet, those who Matt Kearney, in a new song on his CD Just Kids, calls “heartbreak dreamers.” He assures them in that song, It’s gonna be all right. It’s dedicated to them, too.

But now, we need to recruit our fans and friends to help us care about this little paperback, to keep it from languishing.  We hope you enjoyed my explanatory review last week, and this little window into our writing and editing and design thinking. It’s been a challenge and a blast, but not the hard, critical point has come: we have to sell this thing.  Can you help?

We really, really are grateful, and, as I said in my previous review, if ever there was a time when we need help getting the word out about a title, this is it.  Again, thank you very much.

Serious Dreams Facebook Timeline banner.jpg


Here is my long introduction to Serious Dreams.  There was one more set of edits after this version, but this edition is handy for me to share here, with our compliments.  I hope you enjoy it.


It’s funny how, when somebody seems destined for great things in our culture, we say, “She is really going to go far,” as if there is great virtue in leaving home, moving away, heading out to, well, anywhere but here. It is almost a cliché that young adults who move back to their old hometowns (let alone to their childhood houses) are losers. After all, who doesn’t want to “go far?”

Yet there is also another set of voices these days calling us to stay put, live locally, celebrate the small and mundane, form communities, and discover vibrant ways of finding home in a culture of displacement.

Graduation speeches–and, at first glance, maybe even the speeches in this little volume–tend towards the first view. “Oh, the places you’ll go,” the great Dr. Seuss predicted. Who isn’t inspired by the encouraging word to really “make something of yourself?” In some Christian circles, much is made about God’s call to change the world and our man- date to transform the culture. I like that breathy, exciting rhetoric–you’ll see it in my own speech, I hope. But such an attitude can be damaging. So allow me to say here at the outset that there is nothing wrong with staying put. We don’t have to go far; we don’t really have to go anywhere new or different or big. In fact, many of our wisest writers here in the hot-wired, fast-paced, twenty-first century do not invite us to the highest paying jobs, to the glitz of the big city, or to halls of power and prestige. Rather, they invite us to quiet, ordinary lives in small towns, caring for extended family and friends–not “going far,” but staying home.

From the esteemed Kentucky farmer, novelist, poet, and essayist, Wendell Berry, we are inspired to develop a sense of place, caring about local regions, watersheds, rural places. From Presbyterian pastor and writer Eugene Peterson, we hear the themes of paying attention to local details, practicing the presence of God in the ordinary and the mundane. Books like the one by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove drawing on old monastic wisdom called The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture praise the value of steadiness. Stability may not sound that enticing to a fresh-out-of-college young adult like you, but for those who are serious about living into the contours of a meaningful, good life after college, stability is important to consider alongside the louder calls to “go big or go home.” Maybe part of what it may mean for you to live well and do good is to be true to your own hometown.

Maybe you will be inspired by these energetic speeches to head out into the world and be used by God for Christ’s Kingdom’s sake, and that might take you to faraway cities and exciting, innovative jobs. But I hope you will also consider what Steve Garber calls “common grace for the common good”–which is a pretty big idea–that God cares about common graces built into creation such as good friends, healthy food, imaginative art, sustainable neighborhoods, helpful stores, nourishing families, trusted spouses. God is at work in many small, ordinary, human things such as work and play and art and citizenship, and we are invited by God to cultivate these common gifts, for the good of all. Our salvation in Christ is for this very purpose: to live humanly in the world that God loves, so that we, our neighbors, and our neighborhoods may flourish. Few people say this better than Amy Sherman, whose inspiring chapter reminds us that our success is for the sake the of broader community.

This big vision of the common good is often lived out in small ways. But these exciting talks delivered with great passion on days given to celebrate commencements could be misunderstood as a call only to go big, to go far. They should not be misunderstood, as if we are calling you only to extraordinarily great things.

Don’t feel bad for getting an ordinary job with a plain-sounding title and an unremarkable salary in your major which, maybe for you, was a mixed-bag, anyway. You don’t even have to feel bad for getting an ordinary job that is not in your major! That’s just the way it works sometimes.

Yes, most of us long to see the world healed and made a bit more whole. We want our own professions and workplaces to be transformed so they are better, healthier, serving the world in the way they should. Many of us long to play a part in the redemptive story of God. There is nothing good about living a boring life–what Thoreau called “quiet desperation.” But this call to find a life of purpose and joy by taking up our vocations in the world doesn’t necessarily mean doing big, crazy things. We don’t have to be extraordinary. We can, as the Bible sometimes says, live quiet and peaceful lives, blooming gracefully where we are planted, learning to care and mature in ordinary discipleship.

As elder social justice activist and leader in the cause of racial reconciliation, Dr. John Perkins, reminds us in his challenging graduation speech offered at Seattle Pacific University, “you have enough to learn more.” I think he meant that, as college graduates, you have learned how to learn, to think well, to study, to develop your own personal library, to figure stuff out. You have the skills and self-discipline and habits of heart that will allow you to continue being life-long learners. You will continue to grow and thrive. You will need to because this “making a difference” stuff, whether in a posh office at a Fortune 500 company or in returning to a familiar summer job for a season or two, takes time.

Graduation speeches are naturally designed to be in- spiring, motivational, upbeat. We really can be salt and light and leaven; we can be in the world and not of it; we can make a difference. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we really can be transformed into agents of God’s coming Kingdom. But it may or may not entail big time passion, and super-radical lifestyles. More likely, you’ll just put one foot ahead of the other, day by day by day, soli deo gloria.

It takes time to get your bearings, to find your sweet spot. And that is my point in these introductory remarks. We hope these talks encourage you, inspire you, remind you of some key themes you most likely have heard over the years of your college career. This is an exciting time in your life, even if bittersweet. But don’t feel badly if you don’t see yourself as a “change agent” and “radical Christian” who “makes a difference” right away. We all have to lean into these things, be patient with ourselves, and learn more about the spiritual practices that will sustain us over the long haul. You’ve gotten through college. The silly little slogan on plaques and posters and cards really is true–today actually is the first day of the rest of your life. I think these meditations and reflections will keep you moving forward. Live well, do good, be true.

So, I’ve danced around two themes that might help frame or inform your reading of these graduation messages. Let me be clear: first, you don’t have to “go far” or really “make something of yourself.” You may be called to less dramatic, more mundane faithfulness, serving God and nurturing your faith in pedestrian ways in places that don’t look like a TV show. Not all of us can be social entrepreneurs who start new charities or websites or programs or protests. Starting up a start-up isn’t for everyone. Changing the world may even be, as Eugene Cho put it in a book by this title, overrated. It’s okay to be ordinary.

Secondly, we have to be patient as we step into our lives’ vocations. We may know we are called to be part of God’s redemptive mission and that that is the story that shapes our lives. But, like everyone else, we have to learn the skills and craft and practices of our professions. We have to, as the saying goes, earn the right to be heard. We have to be life- long learners, deepening our insight and fidelity to our callings, our jobs, our places and relationships. Whether we are called to the high-power corporate world in a cool urbane setting or a less prestigious job in a small town, we have to do the work, learning day by day. These speeches will be good reminders of the bigger picture, even serving as provocative commissionings to see your life as part of the Biblical story of the all-of-life-redeemed Kingdom coming. All of these speeches invite you to fresh thinking and renewed commitments to joining God in your careers and callings. You’ve got a lot of baby steps to take in this season of your life, and that’s okay. God is gracious, and you can take your time.

Another important theme that is hinted at in several of these reflections needs to be named here, too. Nicholas Wolterstorff talks movingly about having eyes that shed tears, and reminds us of the Bible’s invitation to “weep with those who weep.” John Perkins teaches from the Good Samaritan story about the Jericho Road where an unnamed person had empathy, the first attribute of a life of com- passion. Claudia Beversluis reminds you that “when your gut aches and your heart breaks” you should “find a place to share the pain.” I think that anyone who is going to maintain visions of vocation and be faithful in small things for God’s glory will have to become a person who is not afraid of shedding tears. As the late and still beloved contemplative writer Henri Nouwen put it, we must become “wounded healers.” The Bible is full of those who experienced hardships, mystery, confusion, hurt, tears, rage, and lament. To not name our fears and doubts is denial. We who want to develop a Christian worldview and care about the things God cares about in the very way God cares about them, simply must be prepared to host our hurt. We must honestly attend to the great anxieties we have about our own lives and about the state of the world. Don’t let anyone or anything (let alone these happy speeches inviting you to serve God in the years ahead) suggest that you can’t be honest about your own heart.

It isn’t the main theme of this collection, but it bears saying: if we try to struggle against the idols and dysfunctions and crude values of our culture, perhaps of our workplaces, maybe even of our own broken families, we will seem a bit counter-cultural. We may feel like weirdoes because we care so deeply and are in touch with the brokenness of this fallen world. Art historian and Christian philosopher Calvin Seerveld, in a collection called Biblical Studies & Wisdom for Living, writes to some graduating seniors and reminds them that Jesus said His yoke would be light. “It fits well over your graduating shoulders,” Seerveld, said, “even if it makes you feel maladjusted in our Darwinian survival- of-the-fittest society.” It is okay to feel maladjusted.

This idea about being prepared for hard times is the climax of my own talk given to graduate students at Geneva College, and I hope you take it to heart. The black gospel tradition that inspired the civil rights movement can instruct us all in this matter. I mention Mahalia Jackson singing to Martin Luther King, Jr. over the phone in the middle of the night, “Precious Lord, take my hand.”

If you are battered and bruised from trying to make a difference in the world, if you are sad and discouraged because you haven’t found your niche or your calling, if you are full of frustration and doubt and anxiety, or if you’ve faced disheartening resistance to your fresh ideas for healthy reformation in your church or workplace, you can sing the many laments from the Bible with integrity. You can cry out to God through your tears and fears.

Our glad and hopeful speeches collected here offer congratulations and inspiration and emphasize God’s desire for graduating seniors to take up their careers and vocations as holy callings. Each one of us deeply realizes that making the transition between Sunday and Monday, carrying faith into the work-world, market- place, and contemporary culture, is harder than it sounds. We know that we all have to cope with setbacks and anguish. We know from the Bible and the best thinking of Christian leaders throughout history, that this is normal; tears are nothing to be ashamed of.

A very creative writer who has experienced more than her share of anguish and who continues to give her life to others is Anne Lamott. In her lovely book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, she writes,

We connect with God in our humanity. A great truth, attributed to Emily Dickinson, is that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” This is almost all I ever need to remember. Gravity and sadness yank us down, and hope gives us a nudge to help one another get back up or to sit with the fallen on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity.

Most commencement speeches don’t say this, but you shouldn’t be surprised when “gravity and sadness” yank you down. Be prepared to lament, to be with others in your times of need, and to sit with others in their own abysses. A high priority for you in this post-college time is figuring out how to find and form supportive community, to maintain your best friendships, and to find a local church body whose members can walk with you in life’s ups and downs.

Added to this collection of speeches is an epilogue by Erica Young Reitz who has served college students for many years. She has a book coming out, tentatively called Life After College, that will be about this time of young adult transitions. Erica’s book will be both visionary and practical, aware of both the fresh opportunities and looming pitfalls of young adult faith development and post-college discipleship. Her brief remarks here are themselves an integral part of this book, and the stories she tells are going to be helpful for you. They will assist you in moving from the profound and glorious rhetoric of these messages to the daily steps you need to take in order to live into this stuff.

I know I speak for all the contributors who allowed us to use their commencement addresses when I say that we truly hope that the next season of your life will be very meaningful, and that, though tears may be shed at times, you come to know deep, deep joy. God cares about you, about all areas of your life, and there are very significant ways God invites you to think faithfully and serve well wherever you find yourself. Together with your friends and church, you will have to figure out what that looks like.

These chapters deserve repeated readings and can be good companions along the way as you, in the great line from the chapter by Claudia Beversluis, “make God and God’s good news believable to others, not just through your words, but through the daily ways you live.”

You really can live well, friends. You will surely do good. And please, be true, be faithful. Know, above all, that the God who loves you, who calls you, who has sustained you thus far, is true. God will be faithful–whether you go far or stay put.


Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life

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seerveld set.jpg


A publishing event. 

It is a phrase I’ve used a few times but, for obvious reasons it must be employed only sparingly.  Most often it is reserved for the release of, say, a previously unpublished work by a classic author. (Speaking of which, a new edition of Roald Dahl’s classic YA book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been released with a recently discovered, long-missing chapter. Now that’s a publishing event for you!)

Sometimes the phrase may indicate the significance of a new volume, perhaps a second novel of a highly acclaimed, exceptionally gifted writer, or maybe a new Bible translation destined to become widely esteemed and used (like, say, the release of the ESV in 2001.)  Occasionally it may refer to a major new scholarly contribution that promises to change paradigms, rocking the worlds of science or medicine.  If the blockbuster sales promise to be large enough – think Harry Potter or The Hunger Games – some refer to the release date as a publishing event.  

The phrase is sometimes used too quickly, I think, cheapening it.

That said, I can’t think of any other way to describe what I felt and how I came to think about the announcement of a 6-volume set of writings by the important Christian philosopher, aesthetician, art historian, Bible scholar, hymn writer, cultural critic, Dr. Calvin Seerveld. I know, I know, Seerveld is only known in a very small circle, a niche sub-culture, within theseerveld.jpg small Christian subculture, and his writing is sometimes exceptionally dense and often eccentric.  Seerveld’s field, the field of the Lord in which he plays, is aesthetics, and his life-long project of developing a coherently, consistently Christian aesthetic theory, embedded in and emerging from a deeply Biblical world and life view, is seen by some to be esoteric. His artfully serious writings may seem obscure, even: digging deep into the philosophical assumptions embedded in and flowing out of a Rococo art piece, waxing eloquent with passionate insights about an off-off Broadway theater performance, detailing the good and bad, wise and deadly, of a scholar’s textbook, detailing the religiously-shaped ethics informed by particular art theories of a century ago.  

On one hand, Seerveld is a specialist in a specific field, and he has paid close attention to details, and it may be that this matters most to those within the scholarly arenas of art criticism, museum curating, or academic discourse.

On the other hand, who among us can’t see the implications of art’s impact on cultural trends, and how “ideas grow legs” and ripple down through the ages with consequences in our day to day days, especially when those ideas are carried into a mass market through electronic mediums like movies,TV and itunes? Dr. Seerveld’s specialized theorizing, as we shall see, even when arcane, ends up being – as they say about Holy Communion – “a gift of God for the people of God.” We should say, in response to Seerveld’s work, “thanks be to God.”

seerveld at gallery in shirt.jpgCalvin Seerveld is a hero to many of us, modeling as he has, a commitment to serious, world-class, inter-disciplinary scholarship, one whose remarkably detailed, arcane professional work usually ends up sounding very, very important. Even if one doesn’t know much about art history, say, or the discussions about public art in Canadian cities, or the perspectives and practices emerging from recent study about play and recreation, reading Seerveld makes one realize how it does matter. Like a truly good teacher, he helps us “get it.”  Without jumping to simplistic or moralistic “practical applications” his perspective comes through his robust, scholarly essays, papers, talks, or sermons, and get into one’s bones in transforming, sometimes Earth-shattering ways. His insights, both the big, broad conclusions and the smaller allusions offered in detailed lines are — to use a phrase I swear I first heard from Cal, probably at a Jubilee conference in the mid 70s — “pregnant with meaning.”

And so, dear readers, friends of Hearts & Minds, join me as I make the case that the release of this extraordinary collection of occasional pieces – major addresses, keynote talks, academic papers (a few published in chapters of hard-to-find books published in Africa or Amsterdam) and many popular-level articles published in magazines, not to mention a few sermons and hymns and Bible studies and lovely meditations – ought to be consider a bona fide publishing event.  From the largest literary stars rocking the best-seller lists to brilliant work coming from cryptic indie-publishers, from important new scholarship in the mainstream academic guilds to the large renaissance of important Christian scholarship available from publishers like Eerdmans, Baker Academic or IVP Academic, I can say that there is simply nothing that has been published in recent years that is as ambitious, as fascinating, and – dare I say it? – as important, as this collected works project of Dr. Calvin G. Seerveld, son of a Long Island fishmonger. 

BEARING FRESH OLIVE LEAVES                                                                                                      (OR: “COMMON GRACE FOR THE COMMON GOOD”)

Steve Garber’s nice phrase from the subtitle of his Visions of Vocation, “common grace for the common good,” captures something of the tone of Seerveld’s work. (Garber esteems Cal Seerveld greatly, by the way, and Seerveld was an early influence on him, along with their mutual friend, the Dutchman Hans Rookmaaker.) Seerveld brings profound insight to the watching world. Which is to say that although he is one of the most overtly Christian scholars I know (Scriptural references pepper his talks, Biblical stories and  theological allusions show up in the most fascinating ways) his work is read by scholars who do not seem otherwise interested in Christian convictions. His work has won prestigious scholarly awards and some of his presentations were first delivered in very public forums. One volume of these six (Cultural Problems in Western Society) includes, in fact, six serious presentations given in Europe at a series of annual conferences paid for by the Dutch government, bringing together policy advocates and civic activists, artists, labor union leaders, and cultural workers, who were tasked to think together deeply about the changing culture in Europe, especially given the rise in immigration and the increase in tensions arising in an increasingly secularized and multi-ethnic society. 

I reviewed that one briefly for the Citizens for Public Justice newsletter, Capitol Commentary, reminding that particular audience that Seerveld is useful for those committed to nurturing principled convictions about  citizenship for the common good. Seerveld is perhaps anBearing-Fresh-Olive-leaves2-188x300.jpg example of what we sometimes call a public intellectual. Common grace for the common good, indeed.

(Seerveld has a previous and quite brilliant book of essays about the arts, including some wonderful talks he gave at the famous Greenbelt Festival in England, entitled, with Noahic overtones, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves. Yes, that’s it — we bring gifts of promise, pointing others towards God’s gift of shalom a-coming. Again, this is language of the common good; love of neighbor seems to be palpable in even his art theories, educational proposals or civic studies.)

It is fair to say, though, that Seerveld is mostly known in certain Christian circles – he is Dutch Reformed, a neo-Calvinist standing in the Kuyperian legacy who studied with Barth and other heady continental theologians, a son of a New York fish seller who has served as gritty cheerleader and very vocal supporter of the struggles of the rough and tumble Christian Labour Association of Canada, a founding professor of the embattled Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, the first Christian institution in North America to offer PhD degrees (in subjects other than Bible or theology) in an knowingly, intentionally Christian program. His work at ICS helped them earn their world-wide reputation, even though the hugely significant Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview by Al Wolters, a good friend and former colleague of Seerveld’s there, is now better known. (It was Seerveld, by the way, who coined that phrase “reformational” to distinguish the neo-Calvinism of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven and the movement of scholars from Amsterdam and Toronto’s ICS from the more conventional Reformed theology known in the States.)  

Cal’s friend Nicholas Woltersdorff, who left Calvin College to take up a position at Notre Dame and then Yale, and eventually the equally prestigious UVA, is a similar scholar who is also widely read; his books are on Cambridge University Press, and other renowned scholarly presses, and his Eerdmans Art in Action is considered a watershed book on Christian writing about aesthetics. I mention him for those who may know his serious work in aesthetics and political philosophy, but who oddly may not have read Seerveld; they are good friends and working in somewhat similar terrain. (And both will be on a panel at the upcoming CIVA conference in June of 2015.) Seerveld seems more evangelically passionate, his wildly colorful style allowing his seriously informed academic ruminations to feel on the page like revival fire. Perhaps this is why he did not, like Nick, end up respected in the Ivy League; Seerveld is perhaps too rambunctious and less willing to obscure his own deepest orientation. At any rate, perhaps knowing the long-standing friendship between Nick and Cal will help you place Seerveld in the larger landscape of what we sometimes call integrated Christian scholarship.  Rainbows.gif

Seerveld’s Rainbows for the Fallen World (published by his own Toronto Tuppence Press) is a study done in evocative, passionate, eccentric prose, part sermon, part philosophy, part chat with older Dutch Uncle, part exhortation from what sounds like a not so minor prophet, and is perhaps his most well-known work. It is cited by many of our smartest evangelical artists and cultural creatives — Mako Fujimura, Andy Crouch, Charlie Peacock, Michael Card, the late Mark Heard, the publisher Ned Bustard of Square Halo Books, guys in Jars of Clay, William D. Romanowski, not to mention leaders at organizations like CIVA, IAM, the XD team of the CCO, and Fuller’s Brehm Center for the Arts. We are proud to sell it, and have sent it around the world.

Justice advocate and former leadership mentor at the Max DePree Center for Leadership Gideon Strauss writes of Seerveld:

I cannot adequately express my own gratitude for Calvin Seerveld’s lifetime of faithful study, writing, and speaking. I first bought a copy of Seerveld’s Rainbows for the Fallen World in the mid-1980s, from a colporteur selling them out of a room in the back of his house in apartheid South Africa, and I have since read three copies of Rainbows threadbare and to the point of falling apart. No other pages outside of the Scriptures themselves have more decisively and thoroughly shaped my understanding of God, the world, and myself than the introduction and first chapters of Rainbows. 

While in graduate school I read an essay included in Part Two of this volume [Cultural Education and History Writing], “Footprints in the Snow,” that shaped my understanding of culture, history and history-writing in a perduing manner. I can say without any doubt that Rainbows and “Footprints in the Snow” are the most important things I have ever read, outside of the Bible itself.

Each of these good volumes, with uniform covers, collects dozens of Seerveld pieces, most never seen in a book before, many published since his retirement from ICS in the 1990s.  A few of the chapters are articles published or sermons delivered as far back as the 1960s and those, too, are almost all as timely as the most recent.  The subtitle of each is “Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures.”

This remarkable six-volume anthology of his many sundry pieces not only brings these rare works to readers who have long wanted such a collection – some of these pieces have been photo-copied and passed around like Russian samizdat — and some are real surprises (to all but the most devout fans.) To see so many Seerveld writings that we haven’t actually seen before (or haven’t even heard of!) is a gift of the finest order. Yes, I’m sayin’ it, right here, right now: the simultaneous release of this handsome set is a bone fide publishing event!

Nicely, this set collects the writings less by genre (each book contains short articles and longer papers, spoken small informal talks and major keynote presentations, academic pieces and devotional meditations) but by theme.

Here are the names of the six volumes, in no particular order.

Seerveld books screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 20.42.30.png


Perhaps some readers who know of Seerveld’s work as art critic and advocate for a reformational aesthetics, or as a Bible scholar who speaks at worship conferences, especially on the use of the Psalms in liturgy,  may wonder what these last two volumes are about. It isn’t easy to ever say what any of Cal’s books are “about” as they are so colorfully written, always so deeply Biblical, informed by his serious study of theology and philosophy, and his concern for the ordinary people of God, that all are always about many things at once. These two collections, though, are a great example of his interdisciplinary interests (and expertise.) 

As I mentioned above, I briefly told about the two of them earlier in the year for a review column that I do called “Politics and Prose” for Capitol Commentary, published by the Christian political think-tank, the Center for Public Justice.

I exclaimed there that those seeking more profound thinking about contemporary socio-political problems would be wise to study with Seerveld as he brings his brilliant, prophetic imagination to bear on some of large issues of the age. As I note there, some of these talks were delivered at an annual conference in Europe, in part funded by the Dutch government, bringing together artists and cultural creative alongside educators, civic leaders, politicos and union leaders.  It is almost unheard of in North America to see this kind of robust conversation among public leaders and faith leaders that is intellectually meaty and multi-dimensional.

Artist or activist, these essays are worth your consideration, and would bring a refreshingly rare vision and tone and direction to your work. 

That review of these two is short, and you could quickly read it here — but do come back here, please! 

A few chapters in Cultural Education & History Writing deserve special mention, as theycultural_problems.jpgcultural education.jpg are important to at least a few of our BookNotes readers. There is reprinted an important speech offered at the founding of a Christian college in Korea. It is amazing —  “Why Should a University Exist?” If you are in higher education, this is well worth pondering.

And, importantly included here is Seerveld’s passionate, important, wise contribution to a complex conference a few years back called “Beyond Worldview” which tried to argue through the usefulness, or harmfulness, of using the word “worldview.” Many of those pieces were published in a vastly under-rated, important book After Worldview edited by Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens.

Cal’s piece here from that event is called “The Damages of a Christian Worldview” and is lovingly dedicated to one of my own influences, the Western Pennsylvania reformational philosopher and preacher, Peter J. Steen (1936 – 1984.) It is a good piece; it makes me happy that Seerveld loved Pete, and gave him this small honor.

Pete Steen would want you to read “Jubilee on the Job” a prophetic, astute, and powerful keynote offered at the 50th anniversary of the Christian Labour Association of Canada. It isn’t the only piece in here on the dignity and hardships of work. I’m so glad that one is in here. Anyone reading about faith and the marketplace, Christian views of work and vocation must read a few of these good papers.

And it may be a bit “insider baseball” for some, but his short piece from The Banner called “Thinking Deeply About Our Faith” honors some of his own influences. He talks about meeting a famous Dutch pastor who was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp and a bookseller, and the colorful H. Evan Runner, and their passionate arguments as they discussed Trinity Christian College (where Seerveld first taught) and the founding of ICS in Toronto. There were conversations between folks at Calvin and Regent in BC and Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (and, even, the CCO in Pittsburgh.) It is a nice, quick summary of some history that I’ve watched develop from afar.

Most of these pieces are brilliant, and substantive. I cannot recommend them enough for the educated Christian thinker who reads widely.

NORMATIVE AESTHETICSnormative aesthetics.jpg

You may think that a book about Normative Aesthetics is a bit arcane, and I suppose it is.  However, if you live in God’s world, you have know you experience the aesthetic dimension of life – God has given us “rainbows for the fallen world” after all.  You attend to color, you listen to music, you choose clothing, you set your table for meals, you trim your trees, make a snowman;  you do or don’t use banners and/or paraments at church, you send greeting cards not just by what they say, or choose fonts in blogs or use irony in your facebook profile. Maybe you like soccer, wax your car, pay somebody to style your hair, use certain affectations in your speech.  Maybe you hang a painting in your home, maybe you have a favorite ceramic mug, maybe you tell a good joke. Perhaps you read novels, watch films, go to rock (or country or jazz or polka) shows, enjoy architecture, binge on TV shows, for better or worse. Maybe you judge a book by its cover.

Knowing a bit about this side of life, knowing a bit about the philosophy that underlies and shapes and informs appropriate thinking about aesthetics is certainly a must for artists, critics, or aficionados of the arts.  (You do think there is good and bad art, don’t you? Also fashion or play or cooking? Of course — there are norms, perhaps what the Bible sometimes calls creational ordinances, which are more than principles, much more than “values” and really not at all what we say when we talk about our subjective tastes.  Wow, come to think of it, we could all use a book or two with the word “normative” in the title — who doesn’t want to live life in sync with what is true and good and right? 

You could give this to anyone who has already read a few books on culture-making or the arts and who needs a deeper underpinning, who wants to go a bit further in to the quest for Christian consideration, Christian thinking, Christian practice in the arts. Or give it to anyone who is smart enough to want to read seriously about this particular field.  

Yes, there are chapter titles here like “Dooyeweeerd’s Legacy for Aesthetics: Modal Law Theory” which expands that nearly mystifying chapter at the heart of Rainbows for the Fallen World. His “A Turnabout in Aesthetics to Understanding” was his much-discussed inaugural lecture from the early 70s when he took up his chair at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies; I still have a few copies of it when it was sold as a small booklet!  Lambert Zuidervaart’s wonderful, thick, helpful introduction to this volume is itself worth studying; it is called “(Un) Timely Voyage: Calvin Seerveld’s Normative Aesthetics.”  It is meaty, intelligent, perspicacious, if you will.

But many of these chapters are fun for anyone, not just philosophers of aesthetics. I loved the one called “Joy, Style, and Aesthetic Imperatives, with the Biblical Meaning of Clothes and Games in the Christian Life.” His little piece “Ordinary Aesthetic Life: Humor, Tastes, and “Taking a Break” is wonderful and wise — who else writes stuff like this? I don’t know how many times I have read, over the years, his stunning “Christian Aesthetic Bread for the World.” “Both More and Less a Matter of Taste” is a bit heady, buy must-reading, I think, for anyone who wants to be faithful in our conversation about culture and social renewal in these days. His “Relation of the Arts to the Presentation of Truth” is passionate, serious, and very important. 

What great blurbs grace the back, too. 

James K.A. Smith notes not only how influenced he has been by Seerveld and how he has “drilled wells that Christians will drink from for years to come” but that it this release is perfectly timed: 

Just as Christians in theology and the arts are becoming interested in the imagination, they can discover anew the philosophical wisdom of Seerveld’s normative aesthetics.

Nicholas Woltersdorf has a very gracious and helpful endorsement. So does Richard Mouw, who calls his work “ground-breaking” and reports that he “practices what he preaches.  These fine essays both stimulate our imagination and offer us a gift of joy.”  

This book is a true, joyous gift, a publishing event in itself, and I’m eager to have Hearts & Minds friends know of it.  Will people buy a book on aesthetics (normative or otherwise?)  We shall see. I suspect it won’t be a big seller at LifeWay or Barnes & Noble, but we do hope to sell a few, for God’s sake.

BIBLICAL LIVING & WISDOM FOR LIVINGbiblical studies & wisdom seerveld.jpg

The volume in the set that may be most appealing to most BookNotes readers is the extraordinary (words fail me) writing and insight in Biblical Studies & Wisdom for Living.  In this 425-page, thick volume – a volume that, again, is stunning in its breadth and erudite contribution – we have a wide array of his Biblical work. 

Eugene Peterson, you might want to know, is a fan.

Of this new volume, he writes,

For those of us who have been led and directed by Calvin Seerveld’s books to develop artistic imagination as we read Scripture, receiving the narrative whole and integrated, this gathering of his occasional writings is sheer bonus. No one in my experience is more prescient in his alertness to the intertexuality of the entire Biblical canon. Under his influence I find myself listening to God’s voice in the Scriptures, not just reading God’s words.

Read that again, my friends. 

Some of you may esteem the well-respected work of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, headed up by the remarkably ecumenical, surefire, John Witvliet, who grew up, I gather, with a steady diet of Seerveld.  

Witvliet says of Biblical Studies & Wisdom for Living, 

Vintage Seerveld — gutsy, wise, vivid, provocative, sanctifying… While several pieces directly address audiences and questions of particular significance to Reformed Christians, the patterns of thought reflected here will be inspiring and challenging to serious Christian believers in any tradition.

I sometimes call Cornelius Plantinga, a research fellow at said Calvin Institute, the patron saint of booksellers, not only for his many eloquent, broad-minded books about learning for God’s sake (like the lovely and valuable Engaging God’s World) but for his book about books and reading, Reading for Preaching. Plantinga says of this particular Seerveld volume in the new set,

This collection of Calvin Seerveld’s writings is a sheer gift. Highly intelligent, wide ranging, deeply revealing of the light of God, these lively pieces inform, delight, move the heart. They are at once provocative and reassuring, and they are, above all, wise.

Here are a few of the chapter titles of this one: 

“Hearing God’s Narrative About ‘the way’ of Shalom” 

“Reading and Hearing the Psalms: The Gut of the Bible”

“Pain is a Four Letter Word: A Congregational Lament.”  

One long chapter is called “Five Psalms: For the American Guild of Organists” and in it he explores three Psalms. The bit on Psalm 19 he titled “Celebrating the good news of God’s creational ordinances and creatural glossolalia” and it is excellent; Psalm 30 is “A song written for a consecration service of the house of God” and one that “never gets old” is Psalm 96. The next two “psalms” in this chapter include poetic pieces from Isaiah and Revelation 18 (“Hip Hop millennial culture and Hallelujah!”)

I’m telling you, this is stuff that combines Hebrew scholarship, the history of exegesis, robust Reformed theology, worldviewish hope, brought out in creative, contemporary dunamis. It’s a pocketful of kyrptonite.

Other chapters in this volume bring greater detail: one chapter is on Proverbs 10 which he called “From Poetic Paragraphs to Preaching” and then there is a classic study of Proverbs 31 (which is entitled “Celebrate the Resourceful Woman.”) Excellent, fresh, insightful.  

A few chapters are rather academic. For instance, one of Seerveld’s famous works is his script for a dramatization of Song of Songs called The Greatest Song. (We carry that rare, lovely book as well, by the way, with its  evocative script, its handsome woodcuts, its Biblical heft and eroticism.) In one chapter with rich implications for any of us who read the Bible in fresh ways, he studies a literary critic named Herder who wrote and preached and translated in the mid-1700s, and anticipated contemporary conversations about hermeneutics raised by the likes of Gadamer, centuries later. This heady and fascinating bit of historical theology and aesthetics is called “Herder’s Revolutionary Hermeneutic and Aesthetic Theory: The Import of Herder’s Hermeneutics for Text Performance of The Greatest Song.”  Okay, so it may not be for everybody.

A few of these pieces, though, are sermons, tough and tender and worth repeated readings. Peterson and the others are right, this is prescient and alert and leads us to God’s own voice!  Try on “The Gift and Distraction of Pleasure” or “Longing to Lament: A Conversations Between Michael Card and Calvin Seerveld” (clear, honest, helpful!) or “We are Not Pilgrims: We are called to build tent cities in God’s world.”  Amazing.

He has meditations here on marriage such as “The Tender, Tough Mystery of (Married) Love” and on friendship (“The Rare Gift of a Friend”) and remarkable pieces like “Ways-of-life and becoming elderly wise” and “Bastards or Sons of God?”  I almost think that if some of us immersed ourselves in this kind of radical, integral Biblical reflection until it gets into our bones, we might be more healed and whole, less afraid and anxious, more bold and glad and good.  

Some of the chapters in Biblical Studies and Wisdom were messages given on occasions such as college graduations or at associations of Christians schools or other denominational institutions.  No matter your own denomination, you should read his “Modest Proposal for Reforming the Christian Reformed Church in North America” which will blow you away.  His “Graduating to Glocal Martyrdom” is wondrously heavy – who says this kind of stuff at a commencement talk? He’s pretty tough, too, in another piece about higher education, although its rumination on 2 Corinthians 2: 14 – 3:6 would be powerfully applied to your church or fellowship group as well — it is called “The Smell of Your School: A Letter of Reference?” Wow.

Seerveld shows his cross-cultural humility (and savvy) in his fabulously interesting study of Say Amen, Somebody! the 1983 documentary about black gospel music and Thomas Dorsey. His first line in this great chapter is, “Say Amen, Somebody! should be seen by every sourpuss in the church.” As he narrates his own experiences in black churches, his study of gospel music, we learn so much. There is one great episode of going to black churches with his friend, the Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker in the early 60’s; included is a great grainy picture of Rookmaaker and Mahalia Jackson from 1961. Oh my, this is precious stuff, and I hope you realize it.

I could say more about this large volume, as there is so much more.  Allow me to name one more chapter. 

One of Seerveld’s most popular and often-re-printed short pieces is included here. “How to Read the Bible as a Grown Up Child” gives a broad, serious, clever, passionate reminder of how to approach the story of God revealed in the Scriptures. It is wonderful, just wonderful.  

Seerveld has a short, meaty book called How To Read the Bible To Hear God Speak: A Study in Numbers (an earlier version old fans of his know as Balaam’s Apocalyptic Prophecies: A Study in Reading Scripture) which  compares four different hermeneutical methods (from fundamentalist literalism to hyper-Reformed dogmatism to liberal higher criticism to postmodern engagement) naming the strengths and sometimes deadly weaknesses of each camp’s approach.  He mostly shows a better, redemptive way, as he guides us how to read the Bible by preaching it so well, and by using it in such a fruitful, lively way in all his scholarship. 

But this little piece that is in the Biblical Studies & Wisdom volume – about being a “grown up child” — is delightful and good, and captures this vision, explored in his bigger book on reading the Bible, and his devotionals, such as Take Hold of God and Pull. Is it an overstatement to say you should buy this book so you have easy access to this one “How to Read the Bible Like a Grown-Up Child” essay?  Perhaps. But I could say that about half of amazing pieces here: it is well worth owning this book so you can draw on these pieces for the rest of your life.

ART HISTORY REVISITEDart history revisited.jpg

Well. This is where it gets serious, friends, and this is where Seerveld perhaps shines in his own field, beyond what I can adequately express. I know some of you will love this book, and some of you should give it to somebody you know.

Seerveld has been honored for his astute contributions to this field; he has done as much on a uniquely Christian, reformational method, than anyone in our lifetime, perhaps ever. (He has a thrilling, invaluable chapter in a book on the methods of doing art history Christianly, a festschrift in honor of the famed Wheaton College art professor, John Walford, called Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford edited by James Romaine.)

And in Art History Revisited we see him in action.  And, it is something — yes, the aforementioned “publishing event.” As Nigel Halliday from the UK writes, 

Seerveld writes with the learned precision of the academic, but also with the passion and wry humour of a man rationally and emotionally convinced that we are God’s creatures living in God’s world…. the result is writing that brings art and artists to life, whether from this age or ages past, and makes us reflect seriously about our own lives. 

James Romaine (President of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art) notes,

Cal Seerveld brings fresh insights to the methods and motivations of art… Seerveld’s practice of identifying connections across periods of art history manifests a belief in God’s authority over the entirety of history and culture. His is a pursuit of the divine continuity that binds and gives meaningful significance to the ordinary particulars of historical and cultural moments.

There is some slow sledding here, rich and fruitful. For those that follow these things, Seerveld tends to appreciate the scholarly philosophy of Dirk Vollenhoven, the brother-in-law of cosmonomic Christian philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, and has several chapters here such as “Vollehnoven’s Legacy for Art Historiography.” Some of this deep background philosophy about the very nature of God’s real world offers a lens for him, which enables him to write remarkably prophetic pieces such as “Methodological Notes for Assessing What Happened 1764 – 1831 in the History of Aesthetics” and “The Moment of Truth and Evidence of Sterility within Neoclassical Art and Aesthetic Theory of the Later Enlightenment.” There are Biblical insights here, and he explains it, too: see the chapter “Biblical wisdom underneath Vollenhoven’s Categories…” Whew.

Part Two of this heady volume gives some delightful and inspiring examples of his methods by doing some nice case studies, truly revisiting art history, bit by bit. Whether you know much about this stuff or not, it is great, informative reading, a great way to learn a lot. He looks, for instance, at “Telltale Statues in Watteau’s Painting” and studies Hogwarth, Anton Raphael Mengs, and the wonderful contemporary wood engraving of Peter S. Smith.  What great chapters! Know these artists or not, these are informative, inspiring pieces of fruitful Christian reflection. Anyone with interest in Christians working contemporary visual arts will love, and deeply appreciate his wonderful essay called “Redemptive Grit: The Ordinary Artistry of Gerald Folkerts.” 


This is another favorite in the set, and it is one to which I had the immeasurable honor of adding an endorsing blurb. That Seerveld or his chief editor (from Dordt College Press) John Kok thought I might have some wisdom to impart here was a blessing for me — foolishness on their part, some might say. Ha! But there I am, next to Hans Rookmaaker’s wondrously artful daughter, editor-in-chief of ArtWay, Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, on the same page with scholar Jeremy Begbie, now of Duke Divinity School, and Makoto Fujimura.

Here is what Mako wrote,

Dr. Seerveld’s carefully crafted, scintillating, poetic words… are, to me, shalom promises, wisdom given to encourage artists in a broken, dark, and yet glorious (New York.) to only seek the best, to integrate one’s life and one’s art, and to bathe everything in prayer. I am grateful for his words: I am grateful for this book.

I appreciate what Begbie says,

Countless artists and theoreticians have been nourished by Cal Seerveld’s vivid and striking wisdom. These extraordinarily wide-ranging essays will not disappoint those who have followed his work, and those who are new to his unique voice will be greatly enriched.

But, you know, I hate to say it, but I think that the Borger guy captured best the tone and value of this particular volume, this one called Redemptive Art in Society.  Here is what I said:

Can high quality, properly nuanceful, allusive theatre, sculpture, painting or song help heal the world? Can art expose injustices, bring comfort to the hurting, shake the idols of our age? These chapters are amazing pieces, a true gift for those wanting to go further along the journey towards “seeking the peace of the city.” Wise leaders and faithful artists simply must read them.

Yeah, I believe truly that. Art can change the world. (Perhaps you saw my review in Capitol Commentary of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior, about the Victorian-ear British societal reformer, high-class cultural leader, educator, writer, and friend of the famous politician William Wilberforce.) I think this is very, very important stuff.

As Seerveld predecessor at ICS, Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, writes in a moving, important introduction to this one, 

“What would art look like that liberates, reconciles, reforms, and edifies?”  That is the driving question throughout this collection of writings and lectures by Calvin Seerveld.” 

She opens her superb introduction by writing about Seerveld’s important lectures given in South Africa during the days after the worst of the apartheid years.  She cites a line he gave there, a line I heard in the mid-70s that impacted me like Richard Wright’s famous “punch to the solar plexus.”  

“In my country on Friday nights youths die by the thousands culturally at the movies, and ten thousands are stunted by their weekend videos.”

The antidote, he says, is normative aesthetics, lived out, real and raw. “The best defense against attractive superficiality in the arts is a tough, home-bred imaginative fiber.”  Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “art is like minerals in one’s food, the fiber to one’s diet, whose nutritives one hardly notices unless you become malnourished and it is determined that iron or ruffage has been missing from your daily bread.”  As Adrienne puts it, “For Seerveld, wholesome bread — artistic, ludic, theatrical — is a recurrent image of the redemptive role of art in society.”

Seerveld cares deeply about public justice, about politics and economics, labor and freedom and shalom, real hurting people in a polluted world.  But let me be clear: although he cares about the “redemptive role” of art in society — thee are chapters here where he talks about inner city murals and shares his passion for the “displaced” and, as we noted, about liberation in places like South Africa — this collection is not about social justice propaganda, about harnessing the arts for some just project.  No — just like we realize that cheesy, evangelical preaching in the guise of, say, contemporary worship choruses or  Christian-radio-friendly simplistic Christian pop, is often less than artistically mature, thin and not adequately nuanceful, so agit-prop, Christian preachments even about peace and justice, are not the calling of the mature artist, either, and not what ordinary folk should hunger for.

Redemptive art is gritty, but not propaganda. We bring “fresh olive leaves” announcing shalom, but we don’t have to sacrifice metaphor, allusion, suggestion — we “tell it slant” — let alone excellence and craft. Seerveld has thought harder and written more significantly than anybody I know about the ways in which art can enhance cities, how imaginativity is important for human dignity, how allusive artistry can enhance our cultural flourishing in ways that screeds and propaganda cannot.

As with the other volumes, Redemptive Art in Society includes some pretty scholarly pieces here, and then there are others that are so brilliant, and so fascinating and hopeful, that I’d wish everyone would read and study and ponder them. “The Challenge to Be Imaginative Salt in God’s World” is a near manifesto for relevant, socially-poignant Christian art. His message “For the Next Generation of Christian Writers of Literature” is a must for creative writers and readers of novels. He has an important little piece on poetry. He offers more than one piece on theater, a must for actors, writers, or anybody who enjoys going off Broadway. 

Seerveld is especially attuned to the life of the city (and he has often shared insights about the murals of Diego Riviera.) This is excellent stuff for urban ministers, city planners, those called to reflect on the “sidewalks of the Kingdom” and  “the spaces between us” as Christian new urbanist Eric O. Jacobsen puts it. But it isn’t just about public art and social renewal.  Again, this is a book about the consequences of good aesthetic theory and the impact of mature Christian art and artful appreciation. I love this book!

A publishing event it is. 

seerveld set.jpg


These six volumes collect, as we’ve seen, a real variety of styles — sermons, Bible studies, short magazine pieces, letters, even, next to scholarly essays and academic publications.  And they cover a variety of themes explored by Seerveld in his sundry and occasional work.  Some of these pieces are nearly legendary, a few are famous. Most, though, are virtually unknown, and we hope that this new collection will make his sustained, on-going work well known, from sea to shining sea.  This really is great stuff, and we are more than please, we are compelled to tell you about it.

This series from Dr. Calvin Seerveld are among the most important and meaningful books I have been pleased to try to sell in our thirty plus years of selling books coram deo.

I trust you enjoyed reading about them, hearing about this fine scholar and eccentric cheerleader for the arts. I trust you will consider parting with some of your hard earned cash to buy a few, if not all.  These are the sorts of books that last a lifetime, a wish investment, important for God’s glory, in God’s world, for those starved for lack of mature Christian theories about important aspects of our lives in God’s good but broken world.

Who else has written a chapter called “Joy, Style, and Aesthetic Imperatives with the Biblical Meaning of Clothes and Games in the Christian Life”?  

Who else takes a course on popular song-writing so he can learn how his students might counter “formulaic meretricious songs” and does so in light of global starvation and real poverty, with a photo of an African shanty-town, beside a Picasso piece an Rembrandt self portrait?

Seerveld laments those who are

smothered by the clutter of huge, repetitive blinking billboards signs 7/24 for corporate advertising, turning the place into a marketing venue. There is more than one way to be killed: commercialistic anaestheticzed place can have the forlorn mark of a Las Vegas virtual cemetery.

Well, this is amazing writing, colorful, demanding, serious, a bit playful, stunning. There is no other author like him, and we cannot thank Dordt College Press quite enough for bringing these pieces into the publishing world.

We can tell you about them, though, and pray that you help us spread the word about them, curious and winsome and learned and full of prophetic imagination that they are. You’ve not seen anything like them, I am sure. These books are remarkable, and we are happy to tell you — someday in the Kingdom Hall of Fame I will be vindicated, if you don’t believe me — that this batch of books being released this fall is a true publishing event.

Or, as the kids say these days: A. True. Publishing. Event.

The gifts of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

Seerveld books screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 20.42.30.png



NICE, eh?

Here are the mundane details:

We’ll show the regular price, and our BookNotes 20% sale price.

Normative Aesthetics                          $21.00   our sale price  $16.80             

Cultural Education & History Writing   $23.00   our sale price  $18.40

Cultural Problems in the West             $17.00   our sale price  $13.60

Biblical Studies & Wisdom for Living   $25.00   our sale price  $20.00

Art History Revisted                             $20.00   our sale price  $16.00

Redemptive Art in Society                   $21.00   our sale price  $16.80



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Because this list includes my own rambling ruminations and then a long list of titles, we’ll post it as one of our occasional “columns” at the website.  We do our BookNotes blog regularly, and then, sometimes, offer even longer lists which can be found over at the “columns” tab at the website. Some of those longer reviews or bigger lists are well worth browsing through, and we hope they are still useful.

Anyone who knows even a little about the cultural zeitgeist or what is sometimes called thehow not to be secular.jpg postmodern turn will not be surprised that James K.A. Smith ends his book How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00) with a reminder that in our current story-laden culture, the gospel will seem more interesting and more plausible to people if it is presented as more than data. Mere facts, religious or otherwise, just don’t draw folks in the 21st century as do winsome stories. 

Interestingly, though, as readers of C.S. Lewis know, this was the great scholar’s concern in the middle of the 20th century, as well. It is no surprise, for instance, that Lewis retold the Greek myth about reason and imagination in his classic novel Til We Have Faces. Art Lindsley reminds us of that in his creative book about Lewis’s own conversion in C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ: Insights from Reason,c.s. lewis's case for png Imagination and Faith (IVP; $16.00.) Lewis was logical and learned, but he also knew the need for what today we might call the right-brained and imaginative approaches. Lindsley’s book explores that very nicely.

And so, James K.A. Smith in his amazing book trying to read the (secular?) signs of the times through the lens of Charles Taylor suggests that those of us interested in offering testimony to the redemptive gospel of Christ within this postmodern and secular age learn to use the arts – literature and music and film and the practice of storytelling.  Most of us wouldn’t know it, but the magisterial Taylor book ends there, too — making suggestions about the role of the arts to bear witness. To bear fruit in “the secular age” we need not “dumb down” the truth of the matter, but we can tell it in allusive and storied ways; we need the poets and film-makers and video gamers and cultural creatives. The gospel is really a messy, sprawling, love story, after all, and a large account of the “true story of the whole world” as one favorite intro to the Bible has it.  

Atelling the truth buechner.jpgs Frederick Buechner explained so many years ago in what is still a must-read work of his, the gospel is “tragedy, comedy, and fairy-tale.” Certainly a key text for our times, and important for this column, is the 1977 classic, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (HarperOne; $17.99.)

There is little doubt that we now have to rethink how we present the gospel, and perhaps create new ways of talking about what is often called “apologetics” (the way we defend the Christian faith in conversations with critics and skeptics.) 

After the Jamie Smith lecture that we co-hosted with the CCO in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, where he commended a more imaginative approach to postmodern witness, a few in attendance browsed our book display wondering about how we might redefine apologetics if arguing people into the Kingdom doesn’t work as well as it once did (if it ever really did, I often say, although there is considerable evidence [that demands a verdict] that it did.) In our secular age, how do we construe the nature of answering the critics and helping the skeptic? 

 I know I sold a copy of The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Contextend of apologetics.jpg by Myron Bradley Penner (Baker Academic; $19.99) which is exactly about this topic. We showed off a brand new title by the ever-evolving and always interesting James W. Sire: Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really is Believing (IVP Academic; $18.00) which looks at “signals of transcendence” in ways that are alluring and winsome, perhaps not quite postmodern, but still offering an approach that is more than proofs and charts and arguments. It looks very, very useful, and I hope it is widely read.

Another book that came out a few years go reflecting deeply on questions of evangelism in our postmodern setting is written by a former campus evangelist, actually, and well worth considering for those that want a serious but earnest study: Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (Brazos Press; $16.00) is by Brad Kallenberg who teaches at the University of Dayton  (and who, by the way, has a book on technology that Jamie Smith likes, and a recentlive to tell.png book on Christianity and engineering.)

It is a bit controversial, but the brilliant scholar and colorful British writer Francis Spufford has written Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (HarperOne; $25.99) and that, too, makes a (compelling?) case less for the historical truth of Christianity, but for the feel of its heft. Is this a silly bit of “truthiness” or something like Lewis’s myth and the “weight of glory”? No matter what you think, it is a much-discussed book, and seems to fit this conversation. Naturally we had it at the Smith lecture, and we stock it gladly in our store, spicy language and all.

Another benefit of this less rationalistic approach to the persuasion of the heart, is that rather than wielding apologetic weapons which invite argument and assent to dogma, relationships move into the foreground and our own stories of love the ultimate apologetic.jpgpain and brokenness and experiences of God’s presence become central to our testimony. Even rigorous rationalists have said this at their best, by the way – again, see Art Lindsey’s very lovely and very important study Love, the Ultimate Apologetic: The Heart of Christian Witness (IVP; $15.00) which draws its title from a famous phrase used by Francis Schaeffer.  My, my, how I wish folks would read this!

Guys like J.P. Moreland or William Lane Craig and other older school debaters seem rooted in an Enlightenment epistemology and have oodles of books on how to defeat this argument or scale that secular wall or reason through this quandary or doubt, but surely they, too, affirm (even if they don’t say it very often) that relationships matter, that showing love is essential and that there are mysteries that cannot be accounted for in our systems of logic. None of them would disagree with Lindsey, so there is no need to caricature them as one-dimensional brainiacs.  Still, the tradition of evidentialist apologetics which specializes in learning to defeat the arguments of the atheists is waning – perhaps because it isn’t as effective these days as it once was.

One book that we had at the CCO book display with Smith isn’t for everyone, but a must-read iffive views on apologetics.jpg this topic intrigues you. Five Views on Apologetics is compiled and edited by Steven Coward in the Counterpoints series (Zondervan; $19.99.) You know how these work (we have a lot of them, on all manner of topics.) Each author presents his or her view, and then the other four reply.  The second portion is the second guy offering his perspective, again, with the other four offering a counterpoint.  By the end of the very orderly collection, you’ve learned not only five main viewpoints, but the critiques offered by each of them.  What a way to learn!

In this 398-page paperback you hear from representatives of five views: Classical, Evidential, Presuppositional, Reformed Epistemology and a Cumulative Case view. Who knew there were such profound differences of why and how to defend the faith.

That a friendly and fruitful argument can occur in the context of trusting relationships can beletters from a skeptic.jpg seen in a wonderful book of Greg Boyd’s, who published a fascinating set of letters written back and forth between he and his father, Ed, when the younger Boyd became a Christian (much to the dismay of his secularist father.)  Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions About Christianity (David C. Cook; $14.99) is a regular seller for us here at the shop as we find many folks are drawn to the way this attempts to answer or reply to specific questions from the unbelieving dad, but isn’t merely a handbooks of arguments answered. It is really a story – a father and son, story, even — and it matters that the letters are warm, caring, familiar, even humorous. Dare I say that such projects are perfect for those interested in hearts and minds?  That this combines the evidences and arguments responding to honest questions with a winsome and creative backstory? I do recommend it often.

A very interesting book which, again, calls us to a more wholistic account of the hope that liesno arg for god.jpg within us is called No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith by John Wilkinson (IVP; $15.00.)  Written by a otherwise conservative evangelical, it understands that mere data doesn’t cut it these days, and the multi-faceted and deeply personal gospel story itself cannot be proven with proofs and evidences and the like. I like Scot McKnight’s discussion of this book when he says,

Some people know the truth with a cock-sure confidence that is both admirable and annoying. Others have been through the battles of doubt and walk away from the battle with a limp, a limp that reveals that person is still walking straight ahead but with the humility that emerges from deep engagement with God in the shadows of life. John Wilkinson’s book is for the limpers, and it is a wonderful post-apologetics apologetic for an authentic faith.

Anyway, Jamie Smith opened a nice little can of worms in our Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture by inviting us to story, to winsome, multi-dimensional ways of witness that go beyond proofs and cases and reasons, but also that refuses to reduce Christian evangelism to mere social action or cultural reformation or wordless witness.  For Smith, and for us, this question is not about being more liberal or less clear about the first things of the gospel. We do have to find ways to share the gospel without being needlessly pushy or attached to rationalistic strategies that end up being more argumentative than inviting. For love’s sake, we want to be effective and fruitful as we enlist others to join the great adventure of Kingdom living.

I hope these things are of interest to you.  If you are a follower of Christ and a member of nearly any kind of church you surely know we are commissioned to share the gospel, to reach out to others with an invitation to join in the movement of God’s work in the world. You know we are to preach the cross, to declare the goodness of the gospel, to announce the Kingdom, speak truth into a hurting world, to be ready to talk about the hope we have.  

And I suspect that you, like me – if you are willing to host these thoughts for more than a minute – have great anxiety about it all, fearful that we aren’t doing a very good job at our great commission and not even sure about how to talk about it all.  Evangelism?  Yikes!  In a post-Christian, post-modern, secularized, pluralistic, culture? Double yikes!

* * *

Aocbp house.jpgnd so it was that I was particularly attentive to these things last week, just days after the Smith lecture on “the secular age” and the “nones” and the book-selling conversations about books that offer new approaches to apologetics as I was hanging out for several days in Ocean City NJ with 40 young evangelical college- student leaders from campuses across Pennsylvania and Ohio. As I always discover in my annual pilgrimage there, these students have engaged in fascinating and fruitful conversations throughout the summer with CCO staff and guest teachers, reading good books together, and immersing themselves in the drama of Scripture.  They know a bit about how faith is a way of life based on a deep, heart-felt and Biblically-shaped world and life view.  They know Christ as the Redeemer King whose grace, as the Keller video curriculum that they watch puts it, “changes everything.” Most wouldn’t call themselves post-modern, I gather, but all are coming of age in the second decade of the 21st century (and are, of course, glued to their smart phones and i-devices.)

Tocbp kids 2014.jpghey come from campuses where they have seen a lot — there are cheesy and simplistic examples of faith all over but they want to offer a better vision and form communities of spiritual integrity. When hostile professors or administrators chastise these young Christians (as they sometimes do!) it is usually because these profs disapprove of the silly faith and reactionary politics they’ve seen; they aren’t the first to be turned off to lively faith by what they’ve seen on the television.  When sharp, caring students talk about their work fighting sexual trafficking or global warming and offer their professors Lewis’ Mere Christianity or The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers or Orthodoxy by Chesterton or the reputable, contemporary scholarship of N.T. Wright, even hardened secular professors can be impressed. 

I was once told by a special ed prof at my alma mater (IUP) that if I didn’t believe that thescientism word cloud.jpg scientific method was the “only way to truth”  — “Yes, Truth with a capitol T,” she scolded – “you have no business being in a modern university.”  This kind of hostile scientism and naturalistic philosophy is still prevalent on campus, but, I suspect, less so, here amidst the postmodern turn.  

There are a lot of books that cover that topic — worldviews in the university, scholarly freedom, academic discipleship.

But, let’s be clear: these young students working in ocean side shops and boardwalk joints, cleaning hotels and slicing cold cuts and cheese at the local deli, or making smoothies for the tourists aren’t talking with hostile intellectuals this summer.  They are talking with co-workers and townies, street people and tourists, ordinary people from all over the country and world.

And, boy, do they enjoy being hospitable.  Every evening they would introduce whoever they happened to bring home for the big communal supper — a co-worker from Bulgaria, a guy who plays Frisbee on the beach, a boss from the morning shift at the bakery.  Some of these guests to the OCBP house inevitably wondered over to the book room I had set up in the living room, and these students got me talking with their new friends.  What did I have that would convince a skeptic, that would show why Christianity makes sense, that would answer some of the questions they had?

A big artful novel about meaning or a postmodern guide to wonder and mystery didn’t seem to scratch where it itched.  These curious young adults – drawn in by the community and hospitality and laughter so evident among these joyous, loud lovers of Jesus – were already leaning in, eager to know what was going on among them. Maybe they would take up a pro/con study like the Greg Boyd book, mentioned above, or maybe a classic like C.S. Lewis. One guesttrue story of whole world.jpg really wanted to know what we meant by the Big Story of the Bible, and we gave her The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Narrative by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew (Faith Alive; $15.99) the abridged version of their bigger Drama of Scripture, just out in a new expanded, revised edition (Baker; $22.99.) I also like to show the edgy, smallish book called The Big Story: How the Bible Makes Sense of Life by Justin Buzzard  (Moody; $13.99) that gets at this in a fun way, too – a Bible overview that shows its central plot and invites us to see our lives as making sense as we enter that plot-line. 

How do we find ourselves in the story of God?  One gal in the house told how Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller (Thomas Nelson; $16.99) changed her life; perhaps you know the famous first lineblue like jazz.gif of those reflections: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. I used to
not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this
happened.”  I of course pointed then to A Thousand Miles in a Million Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story (Thomas Nelson; $16.99) Miller’s wonderfully enjoyable narrative about making his life a true narrative (with an assist from Bob Goff). We had all of his books there.

Of course, there are so many great memoirs, stories of folks making sense of their lives, and these are often good for “pre-evangelism” and nudges towards developing a religious vocabulary to name one’s longings. Even those that are not exactly about Christian conversion are helpful, I think, to let a person know that she is not alone, not the only one trying to figure out these things. Perhaps one day I’ll do a list of a few of my favorite memoirs about searching for faith. 

At least one young women pressed me for specific answers, though, and she wanted a book that responded to the standard challenges raised against Christainity.  I think she eventually took Thcase for faith.jpge Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity by Lee Strobel (Zondervan; $15.99.) We also had Strobel’s The Case for Christ which is excellent for those wondering if the gospels accounts are reliable, if Christ could be who He said He was, if the claims made about him hold water.  The Case for Creator is, like the others, an anthology of meaty but readable chapters, in this case, authored by scientists who see God’s design fingerprinted onto the scientific facts of the world.  These, though, were not her primary questions – so we shifted to the ones in Case for Faith — if God is good, why is there so much suffering, did Jesus really say He was the only way (and what is with that?) Do miracles really happen?  Why have Christians been so violent and vile throughout the ages? These questions about not just the truth claims about Christ but about this other stuff, and it seemed like it would be helpful. 

Allow me a brief observation, a quick story from OCBP, and then a random book list of titles I want to tell you about. This list isn’t anywhere near comprehensive — we have a lot of these kinds of books in our shop, books on apologetics (modern and postmodern), books on doing evangelism, and books for seekers or those with significant doubts.  These are some good ones to get you started.


I am really, really moved when I am around people who have a passion to talk about how the Divine works in their lives, about the good news that the Kingdom is coming, who share about the need and possibility for others to enter into a relationship with their Creator God by way ofbullhorn.jpg the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. In other words, to see evangelism done well is a great joy, and is so much better than my more common shtick about how bad pushy evangelists can be. 

That some do it wrong and say it badly – no small thing as they hurt people and confuse some and make ministry harder for all of us due to their unfriendly and injudicious style – is frankly not nearly as interesting as seeing how some do it right. I wonder why so many churches nearly pride themselves that they don’t do evangelism? Doesn’t it get a bit boring just saying what we don’t do? 

Being with the OCBP kids, watching them offer hospitality and grace and gospel to friends and strangers is remarkable. Please don’t throw out the idea of evangelism and the possibility of seekers becoming Christians just become some religious groups overplay it. If you’ve not shed tears lately hearing stories of God-caused transformation, pray for a chance to experience it.


One athletic, young sophomore guy broke down in tears as he told us about what happened that day at work, exclaiming how it was “so cool” that he got to say a prayer to receive God’s salvation for and with a co-worker; the OCBP student’s college-age co-worker agreed his life was messed up and that he needed God. He knew very little about the Bible or the gospel, and Gabe “told him everything” about the grand Scriptural story (from Genesis to Revelation: they even took a bathroom break in the middle), about creation, fall, redemption, about law and grace, about hope and new creation. Gabe talked about his own trust in Jesus and offered his buddy the assurance of salvation, the presence of the Holy Spirit within him, and a new quality of life, starting right then and there. Picture these two college men praying out loud together in a boat rental warehouse as one entered into the Kingdom of God for the first time; hearing about it brought many of us to our knees.   

Does this – this storied report of one person leading another to Christ, of somebody praying for salvation for one unfamiliar with the good news – happen in your church?  Perhaps it does, but in some, it just doesn’t. This is not the time to speculate about why that is, but for many of us, we just don’t quite know how to share about the deepest things; we just don’t feel safe or confident to go there. Sometimes we don’t offer good news because we think that only fundamentalist weirdos do that.


As always, reading books can help. This is not the only answer, of course, but reading books about evangelism, the art of apologetics, and having resources to answer questions, while learning how to talk comfortably about deep things can really give you new confidence and inspire you to take steps towards sharing your faith when appropriate.  Read them to see how it’s done, to learn the vocabulary of this art, and to know you aren’t weird for desiring to tell your story, proclaim the gospel, and invite others into the community of people that live the story you believe to be true.


Ahospitality.jpg Christian View of Hospitality: Expecting Surprises Michele Hershberger (Herald Press) $12.99  I suppose Making Room by Christine Pohl is still the semi-scholarly classic on the topic, but this is the go-to, must-read, amazingly good resource for anyone who wants to live in such a way that they are open to God’s work day by day, eager for surprises, and open to sharing life with those who come along.  One of the speakers at OCBP  — the indomitable funny guy Dr. Terry Thomas — spoke highly of this, and we sold out of it. This really is a starting place to think well about Kingdom evangelism: living out of grace in a way that is open to giving, open to others, breaking down hostilities and open to sharing life.  Get this lovely, serious book today — you won’t regret it!

Spspeak.jpgeak: How Your Story Can Change the World Nish Weiseth (Zondervan) $14.99  This new book is not primarily or exclusively about evangelism, but just about discovering the power of sharing your story and learning the grace to hear the stories of others. Speak is a call for grace, openness, and vulnerability, encouraging church folk to share their own stories of transformation.  She is all about building bridges, being an advocate for social change, for investing in others in ways that makes disciples and builds the Kingdom. Weiseth is a young blogger and founder of A Deeper Story, a collaborative website where over sixty writers share their stories in order to address important issues within Christianity and the culture at large. There is a beautiful foreword by memoirist Shauna Niequist.

Tunexpected adventure.jpghe Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks to Talk with People About Jesus Lee Strobel & Mark Mittelberg (Zondervan) $14.99  I often show this book as a great starter book on evangelism — it invites you to pray for 40 days, each day asking God to give you the eyes to see opportunities to serve others, speak about spiritual things, or say something about your faith in Jesus. Then, the authors report their own experiment in faith, with a daily story of something that happened to them. These are great case studies — some pretty dramatic, most not, all quite interesting. Almost like a daily devotional, I am sure you will be touched by some of these occurrences that seem like divine appointments, nice episodes that remind us that ordinary, daily opportunities abound. This is a truly helpful books, lovely to read and inspiring to apply.

Ii once was lost.jpg Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About the Path to Jesus Don Everts & Doug Schaupp (IVP) $15.00  I raved about this when it came out several years ago and hope you know of it. These guys wondered how young collegiate actually made the journey towards following Jesus and interviewed to over two thousand people who had come to Christ during their college years (mostly through IFCF.) There were, not so surprisingly, barriers to overcome, relationships that mattered, stages – ” postmodern evangelism is a mysterious and organic process that nevertheless goes through discernible phrases, as people cross thresholds from distrust to trust, from complacency to curiosity, and from meandering to seeking.” This is not an excuse to refrain from talking clearly about things that matter, but it is a reminder that this usually takes time, that there are factors that influence how people shift in their perspectives and become open to the gospel.  If you are concerned that old-school evangelistic strategies no longer work, if you want to explore intentional “relational evangelism” (especially among those who are skeptical and un-churched) this little book is a gold mine of ideas and winsome guidance.

Ggod space.jpgod Space: Where Spiritual Conversations Happen Naturally  Doug Pollock (Group) $14.99  Ahh, this is one of the best little books on evangelism of which we know. It reminds us that conversations about spiritual things can happen naturally, and that we certainly do not want to be pushy or weird.  OCBP staff and students about whom I’ve written really love it, and several explained that they felt it gave them a great framework and vision to learn to talk about the deepest things in ways that lead to a natural telling of what God is doing in their lives and the nature of the gospel.  I’ve said it before, but I do really, really recommend this short, insightful book. Nice cover, too!

Oout of the salt shaker.jpgut of the Saltshaker and Into the World: Evangelism as a Way of Life Becky Pippert (IVP) $17.00  Well, this is certainly one of our all time biggest sellers here at the shop – we hosted Becky here in our early years to help us learn about effective, faithful, relational evangelism. She is an amazing person, with tons of great stories, and much solid insight. This book is a true classic, and if you haven’t read it, I beg you to.  I think it is that good. 

 “I Can” Evangelism: Taking the “I Can’t” Out of Sharing Your Faith Elisa Morgan (Revell) $12.99  I have made many lists of evangelism books in the past, and enjoy explaining this or that one. There are those that are theologically mature and profound (please, please check out The Heart of Evangelism and Learning Evangelism From Jesus by Jerram Barrs [Crossway; $16.99/$18.99] for important, fabulous Biblical foundations) and then there are those that just give us that nudge, that invitation, the simple suggestions that “you can do this.” I read this almost in one sitting when it had been released under a different title and delighted that they re-issued it with a new title; this edition is now out of print, too, but we have a few left. It is so clear and encouraging and am glad to recommend it will I can. It isn’t too simplistic nor is it cheesy or pushy. It is helpful, motivating, and very, very nice.  Elisa Morgan has been through a lot, her life is a great testimony, and this book can help you, I’m sure.

Faith is Like Skydiving And Other Memorable Images for Dialogue with Seekers and Skepticsfaith-is-like-skydiving-and-other-memorable-images-for-dialogue-with-seekers-and-skeptics.jpg Rick Mattson (IVP) $15.00  I love this book! It is chock full of stories and good (and, well, not so good) examples of Mattson’s own efforts to share the gospel, mostly on college campuses. These honest reports from his own checkered efforts are worth the price of the book, but the real point is that he has learned to us various metaphors, stories, and simple analogies to communicate this or that complicated point or theological truth. You’ve most likely heard some of the objections to the faith that Mattson tells us about, and you may even have heard some of his winsome, clever replies. But a lot of these were new to me, and I will store a number a way, I’m sure, to pull out when it may be instructive.  Please know that he isn’t all about just mimicking trite illustrations and he makes a passionate case for caring for each conversation partner, for being honest and candid about the weight of many painful questions and challenges to faith. But yet, being prepared with some helpful analogies, some illustrations to us, some images to draw on is fantastic.  This is one of the most helpful book about apologetics I’ve seen in a while, packed with takeaways, loaded with stories, and written by an author with lots of experience, written in a caring, honest tone. Nice!

Ttelling the gospel through story.jpgelling the Gospel Through Story: Evangelism That Keeps Hearers Wanting More Christine Dillon (IVP) $15.00  Christine is an OMF missionary from Australia and knows that “everybody loves a good story.” This is a thorough guide to learning how to tell the Bible stories as stories and how to us this “storying the Bible” as a tool for good conversations and evangelism. I like what Sean Gladding, the author of the fantastic The Story of God, the Story of Us says, “Christian Dillon calls us to recapture the beauty, power and mystery of storying the gospel, and does so with the wisdom of a practitioner.”  This is great for anyone who wants to reach out to others in evangelistic hopes, but also for Sunday school teachers, educators or preachers. Very impressive, loaded with insight and guidance, and a good study guide, too.

Qquestioning-evangelism.jpguestioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did Randy Newman (Kregel) $13.99  This award-winning book is a wonderful guide to listening well and asking good questions as one engages in apologetics and evangelism. There are imagined scripts and case studies of ways we can ask probing questions of those with whom we are in conversation.  At times, Newman’s bias is a bit conservative (when he is showing how to have fruitful dialogues about social issues) and although he is all about inviting relationally-sensitive discussions, his hope is to offer gospel news and offer compelling Biblical answers of a fairly conventional sort. Gladly, there is a wonderful chapter on having compassion, which is fantastic, and a final essay on unanswered questions, which is very nice. 

Ggood news and good works.jpgood Words and Good Works: A Theology of the Whole Gospel Ronald J. Sider (Baker) $20.00  I often remark how very important this book is, and how carefully Ron explores, compares, contrasts, differentiates and wisely and helpfully studies different models and views of evangelism.  He gives a wholistic Biblical vision of what evangelism is and isn’t, and it is as important for mainline denominational “social gospel” folk as it is for evangelical “evangelistic” folk. As you may know, Ron has been a leader of evangelical social action, calling for radical lifestyles of generous justice, service to the poor, peacemaking and the like. And yet, he continues to be interested in his earliest passion — to be an apologist and defend the credibility of faith among the intellectuals.

Despite that interest, Ron was called by the Lord He loved to work raising the consciousness of evangelicals about racial injustice, urban poverty, world hunger, the need for sustainable economics.  Through these activist networks he helped forge (international) conversations about the relationship between word and deed, helping craft declarations at Lausanne about what we mean by witness, evangelism and by social action. This title is one of the very best books of the late 20th century explaining why we need both personal evangelism and social action, words and deeds, good news and good policy, and also how we ought not conflate or confuse them (even as they are deeply intertwined.) A great book on the Biblical vision of the Kingdom of God, with an inspiring tone and some healthy advice —  it simply has to be listed here as we offer resources for thinking about relevant evangelism in our time. This showed, years ago, now, that we must “show” and “tell” and that our words must point to a real community living differently — vital ideas for anyone thinking about fruitful, Biblical, evangelism in the 21st century.

Nnudge.jpgudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who’s Already There Leonard Sweet (David C. Cook) $19.99 There are dozens and dozens of books in our evangelism section, but I’d be remiss not to name this one.  Len is a wonderful cultural analyst, a critic of mean-spirited or dull views of faith and evangelism, but also one who has great, great passion for creatively offering good words and good news to people shaped by our postmodern times. He is upbeat, always quoting fascinating episodes from history or great writers, and is a joy to learn from. Len is less critical of postmodernity than some, and has a winsome ability to playfully make connections between our crazy times and the crazy good news of a God who Is. We can nudge one another along the way — that’s it! This book is a provocative one helping you learn some new ways to think about evangelism, offering new energy and Spirit-given confidence to help folks make connections with Christ Himself by using our many senses. Yes!

Uunbinding the gospel.jpgnbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism  Martha Grace Reese (Chalice Press) $20.99  For the last few years, we have happily sold this (or the three companion volumes) at nearly every mainline denominational event at which we sold books. With rave endorsements from The Christian Century, the Congregations newsletter of the Alban Institute, respected Protestant leaders such as the former President of the UCC, it has snowballed into a best-seller, used in 15,000 congregations in more than 50 denominations.

Evangelical scholars have raved, too.  Dick Peace, formerly of GCTS, now at Fuller, says “This should be required reading in all our mainline churches.”  George Hunter (Distinguished Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Asbury Theological Seminary and a respected author of many books on relevant, contextualized evangelism) says “I expect Unbinding the Gospel Series to move [thousands of] churches into their first invitational foray into the community in anyone’s memory.”unbindlogo.jpg

The four volumes (Unbinding the Gospel, Unbinding Your Heart, Unbinding Your Church, and Unbinding Your Soul) came out of Reese’s research with a national Lilly Endowment project on evangelism and congregational transformation. One reviewer was glad that they use “humor, whimsy and joy” and were “written to provoke, to tease, and to charm us back into telling our story.” We have written about these before, but glad to list ’em here again.

Tart of neighboring.jpghe Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door  Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon (Baker) $14.99 There is, assume you know, a national movement to renew local communities. Government and non-profits are all learning to care about the local, and increasingly churches are being missional in ways that start with their own neighborhoods. Building lasting relationships with those around us ought not seem like rocket science and many of us may think we don’t need a handbook to making a difference in our own locales.  But, alas, it just doesn’t seem to happen these days, and this book is “thought-provoking and practical” (as Margaret Feinberg put it.)

The Mayor of Duluth, Minnesota writes,

 “The Art of Neighboring has united many churches in Duluth and has helped us to launch a neighboring movement. I’m excited about the influence it is having in my city and its potential to impact other cities around the county.”  

Even serious neighborhood scholars and community-based sociologist like John McKnight the co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University have endorsed it.  Not many books draw on old-school evangelism classics (Master Plan of Evangelism, say, or the work of Dawson Trotman) as well as mature analysis like Exclusion and Embrace by Volf or the community organizing stuff of Robert Lupton. Check out their website for more info.

Tmystic way.jpghe Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach Elaine Hearth (Baker Academic) $19.99  I have written about this before, and hold it up and show it off often, in part because it is so very interesting, a curious, refreshing and profound perspective to help the church get out of its “dark night of the soul” but also because it is just so very rare to find a truly new angle and approach to sharing one’s story in evangelism.  This author, a professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, draws on the usual suspects — Merton, Nouwen, Gerald May, Richard Rohr and the like. (Ahh, but also Wendell Berry and Kalistos Ware, Bonaventure and Wesley.) This includes theory and practice, using the classic spiritual formation lenses and the teaching of the mystics to helps us gain a more holistic view of the gospel and a helpful way to invite people into the deep waters of true spirituality.  As we ponder what sorts of approaches to evangelism which may bear fruit in this postmodern era, maybe connecting with the hunger of spiritual encounter which runs so deep these days is a more than a clever idea, but essential.

Ttrue story .jpgrue Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In James Choung (IVP) $16.00 With the coffee cup stains on the napkin on the front, you get that this is pitched to a younger, hipper crowd – indeed, the “likewise” imprint of IVP is missional, authentic, edgy, even. This is a great, great book for folks — the young adult crowd, or those eager to be challenged to think younger — wanting fresh ways to think about what it means to invite people into the story of faith, especially those that are aware that the gospel has been grown oily in the hands of hucksters and weird on the tongues of ideologues.  Yes, if you are wary of sharing your own faith journey because of how badly it has often been done, and long for a sane and sensible -and maybe even creative and exciting – way of doing this kinds of work, this book is for you. 

First, you should know much of it is written as a novel – a parable, if you will.  Caleb is a disillusioned believer and Anna is a hostile skeptic yet they both wrestle with the plausibility of the Christina story in a world of pain and suffering. They ask each other tough questions about what Jesus came to do and what Christianity is supposed to be about. 

As activist and joyful prophet Shane Claiborne writes of it, “This book is an urgent cry not to settle for the dream of America over the dream of God, nor to allow cynicism to suffocate the hope that another world is possible.”  Yep, this is a cleverly construed story within a book ruminating on new ways to explain the Kingdom of God to others, to invite folks to a new story, and to show forth a gospel that is true and worthy.  Maybe this is the kind of (post-modern?)based on a true story.jpg apologetic that we are searching for.  Certainly it is a creative and interesting way to present the gospel.

And, as the napkin on the cover alludes, there is a scene where some stuff is scribbled — and you can even by the little booklet, the story as explained in the drawing.  They make nice discussion tools to use in appropriate settings. ($1.25.) Fantastic!  

Rreal life.jpgeal Life: A Christianity Worth Living Out James Choung (IVP) $17.00 After the fun success of True Story, James Choung then wrote a sequel of sorts, a book for those who are mentoring others, discipling and training young believers in the journey of faith. It introduces new characters, but is similar — a mix of a novel and an evaluation of what is going on, and how the characters learn to live their faith. And there are diagrams — woo-hoo.  This one, too, is so, so helpful for anyone who needs trained (or retrained, as the case may be) in learning to do ministry in our postmodern age. 

Here is what it says in its promo:

Engineer Stephen wants to encourage his younger colleague Jared in his spiritual journey, but both feel at a loss. Stephen’s friend Bridget offers insights on how Boomers, Xers, Millennials and younger generations approach spiritual questions, with implications for discipleship, community and service. Together they walk through deepening stages of faith as they discern how God is calling them to live. Join Stephen, Bridget and Jared on their journey of following Jesus, as they discover what it means to move from skeptic to world-changer. And find new pathways for Christian discipleship and disciple-making in a world yearning for hope.  

Btrue story and real life .jpgoth True Story and Real Life are fabulous examples of the fresh, creative, and passionate work being done by a new generation of campus ministers and authentic, caring evangelists. If you are in a fairly traditional setting in a conventional church, you may think these are not for you. Let me suggest otherwise: surely you know un-churched or de-churched young adults with whom you need to connect. So, you could use these with them, perhaps. I bet if you’ve been at this a while in a fairly standard, older church setting, maybe you could use some fresh assistance in reaching out to those who most likely don’t come to your church.  Even if you don’t use this book with younger adults in your orbit, maybe you could use it with your leaders or duplicate it’s schemes and dreams within your own context; it will freshen your imagination, remind you of the big questions and point you towards (maybe) new ways to speak the story just by seeing how some proclaim the gospel or call people to discipleship these days. 

DDifferenceMakers.jpgifference Makers: An Action Guide for Jesus Followers M. Scott Boren (Baker) $13.99 One of the great things about these CCO students living together at OCBP that I’ve mentioned is that they are eager to reach out, to serve others, to make a difference where they can.  And it seems they have been inspired and somewhat equipped to do so — some have been to the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, and some have already bought books from us, so they get the whole “all of life redeemed” worldview vision.  But, like most of us, they need equipped, trained, guided.

So here’s the thing: many of us want to do evangelism, to make disciples, serve God in good ways whether it is the day to day stuff, paying attention to our neighborhood, or being involved in initiatives for social justice.  Do you feel like you’ve been trained or equipped to reach out and let your light shine, as they say? And, further, if you wanted to do ministry with others, serving others to learn how to be so equipped, would you know how to “disciple” and mentor them?

Aren’t these questions that many of us ponder: how do we serve God better, and, if we see ourselves as leaders, how do we inspire and empower and mentor others along the way? We want to make a difference, and we want to influence others to make a difference, for God’s glory and our neighbors good. We want to do winsome evangelism, but don’t know where to start. Just how do you do this? How does one influence the world, and how does one influence other Christians in ways that empowers them learn how to be salt and light and leaven in the world? This book is simply one of the best resources I’ve seen about how to get active, be more missional, prayerfully and attentive pour yourself into others, mentor and guide and inspire them to be “difference makers.” If you know someone who wants to be culturally engaged or socially active or who wants to lead a Bible study or learn to share their faith, and you want to come alongside them to encourage them, you need this book. 

Funny – and I mean no offense here – but many well-trained pastors don’t seem to know how to do ministry, working with people outside of committees or pastoral counseling sessions, and they’ve not been taught in seminary the social and emotional and strategic skills about being a spiritually formative influence on others.  They preach good sermons to inspire us to be God’s agents in the world, some can teach, but don’t quite know how to come alongside those struggling to figure out how to be a faithful presence in the world. They often don’t know how to “make disciples” living out, say, 2 Timothy 2:2, hanging out and passing on and equipping others to do the work of the Kingdom.  The creative insights and “doable first steps” found here in this great handbook will help. Pastors, campus ministers, Christian educators, small group leaders, work through this book with your people. Pass this out and do the prayerful lectio exercises which will be transforming. Difference Makers: An Action Guide… is a missional training handbook, par excellance. 

Ttactics.jpgactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions Gregory Koukl (Zondervan) $14.99 I have suggested in this column that the days of harsh argumentation and developing air-tight intellectual strategies for presenting truth claims in absolute ways are nearly over.  That is certainly the position of a few of the books listed above (like Myron Bradley Penner’s or John Wilkinson’s, for instance.) Yet – yet! – that simply isn’t the case in some quarters, and if you expect that you might have reason to dialogue with rationalistic skeptics or thinking seekers, this guidebook will teach you how to maneuver comfortably and graciously as you share your faith with others. I have some quibbles about some of the rhetoric here, but overall, it is a very useful tool, and I do recommend it.

 On the back cover it says “learn how to navigate mine fields, stop challengers in their tracks, turn the tables and – most importantly – get people thinking about Jesus. Many big name apologists from this evidentialist school of argument (note the rhetoric in the above sentence) rave about this. Norm Geisler says, “There is no better book to equip Christians to think clearly, soundly, and inoffensively.”  William Lane Craig says “Tactics will make you a more effective ambassador for Christ.” J. P. Moreland says it is “the authoritative treatment about how to employ various strategies in conversations with unbelievers about the Christian faith.”  

I think it is helpful to study communication theory, to learn to more skillfully manage details of dialogue, applying principles of sound thinking, adopting engaging and disarming styles to use when people raise objections. Learning these “techniques” can soon become a natural impulse for you, to be thoughtful, rigorous, clear, but also a good listener and kindly. So this is good.  I do believe that if you want to be effective in Kingdom witness in these days this isn’t the only book you should read, as this “tactical” strategy for conversation is a bit heavy on the left brain, and seems to carry an assumption that most nonbelievers or seekers are skeptics wanting to have heavy debates about truth — minefields and all that.  Some do, and this is a helpful resource, but (despite the raves by Moreland, McDowell, et al) it isn’t the only tool to have, and is only one style of faithful response. But what it does, it does quite well.


EEchoes of a Voice.jpgchoes of a Voice: We Are Not Alone James W. Sire (Cascade Books) $29.00  I mentioned above the new book about apologetics by James Sire. This is nearly a companion volume, also quite new, which documents the ineffable — these “sudden, unbidden, unexpected, strange experience” that we all have.  What are they? Is there Something Other? Sire has studied a large number of accounts of those who have had some luminous sensation, paring them with his own experiences.  He turns to scientists, philosophers and theologians.  As it says on the back cover “These experiences, he concludes, are signals of transcendence or what N.T. Wright calls echoes of a voice – “the voice of Jesus, calling us to follow him into God’s new world.”” Put simply, this book is an account of Jim’s fascinating journey to this conclusion.

Listen to what Sire’s friend Os Guinness says of it,

For dwellers in our modern ‘world without windows,’ or for prisoners in Plato’s cave content with the flickering shadows on the wall, Sire has given us a brilliant and helpful survey of pathways to the sun and freedom – some sure and some illusory. Echoes of a Voice should be read by all who wrestle with communicating faith persuasively today.

Here is another fabulous blurb from the back cover:

Despite the grinding tyranny of contemporary materialism, the human spirit persists in longing for transcendence.  Deeply personal and impressively erudite, Echoes of a Voice explores how our experiences constantly point us in a direction beyond this physical world and the various ways that we have tended to interpret those experiences. Ultimately, Sire challenges us to look for that which satisfies our deepest longings for meaning, for community, and for relationship with the God who constantly reveals himself to his creation.  Gene Fant, author of God as Author

Tend of exploring.jpghe End of Our Exploring:  Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith Matthew Lee Anderson (Moody Publishers) $13.99  Do you know this line from the end of the famous “Little Gidding” poem by T.S. Elliot? (My old friend Brooks Williams used it in what became one of my all-time favorite songs, “Wanderer’s Song.”) The thesis of this book is simple — it is fine to ask good questions, to doubt, to wonder, to explore. I know some have foolishly been taught that this isn’t safe, or healthy, or they’ve not been guided towards asking good questions, and exploring well. This is very well-written and covers much good ground, from a very reliable and insightful author who has studied philosophy and theology, and writes in a clear, inviting way.  You may know somebody for whom this little book could be a lifeline, an offer of freedom, intellectual credibility, and a guide to the best answers.  I think it is good for anyone, which is why we’ve highlighted it here before. Do check it out —  highly recommended!

Tsacredness of questioning.jpghe Sacredness of Questioning Everything  David Dark (Zondervan) $15.99 One might think that inviting people to this ancient, sacred task of questioning simple truths, investigating matters, upsetting the apple carts, deconstructing, if you will, might be disruptive to evangelical faith.  Maybe so. But this is so essential for healthy human flourishing and personal development (and such an accepted part of postmodern culture) that to fear (or dismiss with snarky comments) the good heart of this good project, is to miss extraordinary possibilities of engaging with seekers, skeptics, those who wonder (and those who wander.) David Dark is a very, very, creative thinker, sometimes nearly sensational — he writes almost wildly, at times, and knows so much about so much (including pop culture; I hope you know his wonderful book Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons which, by the way, could be another helpful resource for postmodern evangelism.) Eugene Peterson has a wise endorsing blurb on the back of this; I do too, for that matter.  Check it out.

Rrecapture the wonder.jpgecapture the Wonder Ravi Zacharias (Nelson) $12.99  Ravi Z is renowned the world over as one of the most eloquent and articulate defenders of Christian orthodoxy. He is a powerful speaker, a gracious but hard-hitting evangelist, and a scholar who has conversations with some of the world’s leading atheists, political leaders, and scholars.  Yes, he seems like an old-school rationalists, yet here he moves towards the contemporary ethos, wondering why we all seek wonder.  “Deep within all of us is a longing to recapture a sense of wonder,” he writes, “to marvel at the mystery of God and His creation as we did as children.” Has our capacity for wonder been stifle by busyness and ambition?  Have we “resigned ourselves to explaining away all that once made us gasp in awe?”  This offers an argument for this deeper, sensuous life, offered with poetic insights, and pointing the way to allowing our minds to embrace the deepest desires of our hearts and experience life as God intended it to be.” If you know RZM you know he is a serious, thoughtful author.  I hope you have not overlooked this lovely one, what one thoughtful reviewer called “the right medicine for anyone who may be disillusioned with life.”  “We are disillusioned, he argues,” Charles Colson wrote, “because we have lost our sense of wonder, and that is a problem that has a cure.” This book can help believers and seekers alike.

Ddrained -  plough.jpgrained: Stories of People Who Wanted More Johann Christoph Arnold (Plough Publishing) $8.00 We are delighted that Plough Publishing is back in business after a hiatus of many years – they are a fascinating indie press that brings together quotes and insights from sophisticated literary figures with a down-to-Earth search for meaning, framed by their radical, Anabaptist faith community called the Bruderhof. With the almost punk cover design, this would be appreciated by anybody searching for help in the middle of struggles, but especially those who may be on culture’s margins, who are feeling lost, stressed, betrayed or confused. These are not testimonies of clean or clear Christian conversion, but stories of those who refuse to run on empty, who long for greater meaning, or were willing to search for more and hear the truth of the power of love and the profundity of service. Revolutionary stuff!

Icleary.JPGn the Absence of God Richard L. Cleary (Xulon; $24.99) At the Jamie Smith lecture, another book we had stacked up in our apologetics section there (and that we proudly feature in our store, of course) is a novel about these very questions about the existence of God, the nature of truth, and whether there really is such a thing as right and wrong. Set on a college campus, written by my very good friend, neighbor, and local philosophy teacher, it is a hefty tale, with a lot going on, making it ideal for those that want to consider life’s big questions in the form of a story.  This takes up Lewis’s and Smith’s call to use the novel form to do “pre-evangelism” and communicate the terrain of  philosophy and ethics — and is very moving in many ways. I’ve mentioned this novel before, but if you don’t have it yet, it might be useful – it follows the conversations between professors (Christian and otherwise) and students (including some football players and a couple who are dating) on a typical college campus. Cleary is quite passionate about intellectual credibility; he seems to be taking the Dostoevsky line about how anything is permitted if there is no God and has his character’s explore the implications of such arguments among these students and teachers trying to figure out right and wrong.  It is a good story, with lots of intellectual dialogue, with the biggest questions one can ask being explored by the characters.  I am not the only one who has wished for a sequel… maybe someday.  For now, check it out and pass it on.

Cclear winter nights.jpglear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After Trevin Wax (Multnomah) $13.99  I love small, chunky-sized, compact hardbacks – and this novel is a delight. Whether you know people who are searching for real faith (or no faith at all) this story tells what happens when a young Christian dealing with significant disillusionment and doubt spends a weekend with an elderly retired pastor.  Of course, they talk – and no subject is off limits. This isn’t as long or heady as Cleary’s In the Absence of God (had has less of a dramatic plot.) The conversation ranges from  disillusionment and forgiveness to the distinctiveness of the gospel of grace… it is a lovely little read, and could be a great thing to share with others and talk about in a book group. Randy Alcorn says that it is “warm, compelling, and thought-provoking.”

Tthe journey.jpghe Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims Peter Kreeft (IVP) $13.00  What a great little book this is, especially appealing to those who are interested in not only a fun story, but honest seeking, the history of philosophy, and the big questions. In this imaginative journey, a modern seeker makes a journey through time, meeting various characters who offer bits and pieces of true knowledge and glimmers of wisdom.  From Socrates on, he grapples with meaning and materialism, cynicism and relativism, pantheism and nihilism and more.  In a sense, it is like Pilgrim’s Progress or even Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. 

Os Guinness notes that it is “pithy, illuminating and witty… a delight for tough-minded thinkers, whether believers, seekers, or skeptics.”

Tloser letters.jpghe Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism Mary Eberstadt (Ignatius Press) $13.95  Well, this isn’t the sort book (and Eberstadt isn’t the kind of author) who coddles postmodern relativists, despite the insights of Smith or Taylor.  Yet, she isn’t just a dry “argue the proof and insist on the dogma” gal, either; note, this is a story!  It is, in fact, a wickedly witty satire. This chronicles the conversion of a young adult Christian to atheism, a tragicomic heroine who writes a series of open letters to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to help them win over more converts to atheism.  Eberstadt is a conservative and savvy Catholic, and this rivals The Onion or Screwtape Letters for black comedy of sheer genius.

Rreason for god ipage.gifeason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism Timothy Keller (Dutton) $16.00  There are a number of reasons why CCO tends to favor Tim Keller, but this was the book in this category that sold the best at both the Smith lectures and at the OCBP week. It has such a reputation, and is one many people give away, or have given away and want to replace.  Keller is sophisticated, thoughtful, eloquent, tough-minded, and offers the opportunity for skeptics to “doubt their doubts” and study fairly the plausibility of all views on the question.  The New York Times once likened his thoughtful and literary approach to C.S. Lewis, and it is nice to see students wading through such significant work.

Bbelief.jpgelief: Readings on the Reason for Faith edited and introduced by Francis Collins (HarperOne) $19.99  The backstory of this is part of the fun – Collins, as you most likely know, is the former director of the Human Genome Project for the National Institute of Health, and now the Director of the NIH. As a leading geneticist he is a world-renowned scientist and, happily, an outspoken, humble, “mere Christian” (yes, he’s a Lewis fan.) Although he has authored and co-authored several books on the wise interface of faith and science, he is still often asked about his own faith journey, how he grew out of his unbelieving background, and how he came to conventional Christian faith. He found himself passing out chapters of books, suggesting readings, finding this piece or that author, and decided to compile them into a reader, sort of a handbook of primary source writings that explain the reasonableness of faith, and the classic quality of some of the best thinkers who have offering insights for these complex conversations.  The book is divided into 10 categories, with several readings in each section.   

The first section goes under the heading “Classic Arguments for Faith and Reason” and includes readings from Plato to Augustine, Anselm to Aquinas, Locke to Pascal. More contemporary authors are found in the “Meaning of Truth” unit, including Os Guinness, Madeleine L’Engle, and Dorothy Sayers. The rest of the book follows this pattern, with a few older authors (Elton Trueblood, Elie Wiesel, G.K. Chesterton) with many more recent ones, from Alvin Plantinga to Alister McGrath, Tim Keller to John Polkinghorne. There are a few cultural conservatives, and many icons that will appeal to progressives (Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu.) I cannot even tell you how useful this is, with such a diverse range of writers, curated and described by this fine, reliable Christian thinker. It is personal, persuasive, life-giving and helpful for any serious skeptic.  N.T. Wright wrote a wonderful first chapter.  As Philip Yancey said of it, “As I read through the chapters, I felt I was at a banquet table with old friends. What a feast Francis Collins has served.” Meaty, mature, and very, very good.

Isis god a d.jpg God a Delusion? What’s the Evidence? Nicky Gumbel (Alpha) $10.99  There are dozens of books somewhat like this, offering basic questions and plausible replies. Some include fairly standard questions many of us have, and some (like this one) are more focused on the questions coming from the new atheists. We stock many other fine ones on the atheists, with different tones, levels, and answers, but named this one because it is quite readable, brief, and written in a very colloquial, inviting tone. It basically replies to the accusations that science has disproved God and that religion poisons everything.  I suppose you’ve heard of the effective Alpha evangelism program, and we stock most of the books used in the Alpha classes. This one is upbeat, clear, and really quite useful for most folks. Let us know if you want some that are perhaps more philosophically substantive.

Ssimply-christian-cover1.jpegimply Christian N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.95 Although many students I know want to read C.S. Lewis, and Mere Christianity remains a routine seller, there is this sense that much of his argument, and the tone of his writing, resonate less and less with 21st century readers. Maybe it is the postmodern thing, maybe it is merely the academic and rhetorical rigor which is beyond many readers; the thoughtful and eloquent N.T. Wright felt this, too. There needed to be a book that  started not with (as Lewis does) a longing for home, drawing on sweet memories of a loving family, but that started with the longing for peace, justice, sexual integrity and a few other major, anxious themes present in the current landscape. Another thing Wright wanted to do is root the apologetic for Christian faith in the Bible and its sweeping narrative in a way that Lewis did not.  So he set out to write Simply Christian, which (like Mere Christianity) is of great benefit for seekers and the unchurched, making a case as it does that the Bible can provide a framework for thinking about the longings and concerns of our times, but it is also a very, very helpful read for believers. I wish it were not a hardback; still, it is one of the best books to make present a meaningful, relevant, Biblical faith applied to real life that has been written in our time.

VVoV.jpgisions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $16.00  I know nearly any well-written and thoughtful Christian book can be given to seekers, but a few are so profound, drawing on such universal themes, and are written with a hope that even those outside of the church will be able to appreciate them, that they could easily be mentioned on a list like this.  This is one of those. Many authors write books that are plainspoken, full of Christian guidance, and are fun and easy to read (think Max Lucado, say) and many have been shared with nonbelievers, who have found comfort and help in their pages. Yet this book digs deeper, and offers a vision of life that is coherent and passionate, aware of the great sorrows of the world, and will be useful to smart, curious, passionate adults trying to figure it all out, especially.  By telling stories of all kinds of amazing folks — from writers to rock stars to political activists to artists — and asking how they came to take up their passions in the world, despite its deep pain and brokenness, Garber shows that what we do in life matters, and that caring about the common good matters.  Steve invites us to ponder perennial concerns, and the current interest in the meaning of work and for living in ways that are authentic and significant makes this handsome paperback very timely for any serious reader. You could be proud to give this as a gift to any thoughtful person with serious concerns, I am sure.

Garber observes that the band U2 sings sometimes explicitly Christian songs but the whole world is able to sing along, to resonant on some level with their theologically rich images and lines, sometimes even from the Bible. Interestingly, I think Visions of Vocation is like that, written with this same texture, obviously by a lover of God and lover of Scripture, but which thoughtful readers of any persuasion can appreciate and be drawn in by.  Recommend it and see! 

Kknow doubt.jpgnow Doubt: The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith John Ortberg (Zondervan) $12.99  We have in our store over a dozen good books on doubt. Some are a bit philosophical, others less so.  Several are really, really good, but I often come back to this one for anyone who has wrestled with uncertainty or who has “stumbled” in faith. Ortberg is fun to read, thoughtful, clear, pastoral, and, of course, affirms those who realize that being totally honest about doubt and questions is a good thing. He offers his own struggle with doubt, traces the line between belief and unbelief and finds that it is “less a dividing line between hostile camps than a razor’s edge that runs through every soul.” I find that many are unaware that doubt is a common thing even among the devout and feel demoralized by haunting questions.  Get this wonderfully-written and carefully considered book for anyone you know who may feel this need, or keep it on hand for those whenever someone ends up “in two minds.” Highly recommended.



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“Natural disasters are not the only things shaking the earth.

This is the powerful, provocative first line of a brave new book by James W. Skillen called The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (BakerAcademic; $22.99.)

I want to ramble around a rumination about it as it is a book that means a lot to me and I think will help you. It is important and I’ll tell you a few of the reasons why.

In a review I wrote a month ago for my monthly “Politics & Prose” column in theevangelicals on pp issues.jpg Center for Public Justice’s Capitol Commentary e-newsletter I extolled a remarkable new book that showcased civil discourse and fabulous Christian political discourse, a book compiled by Harold Heie, who has been on the board of CPJ. It is called Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation and includes a foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Contributors include Amy Black, Paul Brink, David Gushee, Lisa Sharon Harper, Stephen Monsma, and Eric Teetsel (Abilene Christian University Press; $17.99.) 

I started that review by recalling the innovative and nearly legendary role of CPJ founder Jim Skillen and his consistently thoughtful, non-partisan, radically Christian perspective on civic life. Heie’s book about encouraging respect and civility was dedicated to Jim, so Capitol Commentary was the perfect place to showcase it.  Most of the young evangelical thinkers who offered such solid insight in that book would say that they cut their own teeth as political philosophers and activists on the early work and tireless teaching of Jim Skillen.

As that book illustrates (and as I tried to argue in this Hearts & Minds column a few years ago) Skillen has helped many of us realize that Christian political action ought not be merely some evangelical lingo on top of the secular right like religious icing on a bad cake; similarly, it ought not be some religious lingo on top of the secular left, like icing on a bad cake.  That is, those of us who walk in the way of the Lord ought not be accommodated to any ideology that may not be consistent with Biblical religion.  All our God talk and Bible quoting won’t redeem a political philosophy that is itself found wanting.  

As in any area of life we are called to be “a peculiar people” with renewed minds and a prophetic imagination that dares to suppose there can be other ways to think and live than the typical binary standoff between traditionalists and progressives, between conservatives and liberals, between right and left. Skillen, as much as any friend, mentor and leader, has consistently reminded me of that.

Agood of p .jpgnd so it is with exceptional gladness that we can here announce the publication of the brand new book by James Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (BakerAcademic; $22.99.) Although formally retired from leading CPJ, Dr. Skillen continues to think and work and write; I suspect there will be other books to come. For now, though, this feels like a magnum opus, a major work, stunning in its scope and rare in its discerning insight. The Good of Politics is as interesting and lucid as any book Skillen has released and offers a fresh articulation of the foundational vision of CPJ, the think-tank which is committed to finding uniquely Christian insights that illuminate true norms for governmental action. In various ways in this important book, Skillen helps us ponder what we mean by “public justice”  and the “common good” and ponders essential questions such as how the state – which is God’s good gift to us, not a bad thing — can use legitimate authority to help order our pluralistic political community.  He helps us examine who is responsible for what, and in what way political-legal power is unique among other sorts of legitimate exercises of cultural power.

The subtitle says it is “an introduction” but that isn’t quite right. It is part of the stimulating and respected “engaging culture” series edited by William Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston, most of which are exceptional, important, and if not quite scholarly, certainly thoughtful and mature, more academic than most popular religious books. 

Eminent Princeton University professor Eric Gregory notes that it is an “accessible text by one of the most engaged Protestant political thinkers of his generation.” 

As Kristen Deede Johnson (professor of Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary) says, Skillen “offers an invaluable resource for our political moment. Here we have Skillen’s political vision at its best. Biblically rooted and generous in spirit he engages a staggering array of topics from the early church through today…”

Not exactly a primer.


IHealing for a Broken World - Monsma.jpgf you or your group needs an introduction, see that list to which I linked above, perhaps starting with the fine Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy by Steve Monsma (Crossway; $16.99.)

I am quite fond of Ron Sider’s Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement  (Baker; $20.00) for those that want “the next step up” and a thorough guide to the process of how to develop Biblically-grounded, fair-minded, seriously Christian policy insights. 

Achurch state and public justice.jpglthough it isn’t simple, in that review I also highlighted the feisty discussion between five different Christian political scholars who have their own position on what it means to think faithfully about the role of the state and the character of Christian politics. That one is called Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP; $20.00.) I think it is very, very useful. (The voice in that book that is most akin to Jim Skillen’s, by the way, is Corwin Smidt’s, a political science prof and researcher from Calvin College.) The other contributors who argue back and forth include a consistent life Roman Catholic, a traditional Baptist church/state separationist approach, Ronald Sider offering a Mennonite view and United Methodist pastor and author J. Philip Wogaman representing mainline Protestant liberal realism. 

All of these authors, despite their differences, know and esteem Skillen, and would agree that his new book is a significant contribution to our on-going conversations about what our political responsibility really should look like.


Those that know Jim will agree that one of his major gifts is his ability to see thejames skillen photo.jpg underlying presumptions and ideological commitments behind and beneath the perspectives of other positions.  From the most vivid rant on talk radio to the most sophisticated case argued in First Things or The New Republic, from the scholarly articles in Foreign Affairs to the calls for action from Sojourners or Focus on the Family, Jim has an ability to understand where folks are coming from, honor the strengths and virtues of their efforts, and see into the implications of their arguments. This is an important gift, making him a very helpful writer and teacher.

Skillen shows this skill in the opening pages of The Good of Politics by showing that two seemingly divergent spokespersons on questions of faith, culture and politics may, in fact, actually have very similar assumptions about the nature of what government is, and what the state is tasked with, and what a political community is called to be.  That is, they may be two sides of the same bad coin, even if at first that seems counter-intuitive.


It is often said nearly as a slogan for many of us that we believe that a Biblical view should be a “third way” or a unique perspective from the standard leanings of the religious right or left.  For Skillen, this is not cheap sloganeering or mere rhetoric – his astute evaluations, based on a lifetime of serious study and mature discernment, really do help us see “beneath the surface” and “between the lines.” His calling as a political philosopher and his impulses as a teacher and organizer, combine here to help readers – that’s you and me! — understand the state of current thinking about faith and politics, and what faithful perspective on civic life and statecraft might look like.  

There is so much written on blogs and magazines, and said (pro and con) about faith and politics that we really need this wise word cutting through the nonsense and the confused.  I am very, very glad for how Jim has helped me, and you will glad how this helps you.


Those that know Jim will also immediately recall that he is a man of the Scriptures; thatCovenant to keep.jpg he has studied the Bible all his life, and can converse with the best Biblical scholars, is rare gift for a political thinker, and his reformational passion for “Scripturally-directed thinking” shines, here.  His wonderful 2000 book A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (CRC/Faith Alive; $12.99) was a devotional set of lovely and at times explosive Bible reflections, strong and clear. It is great — very nice as a devotional and very helpful.  But the Scriptural study here in The Good of Politics here is deeper. A lot deeper.

The chapters in The Good of… that open up the full-orbed, covenantal, Biblical drama — creation-fall-redemption-consummation — are themselves worth the price of the book. If you have read some of the basic outlines of how the Bible holds together as a cohesive, unfolding story (Al Wolter’s Creation Regained of course comes to mind, as does The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen or their abridged, hipper version The True Story of the Whole World; maybe you know the old four-volume set Promise & Deliverance by S.G.DeGraaf (translated by Evan Runner and republished in paperback editions recently) or the upbeat and creatively-written The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding) you will appreciate this material, and, I predict, you will be amazed at just how good it is. 

Skillen is a fascinating Bible teacher, and this isn’t incidental to the book.  Throughout, though, he does have the interests of a political scientist in mind, so, for instance, he notes how God condescending to giving Israel a King in 1 Samuel 8 should not be understood as God being opposed to kings or government. He explores an often over-looked passage from Job 29 where the elder Job recalls the joy of serving as a public servant. His exegesis is lucid and compelling. The strength of this part, though, is the big picture.  He is adamant that God is disclosing God’s own character and will as the Biblical story marches on and as history unfolds.

He reminds us that,

The Biblical story is not some kind of ancient background noise that fades away when the American story begins. The Biblical story catches up the whole of created reality, encompassing all that exists and all that humans will ever be and do. That is why if we are too look carefully at the meaning of Christian engagement in the political culture of our day, we must first find ourselves in the Biblical story.

Before Skillen explores what he would insist is a Biblically-attuned and radical, integral perspective on the nature, calling and limits of the state (compared and contrasted, of course, with other God-ordained spheres, institutions, and organizations — a state is not a family or a business, he reminds us) he has to help us truly “find ourselves in the Biblical story” and to do that, he must – with great grace and care – evaluate a few competing views of this same matter, namely, how Biblical religion does or doesn’t equip us to be engaged in culture and responsible in citizenship.  Most directly, he brings critique to the “two kingdoms” view (perhaps most often associated with Luther, but in recent years with a certain sort of conservative Calvinism represented by David VanDrunen) and the Biblical pacifism found in the important work of Richard Hays. (As one who is confused about the nuances of the former, and appreciative of the work of the later, I found both of these discussions to be very helpful. Skillen offers here very important contributions to the conversations among politically astute evangelicals.) 

Again, this great first half of the book is well worth the price of admission; it offers a profound and serious overview of how to properly stand in the flow of Biblical history and from within a rich and consistent Scriptural vision learn to see ourselves as God’s vice regents, stewarding well the many gifts of the generative creation.  Those who are taken with the balanced and nuanced “structural pluralism” of CPJ should be familiar with this approach to the Bible and its fruitful use to shape our cultural engagement.


From this profound Christian worldview will flow a certain sort of awareness that politics is, as the title suggests, a good thing.  It is not the only thing, perhaps not even the most important thing, but it is Biblically misguided to think that the state is somehow only a negative after-thought from God after the world moved “East of Eden” some sort of “necessary evil.” But yet, very few American citizens (not to mention Christians, event those who claim to be Biblical-literate) seem to glory in the goodness of a variegated, diversified and unfolding creation, replete with institutions such as God’s good gift of the state.  Why is it that so many have a negative view of government? It is not just that there have been plenty of examples of oppressive regimes or bad states – despite so many bad marriages or car accidents, most people don’t go around bad-mouth marriage or driving. Particularly in the US and particularly among conservative Christians the animosity about politics is passionate and nearly a matter of principle, or so it seems. Why is this?

This question is a major burden of the book, exploring the history of the development of various ideas of the state, exploring with great insight, the rise of the nation state, and the ways in which theologians responded.  Skillen’s study of Augustine, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Althusias, his reminders of the social realities of the middle ages, of the early Reformation and into Puritan and colonial American society is illuminating. His dialogue with vital social thinkers – yes, the likes of Calvin and Hobbes —  is just wonderful.  Even those who have studied European history (not to mention the Ottoman Empire or even Chinese history) or who are well-versed in the history of theology, will find new insights here, solid new angles of vision, great quotes, good stories, important ways to connect the dots.

I cannot understate how engaging this well-researched part of the book is, nor howgood of p .jpg important.  Those who are fans of CPJ or who have instincts that are non-partisan or “third way” will appreciate this, of course, as knowing the history and development of our current malaise has long been a strength of our movement; indeed, CPJ has usually eschewed hot-button, issue-oriented crusades in favor of digging deeper and taking a longer-view, including the principled study of just what the good of politics is, and just what the goals (and limits) of statecraft should be. It is usually not helpful to rally around an issue or cause without understanding its connection to other issues, and to the historical development of the contexts of those issues.  Our fascination and tendency on taking Godly moral stands on this issue or that, this cause or that, has, effectively, distracted us from doing the background homework on the first things of how the gospel relates to culture and what government is to be in God’s world, so we sometimes have advocated for moral concerns that are disconnected to fruitful policies that can be just and good in the public square.

As Skillen puts it,

the kind of citizenship Christians should exhibit, therefore, is the kind that can help to clarify the distinctive art of statecraft and help to strengthen the political community for the common good.” 

And doing this takes some work. It takes thinking about what we mean by a political community, what government is and isn’t, and what qualifies us as fellow citizens.

Realizing how and why we’ve failed to do this faithfully, how God’s people have accommodated their thinking to unwise notions or pagan ideologies or powerful social forces is a major contribution to the astute Christian mind in these days, and Skillen’s book helps us immeasurably.  Who knew that studying Machiavelli or Locke or John Rawls could be so important — and so very interesting? And relevant! Who knew that knowing the genesis of ideas and how they grew certain kinds of legs and got certain kind of traction would be so helpful for our daily life of on-going citizenship?

Heady as some of this historical overview is, Skillen realizes that few folks immediately recognize the urgency of learning from this historical research. But he makes his case nonetheless:

For many, perhaps most, Christian in the United States today, the historical roots of their political attitudes and affections may lie well below the level of consciousness. They may not recognize the names of Locke, Calvin, Aquinas or Augustine. They may be unfamiliar with the traditions and secularizing trajectories of American civil religion. Many influences of American pragmatism and of modern humanist educators such as John Dewey may be so strong that American may not know the classical, Christian and even early modern roots of the American way of life.


Lastly, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introductioeinstein-on-politics.jpgn offers thoughtful argument about how people shaped by this Biblical understanding of the task of the state, a view that disentangles itself from ideologies of the right or left, of individualism and civil religion and recognizes the important, good, but limited role of government intervention for the sake of public justice (for all) might approach certain social spheres and the policy concerns that arise relating to and among those spheres.  The books serious third part starts with a wonderful reminder that all politics is perspectival and faith-like biases inevitably inform all policy debates.  This “viewpoint as standpoint” is a great chapter, and leads to discussion about what we mean by the common good, and what sort of engagement (for what kind of political community) we should seek.

In this part Skillen offers an audacious proposal for what is called “proportional representation” and makes a case – a case he has made since the 1970s – that this would enhance our republic’s democracy.  Electoral reform may not be a “sexy” or seem as urgent as working on anti-poverty initiatives or fighting sexual trafficking. Yet, in Skillen’s hands it is shown to be important and necessary.  You will be a better informed American if  you read this part, and, agree or not, will understand some of the ways in which our system is shaped by Enlightenment notions of individualism and such. He has a few important paragraphs about weaknesses in the US Constitution and his heart-felt desire to improve our beloved republic.


This is the stuff citizen’s do, think about very foundational, but important matters, so that it might guide what we think, what we try to persuade our neighbors about, how we testify at local hearings, what we say to our representatives, and, of course, how we vote.  A reflection called “Citizenship as Vocation” is beautifully rendered and highly recommended and offers great inspiration after the weighty Biblical and historical portions of the book.

Then, as the book gets more specific, it includes chapters on family policy, marriage and education, and another on economics and the environment. A final chapter addresses briefly some international concerns and the possibilities of global cooperation in these times. These pieces are provocative and insightful, well developed although still rather introductory. Much more works needs to be done, mining this Skillen-esque approach, the wise insight based on the truth that God’s disclosure of Christ’s redemptive work comes in history as just policies are advanced in our complex world.   

We do not build the Kingdom of God on Earth, but our daily deeds and historical formation – what Andy Crouch has called our “culture making” and our “playing God” – point, like signposts, to the breaking in of God’s eschaton into human history.  What we do matters, as actions of love for neighbor and nation, and as symbols of God’s redeeming grace.  Yes, this book is profound: the state is part of this, our citizenship is part of this.  How we work for the common good is part of our discipleship, and points the watching world to the consummation of all things, where a just and whole creation, a (re)new(ed) Earth, a good city, will be our eternal home. 

 Buy this book to learn how to be a better citizen and you will end up being, I am sure of it, a better Christian.

seek justice art.jpg


Allow me to inform you of just a bit more. I want to tell you about some of the friends and conversation partners that helped influence Skillen’s work over the years.

I love looking at the acknowledgments found in books, don’t you?  They sometimes reveal the tender hearts and interesting life circumstances of authors, but, perhaps more importantly, it shows what other scholars they draw upon, who they view as colleagues or conversation partners, and sometimes helps us connect more dots about their perspective.  In the case of a book like The Good of Politics which is breaking some new ground for many readers, but which stands in a particular neo-Kuyperian/Reformed tradition, offering a voice and framework that is different than the more customary religious right or religious left, it may be helpful to name just a few significant friends that Skillen thanks. 

There are several women and men from around the world that he thanks, but I will just highlight five.

He thanks Stephen V. Monsma.  I already mentioned his very helpful, balancedpluralism and freedom.jpg, evangelical introduction called Healing for a Broken World (Crossway; $16.99.) For a detailed, semi-scholarly proposal of how religious freedom, also for organizations, should be a foundation of our civil society, see the very important book about religious toleration and institutional freedom called Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (Rowman & Littlefield; $29.99.) I think it is wise and valuable and I commend it especially to those interested (or opinionated) about the recent rulings in Arizona about religious freedom and discrimination, for instance. He advances a view some have called “positive neutrality” which seems to me to be a way out of the frustrating impasse.

He thanks David Koyzis.  In my bibliography to which I linked above you will find hispolitical-visions-illusions-david-theodore-koyzis-paperback-cover-art.jpg breathtaking book Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $24.00) showing that the political left wing and the political right win have similar Enlightenment roots.  If you tend to be a conservative and a person of faith, you might end up feeling a little squeamish about your ideological roots.  Alas, if you are a lefty, he’ll put your heritage in the hot seat, too – remember that bloodbath called the French Revolution?  So, yeah, this book offends everyone and nobody comes out happy. I dare you to read it.  Skillen would concur.

He thanks Ron Sider  Ronald J. Sider is known as the premier evangelicaljust politics.jpg spokesperson for a Biblically-faithful social action agenda and he and his wife are long-time friends of Jim and Doreen’s. That they bring their differing denominational and theological traditions to the table and remain good friends is a beautiful thing. Read Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Nelson; $15.99) if you haven’t (please!) and then move to the aforementioned Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Baker; $19.99.) You will see some of Skillen’s insights, I think, in this mature work of Sider. And we all are in Sider’s debt for teaching us much about God’s concern for the poor, for justice for the unborn and for environmental stewardship.

He thanks Bob Goudzewaard.  Goudzewaard was an early influence of mine, and hearing him several times – and chatting at a Jubilee conference in the late 70s – was very important. Professor Emeritus (Free University of Amsterdam) Goudzewaard is a Dutch economist whoHope for Troubled Times.jpg eventually became a Parliament member in Holland, a part of a Dutch Christian political party (with roots going back to Abraham Kuyper.) While his most important books are out of print you can read Capitalism and Progress on line as a PDF for free: go here and scroll down to Goudzewaard.

We are big fans of a serious study he co-wrote with Mark VanderVennen and David Van Heemst called Hope for Trouble Times: A New Vision of Confronting Global Crisis (Baker Academic; $22.00.) There is a great forward by Desmond Tutu.

He thanks Calvin Seerveld.  Cal Seerveld is the preeminent Christian philosopher of aesthetics, and is renowned for his Dooyeweerdian/Vollenhovian angle on Biblically-shaped scholarship, cultural discernment, and passionate social action. That he has been friends with Skillen for nearly a lifetime is fascinating, and that this aesthetic philosopher, Biblical scholar (andrainbows for fallen world.jpg liturgist and playwright and art historian) cares about public justice is to his great credit. That Skillen listens to him is a clue to Skillen’s awareness that while politics and statecraft are important, lasting social reform comes through a simultaneous realization of norms — this insistence on the multi-dimensional nature of God’s world is everywhere true, and Skillen knows it.  We are citizens with political obligations and yet also creatures who need art (among other things —  it is a very multi-dimensional world.)  Seerveld’s classic is Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence; $30.00) and we are proud to offer it as a staple of our inventory here. We stock all of his many books.

You should also know that Dordt College Press in Iowa (Skillen has taught at Dordt, by the way, and his book on international politics is published by them) will soon release a six-volume set of “occasional and sundry” pieces by Calvin Seerveld.  Each book gathers together speeches, sermons, talks, essays, reviews, academic papers, and other articles into themed books – one on aesthetics, for instance, one on art history, one on Biblical studies. This is a true publishing event for those who have ears to hear. It is wonderful to mention three of these here at the tail end of my review of the new James Skillen political book. I will be reviewing them more carefully soon enough, but for now, I will tease you by mentioning these three of the books in this new series by Seerveld.

Cultural Problems in Western Society Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $17.00cultural problems Seerveld.jpg These eight chapters may seem to have emerged from an unusual setting – these were lectures delivered to labor unionists and artists in Europe (funded by the European Commission and the Evangelische Zendings Alliantie.) Seerveld here is helping artists and activists to think deeply about pluralism, multi-culturalism, confessional and ethnic diversity, xenophobia, and the importance of enriched cultural conversations about our life together in our troubled nations.   

Cultural Education & History Writing Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $23.00 This is a collection of lectures
which is nothing short of spectacular, parsing aspects of the
philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, preaching to those trying to embody a
reformational world and life view, essays and articles that offer
profound critique and glorious hope about some of the deepest issues in
our society. Former CPJ Director Gideon Strauss – Strauss who has worked
against cruel injustice in his native South Africa — writes one of the
forewords, and I cried reading it, knowing how much this brother with
such passions for global public justice values the scholarly work of
this artful prophet.

Redemptive Art in Society Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00  I am proudredemptive art in society.jpg to have offered a blurb for the back of this book, a wonderful collection of papers and talks (a few of which I’ve heard on tape) about the social implications of the arts, how justice can roll down as artists help gift their local places with “rainbows for a fallen world.” I love this book, and realize  — that is too mild a word: I think I mean so very deeply feel – why Skillen acknowledges a personal debt to Seerveld. I doubt if either of them will read this here, but I am happy to say that if I were to write a page of acknowledgments, they would both be listed as men who have meant much to me.  Thank you for allowing me to tell you about their books.

A final book offer: along with our 20% off discount offer, we’ll send along a free (older) book that illustrates Skillen’s views about the “structural pluralism.”  While supplies last, we’re happy to share a CPJ classic.  It’s my thanks to you for reading all this, and placing an order.  We are grateful.


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A Jubilee Rumination in Which I Announce a New Book by Steve Garber, a New Book by Derek Melleby & Donald Opitz, Recall the Significance of Playing God by Andy Crouch, Name-Drop a Pretty Famous Rock Star, and Cite the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This may seem like a long, circuitous ride, but hang on.  It’ll be worth the trip.  Thanks for reading.

It’s a small world, we often say when we connect with someone in a surprising way, or when the “six degrees to Kevin Bacon” works out in a delightful surprise.  At the Jubilee conference this past weekend we were replete with gratuitous surprises – you know him? She has been influential in your life? That book, that film, that event? Forget Bacon’s six degrees, often it is just a few.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s wonderful line aboutweb of networks.jpg the “inescapable network of mutuality” in which we are involved here on God’s good Earth is so true, and being at this annual event in Pittsburgh with thousands of students, dozens of authors and bunches of booths from mission agencies and institutions of higher education, artists and activists, non-profits and think-tanks, well, our heads are still spinning (and our hearts are overflowing) from the connectivity.  If Walsh and Bouma-Prediger in their stunning work Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmans; $27.00) describe the gospel flow of the Biblical drama as home/ exile/ home-coming, the annual Jubilee conference feels very much like a sort of home-coming. 

There in Pittsburgh each year the CCO organizes this conference about the in-breakingE M .jpg Kingdom of God and the cultural implications of Christ’s claims and offer of redemption, and we get connected, again, to our deepest vision and values and to very good friends and organizations. We are delighted by possibilities. What joy to realize and embrace the connections!  It is no surprise that the rousing refrain from the blazing worship band includes the lines “God is good!”

Perhaps I will later do a fuller report of the many authors met and books sold at the “Everything Matters” 2014 Jubilee, but for now, allow me to notice a few strong strands of connection that are palpable in some of the best books of the season and their role to our great week-end selling books to over 2000 college students. 

This may seem like a circuitous ride, but hang on.  It’ll be worth the trip.

Did you see my review last week of the stunning new Oxford University Press book by Gary Haugen, the founder and director of the International Justice Mission, the extraordinary organization that works for the rule of law in some of the most violent and lawless places on earth? The very important The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (Oxford University Press; $27.95) moves beyond Haugen’s previous work explaining the Biblical case for seeking justice and offering hope of stopping human trafficking and slavery, to building legal structures to protect the weak and vulnerable against manifestations of abuse of violent power. In this major work he links this strategic resistance to injustice to more conventional relief and development goals.

That IJM encouraged folks to buy the book from us (as did an article in the Gospel Coalition blog) a few weeks ago was a great blessing to us but we are surprised at how few of these books we’ve sold. Again, it is a remarkable achievement, carefully researched and well written, even inspiring, painful as it may be at places.  

Not only do we sell all of Haugen’s other books and this new one, but we note – connection alert here! – that Andy Crouch’s book on the abuse of power, and the redemptive ways to use the gift of power appropriately (Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power IVP; $25.00) draws heavily on his own experiences working with IJM.  We named Andy’s book a Book of the Year a month ago (and hosted him here last fall) and we were glad for the IJM connection.  Of course, Andy was the opening speaking at Jubilee last week in Pittsburgh. Cool.

Here are two more interesting connections I noticed at Jubilee. I mentioned in mydeepening soul of j.png BookNotes review of The Locust Effect that IJM believes deeply in the power of prayer.  Bethany Hoang is one of the key IJM staff and she wrote a lovely little booklet (Deepening the Soul for Justice IVP; $5.00) on praying for justice, a brief and inexpensive book that would serve well anyone interested in spiritual formation; it would be a blessing if you need to be reminded of the power of intercession or how to hold the great issues of the day in our hearts before God.  

Bethany spoke at Jubilee 2014 from the main stage and told about a particularly brutal brick-making operation where the work is done by indentured (and often beaten) captives, held for years against their will, which was recently exposed by IJM. Notably, this vile workplace was in the country that has more slavery than any other, where laws against such brutality are routinely ignored.  After several serious days of IJM prayer services the police in that country unexpectedly (astonishingly!) got involved in an IJM complaint about a few abused slaves in that place and what came to light was (even to those who have seen the worst) was breathtakingly bad. But through their work, saturated in prayer, hundreds of slaves were set free and given legal declarations of their newly received human rights status; this liberation episode set a significant legal and cultural precedent that is nothing short of historic in the struggle for contemporary abolition.  Not only did Bethany bring us to tears with her poignant, powerful story, but the chief lawyer negotiating all this was in the house, doing a smaller workshop at Jubilee.  We were on holy ground.

IVoV.jpg tell you this not only to celebrate this good IJM news, and remind you of our stocking this amazing new Haugen book, or to give you a glimpse of the program at Jubilee, but to share this: the new book by Steve Garber, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (IVP; $16.00) tells the story of Gary and his stepping up and into this world-changing, history-making call.  Steve Garber is one of the most eloquent, thoughtful, authors I’ve ever read and although he is a deep philosopher himself and well able to craft mature and wise essays, he loves telling the stories of others.  He networks people, puts folks in touch with one another, deflects attention to others, and points us to the ways God’s work is spreading by serving as a Kingdom raconteur.  

It was Steve who first asked Gary Haugen to call us years ago as IJM was being formed and it was Steve who helped encourage and shape Gary’s early work.  Gary’s story, from Harvard undergrad asking the biggest questions anyone can ask about truth and meaning, to Justice Department investigator into police brutality cases, to State Department researcher amidst the mutilated bodies in Rwanda, to his involvement in establishing global justice, is explained in Visions of Vocation. In those few pages, Garber uses Gary as an example of how one comes to one’s sense of obligation in the world (and how one’s cares and concerns unfold in an ordinary life towards one’s God-given destiny.)  To have Steve’s book, so full of such stories, launched into the world at Jubilee, even as Bethany shared the latest IJM efforts, promoting The Locust Effect and the other IJM books in her workshop, was striking.  Backstage, with both Garber’s and Hoang’s books in my hands, I became undone, dropping to my knees at the glory of it all.

Another wonderful story of “visions of vocation” that Garber tells in Visions of Vocation includes another friend who was at Jubilee, Dan Hasseltine.  You should know him from the very cool (and very smart) band Jars of Clay (whose latest album, if I may digress, is called Inland, with the title track inspired, I believe, by Homer’s Odyssey.) In a lovely story of God’s providence and timing, Steve tells of coming to know the passions for Africa the boys in the band had developed and how they heard him speak about beinblood-water.jpgg morally serious, thoughtful, taking up callings to love the world even more deeply then we might – loving it in its brokenness and beauty, as God does.  Steve had in that very month been getting to know Jena Lee, a sharp young woman (who has been to Jubilee often) and together, Steve and Jena and the Jars guys founded their organization working for clean water and clean blood in Africa, Blood:Water Mission.  

Jars of Clay are artists, extraordinary ones, in fact, but they wanted to leverage their influence in this particular project as well. (Bono, I was once told, bumped their performance up in front of a larger known act at an internationally-viewed benefit festival because they “knew more than anybody here about this stuff.”) As Steve explains in VoV, Jena has since helped oversee thousands of health care projects (wells and such) in Africa. That Dan visited our book display, hugged Steve, as they recalled Jena’s good work with Blood:Water Mission, it, again, felt like more than mere coincidence, but profound connection. 

Look. Beth and I are mere booksellers, and I’ve never traveled internationally or started any life-saving nonprofit. We do not do what Gary Haugen does or what Jars of Clay does, or even what Steve Garber does, but to be able to sell books like these that tell these stories offers us the grand sense of playing a small part in repairing the world.  Creating “stitches in the torn fabric” as Anne Lamott would say.

What a gift to help celebrate the release of Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, surrounded literally by hundreds of people in the CCO orbit who would say that Steve has been a mentor, and his influence one of the great blessings offabric of f.jpg their lives. Not a few of us “keep on keeping on” because of the ways Steve brings us together, tells our stories, connects us and our lives with the Story of God. I am not ashamed to note at this point that an episode from my own life (working for asylum claims for Chinese refugees) and our own passion for selling books is described in Garber’s first book, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (IVP; $17.00.) Connection abounds and it feels right to invite you in to it all by way of reading these authors and their books.

TjubileePro.pnghe day before the fast-paced and high-octane collegiate Jubilee is a slightly more heady event, a serious-minded but utterly joyful pre-Jubilee for adults called Jubilee Professional. JubileePro is also sponsored by the CCO – many of our students have indeed been launched into the world over the years with a “Jubilee vision” and they desire, as Steve’s first book Fabric… puts it, to “weave together belief and behavior” in ways that are consequential.  So CCO co-hosts this event fostering deeper conversations about leadership and vocation and calling in the contemporary work-world.  Actually directed by another great client of Hearts & Minds and a great friend of CCO, Pittsburgh’s Serving Leaders, JubileePro brings together business leaders, cultural creatives, educators, technology experts, social entrepreneurs, church folks and the proverbial mix of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.  What a thrill that I even get to address this crew.

Garber came to Pittsburgh early to help lead their conversations alongside Andy Cplaying god.jpgrouch, inviting profound considerations of the redemptive use of power.  Crouch’s excellent aforementioned book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power – ahem, the Hearts & Minds 2013 Book of the Year – is a lively and serious follow-up to his ground-breaking Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP; $20.00) and it became a core text for the day at JubileePro, even as we premiered the brand- spanking new Visions of Vocation. We say we “launched” Visions of Vocation at Jubilee, but, in fact, it was unveiled at the JubileePro gathering early Friday, the first gathering to lay eyes on it. Then, along with another gentleman with whom Steve works, doing consulting about sustainable economics for the Mars Corporation, Steve wove together stories of those sensing their own calling, underscoring a big and deep view of social responsibility and a solid and generative view of the Biblical theme of calling. His friend who works on “Jubilee Economics” for Mars, Jay Jakub, appeared later that night on the platform for the 3000 gathered at Jubilee.

My talk warned of arrogant power misused — Bacon said “knowledge is power” youBB in brown shirt.jpg know, and that created an ideology of knowing that quickly turned to violent “mastery” and conquering of nature.  Rather, as Garber himself suggests, we need a better way of knowing, a kinder-gentler reason for reading and an approach to learning that is perhaps better captured by Parker Palmer in what he calls “education as a spiritual journey” in his lovely To Know as We Are Known (HarperOne; $13.99.) I held up bunches of books making the case for a wise stewardship of the power of words — including (I must tell you) Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans; $19.00) and the brand new book by our friend Esther Meek, A Little Manuel of Knowing (Cascade;the-call-by-os-guinness.jpgcaring_for_words.jpg $14.00.) Garber introduced many of us to the philosopher of science Michael Polayni in his first book (Polayni’s work is Esther’s specialty) and the question of what it means to know, deeply, responsibly, continue to haunt his work.  I said to the Jubilee Pro folks, seriously, that if they want to redeem the awful legacy of Francis Bacon and that kind of violent knowing and power, they should read Garber’s new book.  Audacious, I know.  And I recall that that is the precise afterward in Garber’s sweet last chapter, a moving reflection on the scientist and Enlightenment philosopher Francis Bacon, and the modern painter with the same name (whose work graced to the cover of the first edition of Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, for those keeping track of Jubilee connections!)

That I named Os Guinness’ The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Word; $17.99) in my JubileePro talk, and then again in my Jubilee workshop, seemed apropos.  Garber (and, I suspect, Haugen and Hoang and Crouch) have all been influenced by Dr. Guinness over the years. The Call is one of those seminal books for me, and for Steve, and yet Os himself says that he views Steve as one of his own teachers.

Many other good leaders do, too.  For instance, listen to Lisa Slayton, President of Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation’s Serving Leaders, host of Jubilee Professional: 

Visions of Vocation calls its readers to make a commitment to a journey, one of calling and courage that will challenge not just your mind but also your heart and soul.  This remarkable book will cause you to desire a whole new way of knowing and seeing….in the last fifteen years the conversation on calling has been animated by many voices, and never far from these important dialogues you will find Dr. Garber, asking the questions that have shaped and informed the trajectory of his work: What does it mean to be human? How are we to live? What truly matters? God calls us to engage this world in all its brokenness.  Visions of Vocation is a gracious and faithful companion for this journey…

Sfor the life- letters to the exiles.jpgome of all this — insights from Andy on culture making and responsible use of power and Steve on calling and love, and so many other leaders in these networks (many influenced by old time Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper) – was seen in a film series premiered at JubileePro, soon to be released on DVD by the Acton Institute called For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles. (With, by the way, a stellar original soundtrack by none other than Jars of Clay. Speaking of overlapping circles of connection, the “connection radar” is going gonzo right about now.) Sitting there with Stephen Grabill (translator of the newly released first-time-ever English translation of the first volume of Kuyper’s magisterial work on common grace) who helped script and acted in the film, with Andy and Steve nearby, was simply thrilling. After you finish my ruminations, come back and check out the spectacular For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles trailer, here. What a blast!

I hope, dear reader, that you do not misunderstand my BookNotes post here today.  I am not engaging in prideful name dropping (okay, maybe a teensy bit.) Rather, I am showing that our years of observing the Jubilee gathering and exploring the Jubilee vision, has allowed us to sense deep connections, forming lasting friendships, and creating important networks helping ideas grow legs.  We say all this once again in order to invite you into these transforming visions and catalytic ideas among suchVoV.jpg remarkable people and their books. That Garber tells the stories of IJM and Blood:Water Mission and the risky faith shown by resisting Hitler at Le Chambon (yes, the same Le Chambon written about so beautifully by Philip Hallie in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and, more recently, by Jim Belcher in In Search of Deep Faith) and that he uses the Kuyperian language of “common grace” and that these folks were all in Pittsburgh together helping to teach and model for students God’s redemptive purposes in the world, is more than cool, better than nice, it is (like this breathy sentence!) breathtaking. It is testimony. These inter-connections and common visions and mutual concerns and particular language all bear witness to the truth of the gospel, the Kingdom coming.

(Ha; another aside: the overlapping circles and stories of connections keep coming, and make me giddy. Jim Belcher — another Hearts & Minds “Book of the Year” author and another good speaker at Jubilee this year — wrote a chapter in his In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beautyin search of deep faith .jpg, Goodness and Heart of Christianity (IVP; $17.00) about his visit to Le Chambon in France. I am pretty certain that Jim learned about this historic place of Protestant resistance to Hitler “and how goodness happened there” from his time studying for a semester in Washington DC with Dr. Garber, who, in his own new book, has a chapter about it. In those years, Garber read Philip Hallie’s remarkable book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.  And I am pretty sure that it was I who sold Steve a copy of that book years ago.)

I would like to think that all of this Jubilee connectivity, this web of influence and mutual testimony, this communion of the saints with a Kingdom vision, somehow vindicates our own feeble efforts to help you read the best stuff, to take up books that make a solid difference, our hope of helping you read wisely for the sake of your own formation – for the sake of the world.  From our own listing of books about work, calling, and career to our (admittedly dated) “Books by Vocation” bibliographies, to our suggestions on things like social justice, racial reconciliation, creation care or the arts, we believe that we are trying to provide resources to help you serve the common good in the exact sorts of ways that the Jubilee conference suggests and that Andy Crouch and Steve Garber make explicit.  As Steve’s Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation & Culture puts it, “Vocation is integral, not incidental, to the mission Dei.”  We do hope you feel somehow connected to this vision, to thinking deeply about your own sense of call, and how to “think Christianly” about your own life and times, cares and careers, whatever and wherever you find yourself.  (Guinness has a memorable chapter in The Call entitled “Everyone, Everywhere, in Everything.”)  As Garber notes, passionately, however, these sorts of large questions of what we most love, how we are complicit in the falleness of the world, and how we are sometimes too slow to take up God’s radical ways, are not simple.  No shallow answers or glib responses will do. 

Together we can explore better ways to construe coherent, lasting faith and live out the implications of our faith in the world as it is. This is the burden of his reflections and his storytelling in Visions of Vocation, helping us not be apathetic of cynical in our “culture making” and gospel-centered hope.  Garber writes, 

Over many years now, it is this tension between the world that we imagine, and theSteve Garber Jubilee headshot.jpg world in which we live, that has most intrigued me.  All of us live with this tension, because in the deepest possible way all of us long for coherence. We are not finally satisfied with incoherence, with dissonance between what we believe and how we live. And that is why I have asked, and asked again, “So what is it that you care most about? What are your deepest commitments?” Does the way we answer those questions offer a sense of vocation that gives coherence, that connects the things that matter to us? And, of course, then I am always interested to see how all this plays out in ordinary life, the day by day life of all of us. Sometimes it takes a while, sometimes many miles, to see with much clarity.

Our bookstore’s customers are mostly not college students, and most don’t attend Jubilee (or anything like it) and are probably not as excited about this project of helping find profound connection and coherence through visions of vocation as I am. I realize that for many, the day to day choices have already been made, and most people’s faith style is well-worn and firmly established.  Even many of my good pastor friends, clergy called to equip the flock for missional service, may not want to probe this deeply into the meaning of it all. We are all busy, and we all have our own personal pains and foibles.  I get that.

But I pray that you take up these questions anew, that you, like me, feel somehow connected to the CCOs Jubilee vision and particularly to this good new Garber book by my dear, dear friend.  I occasionally want to say “if you are a friend of Hearts & Minds, if you value what we do, if you trust me at all about anything, you should buy this book.”  I am just a little reluctant, even fearful, to be so vulnerable, but there is it.

I gladly affirmed Crouch’s Playing God as one of the best books I’ve ever read, and certainly the most important of 2013. Before that I lauded his ground-breaking Culture Making, a quintessential Hearts & Minds favorite.

I will, I promise you, name Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good as the best book of 2014.  I will most likely be the book of the decade.

Visions-of-Vocation Van G.jpg


But here is yet another connection, and it is huge.  Thanks for bearing with me as Ilearning for the love of god.jpg ramble my way into a celebration of one more book that is extraordinary and that is another example of the significance and impact of Jubilee, the work of Steve Garber, and (so the authors say) even a bit of the influence of Beth and I here at Hearts & Minds. I’m referring to Learning for the Love of God: A Students Guide to Academic Faithfulness (Brazos Press; $14.99) Let me explain.

As you may know, I used to serve on the committee that ran Jubilee back in the 70s, with Tom McWhertor, who still comes down to the conference from Grand Rapids most years.  Steve Garber later directed the conference in the 80s (and the daughter of yet another early conference director was in my workshop this year – a new generation stepping up and living out this wide as life vision of creation restored!) Jubilee is grounded in a pretty clear theological vision, drawing on Kuyper and others, standing in the cadences of promise and deliverance found most robustly in the reformational worldview that all of life is being redeemed because God is restoring his good but vandalized creation. 

That big picture animates the conference, but it is the CCO task and passion to serve young adults who are transitioning from teenage faith to young adult faith, situated, as they are, in settings of higher learning.  CCO is a campus ministry, after all, and although Garber’s book is most obviously written for serious thinkers and mature adults (even non-Christian ones, by the way, with its tone of “common grace for the common good”) Jubilee invites collegians to their particular vocation at this stage in their life, to be students. It calls them to relate faith and learning.  This concern about faith lived out on campus and even in the classroom is exceedingly important and should concern anyone concerned about the future of Christian leadership and the next generation.

In my own Jubilee workshop I shared “aha” moments where I came to deeper understanding of the dualisms that plague our vision, the stupid dichotomies between the so-called sacred and secular, the unbiblical habit of pitting the soul over and against the body, the super-spiritual and anti-intellectual ways we make faith private and sentimental and the subsequent lack of a wise and fruitful social vision.  

In that workshop I ended with a plea to read widely, to read seriously, and to read wisely. We need — I hope you don’t tire of me saying it, as it is a foundational truth for our curating books here at the shop — the mind of Christ and must use our God-given gray matter to study the ways the creation is ordered. (Colossians 1:17 says everythingfor the life - schmemann.jpg holds together in Christ, so all study is, among other things, a search for God’s glory in each and every square inch of creation and certainly in every college major and academic subject.) I am not sure the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann is fully correct in his wonderful book For the Life of the World to point us to a Eucharistic and sacramental vision of life in the creation, but it is surely close. (Apparently the good folks at Acton think so, naming their film as a nod to the great Orthodox thinker.) 

Study is a matter of spiritual formation and it is strategic matter of missional integrity. If it is truly true that all of life, what we do in our bodies, is worshipdesiring-the-kingdom.jpg (Romans 12:1-2) then the stakes are simply too high to casually walk through life without reflection or repentance, to merely go with our gut, to live like our peers, to buy the American Dream, to allow the practices (what Jamie Smith in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom calls “secular liturgies”) to form our desires and our lifestyles.  We need to be intentional about nurturing the renewed (and, yes, as Smith insists, embodied) Christian mind (again, drawing on Romans 12:1-2.) 

That is why I regularly promote little books (for those who aren’t quite up to a major study) like the feisty Your Minds Mission by Greg Jao (IVP; $5.00) andyour minds mission.jpg the lovely A Mind for God by James Emory White (IVP; $13.00) and the collection of essays by James K.A. Smith called Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture (Calvin College Press; $14.00.)

If you want to be a cheerleader for this whole-life discipleship vision, if you believe in the Hearts & Minds project, if you want to faithfully to take up vocations as Garber invites, you should have a few of these on hand to give out to friends, church folks, book club members and your dearest family and neighbors. They are simple but consequential waysmind for g.jpg to expand the conversation, to illustrate why books and reflection matter and why learning to reframe our thinking along Biblical lines really counts. Let’s spread this vision, and start with the Biblical invitation to think and then live well, in light of Scripture, to God’s glory, for the sake of the world.


learning for love of god banner.jpg

There is no better book to get at this amazing aspect of responsible discipleship than the brand new Learning for the Love of God: A Students Guide to Academic Faithfulness by Dr. Donald Optiz (professor of sociology and the philosophy of higher education at Geneva College) and Derek Melleby (director of the College Transition Initiative for the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.) It is the newly revised and expanded edition of a Hearts & Minds favorite (previously known as The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness.) This brand new edition, with its new chapters and updates and appendices, was celebrated and premiered at Jubilee, too, and we couldn’t have been more earnest when I said that it may have been one of the most important books for students in the entire (huge) book display. 

We had thousands and thousands of books there, and while Jao’s Your Minds Mission is punchy and helpfully brief, and Garber’s VoV is eloquent and profound, Learning for the Love of God fleshes out the vision, explains the challenge and offers essential guidance to all that we mean by “developing the Christian mind” in just the right way and a cheerful, intermediate level. It is easy to read and yet challenging, thoughtful but not arcane. Learning for the Love of God is ideal for students, offering insight about the nature of learning, the ways to think faithfully in college, and how to discern God’s fingerprints (and the smear of idolatry and ideology) all over the subjects they are studying. 

I cannot easily tell you how wise these two guys are, and how fresh their writing is.DonOpitz2-300x225.jpg There is no other book that covers this stuff so well (and I mistrust any other book on faith in college that doesn’t cite it.) That Optiz and Melleby stand on the shoulders of GarberDerek arms.jpg is obvious, and — again! — the connections are palpable.  If you are a college student reading this and you have read the earlier edition (Outrageous Idea…) you should read Garber.  If you are a Garber fan, I am confident that Learning for the Love of God will please you (even if you aren’t a student!  It is that interesting!) Beth and I are honored to know these authors, and for the nice acknowledgments they give about us and our work.  We are truly grateful.

Those who understand the roots of the Jubilee vision (drawing on seminal texts for the CCO like The Transforming Vision or Creation Regained or The Fabric of Faithfulness or, say, the work of Richard Mouw) should know this book; you will relish the ways it playfully invites us into this sort of worldview.  I mean no disrespect to philosophers like David Naugle (Worldview: The History of an Idea; Eerdmans) or Roy Clouser (The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Theories in Scholarship; University of Notre Dame Press) or Nicholas Wolterstorff (Reason Within the Bounds of Religion; Eerdmans) or even historian George Marsden (The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship; Oxford University Press) but they themselves would know that their books are pitched at a pretty demanding academic level. College profs should certainly have read all four, and serious undergrads at good schools should take them up.  But for most students, new to rigorous thinking and deep learning, Opitz and Melleby are just what is needed – fun, funny, interesting, challenging and very practical, but connected to very astute Christian philosophy.  I know of no other book like this, and we praise God for the new edition (and the new title and the new cover, all of which are fantastic!)  

MA students guide to Academic Faithfulness.jpgay Learning for the Love of God be used to invite students to take their faith into the classrooms and labs and study halls, to make their own connections between their deepest religious beliefs and their studies, and find, early on, a sense of God’s call upon their lives, even as they grow in this exciting period of life for them lived out on campuses across this land. 

May it also be used by pastors and youth workers and parents and older siblings to help young adults grapple with finding a relevant and coherent faith in their college years.  May it stimulate, perhaps even among older adults, a fresh realization of the breadth of the Kingdom of God, the obligation to think faithfully, and the vision of vocation that circles around so many of the best books we promote here at the shop.

And so, dear readers, fans and friends of Hearts & Minds.  I feel warm, almost choked up, as I type these final lines of this lengthy essay.  Thanks for bearing with me – it is important, as I hope you understand, for Beth and I to name our own deepest impulses and visions, shouting out kudos to the authors and friends that have so shaped us. 

These sorts of books are not our best sellers, but they are the best books we’ve got.  Thanks to this web of connection, seen at Jubilee in Pittsburgh this year, once again.  We invite you into our story, invite you to read and talk about and share these good books, from Crouch to Garber to Melleby & Optiz.

I believe what L. Gregory Jones (of Duke Divinity School) says of Garber applies to all of the books I’ve mentioned above: Jones says that Visions of Vocation

engages us with important and big questions, narrates stories of remarkable people, and keeps great company. And along the way, we see God and the world —  and ourselves — more clearly and deeply.

That’s a large part of what this is all about, what good books can do.  Thanks.


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Recently several friends have been posting on facebook
things for which they are thankful. 
Reading some of these has been inspiring and at times poignant. Even in
the naming of obvious and mundane blessings, something profoundly good is going
on. It’s a good discipline for any time, and certainly for this season.

You read this BookNotes blog, though, not to learn about me and my
personal life, but because you arepicture of storefront.jpg part of a community of folks who support
Hearts & Minds. This is a book
review blog offered by a retail shop, trying to garner your business as we
serve you with information and the opportunity to buy good books. So, although we in the Borger household have a lot for which to be thankful, even in this hard year, this post is
offered for those who care about the story of Hearts & Minds.  I hope you don’t mind a rumination on our gratitude for those who make this thing work.

Most obviously, there is a confluence of publishers,
editors, marketers, sales representatives, and investors who run these institutions, most often themselves businesses, called
publishing houses. Despite the odd phenomenon of self-publishing (I’m generally not a
fan) most writers wouldn’t be known or their work widely read if it weren’t for the
publishing industry and the amazingly talented folks who serve there.  We should be glad for these houses and pray for those who serve behind the scenes.

But, of course, the publishers wouldn’t
have much to do if there were no authors of worth. Let’s hear it for those who practice the disciplined craft of good writing, gifting us with their use of words and their exploration of ideas. (And while I’m building this head of
steam, let’s just note that there wouldn’t be that many good writers if there
weren’t good teachers inspiring students to become young scholars, authors, wordsmiths,
artists. Or, as the case may be, really bad schools and boring teachers who so
frustrate bright kids who push themselves to get the hell outta there and make
something serious of themselves. I hope you know Taylor Mali’s feisty little book What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World that reminds us of the importance of valuing good teachers.)  

So, we raise our voices to thank God for teachers and mentors, writers and scholars, publishers and editors, advertisers and reviewers, and all of those who help get the printed
page into our hands.

Which brings me to bookstores and the
staff who work in settings that sell books — places thatAskaBookseller_graphic_0.gif are rarely as
glamorous or fun as you might think. (No, we don’t sit around drinking herbal tea and reading all day, nor do we have
time to chat endlessly about the latest American Book Award winner or ponder the wisdom of the latest theological fad. We’ve got sidewalks to sweep, bathrooms to clean, boxes to unpack, damaged stuff to return, orders to track, lost shipments to find, donations to make, oddball titles to locate, bills to collect. And that’s just before we open for the day.) 

I hope you join me in offering prayers
for bookstores everywhere – this is not the time or place to lament our lot in
life, in this age of dwindling profits, big box stores and faceless internet sites who have
captured the public’s dollars if not always their hearts.  Times are tough, but we remain glad — for rewarding work,
for stimulating colleagues, for often fabulously loyal customers, for the
excitement of being in on very important stuff. We believe more than ever that books can change lives and impact our communities, and we are honored to play a role in helping shape the moral imagination and lives of our customers.  We are indeed thankful for this great privilege that is entrusted to us, and hope you know how glad we are about it all.

And we know we are not alone.  We take courage from books like My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop edited by Ronald Rice — with a powerful introduction by novelist Richard Russo, which tells the stories of many indie book shops. It came out earlier this year andMyBookstore.jpg we’ve been delighted to show it off — it is good to be reminded that some of the best authors in the country themselves are loyal to brick and mortar, real places.  I will most likely never visit these intriguing stores, but it is fun to read about them, and inspiring for any bookstore lover.

We are very thankful for our own staff (who seem like
family) who you may or may not know: frontliners Amy and Patti and Kimberly,
mail-out queen extraordinaire, Diana, and the financial whiz who keeps the ship
afloat, Robin. And the backroom Bichon, Aurora. (I think of the God-praising poem
“Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but our daughter was thinking of Rory from the Gilmore Girls
when she named her.)  Beth and I
are so grateful for this good team of friends who work here to serve our customers. Our own dreams and vocations of doing this ministry couldn’t be realized without them.

I hope you know where this is going, though: publishers, editors, authors, booksellers — we all would all be dead in the water without readers and book

YYoung-man-reading-a-book-001.jpgou are the essential link
in the chain, the upshot, the point of it all.  Authors write, publishers edit and design the cover and print and manufacture and market,
and booksellers curate their selections and push the books into your hands, but the readers — ahh, the
readers who love the printed page, who are fans of their favorites authors, who
hunger for words and sentences, for poems and history and novels and memoir and
science and jokes and theology, who want to learn and grow and enter into the worlds of writers — you are the point.  You buy the books, read the books, ponder, critique
and exclaim and share and argue and maybe buy more of them to give as gifts. You run book groups, give books away,
fund libraries in your church and neighborhood; you read to your kids and subscribe
to journals like Books and Culture or other review sources, you click on-line
and watch the book trailers and then purchase them from real bookstores. And some of you tell others about us.

Yep, Hearts
& Minds friends, facebook fans, customers, and cheerleaders, we couldn’t do
this without you. 

And so we are truly thankful.

We are deeply moved and almost speechless, sometimes, when we
consider your loyalty, your support, your encouragement. Friends from south-central Pennsylvania support their local bookstore, and our distant but loyal BookNotes readers order
often from us.  Out-of-town fans make
road trips, going out of their way to visit. (We laugh when they call it a
pilgrimage, and wish we could somehow be more hospitable when they arrive from a long drive.)  What an honor to have loyal customers, and how necessary it has been for us.

Beth and I have
been at this for 31 years, this week. 
We are still hardly in the black, despite31.jpg the rah rah rah around Black
Friday. Some indie stores have it harder than we do and will close soon; others seem to be doing
well (and more bookstores are opening nation-wide, a heartening trend.)  Our fiscal situation is
precarious, and yet we are confident and thrilled – and, again, truly grateful – for the
extraordinary opportunity we have to promote books, to connect writers and
readers, to make a living through such an obviously meaningful vocation. That our bookstore opened during a Thanksgiving weekend makes it easy to remember each November to be thankful for God’s faithfulness to our business and to be appreciative of our customers’ support.

We sometimes hear about the impact a book has had on a
customer, and we love hearing those stories.  Not long age we heard that a customer found a book which helped her develop a
Christian perspective on her career, another used a book to assist a struggling
marriage, another said a novel changed her entire outlook. A week ago a person
bought a book on social justice, noting that she never read anything about such
hard stuff, but felt she needed to. 
A parent just the other day purchased a book to explain terminal illness to
a child, and she was obviously touched by our assistance in choosing just the
right one. A leader at a Christian college needed help with a large bibliography and it was wonderful to undertake that project. One person tucked a
little note in complimenting our staff when she paid her bill.

People routinely
talk about howpleasures of reading.jpg much pleasure a book brings to them. (If you like this sort of thing, I hope you know the truly splendid book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by the excellent, mature essayist Alan Jacobs, published by Oxford University Press.) It is a delight that comes with the job, hearing about how someone enjoyed their latest cozy mystery or YA novel.  And, given the
nature of many of our books which are designed to help nurture one’s spiritual
life, or the communal life of the local church, we sometimes hear of deepened discipleship, expanded faith, enlarged
hearts, good stuff happening in churches, ministries, and nonprofit organizations as they read inspirational resources to guide their Christian growth and mission.  All of this gives us much
for which to be thankful.

It is often hard and complicating and tiresome. Sometimes it gets ugly. Not a day
goes by in our work that doesn’t tempt me to spit and cuss, and sometimes, to just give up.  

And not a single day goes by that doesn’t give
us a chance to exclaim “Thanks be to God.” 

thank-you-quote11.jpgAnd, so, while we praise God — the God who is called The Word —
we must thank you, too.  We are
grateful for readers and customers who buy our books and spread the word about
our bookselling efforts.  Truly, we wouldn’t
be here without you.  We are very

* * *

I suppose I should stop there, offering this little
tribute to all involved in the magical world of books and bookstores, thanking those who appreciate our efforts to be patrons of the printed page, those who are our
loyal customers and friends of our mission.

But I’d like to say more, for those who want to listen in.  I hope it isn’t too self-indulgent to
reminisce a bit, tipping the hat to some old colleagues who have helped us over the years.

I think the first publisher’s sales representative Beth and
I met who was serious about books, one who loved thoughtful and well-done Christian books of
depth and importance, was Bruce Robinson who at the time worked for
Eerdmans.  Eerdmans is one of the
top publishers in academic theology and religion, more broad and curious now
than they were a generation or two ago, but even in the early 80s, they had a
diverse and fascinating body of work – Southbest of the reformed j.jpgeerdmans book.jpg African theology, Dutch
reformational philosophy, Christian aesthetics, Biblical commentaries, faith-based literary criticism.  They had some classic evangelical
authors like John Stott and F. F. Bruce and, of course, C.S. Lewis (and other Inklings such as George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles
Williams.) They published one of the first books I ever studied on
creation-care and the first book I read on a distinctively Christian approach
to technology, the first book of many books I’ve read by Richard Mouw, my first book by John
Howard Yoder, the first book by Lewis Smedes (the still in print Sex for Christians and the out of print Love Within Limits), the still important Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper, the very significant Capitalism and Progress by Bob Goudzewaard, Art in Action by Nicholas Wolterstorff (not to mention his grueling, honest memoir of grief, Lament for a Son.) Soon enough, they published Alan Boesak and Desmond Tutu, Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson.  For years they published the journal The Reformed Journal (and you may recall how I raved in the “best books of 2011” column about the anthology of the best of the RJ that came out a few years ago, edited by James Bratt & Ronald Wells.  It is still a spectacular collection, very highly recommended.)

To have a sales
rep visit our store and brief us on important books and regale us with tales of
his own meetings and meals with everyone from Richard Neuhaus to Jimmy Dunn to
Fleming Rutledge to Herman Ridderbos was a delight.  Eerdmans has been a distinguished press, releasing award winning
books both popular and arcane, and their sales reps remain bookish, learned, articulate about ideas
within the broader church and world. They know how to talk books.

In our early years we also had a rep named Bill
Thomason.  Bill was a bookman par
excellence – when I’d jump in his car to retreat to a local café he’d have
Shakespeare plays on tape in his car. 
Like most reps, he’d have his back seat loaded with the books he was
selling, and others he picked up at other stores along the way.  The best sales reps not only sell their
own titles, but buy books, themselves, and it is fun to get them reading
authors from other publishers.  The
best book-lovers are, shall we say, promiscuous. 

He had a rep group that handled a whole bunch of small and often quirkie, nearly indie publishers.

If our Eerdmans rep introduced us to serious Reformed
theology and the broader evangelical circles of interest promoted by the scholarly side of
their storied house, Bill first repped an array of publishers that included
liturgical Catholic publishers, liberation theology, a moderate Baptist publisher, and, for a while, some contemplative and monastic and Orthodox presses.  Where else would Beth and I have  learned about
Cistercian Publications or Liturgical Press?  Eventually Bill landed at Westminster/John Knox, and since
we are Presbyterian (USA) we knew his line pretty well.  But he knew it better, and having each season a guided tour
through such an esteemed mainline Protestant publishing house – they have published
Niehbuhr and Tillich and Barth and William Sloan Coffin and the like – was an education in

We have dear, dear friends who have supported us more than words can express in the more conservative CBA (Christian Bookseller Associations) world.  I still miss the indescribable Keith Harrold who repped for Word Music and who understood our musical tastes and was an unabashed fan and friend who served us for years and years. There have been those who have sold us gift items and card lines and all kinds of religious books.

There are extraordinary
scholars, editors, marketers, and reps in CBA presses like the editorial team at IVP and their sales
director Jeffintervarsity-press-IMPRINTS.jpg Crosby (I routinely applaud IVP for being our favorite all-around
publisher and would simply give up if they didn’t exist.) I so much appreciate their work, and thank God for them.

I admire the crew at BakerAcademic like editor Bob Hosack, or, for instance, ecumenical bookman Steve
Ayers, who is so very passionate about excellent, scholarly books.  Ayers knows everything from evangelical
to mainline Protestant to Roman Catholic traditions and their authors – just the other day he noted
that the fabulous new book Love in the Gospel of John by the wonderful Catholic Newbaker_academic.png Testament
scholar Francis J. Moloney, SDB, was just released by Baker Academic (and that that wouldn’t have happened even a
decade ago.) BakerAcademic and
their affiliated Brazos Press are perhaps the up-and-coming scholarly theological publisher.  And, unlike places like
Fortress, they havebrazos_press.png deep ties in the still growing evangelical community and tend not to
publish overly arcane or transgressive stuff.  I think it is a landmark achievement to have professors, scholars and book lovers from
professional associations like ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) and SBL
(Society of Biblical Literature) all raving about their new releases.

I appreciate that Baker has so many books about popular culture, film studies, social reform, exploring the common good and such.  When we opened, Eerdmans was the clearest voice for a robust, rather progressive, socially-engaged Reformed tradition. I still think that Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview by Al Wolters remains one of the most important books in their entire catalog. Today, though, this broadly evangelical, thoughtful perspective and admirable approach to excellently-produced books is found in many evangelical publishers, not least IVP and Baker.  Just think of the enormous contribution to this world-formative tradition by books like Culture Making (by Andy Crouch from IVP) or Desiring the Kingdom (by James K.A. Smith, published by Baker.)

There are plenty of other great publishers for which we are grateful, and
workman-like reps who help us get our orders and who offer in-house help that we
could hardly survive without.  But
it has been the most bookish sales reps who have modeled for me a love for the
printed page, the disciplined habit of reading widely, of learning how to compare and contrast the writing of different authors, and different traditions and viewpoints, for being evangelists
for things other than the same-old/same-old religious literature, celebrating the best sorts of writing and thinking and enhancing the theological conversations. In other words, they are lovers of books.  (At a meeting just the other day, I asked a new friend at Eerdmans what his favorite book from
their new season was and without batting an eye he said Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance to the Third Reich edited by Dean G. Stroud — “It’s a great read,”
he said, and insisted that I had to read it. I think I will, although I otherwise wouldn’t have; I’m willing to try it just because he was
so glad to tell me about how good it was. I try to take the enthusiastic recommendations of a real book-lover to heart.)

byron in store from ydr.jpgPeople
sometimes ask where I get my own love of books and writers. I believe it is true in most areas of
life that we learn from and conform to the habits of the friends with whom we surround ourselves.  On the day of our wedding anniversary
last week Beth and I were selling books at a prestigious lecture and on the way
home – too tired to be very romantic, but for us it was apropos – we listed marriages of those we knew
that we most admired, and who have been our models and influences. It works like that, doesn’t it? I have been privileged to have good
book lovers and teachers and generous, discerning readers around me, and I hope it is somehow that way for you,
that you can find friends who push you on to read widely, who continue to press
the best books into your hands, who speak regularly about what they are
reading, what they are learning, and what strengths and weaknesses there are in
the world of books and ideas. 

From Sunday sermons to the evening news, from the lyrics of the latest pop song to the top ofcaring for words.jpg the bestseller list, there are words everywhere, and we must engage and be wise about them.  I recall a favorite, recent, Eerdmans book by English professor and poet Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  Oh my, what a wonderful book, which I liked even more than Wendell Berry’s Standing By Words, itself a lovely title and rich book. 

Maybe, in some small way, our BookNotes reviews and our shop here can
play that role for you, reminding you of these things.  If we are able to help in any way, I say here for the record, as I often do  — it is not false humility — that it is mostly because of those I’ve been blessed to know, those who have rubbed off on me, even just a bit, that I’m able to talk books with our customers. 

I really, truly am grateful for those who taught me to love words and writing and reading, to care about books, from Mr. Trimmer in high school English to the Dutch worldview guru Pete Steen, who taught philosophy like a preacher, to my grandmother and beloved mother-in-law who often recited poetry by memory, on through great writers, reviewers, critics, journalists, and, yes, sales reps. It isn’t hard to keep up a passion for good books when one gets to see forthcoming titles explained with vision and enthusiasm by those who believe in them.  Evangelical reps, especially, really believe that their books are going to be useful in the lives of ordinary people.  That faith can help us, that God is for us, that the Bible’s wisdom can be applied to daily life, these guys major in that, and it is refreshing to have it put so simply.  It is hard not to believe in the potential of basic but energetically written books when those who know them best tell you the back-story, the marketing plan, and the hopes and expectations of how they will touch lives.  

So, once again, we are thankful to be a part of this work.

I say all this sincerely, inspired in part by those ubiquitous
“what I’m thankful for” facebook updates. But I also say it because of my current Eerdmans sales rep, Jerry Arends, who got me in for a day to the
the recent SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) and AAR (American Academy of Religion) extravaganza in Baltimore.  This annual event has been on my “bucket list” for decades,
and to be able to walk the isles of world-renowned academic religious publishers and literally
bump into Al Wolters and Tom Wright and Ron Sider and Diana Butler Bass, to be
introduced to Arthur Boers and Robert Ellsberg and to get to hear Wendell Berry —
what a joy!  A big hope was for the
chance to cross paths with Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, and it was a
highlight of the day to be with them. (And I am again reminded of how important is Brian’s co-authored Eerdmans book, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement which draws upon important authors such as Brueggeman on exile and Berry on place, and want to again be the one to press it upon you, into your hands and into your heart.)  Everything at SBL/AAR zoomed by so quickly, and I
drove home overwhelmed with gratitude, being so thankful to be a part of this
industry of book-selling, being a handmaiden of good authors, if even in a small, small way. 

A few of these big wig scholars and publishers at SBL even seemed to know who we are but most, naturally, do not.  We are still just a small town shop, with a relatively faint footprint here in
cyberspace. We are glad for the
place and role God has given us, such as it is, grateful for these decades of retail service, and
thankful to you, BookNotes readers and customers who have shelled out your hard-earned bucks to buy books.  It is clear to me that we can serve you as we do, in part, because
there have been special opportunities for us to know good sales reps, to occasionally meet
publishers and editors who work behind the scenes, and to interact with the
authors themselves. I realize it is a great gift which I must steward,
and hope it somehow pleases you to know this.

We are at your
service, for the sake of the world, to the glory of God.  To be called and enabled to do that work,
is a privilege, and we are very, very grateful.


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My Introduction to Writing in the Margins by Lisa Nichols Hickman

I hope you saw our review of this lovely, recent book at the BookNotes blog.  You can read it here.  In that post I noted that I had the great privilege of being asked to write a foreword to it.  I enjoyed an early version of the manuscript quite a lot, and I respect the author, Lisa Nichols Hickman, a lot.

(Lisa’s husband, by the way, is an old friend from years ago with the CCO.) She is a Presbyterian (USA) pastor in New Wilmington, PA. It was a great joy to try to write a foreword that would help frame the book with ideas drawn from it. It’s a harder task than I realized, but I hope you’ll enjoy reading my essay. 

Thanks to Abingdon Press for allowing me to do this.  It was a great joy, and I hope it inspires you to want to buy Lisa’s book.  This is a slightly edited version of what appeared in Writing in the Margins: Connecting with God on the Pages of Your Bible. © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

writing in the margins.jpg

You have picked up this book.  Now you’ve got to pick up your pen. This is a book that you will underline, dog-ear and mark up.  It is, as they say in this digital age, interactive.  You will enjoy it, you will learn interesting things about a lot, and you will be inspired.  But, I assure you, if you do interact with it as it invites you to, enjoying the sidebars and pull quotes, and especially the exercises and reflection questions, you will live differently as a result. You will start doing this with your Bible. Soon, your whole life will become interactive.

It starts with a holy longing. Or at least curiosity. You’ve got the book in your hands so you are part way there. But there is some work to be done; if you are curious, you’ve got to participate. This is experiential education. Get on those safety goggles, friends, this could get dangerous.

Sociologists and cultural critics (and educators, booksellers, pastors, and all sorts of book lovers) have spilled much ink in recent years about the effect of the internet on our reading habits. Nicholas Carr has famously asked, in his must-read book The Shallows, “is google making us dumb?”  He documents a scary thesis: the interactive and short-form style of on-line reading has eroded our ability to sustain serious thought, to focus, to think deeply about the printed page (electronic or otherwise.)  Perhaps it is emblematic of this problem that the device we use to get to our fast-paced, hot-wired snippets of reading is called a browser.  Good readers – and, more importantly, those who value thoughtful interaction with books and the beauty and ideas they carry – know that we have to do more in our study (and more in our lives) that just browse. To put it simply, we have to pay attention. Lisa Hickman is subversive in this info-glut, zippy age because she invites us to settle down.  She invites us to focus. She asks us to care enough to take our learning seriously by refusing to be passive, starting with the printed page and, as the habit is learned, in our very lives.

Close, engaged reading, with pen in hand, paying attention to the words on the page – in any book, although her focus is on Scripture – demands that we do at least two things, and Rev. Hickman wisely helps us learn both.  

Firstly, we must resist distraction.  We have to pay attention to the text.  In story after inspirational story, Lisa tells of people she knows who have done this.  From a college student involved in a summer beach ministry (and working at a yogurt shop called Peace, Love, and Yogurt – how cool is that?) to a seasoned social activist, to one of the heroes of the book, a middle-aged friend in her congregation who was dying of cancer, she inspires us to learn how to read the Bible carefully.  I am sure it will help you see the words on the page with careful attentiveness.  As you’ve surely already deduced, she helps you learn to do this by the simple art of using that pen.  Underline, circle, star, highlight  – and write in the margins!  If you are nervous about this practice, she explains that it is “consecration, not desecration.”  She does a fantastic spin on the famous call to read the Bible with the newspaper in the other hand; she says to read the Bible with your pen in the other hand.  

But the second thing, after using pen or pencil as a tool to help you focus and to see the text in all its strange and glorious wonder, is this: Lisa teaches us to make connections.  She tells us, as she looks at the well-worn Bibles of the people in her book, that they have drawn lines and arrows, circled words and then pointed to other words they scribbled; sometimes there are symbols or dates or exclamation points.  They are, almost literally, connecting the dots. Hickman calls them “sacred connections.”

And here is the amazing part, something this book will help you with: by writing our own thoughts, feelings, frustrations and hopes next to the Holy text, we discern the connections between God’s Word and our lives.  By commending this practice, Hickman shows that Biblical faith is a living faith.  That is, we who are called to be God’s people are invited to know God, to listen to God speak, to relate timeless truths from the Bible to the complexities and messiness of our real lives.  She swipes a line from the feisty radical historian, Studs Turkel, who often told people to write in the margins of the books they read – even to question and disagree! – and to thereby enter into what he called a “raucous conversation” with the author.  When the book is as grand and vital as the Bible, and the authors include an array of women and men from se
veral cultures and distant centuries, this midrash of interaction is going to be raucous indeed.  By inviting us to write in the margins of our Bibles, Lisa helps us enter into this dialogue not only with its inspired truths; ultimately we are in conversation with the Triune God of the universe.

In Writing in the Margins you will find all sorts of interesting stuff about writing, books, about the history of marginalia -it’s a pretty cool word, isn’t it? – and what we can learn by being willing to write in our Bibles. Do you know what Elvis wrote in his Bible? Did you know that hundreds of years ago printers figured out a “golden ratio of page design” that helps the eye settle on the text?  You know what normal margins are, but did you know the center ones are called gutters?  

She doesn’t over-work the image, but you can take it from there – sometimes we find God’s truth in the gutter, deep in the center of dark hardship where there is little margin and where perhaps God even feels absent. Hickman does not advise us to pick and choose the parts of the Bible that we most like, scribbling up only the sweet stuff.  God is a real conversation partner, and the history of redemption unfolds in the full drama of Scripture through thick and thin.  As you make connections between the true stories, poems, prayers, politics, songs, and letters that make up the Bible and the true stuff of your own life – by writing in the margins pieces of your story, the thick and thin of your life – you will, she promises, come to know God’s grace in Christ Jesus, the living Word of the words.

Jesus, we all know (or do we?) raised a ruckus in his own holy life.  He embraced those on the margins of society, insisted that his own ministry was an inauguration of the ancient Hebrew Year of Jubilee – as described in (get this) Leviticus.  Lisa starts this study of writing in the margins of the Bible in Leviticus, with a rumination of how God commanded the Israelites to leave margin in their rows of crops, a public agricultural policy that made room for the homeless and poor; those on the margins. It’s a good place to start a book, since it is where Jesus started. His very first sermon (recorded in Luke 4, a passage marked up in my own Bible) cites a prophetic text from Isaiah that alludes to Leviticus 25.  Jesus, the Lord of the marginalized, preaches about margins, declaring Himself to be the one to bring Jubilee shalom to the people of Israel.  They liked that, Luke tells us, until Jesus preaches a bit more, suggesting that there are others – non-Jews and enemies! – who get in on God’s redemptive regime.  He makes some connections, drawing on the margins of Israel’s story, and at that point, they wanted to kill him.  

What might you write in the margins of this amazing passage? There are connections between the identity and mission of Jesus with the Older Testament law and prophets.  There is good news, indeed, but it may be troubling.  Outsiders – those on the margins of society and of our own lives – are included?  Grace is bigger than we thought?  God cares about the world, about land and prisoners, about justice, about restoring all aspects of culture?  And we are recruited to be involved in it all?  Holy things happen when we inhabit these margins, when we allow the echoes and resonances to come to the fore, and to come alive in our lives.  You will experience God in fresh and holy ways, through the Bible itself, as you enter the conversation, writing, scribbling, interacting.  

Maybe this practice will be hard for those of us who think that Christian truths are abstract, religious ideals from a gilded-edged Book that are just there.  We simply must agree with them and try hard to live them.  This is, you will soon figure out, not the view of the Bible that the Bible itself teaches.  Scripture comes to us as a story, which points to a living relationship with a living Lord; it is not static and it must be embodied anew in each generation, in each life.  

Perhaps this practice will come more naturally to those who have grown up digital, interacting with video games and hand held devices.  Choose Your Own Adventure books were popular a few years back and the generation raised to actually enter stories – to help live out the story – might get this high-def way of engaging the Scriptures.

Younger or older, rationalist or experientially-inclined, this is a book for us all.  It will help us read our Bibles more playfully, even as it teaches us to take it more reflectively; it will deepen our relationship with God, and cause us to take our lives more seriously.  As we write in the margins we are entering into a holy space, and as we find God there, we will be slowly shaped into the image of the Christ who embraced those on the margins. This is not magic, and it is not a simple technique.  It is a way of life, including habits of reading well, seeking God, and learning to listen.  Interacting with the Word of the Lord through Scripture in this scribbling way lays bare our own lives – over time we are transformed, so that we might be faithful agents of God’s reign in the world.  

Any book that can help us do this, that can help us make sacred connections between the Word and the world, that can train us to enter this redemptive project of God’s rescue of the world, is well worth having.  More, it is worth interacting with. Write in the margins of Writing in the Margins, and soon you will be writing in the one-inch margins of your Bible.  And who knows what will come next? I am sure it will be a holy adventure.


writing in the margins.jpg


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REVIEW: EXTENDED VERSION It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God compiled by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) ON SALE NOW

It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God  ON SALE: 10% OFF.


Ssquare Halo Books logo.jpgQUARE HALO BOOKS

My friend Ned Bustard manages Square Halo Books, a boutique publishers in Lancaster,
PA, that specializes in books about Christian faith and the arts.  The
books he produces are always nicely designed – his day job is running
his own graphic design firm – and are always a labor of love.  In 2007
they released what has become their most popular work, a fabulously
diverse and rich anthology of essays about different aspects of art, and
making art, It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (Square
Halo Books; $24.99 — on sale for $22.50.) Besides lots of full-color
art, it includes mature and insightful essays by visual artists,
Christian art historians and critics, a
few musicians (pop music producer Charlie Peacock, jazzman and theology
professor Bill Edgar), various and sundry other cultural creatives as
well as a few who work in ministry with artists (Tim Keller, pastor of
the thriving Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of the arts
district in Manhattan, written before he became as famous as he now is.)
For what it is worth, it showcased the first chapter in a book by the
esteemed founder of IAM, Makoto Fujimura, (his good chapter there is
called “That Final Dance”) and his art wonderfully graced the cover. We
here at Hearts & Minds raved about it.  It remains one of the
handful of must-read titles we include in any list or display of books
about the arts

I think Ned knew all along that there would be a sequel, one specifically exploring the role of music in God’s world, IWG2,
so to speak. Ned is a huge music fan with wide and passionate tastes —
it may be that I first met him at a concert or festival. Years and
years in the making (an artful story in itself) we 
could not be more proud to announce that we now have It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory odouble good.jpgf God compiled
and created by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books; $24.99.) With nearly 30
stellar chapters and 336 pages, it is a beautiful, beautiful resource, a
worthy book to add to your shelf. If you work in the field of music –
music teacher, choir director, aspiring rock star, high school band
director, worship leader, concert promoter, record producer – you should
buy several; you just should.  It is unquestionably now the best book
in the field and you will want to share it with others, often. I predict
there will be study groups and book clubs reading it together in
rehearsal halls and choir lofts and recording studios and coffee shops
and Christian education classrooms, wherever musicians gather to dream
about their work. 


me to begin my review with a rumination on one of the last chapters in
the book, one on booking and promoting concerts called “Experience
Amplified” by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma.  Kirstin VG-R writes
wonderfully – read her regularly by subscribing to catapult and in this chapter she tells of the remarkable work of Calvin College’s Student Activities Office
as it brings in thoughtful musicians, songwriters and bands to enhance
the appreciation of (and discernment about) the popular arts among
Calvin College students (and the wider Grand Rapids community who have
enthusiastically affirmed their innovative work.) Like the other
chapters in It Was Good: Making Music
concert hall.jpg to the Glory of God,
Ms VG-R was given a one-word title; in her case, “promotion”, and she
walks us through the vision, theology, and storied details of booking
acts, promoting shows, finding appropriate venues, the complexities of
ticket sales and hospitality and education and live concert production.
In her vividly portrayed piece she draws us in telling about all the
concert posters on the cinder block walls of their grotto-like offices
— I’ve seen those posters in that cluttered office noting
advertisements for Dave Matthews, Andrew Bird, Lupe Fiasco, Emmylou
Harris, Gungor, Iron and Wine, Mavis Staples, Sigur Ros, the Blind Boys
of Alabama, Over the Rhine, Bruce Cockburn, fun., Jars of Clay, Aradhna,
Kishi Bashi, Regina Spektor, and many, many more — country to rap to
soul to indie pop and more.  She notes that the decor is, actually,

a messy witness, tacked to the walls with duct tape and poster putty,
on  display for all to see and to discuss and to question. The motto of
the Student Activities Office (SAO) is “changing the conversation about
popular culture” and
calvin sao.jpg
even the posters serve this purpose. But anyone can stick pieces of
paper on the wall.  Beyond physical space is where the conversation
really heats up, as live concerts draw people into the circle with all
five senses.  Lights and speakers, instruments and microphones,
musicians and fans converge in a big room for just a moment in time and
each moment is precious enough to frame.

it all begs bigger questions: Why should Christians spend time and
money on such activities –and not just as observers, but as promoters?
What, if anything, would make a concert venue run by Christians
different from other venues? This chapter will use the Calvin College
concert series as a case study for reflecting more deeply on the
potential for concert venues informed and shaped by holistic Christian

Msoil and sun.jpguch
of this amazing chapter is inspired by the leadership of SAO Director
Ken Heffner, and Kirstin tells of his vision — inspired largely by the
wide-as-creation redemptive theology of Dutch Reformed public
intellectual Abraham Kuyper. I know a bit of how this has worked for
Heffner and his staff and student team, and know that for them there
have been huge struggles — not everyone in the religious community
understands  the risks and blessings of the best popular art or the
theological insights of common grace, and not everyone in the artistic
community trusts or appreciates the conversations going on in places
like Calvin College; some mainstream artists and managers and
journalists, in fact, are unsure about their efforts to nurture
Christian discourse, confusing their views with the censors of the
religious right, perhaps. 

for instance, he ended up on the phone last year with one of the
members of a world-famous band, literally while they were rehearsing at
the famed NBC studios before their SNL gig talking through painful
misunderstandings; his intentional and artist-savvy conversations about
Calvin’s distinctive worldview with top-tier artists and their
management have sometimes gone late, late into the night and continued
long after the artists have left the campus.  

have worked hard to generate trust and wisdom about how to host
artists, which to avoid and who to work with, who to nurture and what
boundaries to be clear about. It has been difficult, yes — with very
few models at any other colleges being so intentional and discerning in
this way.  

there have also been great, great joys, some of them sowing seeds of
gospel hope among musicians who are amazed that this small religious
campus cares so very much about the arts, about popular culture, and
about hosting and producing an excellent show in a quality venue. 

famous, Grammy Award winning indie band Death Cab for Cutie last year
made it a point to note that they could have played at other more
lucrative halls, but knew that Heffner’s team treats them well and —
fascinatingly — their students pay attention, appreciating the
artfulness of the show, engaging the music as if it is, well, a gift
made possible by a good God; by some accounts, SAO audiences are the
best of any crowds on a performer’s entire tour. A rare culture of
engagement in popular music has developed over time there, and even
secular artists are caught up in moments of grace as audiences
participate appropriately.


It seems to me that there are hundreds of faith-based and church-related colleges andIt was Good Making Music.jpg
thousands of churches that host concerts, and yet very few have risen
to this sort of conversation about the role of popular entertainment,
seeking a coherent and faithful understanding of contemporary music, nor
have many really been intentional about considering a set of uniquely
Christian practices about appreciating music in all its many-splendored
textures and tones and styles.  

singular witness of Calvin’s SAO series — told so helpfully in Vander
Giessen-Reitsma’s chapter — is vivid indication of just why It Was Good Making Music to the Glory of God is so very important. 

This book is a delight to read, a joy, thrilling even, if you are a music lover.  But, also, it is important.


so, from this wonderfully-written chapter about this esteemed program
near the end of the book we are reminded of a theme that most serious
Christian artists intuit and need to learn to better articulate, a theme
that arises quickly in both It Was Good books — there is
no necessary division between the so-called sacred and secular; church
music is not necessarily more “spiritual” than a love song or hoedown,
God is honored and gladdened by faithful music of any sort, not just
congregational or sacred music. 

art, guided by the spirit and values and vision of the artist, pays
homage, more or less allusively, to a way of seeing life, a way of
believing about life and in that sense all art is fundamentally
religious (of one religion or another.)  Art or music that is
intentionally Christian can nonetheless be bad art, and goodness and
truth and wondrous artfulness can be found in the most profane of work. 
In God’s good grace, we live in a world of color, texture, sound and
rhythm, and we can, indeed, make all manner of music to God’s greater

Such humane and God-glorifying song, again, can be a child’s song about belly-buttonsmusic painting.jpg
(as one of the great chapters here tells us) or a politically-charged
bit of social criticism or it can be a liturgical chant or a passionate
praise chorus.  All such songs (the kid’s song or the liturgical piece)
can be well-made, insightful, healthy and good, or can be poor, shallow,
harmful, and bad. 

kind of extraordinary reminder of a glorious whole-life Kingdom vision
which affirms the presence of God in common grace throughout all of life
and culture is only one of the great reasons to enjoy this marvelous,
and marvelously thought-through collection.


Reading It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God
you will catch glimpses of that “every square inch” /
all-of-life-being-redeemed vision lived out, explained and explored as
many solid folks bear witness to the role of the good gift of music in
their lives. You will enjoy hearing a bit about producing The Civil Wars
and a lot about counterpoint in Bach; you get a grand workshop on the
history of jazz, another on the spirituality of the blues; and you’ll
learn about the hymn-writer who penned the beloved “In Christ Alone.” 

will enjoy hearing about music in the life of parents and children and
you will consider the rigors of those who perform as a vocation.  There
are chapters about what the Bible says about song and there are chapters
about how to be more artfully engaged in appreciating music — in
church and in the rest of our lives, outside of the sanctuary doors. 
Square Halo Books has done us a great service in enriching our lives by
offering us this vivid conversation into which we are invited.  It is,
in my humble view, one of the best books we’ve read in years — in part
because it helps us think about faith in such a down-to-Earth,
practical way.  

As Bustard says in his excellent foreword,

were made to sing to the glory of God. He deserves glory from us due to
his majesty as well as his kindness to us. Some see an obligation to
glorify God as a burden or limitation. But this is simply not the case.
Living lives to the glory of God makes us more of who we are. It is the
difference between merely existing in black and white and taking in all
of life in full technicolor.


Iiwg-m_cd_cover.jpgn It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God,
thoughtful Christian singer/song-writers in the Americana/pop vein talk
about learning their craft, about how to write, about collaboration and
touring, even as classically-trained church leaders ruminate on their
work (see the brilliant chapter on rehearsal by the Music Director at
Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.)

chapters tend towards anecdotal entries that are interesting and
entertaining such as Charlie Peacock’s reflection on his amazing career,
a truly remarkable interview with hip hop artist and producer Shai
Linne, Diana Bauer’s powerful telling of how music helped her in times
of great sorrow — one of the best in the book! —  and a wonderful
interview with Keith Getty (composer of beloved contemporary hymns, most
notably “In Christ Alone.”) 

are many more specialized chapters, focusing on Biblical study or a
particular topic (collaboration, minor keys, participation, fame all of
which are tremendous.) There are no tidy lines between genres, and there
are pieces about music created for worship purposes — like a learned
chapter on singing the Psalms  —  and many on the musical work done for
popular entertainment and performance.  Some seem to be written for
musicians, although as a non-musician, some of these were among my very

instance, I absolutely loved Vito Aiuto’s chapter on songwriting and
Sandra McCracken’s splendid and homey piece on creativity and Drew
Holcomb’s reflections on touring.

there is a whole lot for non-musicians, for those of us who listen to
recordings, take in live shows, or just sing at church or in the
shower.  For instance, Katy Bowser’s piece on children’s music is
absolutely excellent (the best I’ve even seen on this topic — I hope
you know we stock her Coal Train Railroad CDs and the lovely Rain for Roots: Big Stories for Little Ones CD.)  What a thoughtful, inspiring chapter, a so fun to read.

brilliant, profound work on the aesthetics of delight written by
Bethany Brooks is fantastic. She is an accomplished classical pianist
(who plays all over the world) who also is active in the roots music
scene in Philly.  Oh yes, she also is a music director at City Church
there.  Anyway, it is a very, very impressive chapter and musicians and
music lovers should reflect upon.  It is one of the most important
pieces centering the whole IWG project. 

Nichols’ wonderful telling of the life of Johnny Cash becomes a bit of a
morality tale about fame, and is a treat to read.

Begbie is spot on when he says on the back-cover that “this book shows
that it is still possible to write about music in a way that enriches
our experience of it.  Above all, it will renew your gratitude to God
for making such art possible.”  


is interesting, isn’t it, that music is around us so very much, but we
often fail to attend to it with much focus, and we rarely discuss it
together, reflecting on faithful expressions and fruitful
understandings.  We get upset when pop stars do hare-brained stuff and
we renounce this or that trend, or complain about music we didn’t like
in church. We turn the car radio up or down as the case may be. But, too
rarely do we pursue the kinds of good conversations as given to us in
this book.  Yes, this book is indeed a gift. The editor, the publisher,
and the authors are to be commended for this labor of love.

is notable when a book garners eloquent and passionate endorsements and
this volume already is gathering just such glowing recommendations.
Listen to rock and roller Dave Perkins, now Associate Director of the
Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program at the Divinity
School of Vanderbilt:

it possible to fully elucidate the spiritual, emotional, intellectual,
even physical experience of music making? Perhaps the best way to go
about it is to gather a choir of voices. It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God offers
a rich resource of perspectives, each working to share some aspect or
moment in the experience of that mercurial characteristic of human being
we call music and its place in the life of faith.

The book covers so much good ground that it is hard to describe — I just want to offer this plea that you buy It Was Good: Making Music right away! (It will, of course, make a fabulous Christmas gift, as does the first IWG volume.) I hope that our readers will trust us on this one.


As an added bonus, there is a complimentary link where for free you can go toiwg-m_cd_cover.jpg Noisetrade and download an 18 track album of songs by many of the artists in the book.  Yep, you get to hear Drew Holcomb and Joy Ike, Charlie Peacock and Sandra McCraken, The Welcome Wagon and Coal Train Railroad.  There are worship songs from strong church composers, a modern classical piece, acoustic singer-songwriter solo songs and a fabulous jazz piece with Bill Edgar playing piano, John Patitucci on bass and the incredibly  Ruth Naomi Floyd on vocals.  18 songs in all — what a great bonus for those who buy the book. 

Well, I
don’t want to miss out on the joy of explaining some of what is to be
found between these cool covers.  There truly are some amazingly
interesting topics and some pretty stellar authors.

please bear with me as I give the shout outs.  I imagine them all
lining up as after a show, hands clasped, bowing in unison before the
encore.  I wanna be the emcee and call out with gusto “Ladies and
gentleman, give it up one more time for….”

We were imagining all the grand authors lined up at the edge of the stage for a communal bow. (I don’t know who these folks are below, but you get the picture.)  They’ve got their arms around each other’s waists, some are sweating under the stage lights.  A few are holding back a little, a few are grinning ear to ear.  They are all very glad your here.  They do indeed what God to get the glory.

So, here they are, folks, in mostly alphabetical order…

group bow.jpg

Let’s hear it for:

Vito Aiuto.  He’s friends with Sufjan, who makes a brief appearance in this chapter, is a gentle hipster pastor in Brooklyn, and front man for the quirky neo-folk / quasi-worship band cleverly called Welcome Wagon.  He gives us here a truly great chapter on songwriting and it would be excellent for any writer.  It is, without a doubt, one of the top essays in the entire book.  The first bit about sitting down and doing the work is tremendous — funny, informed, and challenging. And he mentions Robbie Robertson and Paul Simon.  His quotes from Annie Dillard are so good. He tells people to read books. His candor about his own discovery of poetry, his guitar playing, his preaching and Sunday evening habits makes it real.  I love this chapter!

Diana Bauer.  This brought me to tears.  She tells of great sorrows in her life, reminds us — as if she has to — that most of us living East of Eden share similar sorrows, and she tells how music has helped her through stress and trouble, grief and sadness. She names mostly hymns which touched me deeply, but I’d add other musicians — from Bill Mallonee to Jackson Browne to Switchfoot to the Indigo Girls  — who have led me to process and cope with my deepest losses and regrets. This is one of the great chapters in the book and I sincerely commend it to you.

Bethany Brooks. Ladies and gentleman, give it up for the gal with the most footnotes!  And, man, is she sharp.  This is a true centerpiece of the book, coming in early, on the theology (and discipline) of delight, the essential aesthetic moment that is art and music.  There are various books and resources to explore this essential stuff, and I think her work here is excellent, a fine, needed, relatively short contribution and should become very often discussed. 

Paul Buckley.  The aforementioned must-read piece on the need to sing the Psalms. Some very helpful suggestions, and a guide to recently published Psalters. Very impressive; by the way, he used to be a reporter and has won writing awards. And he’s studied Psalms with the best.

Mark Chambers.  Don’t let this scare you off, with the transcriptions of lines of score. Yes,  he’s a classical buff, and he explains some odd-ball avante garde stuff.  Hey, you want to be a life-long learner don’t you?  In this exceptionally rich chapter, he teaches us how to listen. Very helpful.

William Edgar. He was in the first It Was Good, is a published theologian and scholar of culture and the arts, and a friend to this whole project.  His chapter is on jazz, perhaps from a book we pray he will someday publish.  This is very, very good stuff, for novices or aficionados.  He’s a cat, so you gotta read this!

Julius Fischer. Apparently he serves in a small urban church, is a Beatles fan, and tells of playing a hymn with accordion and banjo, and I’m telling ya, this short chapter is everything I love about this cool book.  His advise to local church worship leaders —  leave the casserole for the pot luck — is priceless.  His church is fortunate to have such a diverse, creative, musician but who also understands what worship is about.

Ruth Naomi Floyd.  Wow. Ruth is renowned as a very cool jazz singer in Philly, and she graces this book with her deep African-American insights about the blues.  I am pretty sure I recommended her to Ned as he was searching for excellent authors, and I’m glad she is here.  I admire her faith, her character, and her amazing concerts and records.  Let the people say Amen!

Jan & Mark Foreman. I’m not kidding you — this is worth the price of the book if you are a parent, a grandparent, or know any parents.  You may know Mark Foreman’s excellent book Wholly Jesus (I hope you do) but you most likely know of their famous sons, the rock and roll stars of the band Switchfoot.  This is a chapter about how to parent kids to be creative, telling how they raised their now-famous sons to be lovers of culture, discerning about the world, and aspiring to excellence.  That Jan is a children’s art teacher and Mark a pastor who loves to sing doesn’t hurt.  Still, this is inspiring for anyone and a truly wonderful, rich chapter.

David Fuentes. This guy does a close reading of a couple of popular songs, wondering about lyric and music, and his insight is as good as it gets.  It was so good I had to turn to the back to ask who is this guy? Man, he’s good!   He teaches at Calvin College,  which, well, explains a lot.  Perhaps he hangs around with the aforementioned Ken Heffner. This is a very useful chapter, especially if you work with youth or lead discernment groups or like to talk about evaluating pop songs that you enjoy. Nice!

Keith Getty.  What a gift this man has given to us, writing so many wonderful contemporary hymns.  This chapter comes to us in a fabulous interview format and it is very, very interesting.  What a privilege to get to listen in on this as he describes his calling and career in this fine piece. If you don’t know the hymnody of the Getty’s, do check out their work.

Steve Guthrie. Certainly this is one of the most significant scholars represented in It Was Good — Dr. Guthrie is a theology prof who earned his PhD from University of St. Andrews and served as a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Theology and Imagination and the Arts there.  He has written an amazing book on the Holy Spirit (Creator Spirit) and co-edited with Jeremy Begbie the very scholarly collection Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Theology and Music published by Eerdmans.)  The maestro could have phoned this in, or written his piece in his sleep, but he obviously didn’t. A brilliant contribution on harmony entitled “The Ratio of Redemption.” I thought maybe it was a typo, but it’s Latin.  Excellent.

Drew Holcomb.  Holcomb loves music, loves live shows, and comes from a family that graciously encouraged his desire to be a troubadour. Now he plays with guys like the Avett Brothers and his pals in NeedtoBreath. If you want to know what it is like being a traveling musician, this is a great inside look; he’s a fine writer and this is a lovely chapter.  If you are a road warrior yourself, as a musician or maybe even in another career that has you away from home a lot, you should read this as there is much wisdom about maintaining relationships and a faithful spiritual life from this young man.  One person said this was one of the best chapters in the book!  By the way, one of his songs was used in an Emmy-Award winning TV commercial for the  NBA and Sports Illustrated said it was the best sports commercial ever made.  So there ya go.  Give him some extra applause and buy some of his merch.  He’s the real deal.

Joy Ike.  Joy Ike!  I just love this young lady whose name has been shortened from her family’s traditional African name; she is as professional and serious as they come, her commitment leavened, through, by her joyful and Christ-like demeanor. She knows she is called to this work of being a pop music maker and performer and she does it well.  Hailing from Pittsburgh, nurtured through the Jubilee conference where she serves in the worship band, getting radio airplay, critical acclaim and mainstream invitations to play at places like Lillith Fare, she is a woman of great grace and maturity and we respect her a lot.  But what would she write about, I asked Ned, when he invited her to write.  Vocation. Yes!  This is perfect for her. It is great to have a working artist ruminating on this foundational Christian truth and what it means to know you are called to this particular work.

Tom Jennings.  As Music Director of the prestigious and important Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, I admit to wondering if this would be all that interesting or relevant for those in less influential life locations.  He’s a highly regarded classical and jazz musician, and prominent in many ways. Ends up, this was one of my very favorite chapters, which I read twice.  It is about rehearsal — and so much more.  Wonderful stories, good use of Scripture, theologically mature, and a great lover of his calling as musician — in the recital hall and the sanctuary.  Of course, we all have to head to the woodshed, as they say, if we are going to get good at what we do (although he doesn’t use that down-home phrase.) This chapter will make you appreciate rehearsal and practice and collaboration and experimentation and trust and… well, you have to read it!

Shai Linne.  If you haven’t heard of this guy, you need to know of his important work.  He is a hip hop artist, working in the streets and recording studios, guiding, producing, teaching — all to help proclaim the doctrines of God’s amazing grace to a broken world. This is done in a fast-paced interview format, and it really works — as a rapper, he is obviously good with words and quick on his feet.  Fascinating.  Again, I was surprised at how insightful this conversation was, and how good it was to listen in. Very highly recommended (even if you aren’t a fan of the genre.) 

Sandra McCracken.  This was one of the first chapters I turned to when I first saw the manuscript, mostly because I so esteem Sandra’s work, from her role in Indelible Grace to her spectacular solo projects.  Oh yeah, I thought maybe she’d drop some bit about her hubby Derek Webb.  And, again, what perhaps started as cheap voyeurism or fandom on my part ended up being a great reading experience — I will turn to this chapter again, I am sure. Her topic is creativity and it is a wonderful rumination, good for musicians and artists of all kinds, but it is an excellent chapter about being human, finding a life, staying sane, honoring God in the rhythms and seasons of our days.  Her title is “Fingerprints and Plumbers” and it is well worth reading.

Brian Moss.  What a good call to have this wise and important worship leader in here, although it is curious.  It is a short piece, inviting us — at the start of the book — to appreciate silence. Moss does some good teaching about our longings for silence, reminding us of the Biblical mandates to keep silence, and invites readers to close the book and experience the lack of creative music-making.  Very impressive.  I’d invite you to give him a round of applause but, uh, maybe that wouldn’t be right.

Stephen Nichols.  Now this was a surprising chapter.  It was to be on fame and I figure that anyone in the performing arts — or in business or in ministry, even —  may struggle with this.  And it is exactly that.  By way of the true story of one Johnny Cash.  Nichols is a great biographer (his latest is on Bonhoeffer, by the way) but he loves popular culture and has a good book himself on the history of blues music. This was a fabulous way to end this fine book.  Yeah!

Brad O’Donnell.  As an impromptu writer and public speaker I sometimes worry about not having time to re-write my work.  After reading this wonderful chapter, I want to think more, and do more, in refining, which is O’Donnell’s good theme.  He uses the Bible well, makes great points, and then tells lots of great little stories — he studied jazz at the University of Miami Music School where he met Pat Metheny, he cites John Updike and includes a small bit of an interview with Hemingway  (yes “that” Hemingway.) He draws on insights by Jon Foreman and evaluates other award-winning musicians (including several Dove Award-winners such as Chris Tomlinson.) What a great chapter, interesting and wise and important for all of us. 

John Patitucci.  Again, what an amazing thing, to have a Grammy-Award winning jazz bassist, a serious man of faith, offering solid insights here.  Way to go Ned Bustard, way to go Square Halo.  And many thanks to the famous Mr. Patitucci for agreeing to do this good work, writing, teaching, explaining, sharing insight about improvisation.  How cool that he opens with Proverbs 27:17–  and calls us all to lives of interrelationship and trust and risk and playfulness.  John Patitucci is certainly one of the most renowned musicians in the book, and yet it is also one of the most carefully explicating the Biblical text.  So cool.

Charlie Peacock.  Charlie is an old friend of Ned & Leslie Bustard — a mentor and supporter in many ways — and it is no surprise he agreed to revisit his story as young rebel rock star, early pioneer of innovative Christian rock and pop, his being signed to Island Records (at the same time as his label-mates U-too-know-who released Joshua Tree, causing him to get lost by the label) and his journey towards a more public sort of work, guiding and producing some of the most significant rock acts of our time and founding The Art House.  He does not draw undue attention to his help with the likes of Switchfoot or The Civil Wars or the Lone Bellow but his story of working out his calling is well told and fabulously interesting for those who have followed his long and impressive career.  I like this kind of stuff, and found it to be tremendously enjoyable to listen in to the tale that, by the way, is surely not yet over.  

Doug Plank.  I said everybody was standing on the stage together, taking a big communal bow.  Each author and artist in this book make a unique contribution, yet they hold together in some broad Square Halo vision, taking in both world and church.  This is one of those — citing Irish rockers U2 and Reformed Scotsman Carl Trueman — writing about our world’s deep brokenness and the need to honor and attend to that, even in our worship.  Plank oversees the worship ministry of a church here in central Pennsylvania and says he loves Tolkien. It makes sense that he is such a reader of JRR’s powerful vision; he is a good thinker, and yet simply calls us to sing from time to time in the minor key.  I wish more pastors and church musicians pondered this.

Hiram Ring.  I hope you know this young singer-songwriter, and I am glad he is in this collection (and on the Noisetrade piece.)  It is a chapter I trust you will enjoy and I know you will benefit from reading it.  He was born of missionary parents in Africa, so is what they now call “third culture kids.” His music isn’t “world beat” but his themes and topics, coming from his experience and passions, are clearly global.  His chapter is called “language” and his love for words, and his passion for translation and his missionary heart is evident.  An educational and challenging chapter!

Michael Roe.  Formerly of the pioneer rock and roll band the inestimable 77s, and then of Lost Dogs fame, Roe is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever come across, and his solo work — recordings and live shows — are breathtakingly good.  He’s gritty and raw and a bit grizzled from years on the road.  His faith and passion shine through in these two interviews well-conducted by fanboy Bustard.  I have to admit, this was the second or third chapter I read, as I just had to see where the conversation would lead.  It was not exactly explosive, but it was fabulous — his bit about his jangled rock ‘n roll  “nerves” and his love for Mozart and Segovia spoke right to me!  What he got at, though, was collaboration, and it was wonderful.  Kudos, Ned and Mike.  Good collaboration.

Michelle Stearns.  Give it up, folks, for Chelle Stearns!  Or, better, don’t clap for her — clap for yourselves.  She writes about participation, about being amateurs, about the joy of doing music, one and all.  I was almost scared to read this — don’t ask me why, but I don’t like to dance and I don’t want to have to sing along — but, wowie, I loved it. A very strong chapter which was a joy to read, a treat to think about, and a righteous reminder.  Rock on.

Gregg Strawbridge.  Strawbridge is a heavy-weight thinker, Reformed as the day is long, and appropriately — as the best of the Reformed vision would have it — down to Earth.  His church grows their own grapes so they can make their own communion wine.  His study here is on church music and why the Bible insists on us using a variety of instruments.   Before he gets there, he can’t help but tells us a bit about his own background of loving music  —  what fun! — and then he does the in-depth, high-quality Bible study that a book like this calls for.  A Christian philosophy of aesthetics that can shape a view of music, that can lead us to certain musical practices is the under-girding project of some of these chapters, and no Christian philosophy or worldview worth its salt can avoid the exegetical work.  Kudos for this strong chapter about Scripture.

Greg Wilbur.  Dig this.  Wilbur, in his chapter “Throw Back the Clock” teaches us wisely in theological frame, about counterpoint.  He writes of those who misunderstand this musical feature in older music, “(these attitudes) fail to recognize the intent, purpose, and structure behind sixteenth and seventeenth century counterpoint or why it fell out of favor in the Age of the Enlightenment. In fact, the demise of counterpoint in the history of music is more an indication of shifting theological worldviews than musical tastes.”  This ends up being a bit about Bach, and you simply have to read it — I had no idea.  Got my money’s worth right here in these 8 dense pages.

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma.  For sheer wordsmithyness, I think this is one of the very strongest chapters, and because she is my friend, and I’ve followed the project she writes about — the Calvin College SAO concert series and their mission of cultural discernment — I have to say it was my favorite chapter in the book.  There is such a robust view of culture, such an (underlying, undeveloped, but palpable) aesthetic theory, such a vision of God’s Kingdom coming, even in the popular arts as we learn to think redemptively about entertainment and contemporary live performances. Buy the book, read this chapter, and praise the Lord that some Christians who are booking bands would rather have thoughtful, Biblically-literate excellent, soul-provoking music by the unchurched likes of Lupe Fiasco or the Indigo Girls or The Head and the Heart or Andrew Bird rather than a warmed over, overly pious, derivative prima donna Christian rock star any day.  It was a stroke of genius to include the Calvin College story here — it needs to be understood and appreciated as few Christian colleges dare to be as intentional and thoughtful about this —  and it fills out the book with broad Christian vision and with solid, practical detail, about hosting shows and learning the Christ-like art of genuine hospitality (for artists and audiences.)  Three big cheers.  And, I’d shout, “Encore!”  More, KVGR, more!

And, certainly, we can cry “encore” for Square Halo Books, too.  May their generative output — classy, fun, righteous, and seriously meeting a need in the publishing marketplace for evangelical reflection on and exhibits of the arts — continue.  God bless them!  And God bless you if you buy books like this, keeping artful, indie publishing alive and well.

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A LONGER LIST AND RELECTION: Resources on Spiritual Formation — For Seekers, Beginners and more Mature Disciples… ALL BOOKS 20% OFF


Thanks to those who sent emails or made comments on facebook about my BookNotes review of Reading the Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals, a splendid and mature new book published by IVP Academic (regularly $24.00 but 20% off for our BookNotes readers.) The two editors, Jamin Goggin and his colleague Kyle Strobel ( curated and compiled a wise and theologically sane guide to how to best approach the depths, benefits, and foibles of various sorts of devotional and spiritual classics. It is a book about reading well, and it is a guide to different kinds of Christian spiritual formation.

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I started with an appreciative shout-out to authors who have become popular in the last 25 years, especially in more mainline denominational circles, authors who we are proud to stock, such as Henri Nouwen, Tilden Edwards, Joyce Rupp, Richard Rohr, Basil Pennington, (and so many more) who have much to offer those who care about their interior lives. These authors are among our biggest sellers when we set up book displays for UCC clergy, for Episcopal priests, for Lutheran folks.  

I did say, though – and I hope you give it a fair read if you didn’t – that I worry about the lack of robust, Trinitarian theology and Christ-centered substance in some contemplative literature. Some tend towards a vague sort of pantheism and others are mostly about one’s true self and less about God and Christ’s Kingdom. I am no rationalist and don’t fear creation-based theology (a term Matthew Fox coined back in his less eccentric days) but, still, I believe that those of us who read widely and ecumenically should stand firmly in a firm orthodox center.  On Christ the solid rock we stand, I was taught to sing.  All other ground is sinking sand.  

The new book, Reading the Spiritual Classics: A Guide… is a bit deep and demanding, and it covers a very broad range of writings from throughout church history and from throughout the wide Body of Christ.  It is a very, very important reminder to read discerningly, and apply insights faithfully.  Although it offers a uniquely evangelical vocabulary and offers a few warnings, it is not the least bit mean, and it does not foster fear or a critical spirit (it is not even what I would call parochial) but is inviting and informative.  It is an example of ecumenical discourse at its finest, useful for evangelicals and others, who want to have a balanced view of this important body of literature. 


In that column I tossed off a phrase stolen from the old Oldsmobile ads — hinting  at a bit of

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 a concern – that some contemporary evangelicals are “not your father’s evangelicals.”  In that big list of 50 books that I did on the webinar last month I mentioned a book called Renewing the Evangelical Mission, edited by Richard Lints (Eerdmans; $34.00, but on sale at 20% off for BookNotes readers.) It is a collection of firm essays about the erosion of central truths and practices, that is, the distinctives of evangelicalism, and is important to mention here.  Renewing… is a collection of pieces which interact with and bear witness to the critical work of David Wells, professor at Gordon Conwell, by authors such as Mark Noll, Os Guinness, Miroslov Volf, Michael Horton and other big picture, confessional thinkers.  Wells is a dear, good man, a very rigorous scholar, and even when I do not agree with him or fully share his numerous anxieties about the shape of evangelicalism in our time, his work is extraordinarily important. If you only read a couple of serious theological books this year, this overview of Well’s work by a wide range of scholars, pastors, theologians and cultural critics, is worthy of your consideration. (This is certainly true regardless of your own theological orientation and regardless of whether you know Well’s quartet of books about these themes.)  

The concerns raised in the anthology edited by Lints about cultural accommodation, mushy theology, the idolatry of the self, the pragmatic marketing ethos of the mega-churches, the disconnect nearly everywhere with historic, classical Christian thinking, will remind you why the Reading the Spiritual Classics is so very important. We need, as Lewis reminded us years ago, old books. But we also need help in reading them afresh. Reading… and Renewing… are very different sorts of books, but both share a concern for the edification of God’s people by standing within a robust, historic orthodoxy.


Two stories from yesterday:

After my review of Reading the Spiritual Classics the other day a mainline denominational pastor friend wrote an noted a benediction he recently heard at a gathering somewhere. It invoked a trinity of self, others, and Mystery.  Well, that is just fine – who doesn’t know that these three mysteriously go together, that all selves, alone and together, swim in what singer Bruce Cockburn once called “the ocean of love.”  But to replace traditional One-God-in-Three-Persons language in our liturgy for this clever truism?  Puh – lease.  And mainline folk wonder why their numbers are dwindling…

And then, while I’m thinking about this, recommending these good books to our astute readers on line – and our tribe here at BookNotes is mostly pretty sophisticated, I’d say – a smart young customer came in to the shop.  He was forthright with us: his intellectual life is rich and full; his relational and social life is good.  Then he held up his forefinger and thumb, making a circle the size of a pea and said “my spiritual life is like this – virtually nothing.”  Or maybe he was making that universal sign of a zero.

We have these conversations from time to time.  Often, such folks — often baby boomers, but sometimes sharp young adults — are not interested in religion, per se, and in a few quick comments back and forth (as those of us trained to hand sell books do) we learn whether they are interested firstly in proofs for the faith and apologetics.  Sometimes skeptics and seekers warm up to The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, The Reason for God by Tim Keller, or any number of books by the eloquent Ravi Zacharias, or the grand and practical survey of world religious options, The Long Journey Home by Os Guinness.  I have several lists of books I can share with you if you want about apologetics and books for smart skeptics.

These folks are often eager to know that there are intellectually plausible reasons for Christian faith and they ask about faith and science; we start off suggesting stuff like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins (Free Press; $15.99) or the fantastic reader he put together as an anthology of important essays and chapters from books that he could easily offer to his scholarly friends. That is called Belief: Readings on the Reasons for Faith (HarperOne; $19.99.)   

Or they want to know if the Bible’s central teaching about Christ and his resurrection are reliably true. Or are authors like Reza Aslan, citing those same tired sources and outmoded conjectures correct after all, insisting that we can’t really trust the New Testament documents?

But earnest conversations with such inquirers often reveal that they aren’t really skeptics, they might be glad to know there are intellectually sounds reasons to hold to conventional, historic orthodoxy, but, really they are seekers.  They aren’t needing answers, but insights, not apologetics but spirituality. They are like our new friend from the other day, hungering to deepen their grasp of spiritual things. Such folks often are keenly aware that we all have this looming hole in our hearts. To use Buber’s language they want an I-Thou relationship.

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One book that helps us understand this, and is perfect for somebody pondering their heart’s  deepest longings is Yearning for More: What Our Longings Tell us About God and Ourselves by Barry Morrow (IVP; $15.00.) There is hardly a book out that is just like this, and I adore it — very highly recommended because it shows how our daily sense of things, our yearnings, are themselves avenues through which we can come to deeper spiritual insights.  Morrow, as Kenneth Boa writes in the foreword, “has a penchant for leveraging culture to illuminate timeless spiritual issues.”  He does more, though: he helps us turn our longings for God into ways to enter His very presence.

Listen to what John Wilkinson (author of the cleverly titles No Argument for God) says:

Yearning for More uncovers the reality of God in the most unexpected places. Barry Morrow cleverly identifies ‘signals of the transcendent’ in our hatred of death, our desire for heaven and even the humdrum of daily living. So often we are told to ‘go with your gut.’ Morrow takes this to a whole new level.

Many people who visit our store and people that I suspect who talk to you are looking for Something, something akin to what Tozer called (in his book by this name) The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine (Wing Spread Publishers; $12.99.)  We have more books on the intellectual plausibility of the gospels and stuff on apologetics than any store we know of.  Yet, it is not common to come across open minded skeptics who need such resources.  Rather, folks hunger for and experience of God. They are yearning.


And so, as if you didn’t know it, I say again that this stuff about spirituality and knowing the classic devotional literature is so, so important.  There is goofy mystical literature out there and some that are less than Biblical and there are books solid as steel, theologically speaking. But some of that is off putting, dry or harsh. But, of course, we can have both. Lots of books are mysterious and mature, creative and classic, interesting and orthodox, beautiful and Biblical. (Come on, somebody stop me.  You get the point — haha.)

Those of us who care about these kinds of conversations about our yearnings, and helping others with theirs, and who want to use books wisely will realize that there are a whole lot of varying styles and tones and approaches that work well for this person or that, depending on her or his interests, temperament, needs at the moment.  All kinds of books can be tools to help folk take one step at a time, closer to the Light.  I’m really not that fastidious, but I do hope that we ground ourselves in the deep gospel, that we take on the ways of Christ, the Kingdom-bringer promised in the Hebrew Scriptures, the incarnate human one who is the second person of the Holy Trinity, that we are guided by the Holy Spirit in Biblically-shaped ways.  

And I want to share some books that will help you on that very thing.

As we deepen our own worship of the Triune God of the Universe, we can effectively helptiny book.jpgwanna read a canadian.jpg others, sharing  our favorite authors in fruitful and gracious, life-giving ways. Used with discernment, any number of kinds of books can work. We love helping people discover different kinds of resources that are “just right” so give us a call if we can help you start conversations with good books.

If that means using Joyce Rupp’s liberal Catholic, poetic, image-rich, tender-hearted, evocative (feminist) spirituality or if it means slowing wading through amazing and often remarkably relevant Puritans like John Owen, Richard Baxter or Jonathan Edwards, or if it means studying together a contemporary, contemplative evangelical like Ruth Haley Barton or David Benner or Richard Foster  — tolle legge.  Start big or small, but start reading about spirituality!   Share books, read them prayerfully, start a lectio reading group, pray and talk and care and love. Worship daily by using prayer books and journals and be a part of a real church.  There are so many resources on starting a lifestyle of spiritual practices and while there are some weird things it may be wise for some to avoid, I think reading widely in this every-expanding field of spirituality is not just healthy, but essential.


Fordering your private w.jpgor instance, for real beginners, we often suggest a lovely book on setting priorities by Gordon MacDonald Ordering Your Private World (Nelson; $15.99) There is a great chapter in there called “The Sadness of a Book Never Read” which reminds us that to grow in life, one does need to read and study and learn to be reflective.  The book isn’t exactly about prayer or spirituality, but on attending to one’s “under the waterline” stuff. I guess one could say it is about discipline and priorities and being self-aware.  Any of his fantastic books would be good to start with, by the way.

For those who think of spiritual disciplines as being mostly about prayer, there is much more to learn. But learning to pray is certainly basic, and we often tell people to start their prayer life with Too Busy Not to Pray by Bill Hybels (IVP; $16.00) which is truly a fabulous starter book, enjoyable and inspiring, or Prayer by O. Hallesby (Augsburg; $11.99) which is also a magnificent and very thorough overview of clear instruction.  It might be a bit more heady, but the excellent Catholic priest, Ronald Rolheiser, has a very short (65 pages) new one coming the end of August (2013) simply called Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Franciscan Media; $8.99) and I am looking forward to it.  Write to us if you want a longer list of books about prayer. I mentioned his classic The Holy Longing in my previous post, and it is a masterpiece. 

Tpraying life miller.jpghkneeling with.jpge two most popular books we’ve sold in the last few years about prayer are a bit deeper, but still quite accessible.  First, we must commend the very popular A Praying Life: Connecting With God in a Distracted World by Paul Miller (NavPress; $14.99.) It is gospel-centered, full of anecdotes and Biblical exposition and is very, very popular these days. Another amazingly rich, insightful, and impeccable book is Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers by Gary Neal Hansen (IVP; $15.00) which draws deeply on the very best of a wide posse of oldsters, from Calvin to Luther to St. Teresa of Avila.  You can learn from how to write prayers (by drawing on the Puritans) and how to pray for healing (drawing on Agnes Sanford) and how to use the Jesus Prayer by drawing upon the anonymous Pilgrim. I have to say I am very, very fond of it, and intend to spend more quiet time learning from its historic riches. Gary is obviously ecumenically minded, but studied at Princeton and now teaches at a Presbyterian (USA) seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.

Flife you always w.jpgor those wanting to start a more focused and multi-dimensional spiritual life, after getting some of the above under one’s belt we often recommend starting with The Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg (Zondervan; $18.99) or the sequel, God Is Closer Than You Think (Zondervan; $18.99.)  Ortberg is conversational and upbeat, uses clear illustrations and is a fabulous guide and friend for entering this new world of deeper spirituality. (There are DVD curricula for each of these to and I can’t say enough good about them.  Very well done!  Shoot us an email or call if you want more info.)

We always suggest Ruth Haley Barton’s fabulous titles. You may know how much we esteem her, and how proud we were to have her here in our community. Her books are among my favorites, and you should at least have Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (both IVP; $18.00 and $17.00) although her others (one specifically for women, one on the spirituality of leadership and one on communal discernment practices for church ministry leadership teams.) By the way, there is a very nice DVD study version of Sacred Rhythms, too that we love to suggest.  Call us!

soul feast.jpgoul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life Marjorie Thompson (WJK) $15.00 This is also quite nice, mature and thoughtful but still approachable for beginners. Many, many have found it very useful. She is a Presbyterian (USA) specialist in this field, and we take her book everywhere we go! 

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney (NavPress) $15.99 We really like this as it is theologically clear, mature, with a heavy emphasis on Biblical truth as shaped by this wise Reformed leader.  It may be a tad tedious for some, but I think it is pretty accessible, and helpful for those who don’t trust medieval Catholic writers.  And important for those that do.  There is a fine forward by J.I. Packer where he suggests reading the book three times over!  He thinks it is that good, and that transforming.

Ssacred pathways.jpgacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul’s Path to God Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99  I am a huge, huge fan of anything Gary Thomas writes, and he is on my short list of those who I’d read anything he does.  His guide to the ancient classics will be listed below, but this one is so foundational, so helpful in a very basic way, that we often suggest it to those who feel a bit unsure of the next steps they should take as they deepen their “heart and mind.” In a nutshell, Thomas wisely shows how we are all “wired” differently, and that we tend to resonate with different sorts or style of spiritual communion.  Love the out of doors? Like to sing? Are you rather intellectual and like to plumb the harder Scriptures or are you emotive, drawn to the Psalms? Does the very idea sitting still make you break out in sweat? Are you an introvert?  You get the idea — and it is helpful to be self-aware and then apply that to the ways in which you are most likely to nurture your inner journey.  There is a self-inventory inside as well.  I love the playful quote on the back “Thou shalt not covet they neighbors spiritual walk.”

Wwriting in the margins.jpgriting in the Margins: Connecting with God on the Pages of Your Bible Lisa Nichols Hickman (Abingdon) $16.99  I will tell you much more about this brand new book later (to which I wrote the foreword, the first time I ever had the privilege of doing that.) This is a splendidly interesting book, wonderfully designed, about knowing God by way of marking up one’s own Bible.  It is not quite about the quiet process of lectio divino where one meditates over and over on a text.  And it is more than inductive study.  She shows how to draw on the spiritual discipline of using our imaginations to pay attention to the Bible and its connection with our lives.  As Minister of Education at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton NJ Joyce Mackichan Walker puts it, her “instructions lead to reflection and wonderment, encouragements that draw out our true and truer selves. Lisa Nichols Hickman shows us that in discovering ourselves, we discover God.”  One theologian noted that he thought the book was going to be about how to read the Bible, but learned it was really about how to pray, concluding that “those things go hand in hand.” Exactly.

Wwonderstuck.jpgonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God  Margaret Feinberg (Worthy) $14.99  I exclaimed about this when it came out late last December.  In the post-Christmas sales and New Year lull, it may have gotten lost.  You may know Margaret’s other good books –The Organic God is now out in paperback! – and her upbeat presence at conferences and young adult gatherings makes her a bit of a rock star. She seems exceptionally comfortable talking about the role of the Holy Spirit in her life, and clearly believes in the power of God.  This may be her best book yet, a wonderfully candid story of her awakening to the goodness of God and God’s creation, explaining in colorful prose how to stand in awe.  It is certainly not “deep” or heady but it is passionate. She reminds us to be attentive, and gives wise advice about practices of rest and friendship and nurturing attitudes about gratitude and grace and mercy.  There is a chapter on prayer, a chapter on forgiveness, a chapter called “the wonder of restoration.” 

Never wanting to only inspire with beautiful writing or good stories, Ms Feinberg has a 30-day study guide in the back of Wonderstuck which she calls “Thirty Days of Wonder: A Challenge to Experience God More.”  She thanks me in it, too, but I’m just braggin’ now.  It is a delight to have acquaintances like her, to offer feedback on manuscripts as they are coming to their fullest fruition.  Buy her book – give it to somebody who wants deeper awareness of the Holy Presence, but who isn’t going to wade through the Puritans or Richard Foster.  I love Ann Voskamp’s lovely endorsement: “With eyes on the heavens and His Word in hand, Margaret Feinberg tells the wonders of God’s love in ways you’ve never known. Who in the world doesn’t need joy like this?”


Here are some other mostly deeper resources that are not inconsistent with my earlier remarks about the need for discernment about orthodoxy and maintain a theologically sane center.  Some are new, some not, indication that there are very reliable books that combine meaty, mature, evangelical theology and experiential, wondrous, contemplative practices.  These are all good to use in one’s own formation practices, and they are good to share with others who need deeper, thoughtful texts.  Taste and see.

By the way, for another Hearts & Minds list, see this BookNotes post from a few years ago that offers good stuff on spirituality.  

The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable  Steve Boyer & Chris Hall (Baker Academic) $19.99  Some of our customers found this quite useful, especially on this vexing question of how we can talk reasonably and with theological rigor about some that is essentially ineffable. I think it would be really worth having if one wants a profound rumination on the theology of mystery.  Hall has written a lot on the church fathers and the liturgical year (he is an evangelical Episcopalian) and is the Chancellor of Eastern University.  Boyer teaches theology at Eastern. 

The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality Evan Howard (Brazos) $40.00  This handsombrazos-introduction-to-christian-spirituality-21492462.jpge, over-sized hardback is truly amazing — very, very interesting.  It is remarkably fluent in a wide range of authors and traditions and so is happily very ecumenical while rooted in a broad, evangelical tradition. Brazos is very strong in this kind of serious work in the Great Tradition, and this author is perfect to compile such a fine work. It is excellent, useful and the kind of book you’ll refer to for a lifetime.

Ddictionary of christian sp.jpgictionary of Christian Spirituality general editor Glen G. Scorgie  (consulting editors Simon Chan, Gordon Smith, James D Smith (Zondervan) $39.99 I think this is a must-have for anyone serious about studying deeply, teaching, or working in this field. It is large (pushing 900 large pages), very well researched and reliable handbook/dictionary.  The contributing authors are like a “who’s who” of evangelical scholars who work in this arena. Remarkable in its breadth and scope.

Four Views on Christian Spirituality general editor Bruce Demarest (Zondervan) $18.99  This is such a helpful background for come to realize the differences of language, theology and perspectives which undergird the best spiritual practices.  A fabulous back and forth from a Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical and progressive Protestant.   Wow.

Ssatisfy your soul.jpgatisfy Your Soul: Restoring the Heart of Christian Spirituality Bruce Demarest (NavPress) $16.99  I remember how enthused we were – that is putting it mildly -when the straight-arrow evangelical publisher at NavPress announced over 20 years ago a line of books curated by Dallas Willard, inspired by Galatians 4:19.  They had a little floor display with their lovely oak tree logo, and we showed it off proudly.  Conservative Protestants were waking up to the wise beauty of Henri Nouwen, reading Richard Foster, learning about Merton, going gaga over Brennen Manning, eventually reading Kathleen Norris and Parker Palmer.  But to see a clear-headed, Bible-based, Christ-centered guide to help us attend to the presence of God, to sense God directing us, to move us towards greater intimacy with God without goofy sentimentalism or weird mysticisms, was a great grace.  This was one of the books in that series that has endured and we think it is, as Presbyterian pastor (and former President of Eastern University) Roberta Hestenes put it, “especially helpful in its sensitivity to evangelical issues and concerns, along with practical suggestions for implementation.”  What a great guide to spiritual growth! Let’s face it: Biblically-shaped spiritual formation will be Christ-centered and Christ-like.  This is well-rooted, flourishing discipleship.  Very highly recommended.  See also his very useful one about the stages of spiritual development called Seasons of the Soul (IVP; $16.00.)

Ccatching fire.jpgatching Fire Becoming Flame: A Guide for Spiritual Transformation Albert Haase, OFM (Paraclete Press) $16.99  I have read several other good books by Al Haase, and he is a fine man, a great writer, a very good teacher.  He has written on small Catholic publishers (he is a Franciscan, after all) and also on InterVarsity Press.  This new one is pretty explicitly Catholic, but so conversational, so interesting, with so many good stories of folks growing in deeper faith, that I am confident that it is fine for nearly anyone.  Dr. James Wilhoit, of Wheaton College, agrees, saying, “This is a thoroughly ecumenical book in the best sense. One never loses sight of Fr. Albert’s Catholic perspective, but readers from all Christian traditions will find help to grow in their love of God.”  Visit his website at www.AlbertOFM and see what you think.  We are eager to sell this, to invite folks to use it, to see revival fire discussed, studied, and experienced, in reasonable, down-to-Earth ways.   Very nicely done.

Hhow to pray the dominican way.jpgow To Pray the Dominican Way: Ten Postures, Prayers & Practices That Lead Us To God  Angelo Stagnaro (Paraclete Press) $16.99  Well, this may not be for everyone.  It is a very, very handsome book – even a lovely embossed stamp on the cover – but there is no disguising the fact that this is not just Roman, but Dominican. Their founder was all about the bodily postures of prayers.  This ain’t yoga, boys and girls, but it involves the beautiful tradition explained in the historic Nine Ways to Pray by St. Dominic which includes body positions such as being prostrate. A dear family friend just became a novice Dominican, so I can say I know one person who does this.  He liked that we had this lovely book. Check it out.

Pprayer foster.jpgrayer: Finding the Hearts True Home  Richard Foster (HarperOne) $24.95  It should almost go without saying that we are all greatly indebted to Richard Foster and his classic —  and I don’t use the term loosely, it is surely in the top ten most important religious books of the 20th century, in part for the huge shift that it caused towards contemplative spirituality, sparking a renaissance of such literature — Celebration of Discipline (HarperOne; $25.99) I trust you know that we are fans of Richard and that we carry all the books he has written.  His Renovare ministry is certainly worth following, and if you are drawn to that sort of thing, know we have whatever resources you may need. I list Prayer, though, as I believe it is vastly under-appreciated. There are more than 15 different sorts of praying he so eloquently describes, and some include thing you don’t often find in traditional books about prayer.  He talks about lament, about sorrow, about protest.  Of course praise and adoration, confession and intercession, and he is wise in all of these kinds.  I highly recommend this, perhaps to read before wading into the depths of Celebration of Discipline. It isn’t simple or quick, but it is one of the most helpful, illuminating and important books I’ve ever read.

Yours is the Day, Lord, Yours is the Nighyours is the day lord.jpgt Jeanie  & David Gushee (Nelson) $15.99  I wanted to list at least one or two traditional prayer books, for obvious reasons. This new one — a nicely bound hardback —  draws from the broad, ecumenical church, including some prayers by current authors and writers (but mostly older ones.) It has a beautifully crafted prayer for morning and evening each day.  You may know Dave Gushee, as we’ve sold his several books on Biblical studies and social ethics. It was good to be with him a few weeks ago at the ESA 40th Anniversary gathering, where he was a presenter.  Phyllis Tickle, who herself has written a famous Book of Hours and knows a bit about prayer books writes, “If there is such a thing as a ‘perfect’ prayer book, then Yours is the Day, Lord… is that book.”  Wow.  And Brian McLaren says, “This is the prayer book I have wished for since I began praying.”  

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro (Zondervan) $24.99 This very cool, textured hardback with ribbon markers came out a few years ago, now, and we are proud to have been among the first to seriously review it, commending it to anyone who would listen. People continue to discover it, many still use it, to find its prayers, Bible verses, suggested readings and songs to be remarkably, uncannily appropriate. There are great helps to assist in using it and deepening ones formation through its regular use; you should know that there is a strong emphasis on peace and justice in the prayers, woodcuts and sidebars. 

Acommon prayer pocket.jpgs you might guess, there are “saints days” for the likes of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero. You know that the authors, while helping us get used to using a daily prayer book, are confident that such disciplines will form us into the ways of Christ, which is actually pretty radical business.  But I firmly believe that it should not be seen as a specialty devotional for activists but could be used helpfully by anyone, of any background or theological persuasion.  The prayers and Biblical readings are clear and very meaningful (and frankly not as zealous about causes or issues as you might think.  It is primarily a prayer book for the scattered church, not a guide to activism.)  If you don’t use a complex daily prayer book like this, Common Prayer is a great one to use.  There is a small, pocket-sized, considerably abridged paperback, too, which is a simpler way into the habit. (Zondervan; $12.99)

Diary of Private Prayer John Ballie (MacMillan) $9.99  This is a small prayer bookdiary of private prayer.jpg, pocket-sized and, although paperback, still quite nice to hold.  More importantly, the prayers offered by this beloved Scottish pastor are wise and good, classic, eloquent, and bold about Christ’s Kingship and grace in the world. I have used it with others on retreats more than once and the day’s morning or evening prayer was precisely on the theme of the retreat!  God has used this in beautiful ways over the years (it first came out in the States in 1949) and it is a joy to remind you of it here.

Lletters by a modern mystic.jpgetters by a Modern Mystic Frank C. Laubach (Purposeful Design) $10.95  If you know literacy work, you know Laubach’s name.  If you’ve read Richard Foster, you know his enthusiasm for this little volume, originally published in 1937. As in the original, this newer paraphrased version includes his famous A Game with Minutes, which was Laubach’s attempt to live out the principles of Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Andrew. 

The internationally-known Laubach wrote these letters to his father, trying to explain Christ-centered spirituality . This pocket-sized hardback is the best version you will find of the letters and the “game.” There is a very nice forward by Dallas Willard, commending the constant faith of Laubach and his wise methods of routinely filling one’s mind with the vision of God’s Kingdom.  This ought to be more popular than it is as it is renowned.

Ggod in my everything.jpgod in My Everything: How An Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God Ken Shigematsu (Zondervan) $16.99  I would take much longer than I have here to explain the wonders of this amazing new book, but I am convinced it is a very important work, wonderfully written, offering good, rich, insight, practical but grounded in excellent insight. Drawing from the spiritual practices of the far East and more conventional evangelical faith, this author offers a large picture of the spiritual life, showing how God’s presence can be more notably felt in our day to day lives as we learn rhythms of rest and celebration. 

Here is part of his story, which is fascinating: he was an overworked business executive for Sony in Tokyo, studied theology in Canada where he became an overworked pastor, and then made a pilgrimage to Ireland where he learned of Celtic and monastic spirituality.  Of course some of that ancient wisdom resonated with the traditional wisdom of his native land. Shigematsu shows here how to develop your own “Rule of Life” that is (as John Ortberg puts it on the back) a way beyond “mechanical formulas on the one hand and vague abstractions on the other.”  Lovely, practical, with lots of resources for journaling and reflecting and stories of those who have been shifting their rhythms and more intentional about experiencing grace and the goodness of God’s presence.

The Rest of Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective  Ben Wrest of life.jpgitherington III (Eerdmans) $18.00  I hope you know that this great United Methodist New Testament scholar has done a set of small book on how the central Biblical theme of the Kingdom of God shapes and colors how we think about stuff.  He has one on worship, one on work, one on money. He gets endorsements by the likes of Regent College’s brilliant work-world theologian R. Paul Stevens.  Work: A Kingdom Perspective has been used by the likes of the Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation, and Culture.  Here, he brings together short reflections on the “other stuff” of daily life.  Less public, more personal, here we learn to practice the presence of God by thinking well about the uniqueness of living well, for God and others, as we shop and buy and eat and play and rest.  This is not sentimental or light-weight, but it isn’t obtuse academic work, either.  Friends, this is more important than you may know, more urgent than many realize, and such a good, good gift, rare and good and true.  I realize it isn’t about the typical spiritual disciplines, but its vision is so close to the heart of seeing God in all things, I wanted to list it here. Send us a note, by the way, if you want a list of our favorite books on sabbath-keeping.  There are a lot!

Aancient paths.jpgncient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way David Robenson (Paraclete) $16.95 There is a huge interest these days in monastic customs and the spirituality that emerges from those settings.  Most popular, it seems, are books by and about Benedict. Benedictine spirituality affirms the daily and celebrates human work of all sorts — in the world, quite generally, but also, literally, in the Earth.  High-tech culture-makers and backyard gardeners are all finding new ways to deepen their faith and spiritual experiences by hearing well the insights from this historic tradition.  I myself have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the monastic way, and, for me, Benedictine faith makes most sense.  Which is a long way of saying that I think this is the best book on the subject, a fine and wonderful introduction to this stream of monastic spirituality.  I learned so much about the history of the order, and its good applications in the world of ordinary living. It is written by a Presbyterian pastor, too.  Ha.  Perfect!

Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathanformed for the glory of G.jpg Edwards Kyle Strobel (Crossway) $16.00  This is an amazing book in many ways and while it will surely appeal to conservative Reformed folks — it is about Edwards, after all, and about our reason for being coram deo — I want to suggest that it is one others should read as well. I am very aware that many are turned off to Edwards (that is a conversation for another day, but certainly all agree he is one of the most brilliant scholarly minds in American history and an eloquent and elegant theologian.) So, realizing that it may be a harder sell, as they say, at least to some, I want to offer that this is a great way to open up a new avenue or sort of learniong for some of our readers. I think you should become more familiar with Edwards and his intimate, Godly piety! Many Protestants are now quite happy to read Catholics (thanks be!) But yet, some who are not Reformed or not drawn to Puritan thinking simply will not give this tradition its due.  Strobel himself is young and profoundly aware of the hungers of the postmodern generation, and he is well-grounded in a scholarly study of church history and various sorts of thinkers who taught contemplation and meditation. In fact, he explores exactly some of this sort of mystery in this very volume.  There are other books that are more general about the great Puritan but this may be the best thing out on his spirituality, and how and why we should care about formation. 

Listen to Gerald Sittser, author of the moving book on grief, A Grace Disguised,

His attention to Edwards’s theology of glory and beauty and love informs and shapes his exploration of Edwards’s spiritual practices, which in both cases orient us toward God. This book did more than teach me; it awakened longing for God. It introduces Jonathan Edwards as the luminous, pastoral, passionate and deeply Christian man that he was. I heartily commend it to you.

LLiving-Into-the-Life-of-Jesus.jpgiving into the Life of Jesus: The Formation of Christian Character Klaus Issler (IVP) $16.00  With rave endorsements from the likes of Dallas Willard, you’ll realize this is thoughtful, mature, but aimed at practical Christian growth.  J.P. Moreland says, “Its uniqueness likes in two directions: its central focus on Jesus and the Gospels, and its seminal chapter on finances and the spiritual life.” The late Calvin Miller endorsed it, the counselor John Townsend writes of Issler’s “scholarship and warmth.” If you want to deepen your discipline so that you put yourself in spaces to be open to being formed into the ways of Jesus, if you long for greater Christ-likeness, this could be a God-send.  Literally.  The chapter on five formation gaps and what to do about them is worth the price of the book, too.  Perhaps you know his profound work, Wasting Time with God: A Christian Spirituality of Friendship with God (IVP; $20.00.) That also was well reviewed by serious readers in this field.

Mmeditation and communion with G.jpgeditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction John Jefferson Davis (IVP Academic) $20.00 Davis is quite Reformed and has widely in the past written about conservative social ethics.  Not your typical profile of a touchy-feely inner life guy.  Yet, I saw this coming.  His last book was Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP; $22.00) which was heady and hefty, but whispered over and over the need to worship the real God who is really there. This hunger for truth and experience, facts and feelings, worshiping “in spirit and truth” just seemed to me as if he was becoming more contemplative. And, wow, is this book ever.

Meditation and Communion… is a serious critique of our lack of attention, and our lack of attention to the Bible in our spiritual formation. It shares the sorts of concerns that I voiced above. After mind-stretching studies of epistemology, symbolic hermeneutics, and the malaise of the state of the modern church, Davis ends up offering wonderful guidance for serious practices of the disciplines.  He offers some exercises, further tools to deeper our meditation, all using the Bible in profound ways.

Sung Wook Chung of Denver Seminary says “Davis is one of the best and most important evangelical theologians alive in North America.”  Asbury Theological Seminary prof Timothy Tennent says “if his challenges are taken seriously, we will never again read Scripture without an increasing sense of the risen Christ in our midst.” This is a very important resource.

Tgod of intimacy and action.jpghe God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism and Justice Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling (Jossey-Bass) $14.95  This book is not heady or difficult, but it is on a challenging subject, and it does a very thorough job.  It is about the curious and complex relationship between contemplation and action, about, well, prayerful piety and public mission.

Others have written profoundly about this — it was a major concern of Thomas Merton and is the theme of the outstanding and provocative exploration The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring by Parker Palmer (Jossey-Bass; $16.95.) But this one by Tony and Ms Darling is a real favorite, and I can’t recommend it enough. Campolo, as you surely know, is an outspoken advocate of social justice, is a world-wide gat fly not only around causes of creation-care and business ethics and peace-making, but he has started numerous schools and orphanages in his beloved Haiti. So he’s a doer, a mover and shaker, an evangelist and tireless public speaker.  But he also preaches about “quietude.”  About listening to Jesus, about mystical communion. His co-author teaches contemplative spirituality at Spring Arbor College, as a master of the spiritual disciplines, and is known as a spiritual director.  Together, they’ve done this incredible book showing how our inner lives and outward callings are profoundly related, and how the two general callings, prayer and action, can be combined. (And, further, it shows that social action and justice work must also include appropriate evangelism and proclamation.)  As Ruth Haley Barton writes of it, “This very important work brings integration to the false dichotomy that promotes an artificial disconnection between Christian mysticism and Christian outreach.”  I love this upbeat, inspiring book and the wholistic gospel it invites us to experience and share. I highly recommend it.   

MMissional-Spirituality.jpgissional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out Roger Helland & Leonard Hjalmarson (IVP) $16.00 This is a major contribution, an amazing and substantive study of the relationship of spiritual formation and missional ministry. Whether one is interested in the missional church conversation or convicted about whole-life discipleship that sees all of life as a daily opportunity for Kingdom witness, this study of spiritual formation is one of the few that knowingly seeks to equip readers to be more missional. Listen to what Michael Frost,  author with Alan Hirsch, of The Shaping of Things to Come and Re:Jesus and so many other seminal missional books says:

I found myself saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ as I read Missional Spirituality. So many books on spirituality are focused on self-improvement and private pietistic devotion, and they often leave me cold and uninspired. Roger Helland and Len Hjalmarson helpfully reconnect spirituality and mission, believing all truly Christian spiritual formation to be for the sake of the world. They take Jesus as their supreme example, the one who claimed that he was nourished by doing his Father’s will and work. This book is a triumph.

DDynamics-Spiritual-Life.jpgynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal  Richard Lovelace (IVP Academic) $30.00 All right.  Here’s to a classic, an under-appreciated and amazingly rich book that is one of the more important works of my own lifetime.  This came out in the late 70s on the tail of the counter culture and the Jesus movement and the rise of both the evangelical left and the charismatic renewal, seeking to provide a much-needed, solid theological foundation for church and para-church in the throes of change and transformation. How many books do you know that have endured a generation and in a new cover design, includes blurbs from a Catholic (Mark Link) a mainline leader (Martin Marty) and a radical Wesleyan (Howard Snyder.) Lovelace was passionate and eccentric and a vital interpreter of the great awakenings of American history.  Do you wish for live orthodoxy, realizing the need for a more comprehensive vision of renewal in our time?  I am not alone to insist that Dynamics… is an essential book to add to your collection of must-read religious books of the last 50 years. 


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The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship (Richard Mouw) and a Long Kuyperian Essay. And a FREE BOOK by Kuyper, for those who read on…

I know many who signed up to have BookNotes delivered into your inbox may not relish a long and long-winded essay on my opinions about my life and times and the problems with North American Christianity and the foibles of different camps within Reformed theology.  Spin it as “our story” as we may, you might want to skip ahead to the Richard Mouw review at the end.  We do cite a lot of books along the way in this lengthy essay, but I understand that you may not have signed up for this.

We are posting this under the “columns” section over at the website, not as a ordinary BookNotes blog.  I’ll do a shorter BookNotes review soon. 

For now, consider this something like a free e-book.  Ha-ha.

I do hope you saw the last post where I described a great new book, Shaping a Digitalshaping a digital world.jpg World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP Academic; $18.00) by Derek Schuurman, a work that beautifully illustrates how an author can think distinctively as a Christian in both appreciating and critiquing the values, ethos, and practices embedded in a particular side of life or academic discipline. Such discernment can give us a truly insightful, faithful and fruitful way of bringing our faith to bear on the topic, and how we do or don’t relate to that particular sphere of life. In this case, the topic at hand is technology, and, particularly, computer science; I said that Schuurman’s new release is the best Christian book on the subject.
I went to great lengths — sorry! — to show that part of the genius of this book was how the author so clearly and pleasantly draws upon the tradition of those thinkers who call themselves neo-Calvinists.  That is, they are re-appropriating for (so-called) “secular” subjects the Reformed theology of John Calvin, particularly standing on the shoulders of Dutch theologian, public intellectual and social activist, Abraham Kuyper.  Dr. Kuyper, as you surely know if you’ve been reading these posts, started the first Protestant University that was not run by church or state (The Free University of Amsterdam, often now cited in its Dutch spelling, The Vrije and just shorted to the VU)) and at its inauguration, he insisted that we study, through the lens of the story of Scripture, “every square inch” of the world, since Christ is redeeming it all.

You may not know the first part of that famous quote where Christ says of every square inch “Min!” which reads like this: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest…”   Our discipleship is connected to everything, nothing is “seal off.”  This is great news for those who want to, as Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner in Chariots of Fire put it, “feel God’s pleasure” when doing what he is doing.

Indeed, a recent re-issue of some of Kuyper’s early 20th century essays shows how God’s common grace helps us understand both the the arts and the sciences; it is called Wisdom &wisdom & wonder_front.jpg Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Christian’s Library Press; $14.99) and we’ve offered it at 20% off that regular price at earlier BookNotes columns.  It isn’t light reading although these were columns that had been published in the daily newspaper in those years.

I guess this is true of most Christian faith traditions, but clearly more some than others. The Reformed tradition emphasizes learning.  Using our minds.  Reading books.

My United Methodist background, too, might have helped here — nobody told me growing up in my home EUB church, but I eventually learned that Wesley’s method was one of reading classic books in small groups.  To redeem the time Wesley put book shelves in his carriage. (Do you use audio books on CD or on your smart phone, “reading” while you drive?  You’re a good Methodist!)
It is good to again express my gratitude to those who helped me gain a passion for books, for Christian book-selling as we understand it, and for our hope that reading widely can help equip people to more meaningfully serve God in their daily lives, including their professional and public lives.  To really understand Hearts & Minds, you have to appreciate something of the revolution it was to learn about the intregal relationship between the Bible and life, between thought and action, between faith and culture.
In that recent post about the new Schuurman IVP book on computer technology I argued, following historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, that Schuurman’s “creation regained” Christian worldview tradition, often called Kuyperian, has also influenced almost all of the very best recent Christian books on most academic disciplines — from art to science, business to education, engineering to pop culture studies, from gender studies to historiography, from linguistics to medicine.
Whatever the case, I do know that this neo-Calvinist tradition about uniquely Christian cultural engagement and the call to the vocation of Christian scholarship influenced Beth and I in significant ways back in the 1970s.  She was raised Lutheran, I was raised United Methodist, we have Brethren relatives and I eventually worked for a Presbyterian (USA) church in those years, so this Dutch Reformed tradition talking about the Christian mind was new to us; for a handful of friends and co-workers, it was exciting and illuminating.  Many of our heroes in that era were influence by Kuyper: from Francis and Edith Schaeffer to South African black liberation theologian Alan Boesak to contemplative writer Don Postema to Canadian friends at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies, We read philosopher Nicholas Woltersdorff, met Dutch Parliament member, economist Bob Goudzewaard, and read everything I could of publisher and Christian intellectual James Sire. We were meeting amazing folks, reading and learning a lot.
Eventually, we were hard at work promoting some of this wholisitc “transforming vision” perspective by bringing in friends like Al Wolters and Calvin Seerveld to the Pittsburgh Jubilee conference, which we helped organize through the campus ministry organization CCO that had some of these same influences.  (If you are anywhere in the greater Mid-Atlantic, and near a college campus, your church should partner with the CCO to reach students via your congregation.) Perhaps it was there where we saw the fruits — with thousands of college students being equipped to be agents of God’s work in their respective college departments and eventual careers — of this neo-Calvinist vision, how to move from “worldview to way of life” as we used to say, and how “ideas grow legs.”

We saw authors and books being used to change people’s lives and we saw changed lives impacting relationships, neighborhoods, institutions.  Some friends start inner city health clinics, creative alternative schools, high quality home painting businesses, an innovative, experimental Christian jazz band!  People grappled with the ideas of Kuyper’s worldview, books were changing lives and vocations and callings were being evoked. Years later, when Beth and I got the gig of being Jubilee booksellers (a role we still enjoy each year) I would sometimes shout out the phrase “Read for the Kingdom!”  Students got it.

‘s Kingdom comes through God’s own grace, but we have work to do.  And to do it effectively we can’t just go touting at windmills — conservative evangelicals and liberal social activists all, too often, are big on passion and good intentions, but haven’t done the social analysis and foundational thinking about what really needs to be transformed if we are going to make lasting change.  Books are tools.  Forgive the militarist image, but Al Wolters used to talk about those doing intelligence behind the scenes in times of war.  Somebody has to be doing the strategic-level, deep thinking, quiet, slow, behind the scenes.  We have come to believe that bookstores are vital in equipping folks to that background work.

(An aside: sometimes I hear people askew my spiel about learning theology and Christina philosophy and thinking deeply about all areas of life.  They think that all this worldview talk is irrelevant.  Doesn’t matter much.  Aha, I say: this just proves my point.  Few people in the history of the Western world, at least, would say this, except for modern North Americans, who are taken with the home-grown philosphy of John Dewey, the philosophy of pragmatism. We are a get ‘er done society, and we want to roll up our sleeves and quite yappin’.  But  that is an idea — that we only learn what is right and true by action, not by theorizing — that is itself a theory that some philosopher invented, proclaimed, and which took hold and became popularized.  If you mock the ivory tower and egg heads, well, I just want to say “gotcha.”  That is an egg head philosophy that you’ve just adopted.  Ideas and books and deep reflection really do matter and saying they don’t just illustrates the point.)

So, we were learning this worldviewish, culturally engaged, semi-scholarly stuff as a key not only to healthy and lasting social action, but as the content of the most faithful sort of wholistic evangelism.  We invite folks to get in on this good stuff God is doing, recruiting folks to God’s agenda in the world.  We we missional, before that phrase became au courant.

Yep, all this stuff really was the fertile ground from which our bookstore grew.  That I worked for a bit at Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center added some ecumenical flavor, and our involvement with radical protest movements (kudos to Phil Berrigan and his comrades in no-arms) kept us on our toes.

Our story is fairly colorful, our mentors diverse. It seems that our most notable influences, though, were located on the margins of the better-known Protestant traditions, the mainstream evangelical or the mainline denominations. We are evangelicals and we are committed to mainline churches, but neither faith tradition really have been captured by (and at times seem at odds with) the all-of-life redeemed influences we learned from neo-Calvinists in the line of Abraham Kuyper. Perhaps it makes sense that we learned much of this creation-regained world and life perspective from children of immigrants (mostly Dutch Canadians who immigrated with their Kuyperian dreams and vision after World War II.)  Some of those immigrants are now elder professors at places like Dordt College and Calvin College, at Hope College, at ICS in Toronto, Redeemer College in Ancaster, Ontario, and Trinity Christian at Palos Heights, IL, to name a few.  Some of their disciples took up positions at Geneva College in Western PA and other good colleges from Gordon to Montreat.

I say all of this yet again, because this is our story.  It is a story that those who appreciate Hearts & Minds and want to support us should know.  Maybe it helps you reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of your own religious influences and your faith journey.

The post before the last one, the one where I highlighted four new Kuyper books — offered a bit of our story and explained why we carry books (even whole categories of books) that aren’t found in most Christian bookstores.  Mom and pop evangelical bookstores don’t carry much on media or science or urban studies or engineering or global justice issues; traditional Catholic shops don’t have much about relating faith and careers, either,  except maybe devotional literature to practice God’s presence in the work-world or the (often helpful, if general) studies of Catholic social teaching applied to contemporary issues.  Seminary bookstores have academic theology and some scholarly cultural theory, but, again, not ordinary books for the ordinary people of God to think faithfully, with discernment, about how to live as light and leaven in the workaday world.  My sense is that most theological schools don’t care about those not in the guild, so many clergy are schooled in pastoral approaches that are a far cry from discipling the flocks into vocations of cultural engagement.
To underscore the sad fruit of this, see How the Church Fails Businesspeople by John Knapp (Eerdmans; $15.00) which really helps expose (and offers helpful antidotes to) the churches weakness about serving those who work in corporate cultures.  Or recall how pastor Tom Nelson found his church so very responsive when he (finally) started talking about these things  — a story he tells quite well in Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway; $15.99.)

As friends at The High Calling blogs are finding, there are thousands of ordinary Christian people who long to live out their faith in significant ways, but who must learn to do that in the realm of the office cubicle or shop floor or sales meeting or design studio.  Take a look at — and sign up to stay in touch with — the fantastic website called (re)integrate for a great resources along these lines. If ordinary congregations don’t talk about this stuff much, para-church organizations will find folks pouring out their hearts, and regaining fresh energy for work-world mission. As long as churches presume some sacred vs secular dualism they will never really learn to equip ordinary people for ordinary life.

By the way, in an otherwise helpful book just recently published by a well-known press thoroughly committed to and situated among mainline denominations, authored by a Presbyterian minister, we read that work was created as cursed.  Although this author eventually draws well upon Calvin, and Puritans like Baxter who passionately promoted solid thinking about vocations in the work-world, this exegetical nonsense slipped by editors there. Apparently this prominent scholar about the effects of work in our culture and pastor hadn’t read Kuyper (or any contemporary evangelical commentary on Genesis 1 or 2 for that matter) on the “cultural mandate” that insists that work is part of the “original blessing” that preceded the fall into sin. So it goes.

Or, consider how the documented research in David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church (Baker; $17.99) indicates that a sizable number of young churched kids leave church, and maybe even Christian faith, because they seemed to think that their congregations don’t care much about the arts, or about science, or about their passions and careers and work. I’ve long suggested that the symbolism (at least) of giving gifts to high school grads that intentionally help them relate faith and their calling as students (if they are going to college) is very, very important. But most churches — evangelical and mainline alike — usually fail at this, not making much of an effort to help students be Christian students, and our collegiates lose interest in church as soon as the autumn leaves begin to change on the college quad.  Why pastors and church leaders don’t get this, I believ
e — and this is just one case study — may go back to the way in which seminary education is done, abstracted from the all-of-life redeemed vision of a robust Christian worldview, which, for whatever reason, they seem not to learn in their preparation for ministry. We have a churchy, constricted view of faith and call for precious little “cost of discipleship” when it comes to learning, reading, taking up one’s calling, or exploring vocations in the world with theological distinction.) 

Anyway, Kinnaman’s book, and others like it, note that the in the very years in which studentsmake-college-count-a-faithful-guide-to-life-and-learning.jpg are making big, big choices — about identity, calling, vocation, truth, values, relationships and more — we often reduce faith to a less than robust, full-orbed worldview, It’s no wonder a lot of young adults don’t find it worth maintaining any serious connection to the church or faith of their youth. It will come as no surprise to you that we suggest Make College Count: A Faithful Guide for Life and Learning by our friend Derek Melleby (Baker; $12.99) as a key resourceOutrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness.jpg for those younger students heading off to college for the first time.  Derek co-authored with Geneva College sociologist Donald Opitz a tremendously upbeat and fun and relevant study for older students, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students (Brazos; $13.99)  No other book for students gets at these things the way these do — is it any surprise they were influenced by this whole “all of life redeemed” integrated vision learned by Kuyper’s “every square inch” movement?

I’ve told you before that the part of our website (dreadfully in need of updating) called “books by vocation” is highlighted in a new booklet for college students, Your Mind’s Mission by Greg Jao (IVP; $4.00.) Again, there is nothing quite likeyour minds mission.jpg it, a powerhouse of a booklet, interesting, informative, inspiring, and also quite thoughtful, designed to help students take up the call to “think Christianly” and use their minds to advance God’s mission in the world. For the size and prize, it just can’t be beat.  Jao draws on many of these same sources that we regularly highlight here.  If you — or your children — are involved in a campus ministry fellowship group on campus and they don’t talk about these kinds of things, and aren’t familiar with these sorts of resources, I guess I wouldn’t shout “ministry malpractice” quite yet.  But do know that you may need to share this stuff with them, helping them get this perspective onto their radar screen.  Could you imagine a sports ministry that doesn’t relate faith and sports, or a fellowship group among artists, say, which doesn’t talk about art, or a missionary to, oh, say, Sweden, who doesn’t care about the things the Swiss do?  But college ministries abound that fail to help students think Christianly about their calling and careers and their life in the classroom at college. Dumb.  That’s just dumb.  I hope you give your student’s going off to college some good resources to help them navigate the journey with this kind of relevance and integrity.  


So, given this privatized and abstracted faith that is disconnected in fundamental ways to the spheres of career and public life and which therefore fails to call very strongly for integrated Christian perspectives in all areas of life, there isn’t as big of a demand for books about life and learning and work and social action as there ought to be. The feeble vision of what passes for ministry in many places not only steals God’s glory and fails God’s world, but, quite frankly, it hinders us from making a living doing what we do.

reading- good missiology.jpgFor those with a dualistic view, why would a health care provider want to read a theological book about the human body? Why would a local savings and loan officer want to read a book about faith and economics? Why would a family counselor what to read a book about different models of using the Bible in therapy? Why would an engineer want to read up on a faith-based evaluation of technology? Why would anybody want to hold up their entertainment practices (as sports fan or movie goer, say) to the demands of a Christian framework? Why indeed. That pastors and Bible teachers don’t often talk about these kinds of things (and most Christian authors of popular Christian books don’t much either) means that ordinary Christian folk just don’t think to be curious about these kinds of books, which they may not even know exist!  Being a lawyer or doctor or school teacher having done some intentional thinking about what that means and looks like? How novel!

This is partially why we are nearly always broke, it seems, and why whole areas of our store — the shelves that hold oodles of books on creation care or aesthetics or business or engineering or teaching or medicine or law — are overlooked by folks in those very fields. Yet, we feel called to offer them, to hold up a vision of a Christian bookstore that is more than a typical bookstore, religious or otherwise.

Between the secularized and often weirdo stuff in mainstream bookstores and the narrow religious vision in most faith-based bookstores, there just isn’t much of a venue for quality books that are radically Christian but relevant and reasonable, equipping us to grapple with life, faith, vocation, culture, justice, art and the like.  We aren’t the only place to buy books, we know, but we are trying to earn your support.  We are trying to curate a selection of titles that our customers care about, that perhaps expands the definition of a “Christian bookstore.” We figure you know this — and we are so, so grateful for those of you who spread the news about us, who get your organizations buying books from us, who spread my reviews and send us orders  — but we also wanted to ruminate a bit together about our roots, our background, our motivation, our story.
?There are lots of reasons for the deficiencies of what most Christian bookstores promote, and reasons why most religious readers don’t even think to read a book about art or eating, commerce or shopping, technology or architecture. One of the obvious reasons some bookstore owners don’t promote this stuff is because, well, customers want stupid derivative tee shirts and simple inspirational fiction, and the demand, even for booksellers who may want to offer more mature and socially engaged books, just isn’t there.
I had mentioned “privatized” faith, though. Did you catch that?  Surely part of the problem is the constricted vision – some call it a “sacred/secular dualism – that privatizes faith and fails to understand that all of our bodily life is worship (despite what Romans 12:1-2 proclaims so clearly!)  We fail to live integrated lives where Sunday shapes Monday; where work is as holy as hymn-singing, where our politics and our prayers are seamless and related, where our shopping is
informed by our spirituality.  We miss the truth, as Jim Wallis puts it, that Biblicaldualism graphic.png faith is “always personal but never private.”  The dichotomy and dualism between the so-called sacred and so-called secular came from the pagan Greeks like Plato and isn’t a Biblically-faithful way of seeing life, where (as C.S. Lewis put it) “matter matters.”  Authors as diverse as Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton (The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview [IVP; $17.99]) and Nancy Pearcey (Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity [Crossway; $20.99]) or Leslie Newbegin (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society [Eerdmans; $25.00]) all get at this.  Dividing life into sacred and secular, and thinking of the human person as eternal souls trapped in temporal bodies, just isn’t how the Bible tells the story.  We have got to stop talking like that.

TSurprised by Hope-b.jpgom Wright has helped us all a lot with this, in most of his books, but especially in his popular, thought-provoking Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne; $24.99.) It wonderfully explores how our views of the afterlife are not always properly informed by Biblical and theological clarity. And there’s that Greek dualism thing.  What we think about the future does effect how we live  now, so this call to rethink heaven clearly relates to the mission of the church.

There is a fantastic video curriculum on it, too, also called “Surprised by Hope” (Zondervan; 6-part DVD and participants guide; $34.95.) I’ve lead discussions of it in my own church on two occasions, and we have been thrilled with the good conversations each time.

This great book and DVD teaches some sort of “realized eschatology” view that understands our final eternal destination not as an ethereal heaven but as a renewal of creation — a new Jerusalem!  Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, and we pray for it to be manifest “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” (“As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be” we sing in the Gloria Patri, and I think that means that Christ has conquered the offensive principalities and powers, has through his cross and resurrection reversed the curse upon creation, and now reigns as the risen Lord of the world He made and loved, and we shall, someday, inhabit a restored Paradise.  Of course it isnt’ quite right in the sense that the end plan is a city — there has been cultural development and a lot of history under the bridge of time.) This view of God’s agenda, the hope of heaven as “creation healed” helps us realize that there is no fundamental dualism between the spiritual and the material. In resurrection newness, we live ordinary life in this world, as the new creatures in Christ the Bible says we are, anticipating the glory that is to come.
That is why, by the way, that we are so keen to promote books on health and wholeness, oneat with joy.jpg food and eating, and on seemingly mundane matters like homemaking, gardening, neighborhood life, caring for pets, even sports and leisure.  The early church long ago named the super-spiritual, world-denying nature of gnosticism as a great heresy, and an inhuman threat, and we counter it by a vision which proclaims “whether you eat or drink” (or play or work) “do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31.)

1 Timothy 4:1-4 even suggests it is the work of demons to suggest otherwise.  Only occasionally do we trot that verse out when a customers implies we shouldn’t carry this book or that, shouldn’t stock that CD or DVD. But sometimes it needs to be said  — dualism and gnosticism and privatized faith and sentimental anti-intellectualism have no place in the obedient Christian life.

I sometimes rather start, however, with Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) who clearly knew pagan Greek poetry and theater.  He was conversant in the culture of which he was a part, apparently a devotee of reading widely. Heck, he was  ordering books from young Timothy on his deathbed in that Roman prison (2 Timothy 4:13).  Calvin’s commentary on that verse reminds us that we should, I can paraphrase, realize that no matter how spiritual we think we are, we should always be on the cutting edge of studying to learn new stuff.  If the aging Apostle Paul himself, who was so inspired by the Holy Spirit that he was writing the Bible (!) had to keep reading and learning, ordering books, shouldn’t we?

When I worked for the CCO in the 70s, we read books against dualism, but it was the training staff of the 90s that made “no dualism” tee shirts, showing the classic DaVinci human split asunder. How cool, and what an opportunity for conversation.  Back in college we had a poster from the AACS (The Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, which created the high level grad school, The Institute for Christian Studies) that had a big stack of then popular secular textbooks that said “we read a lot of these” underneath – “but never without this” besides it, emblazoned beneath a well-worn Bible.  It was a cool poster, inviting a study of Noam Chomsky next to and in light of Scripture, reminding us of the calling of students to “take every thought captive” and think Christianly in the classroom. I guess that poster really sunk in, as it sums up our reason for being here at Hearts & Minds. (If anybody out there has one of those posters, it sure would be cool to have it scanned and on line.  I’ve done Google image searches and can’t find it.)

Besides the “no dualism” tees and the “we read a lot of these, but never without this” poster, we had “life is religion” bumper-stickers.”  We read a magazine called Vanguard that was about faithful cultural engagement in a way that nothing else in print that I knew of did. (Relevant of course didn’t exist yet, CT was very theological and churchy (as was Christian Century on the other end of the theological spectrum), Christianity and Crisis and Post-Amercan were progressive, mostly political and economic topics.) Does anybody recall the  magazine out of Berklee called Radix? The was pretty great, too, offering Christ-centered, radical cultural analysis and a call to think about cultural renewal.   This was the end of the Jesus movement, the waning days of the 60s counter culture, and an idealistic renewed understanding of faith’s powerful impulse to engage the culture that came from Kuyperian, reformational thought. Instead of simplistic, evangelical pieties (or the liberal whining against those who hold to those pieties so popular amongst progressives) we cut our teeth on worldview thinkers and cultural critics from Kuyper to Schaeffer to Dooyeweerd; from Bernie Zylstra and Henk Hark to Calvin Seerveld, Bob Goudzewaard,  James Skillen, Nicholas Woltersdorff and Al Wolters to Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Richard Mouw, Sharon Gallagher, Roy Clouser,  Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton. And, nowadays, Andy Crouch, James K.A. Smith and N.T. Wright who help us in these exact matters, just to name a few.  These names may not mean much to you, but I have mentioned them all in other columns, and are thrilled to stock their books, books that I hope you know about.

As I said in
the last two posts, we learned of this feisty, relevant, culture-shaping vision from ministry leaders who had been shaped by the visionary legacy of Dutch theologian and public intellectual, Abraham Kuyper.  (One of my own mentors in Dutch worldview thinking was Peter J. Steen, who died in the early ’80s.) That is why I made such a big deal (or tried to) sharing that post about four new books about Kuyper.  These are an important part of our story here, and, if you are interested in what makes us tick, as they say, knowing these heady books and the movement they stand for would be helpful.
I know I said it before, but I again recommend Richard Mouw’s little paperback, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans; $16.00) wonderfully tells his own story of how he came to his place as a Kuyperian neo-Calvinist and it is a great place to start.  I liked Mouw’s story, and I value his explanation of Kuyper’s most important ideas (even as he admits that not everything Kuyper did or said was right or good or helpful today.) He really does help us see why the Dutch statesman theories can help us reform the social architecture today.
The big, new James Bratt biography on Kuyper called Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans; $30.00) is itself an amazing history lesson, teaching about Kuyper, “warts and all” and is the definitive book if one wants an excellent study of his extraordinary life and its legacy.  Perhaps a bit less daunting, for those unable to tackle the big Bratt, one might consider the Scottish book Abraham Kuyper: God’s Renaissance Man by James Edward McGoldrick (Evangelical Press; $18.99.)

If you still don’t believe me that this is good stuff, do check out this wonderful, wonderful  article recently in Christianity Today. It is very nicely done by Pennsylvania friend, Geneva College history prof, Dr. Eric Miller: “How a Dutch Neo-Calvinist Helped Birth an Intellectual Movement.”  

I know not all readers care about my Presbyterian and Reformed leanings, but this is important. If you talk at all about religious trends and demographics in recent years, you should be aware of this. Over the last few years, there have been more than a few blogs, a book or two, and even mainstream news stories about the renewal of old school Calvinism that has become popular these days. New publishing houses have been created, and new associations.  Many in the evangelical world, including many Southern Baptists, are becomingyoung, restless, reformed.jpg Calvinistic.  One good book to get a feel for this is the important Young Restless and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen (Crossway; $15.99.)  The frustrating thing is that some casual pundits (and religious writers who ought to know better) have referred to this upswing in conservative Reformed doctrine as neo-Calvinism, which it is not.  This recent religious phenomenon may be better described as a neo-Puritanism as much of the piety of young, restless newly reformed Calvinists is more Jonathan Edwards than Abraham Kuyper, more John Piper or Mark Driscoll than, oh, say, Jamie Smith or Richard Mouw. A new upswing in interest in conventional Calvinism does not equal neo-Calvinism.
New interest in old Puritanism, with its attendant fixation on fine-tuned descriptions ofhipster-calvin.jpg atonement theory, say, and the claim that Christ is sufficient for everything, is, again, not the same thing as what has long been called neo-Calvinism. This is a large distinction, and one that sloppy commentators have muddled, starting with the wildly popular “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” cover story in Time magazine a few years ago. (I saw that article cited somewhere just this week!)  The phrase neo-Calvinism has a long, storied, linage (as that Jim Bratt biography just begins to tell) and the fairly recent “Gospel Coalition” and the hip, young, conservative “newly” Reformed movement may or may not find themselves in alignment with the trajectory of full-orbed, democratic, Dutch Kuyperianism. In other words, some who have recently embraced strict Reformed doctrine may not want to live into a reformational vision of the sort I’ve described here.

For an energetic and feisty delineation between the two movements (those newly interested in Old Calvinism and the neo-Calvinism of Kuyper) I highly recommend the creative pieces by my friend Bob Robinson. He draws on names, conferences, schools, and journals that you should know if you want to be informed about the religious landscape of North American  evangelicalism.

First, read this.  At then end, he has five links, each an article comparing and constrasting the two schools  or movements. He looks at a representative historic figure, two magazines, two popular preachers, two conferences, two institutions of higher learning, and two different emerging leaders.  Wow.

For a more sober and perhaps generous evaluation of these two camps, we recommend this thoughtful piece by Ray Pennings from the Kuyperian Comment magazine.

Here is a list of the “Contours of a Missional Neo-Calvinism” by Mike Goheen and Craig Bartholomew as reported by our friend Steve Bishop in the UK. Good stuff, quick!

And in a great piece, the very influential, and gracious thinker Al Wolters, offers his suggestions about the neo-Calvinist agenda, and “what is to be done” that was part of an intriguing symposium at the neo-Cal Comment magazine.

And, while you’re at, enjoy the wonderful piece by Clay Cooke, a US evangelical who discovered the robust creational theology of neo-Calvinism, and wondered how to incorporate this culturally relevant vision with his desire for a deep devotional piety. Very nice.near-unto-god-abraham-kuyper-paperback-cover-art.jpg “Evangelicalism and Neocalvinism: Friends or Enemies?”

Cooke is right about this. Despite his towering intellect and tireless public activism and finally becoming the Prime Minister and major European statesman, Kuyper was most beloved and well known amongst the common people of his land for his daily devotional writing, such as the lovely book Near Unto God, a set of reflections on the Psalms. Get the edition adapted by James Schaap (Dordt College Press; $17.99) which Eugene Peterson called “an enduringly nurturing guide.”

explicit-gospel.pngThe Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson (Crossway; $17.99) I am not sure this book emerged from this battle of terms, and the important nuances that distinguish these two camps but it is concerned about these two ways of living into a Biblically Reformed theological vision these days. I think it is very helpful.  Chandler, who has not had affiliations with the reformational movement but is aligned more with the neo-Puritans, shows the strengths and weakness of those who have a gospel-centered vision that emphasizes the assurance of salvation, understanding the atonement, makes clear about how justification works, that helps us resist personal idols and the simple truths of grace “on the ground.” This group is quick to talk about “treasuring” the gospel (ht to John Piper) and (in contrast) those who fixate on the cultural mandate, Kingdom thinking, social renewal, and the big picture of the restoration of all creation, including the social architecture and institutions of the society.  One tends to have an approach that forms people through the lens of systematic theology while the other tends to shape people by the unfolding story of Scripture — creation/fall/redemption/restoration and the like. In some ways, this is naming the approaches of the newly Calvinistas and the Kuyperian neo-Calvinists.

This is not the same debate, by the way, as the earlier one between a merely personal gospel and the social gospel, between evangelicals and social activists, although it is similar, perhaps somewhat parallel.

(The definitive book that lays that old stupid split to rest is Ronald J. Sider’s must-read Goodgood news and good works.jpg News and Good Works: A Theology of the Whole Gospel [Baker; $20.00.] Evangelical Anabaptist that he is, he gets it so, so right, with a passionate care for peace, social reform and public justice and a very sincere heart for Christ-centered evangelism and traditional proclamation of the gospel.  With insights from Kuyperians, though, Ron insists that the both/and wholistic view of  salvation that he proposes — words and deeds —  points to a whole “creation regained” vision, which goes under the Biblical rubric of The Kingdom of God. Right on, Ron, right on!)

Matt Chandler, in The Explicit Gospel, his Crossway book about the two different styles of being gospel-centered and Reformed these days is wise, I think, in many ways, and I think his study helps all of us —  Reformed or not, Kuyperian or not — to consider deeply the basics of the faith and to learn to communicate them well. Of course, the question he is exploring is: “what is the gospel?” (Is it that your individual soul is saved by accepting Christ’s substitutionary death or is in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God which is a healing of the cosmos? Or both?) That Chandler ends up more or less “both/and” is a healthy, rather Kuyperian move, by the way, and the indication that a book like this even points to this bigger context of personal salvation is, if I may be so bold, proof of my thesis that this Kuyperian worldview/ Kingdom vision stuff is rubbing off.  I don’t think a book quite like this would have been written even ten years ago.
I am glad for the young Puritans and their hip blogs and books such as the popular Matt Chandler, David Platt, Frances Chan, Tim Challies, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, and any number of young, restless, Reformed men (and most of the authors are men.) I don’t agree with all that they write, but they are part of a renewal that is sweeping the land, and it is bearing fruit in people reading old books, digging deeper into the first things of the gospel, and has energized a new passion for church planting, missional outreach, and the development of an often healthy on-line presence.
Still, it has been Kuyperians who, starting in the late 1800s and early 20th century, construed a socially-oriented neo-Calvinism, a movement that, among other things, emphasizes common gracelectures on cal.jpg (for the common good) in a pluralistic society and yet asserts the need for a distinctively Christian mindset and approach to all areas of life, including the spheres of business, education, science, the arts, and politics.  Kuyper outlined this robust, multi-faceted, culturally-influential, wide-as-life vision of transforming culture in his 1898 Stone Lectures at Princeton, still in print as Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans; $16.00).
My take on that dense, historic work is simply this: Calvinism is too often considered to be about predestination and obsessed with theological arcana, mostly around issues of the atonement and God’s character.  (Young, restless new Calvinists seem more than willing to fight over these doctrinal matters, it seems, often acting rather ungracious about grace, reinforcing a negative stereotype about those who are passionate about this rather limited view of Calvinism and Reformed theology and the squabbles it too often generates.  It is why I so recommended the James Smith book of pastoral letters to tone this down a bit — see below!)  Kuyper, however, while still firmly committed to most teachings of the great Genevan reformer (and more than willing to fight about them, too) wondered what it would look like to press the sovereignty of God not only into matters of election, but into matters of culture, society, and the spheres of the nation. That is, he is interested in God’s reign over history – surely a theme going back at least to Augustine.  So it should come as no surprise that neo-Calvinism or Kuyperianism has born fruit of cultural organizations and distinctive scholarship (hence, that great Kuyper Center book on the arts and music that I highlighted, and the new book on computer science by Schuurman!  Did you know that Kuyperians formed an alternative Christian labor union in Canada, the CLAC, the does collective bargaining from a view of reconciliation, with an emphasis on the dignity of the worker in partnership with management? They are too socially engaged for most safe Christian folk who can’t imagine developing a uniquely Christian theory of economics and unions but they aren’t as socialistic and adversarial as most traditional secular unions.  So they are ignored by the church and often hated in the streets.  Ahh, this is radical, good stuff, the stuff that — as far as I can gather — only Kuyperians have come up with. Some serious Catholics and many Mennonites have joined their ranks, since they, too, have a faith that expresses itself in comprehensive social theories that are at odds with the militant and materialistic philosophies of most unions.)

At the very least, those inspired by this vision end up talking about vocation and calling and cultural engagement, not merely doctrine and theology. One of the differences between neo-Calvinism and more traditional, conservative Calvinism that Bob Robertson observed in the link I offered above, is the difference between, say, the reformational Jubilee conference (or maybe even the somewhat similar Q events) which emphasizes thinking and living faithfully in various career tracks and the more doctrinally-focused events popular among the stricter Reformed folks who have conferences themed around systematic theological topics. Of course, Jubilee wants to have proper doctrine, and I supp
ose the Gospel Coalition leaders want their grace-filled, gospel-centered disciples to go out into work and society as agents of some sort of social advancement, but there it is, the two different emphases and trajectories. Older school conservative Calvinists too often fixate on theology and doctrine and church polity while Kuyperian neo-Calvinists have for a century promoted the reformation of all of life, based on distinctively Christian thinking and scholarship to provide guidance in different social spheres.

So, anyway, to recap: when we talk about neo-Calvinism, this is an allusion to the reformational worldview of the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper, whose “wide as life” understanding of redemption emphasized cultural engagement and Christian thinking and has generated a variety of uniquely Christian organizations and ministries that are committed to institutional transformation..  His was an orthodox and evangelically Reformed sort of social gospel, in distinction to the narrow pietism of the conservatives (not to mention the liberal heterodoxy of most mainline expressions of faith.)
Therefore, when I say (as I often do) that we here are neither left nor right, it often means that we think that Biblical people shouldn’t tie their hopes to the societal theories or social agendas of liberal or conservative political thinkers.  But, more foundationally, it means that, as some sort of Kuyperian, I need to humbly suggest that old school evangelical truisms and old school liberal theologies are both wanting.  It might be said that one constricts the scope of the gospel while the other confuses the content of the gospel.  As one with a foot in both well-known camps – evangelicalism and mainline denominationalism – it is good to know that there is a better place to stand, and that is upon the ground tilled well by Kuyper and his neo-Calvinist movement.

We need orthodox foundations and an opened-up, forward-thinking cultural vision that is consistent with a solid, faithful regard for the authority of Scripture.  As Chandler’s book reminds us, we need to be explicit about the gospel, but we must, as Kuyper so consistently reminds us, know that the gospel is the inauguration of the Kingdom, which means that all of life is being redeemed, as Christ’s claim over His world comes, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

An important, popular writer today who took in this “reformational movement” and studied withimagining the kingdom cover.jpgdesiring-the-kingdom.jpg neo-Calvinists at Toronto’s ICS is James K.A. Smith, whose recent books are, by all accounts, must- reads. Few books have been as discussed and embraced in recent years as Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Jamie is a friend, and so we are eager to promote his stuff, but, truly, these are among our favorite recent books and although they are serious and provocative, you really, really should know them. Both of these in his “cultural liturgies” series are published by Baker Academic and sell for $22.00 (although we have promoted them often at BookNotes and still offer them for 20% off!)

To get a taste of Smith’s pastoral heart, and how he guides readers from older school, strict Calvinism to a more Kuyperian, broader Reformed tradition, I highly recommend his quite lletters to a young calvinst.jpglovely and very kind Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Baker; $14.99.) I was not kidding when I said – and I said it often, when this little book came out a few years ago — that Letters to... is very helpful, even if you are neither young nor Calvinist.

This great little book ruminates on some of the broad themes of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition and is both ecumenical in spirit and neo-Calvinist in orientation; as I sometimes put it, this book draws on authors from Piper to Kuyper, with an appreciation for both, but with an emphasis on the latter.  And, it reminds us all to be generous in our understandings of orthodoxy and broadly engaged in missional projects of social renewal as we live out our faith in the contemporary culture.  I really love that little book and can hardly think of a better, tender guide into these big conversations!

By the way, I have had more than one mainline pastor ask me about Mark Driscoll or John Piper or other conservative evangelicals of this sort, wondering about their appeal, and if they should be distressed that students from their parishes have gone off to college and come hope talking like they just invented the Protestant Reformation.  I do think this book is helpful to understand some of this, and would be good to give to any young person newly excited about Reformed faith, but with a rather narrow view of it all.

And I like that Jamie points us back to Kuyper.
Anyway, these are some of our cards, out on the table.  Add in some mystical spirituality and some social justice activism and some Anabaptist pacifism — not to mention mainline denominational stuff from all over the map and books with no Christian content whatsoever — and you’ll get a bit of the curious mix of titles you can find at Hearts & Minds. (You know that our full inventory is not on line – sorry!  We have thousands and thousands of titles, with new stuff arriving daily!)  The philosophy of our store — not exactly a typical “Christian” bookstore, but not just a general market bookstore, either —  comes from these themes and instincts based on the teachings of Kuyper.  In common grace, we realize God can speak widely through all manner of art, literature, poetry, science.  We fear no zone of life, and carry all kinds of interesting books, to be read (always) with discernment.  But, in radical discipleship, we are called to be holy, living well before God, thinking faithfully in and about all areas of life.  We are to be leaven and light, “in but not of” the world, and books (and the conversations that emerge from them) are chief tools of formation and discipleship as we are equipped to be God’s salt and light in the world in which we live.

We believe in reading widely, so we can be wildly ecumenical.  One of the reasons we enjoy (and believe it wise and important, as well) to read widely is because of this Kuyperian instinct that God is at work in the world, and that in God’s sovereign common grace has allowed good insight about things to pop up all over.  I don’t know enough about Kuyper’s own sensibilities about this, but I like to think that his convictions about God’s rule over all of life authorizes pleasant habits of reading all sorts of things.

At risk of belaboring the point (a point I may have belabored quite enough already) or of oversimplifying, allow me to ponder this just a bit more and it has been a huge hurdle for many to overcome.  Even those who don’t necessarily fret about reading widely might ponder how to talk about it, since so many do have anxieties about what is acceptable reading and viewing.
It seems to me that more conservative Christians are, in principle at least, opposed to reading widely.  They turn up their noses when they see the mainstream a
uthors in our store, and we sometimes apologize for stocking non-Christian thinkers or novelists.  I understand that desire for holiness, and am embarrassed by some of the language in some of the novels these days.  (And yet, how does one write a novel like the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex without some graphic language?)

These sort of folks may imbibe without much critical distant right-wing radio talk show guys who aren’t particularly evangelical, but, mostly, they keep their distance from mainstream CDs or novels; inconsistent with what they allow into their lives, it  seems tome, but that’s how they roll.  I think they are admirable in wanting to be discerning and careful and holy about culture.  They are weak on relevance and miss much of what the Bible itself tells us about cultural engagement, the use of our minds, and how to be engaged with the world around us.

On the other hand, there are those who turn up their nose at those who turn up their noses at the sin of our society.  The more liberal tradition sucks in Oprah and Dr. Oz and Jay Leno and, if sophisticated, the New York Times  The Atlantic Monthly and The Huffington Post.  There is – I am sure you know this by now – nothing wrong with this, except that they too often fail to display faith-based thinking, they are not Biblically-informed in their evaluation or discernment. They read widely, but often don’t make intentional efforts to “think Christianly” about the wide reading they do.  That is, they are strong on relevance and engagement, but weak on distinctive holiness.

Both of these approaches presume a dualism, each drawn to either the sacred or the secular.  One tries to be discerningly holy but is not very engaged, one is engaged but not very discerningly holy.

I have said before that the “in the world but not of it” worldview that Kuyper’s tradition taught us demands both.  Kuyper’s own age was replete with church struggles on this very topic, with folks coming down heavily on either “common grace”  or “the  antithesis.”  Kuyper himself may have emphasized one at one point or another.

Of course, we must be relevant and holy; holy and relevant. After all, true holiness in the Bible is supremely relevant (ahh, just read the prophets who rail against super-spiritual piety that fails to engage the need for justice as one example of how holiness devoid of justice is pseudo-holiness, false piety.)  True relevance, as many good authors have taught us – think ofunfash paper.jpg Tullian Tchividjan’s Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah; $14.99) – must be shaped by faith and have something transcendent to offer.  What good is it to bend over backwards to engage the world, only to have nothing unique to share once we “build the bridge” and relate relevantly to the culture around us?  So this is a call to more than balance, but to a robust sort of “in but not of” holy relevance, a relevant sort of holiness.  Richard Mouw shaped me years ago in a wonderful, now out of print book, then published by Augsburg Fortress, entitled “Called to Holy Worldliness.”  That’s it!
(This would be another huge digression, and I hope to write about this another time, but you should realize, I guess, this this quick model of two extremes that are both inadequate — world-denying evangelicals and culturally-captured mainline liberals — draws on what might be considered caricatures, gleaned from the influential book Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr (Torchbooks; $15.99), who favored the “Christ transforming culture” model of the Reformed. Like many caricatures, though, it is based on much truth, truth that I see every single day in publishing — wacky evangelical stuffbad religion.jpg that implies we dare not engage this real world without being terminally stained, or wacky liberal stuff from Westminster/John Knox, Fortress, or HarperOne, that denies core Christian teaching.  I think that the recent award winning book — even commended by The Christian CenturyBad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Russ Douthat (Free Press; $16.00 ) is important here.  In many ways, North American religion has adopted too unknowingly the ways  of the surrounding culture, and it has effected us profoundly.

But here is my relevant aside: there is a strange reversal afoot.  Some mainline  seminaries and publishers are much more orthodox than they used to be on things that matter most.  And some evangelicals are hardly recognizable as such.

renewing - lints.jpgThe best book on this latter part of the problem — the selling out of contemporary evangelicals — is seen in an amazing, powerful collection of pieces inspired by the work of David C. Wells, called Renewing the Evangelical Mission, edited by Richard Lints (Eerdmans; $34.00.) It has important pieces packed full of sociological criticism, theological pondering, church-related discernment, all wondering, in the legacy of the major work on this done by Wells, how to call those who claim to care most about the heart of the gospel, back to the heart of the gospel.  If read many of these essays, from Os Guinness, Miroslov Volf, J. I. Packer, Michael Horton, Kevin Vanhoozer, Cornelius Plantinga and more. ??It was bad enough when evangelicals could be categorized as disengaged but purist, culturally irrelevant, but clear about first things.  Alas, it seems they are increasingly like their older nemesis, mainline Protestants who were known for being high on relevance but not so good on orthodox  holiness. Many Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans now seem best situated to stand for historic truths in relevant ways.  Anyway, Renewing the Evangelical Mission is an important volume for many of us, a good followup to Wells’ many heart-felt, scholarly assessments of the state of faithfulness in our time.)

So, to recap this particular point: nearly all sectors of the Christian church in the West is confused and imbalanced regarding their stance to culture and the in/not of approach that demands holy relevance.

Kuyper taught us – to be holy in a truly Biblical way is to be engaged in the world; to be properly engaged in the world demands Biblical holiness.
Which authorizes us to read widely, but with discernment.  We learn the art of discernment, but not as a mystical spiritual practice to determine God’s secret voice or as a punctilious legalistic practice to see what we are allowed to do in the world,. The art of prophetic spiritual imaginative discernment involved reading the signs of the times, understanding our place in history, caring about the issues of the day, in every zone of life, and being transformed in ways that help us embody wisely the coming reign of God, truly in but not really of the society around us.  We believe books can help us come up with counter-cultural practices for the common good.  We read widely, thinking and talking and enjoying the written words of fiction and nonfiction, always through Bible-shaped lenses, in community with others, who, as comrades in the struggle, want to honor God by being Christ’s agents in and for the world.  We read with holy relevance, we become relevant and holy to serve God’s purposes in the world.
My fear is that many churches are not adequately helping people do this, thinking about cultural holiness, relating faith to vocation, or nurturing Christian reading habits to do all this.

Some pastors recommend books, some parishes have strong church libraries, some congregations seem to have an ethos of being life-long learners, bookish folks with reading groups and discerning conversations about big ideas. A few encourage lay people to serve God in their work-a-day worlds and encourage reading about Christian perspectives in their careers and callings.  I hear about such churches so I know they exist.  But I don’t think there are many.

Most Christian traditions do affirm thinking faithfully about all of life, and many, in theory, at least, affirm reading widely in order to be equipped to serve distinctively in vocations in the world.

Two of the all-time most elegant passages about all of this come from the lovely, lovely firstpreaching-life.jpeg book of Barbara Brown Taylor, her autobiographical The Preaching Life (Cowley; $17.95.) I read these passages out loud sometimes, and folks are always moved.  She has a wonderful story of a pastor who mentioned her love for tadpoles in his sermon — and helped her see “God’s glossolalia” in the intricacies of nature, and God’s Spirit at work in her own desire to learn, and to care for creation; this literally help move her to faith, realizing she was in this God-drenched world, and it is a beautiful part of her story.  The second section is about the vocation of lay people, and how their callings, like hers as an Episcopal priest, are sacramental in nature.  She lists off a handful of jobs and in a phrase notes how they might fulfill some profound human role. It’s beautiful stuff.  I only wish more churches believed this, or talked about it some. 

Perhaps I was too harsh in saying evangelicals and liberals alike fail to equip the laity for “holy worldliness” and thinking intentionally about faith-shaped approaches to their vocations.  Maybe more do than I admit.  I know some buy books from us about these things, and it is always heartening. 

I know that the characterizations I’ve drawn are stark — blame some of it on Niebuhr — and I surely know (as I have said) that some congregations and pastoral leaders are trying to promote “holy relevance” within their own faith traditions. Just this spring we got to sell books at a fantastic “Jubilee for adults” (as I called it) with great talks by Christians who are professionals in politics, business, the arts, science, education, publishing, national security, and more.  And that was at a Church of God.)  So, more power to them!  May their tribe increase!
I recommend books by and about Kuyper, though, because it seems that it is the Kuyperian sort of neo-Calvinism that says all this stuff most intentionally, most overtly, and, in any case, has been the way into this vision for us.   Hearts & Minds is many things to many people, and those that know us know that we try to be fluent in various faith movements, denominations and spiritualities. We sell books at Lutheran Synods and UCC clergy convocations, with Episcopalian priests and at evangelical community churches.  We are mainline Presbyterian (USA), but many of our best  friends are PCA and/or EP. We are comfortable with mature expressions of charismatic renewal, and have always had connections with the monastic traditions of contemplative spirituality.  Neo-Calvinism as developed in the line of Kuyper has done much of the heavy lifting for us, though, getting us where we are, shaping us in ways that led us to do the work we do.  We hope you find it helpful (or at least interesting) to hear about this, and to learn about this school of thought and these rich resources that have developed from this generative tradition.

In other words, we hope you buy some of those Kuyper books. And hope you see the fingerprints of them on some of the books we promote.

Okay, okay, you may be thinking.   Culturally transforming, Kuyperian worldview thinking is the real neo-Calvinism, and that story invites us to seek God’s ways “in but not of” the world.  It offers a robust, thick, sort of worldview that demands discernment and intellectual engagement, in every zone of life.  We get it.
You may continue: we even admit that other faith traditions haven’t been quite as quick to publish books about the relationship of faith and the aesthetics,  evangelical creation care,  the philosophy of technology,  uniquely Biblical political theory, discerning work on the nature of popular culture.  Sure, others have done good work, especially in recent years, but the neo-Calvinist energy for thinking like this, for doing Christian higher education, for this whole  “call to holy worldliness” really has allowed them to do notable and influential Christian scholarship. We get it.

Some observers say that other Protestant faith traditions – Anabaptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, for instance – have redoubled their efforts to ask about the relationship of their own theological traditions and the doing of higher education and uniquely Christian scholarship because they are tired of the neo-Calvinist tradition getting all the publicity.  I can name a handful of books that say as much, thanking Kuyper’s children for inspiring them to think through stuff from their own unique perspective.   Great!

But, yet, I do think that the tools of cultural discernment offered by the Christian philosophersroots of western.jpg that have stood in the Kuyperian branch of neo-Calvinism have been of extraordinary importance. The unique philosophical insights of, say, Herman Dooyeweerd, or those who took up his call to do wholistic philosophical work in the spirit of Christ,  informed by a healthy view of the story of Scripture, have been truly useful for various spheres of scholarship.
As I showed in my last post at BookNotes, I have my list of favorite books that are seminal and extraordinary in their fields (and I named a few.) And they are  each influenced by the Kuyperian worldview assumptions, which is, among other things, partially why they are  so insightful and wise and helpful for us as readers.

If you didn’t read my review of Schuurman’s Shaping a Digital World last week, I named four big things it does in the book, four of his “methods” or contributions that make him unique in his field.  It is clear that he does these as a Kuyperian, and it is his neo-Calvinist perspective that gives him these insights.  So, again, I say this to make a case that this tradition is vital, important, helpful, that it brings tools and gifts to the broader church and reading public that we should attend to.

Even if I’m partially right, you should be interested that this tradition has generated good fruit in recent years, contributed much to our common discourse, and shaping some of the best Christian books published (that are woefully under-recognized.)  You should dig a bit deeper into this school of thought and faith tradition.  It’ll do ya good.

And that is why I want to close this long reflection with a rave about one book that explores these themes with rigor, with clarity, with remarkable grace, and that I think would be the “next step” into studying things “in the line of Kuyper.”&
nbsp; It is a book I’ve mentioned before, by a man I am increasingly realize is a genius, a notable scholar and an ecumenical leader who is incredibly well read, a gentleman of great stature, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary, (the world’s most multi-ethnic seminary, by the way) Dr. Richard Mouw.
Dr. Mouw, as I said earlier, has a little book about his own discovery of Kuyper, and in that book he offers a short, basic introduction that is a lovely primer.  He ended up as a political philosopher at Calvin College in the 1970s when there were remarkable philosophers and other world-renowned scholars there, from Nicholas Woltersdorff to Evan Runner to Alvin Plantinga to Mark Noll.  Some of Mouw’s vast knowledge of this robust strain of Dutch Calvinist thinking was deepened in his years of constant dialogue with some of the sharpest evangelical minds of the 20th century.

Tchallenges of cultural discipleship.jpghe Challenge of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper by Richard Mouw (Eerdmans; $20.00) collects some of his scholarly work in this field and serves as a fantastic study on the history and legacy and relevance of the neo-Calvinist movement

“In the line of Kuyper” is, as he explains, a Dutch expression, meaning in the heritage of, or in the same stream of thought as. Mouw is not slavishly committed to Kuyper’s every jot and tittle, not at all. But he is in his tradition, in his line.  I like that.

Perhaps rather than merely tell you how much I learned from it, how very interesting it is, and how Dr. Mouw has this amazing ability to make often quite complex matters very clear, I will just list a few of the chapter titles.  Please know that he ruminates and reflects even as he explains and teaches.  Some of these papers or articles were once published in other books, and others were talks or lectures that he has given (including a spectacular one which was given at Princeton Seminary as the lecture given at the prestigious Kuyper Awards.)  That one long chapter from the Princeton lecture alone is worth the price of admission — I have read it twice and will revisit it again, I’m sure.

Mouw is most able to frame various views by how they are or are not important, what they offer that is valuable, and how they do or don’t stand up to other,  similar propositions or views. Anyone who likes pondering important theological truths or this visionary view of orthodox reformational cultural engagement will find buying this to be money very well spent.  I wish more of us knew this stuff, that we were conversant in these ideas, names, notions.  Mouw himself is a national treasure, and this book is itself a jewel of a gift.  I highly recommend it.

Here are a few of the chapter titles.

 These are my own favorites, and I hope you don’t think they are too daunting.  (Even the one on the notoriously complex Herman Dooyeweerd is accessible and quite helpful.)  For those wanting to deepen their insights into this generative tradition, or who wants refreshed in the old reformational movement, this book is a treasure chest, overflowing with good sentences, great ideas, and much, much, important learning.  

  • Calvin’s Legacy for Public Theology
  • Culture, Church, and Civil Society: Abraham Kuyper for a New Century
  • Some Reflections on Sphere Sovereignty
  • Modal Diversity in Dooyeweerd’s Social Thought
  • Law, Covenant, and Moral Commonalities: Some Neo-Calvinist Explorations
  • Creational Politics: Some Calvinist Amendments
  • Klaas Schilder as a Public Theologian

And there are more chapters in Challenges of… viz, a chapter about Dutch theological splits in which Kuyper played a role, a keep piece on infant baptism which is amazing, an important one about the nature of the modern seminary (and if it to be placed at and under the authority of the academy or the church, a matter of great consternation to Kuyper.) A few of these document “intra-Reformed” church discussions, and may be of lesser interest to those interested in neo-Calvinist public theology. 

Anything by Rich Mouw is worth reading, though, and I commend his calm and reasonable style and his broad, informed knowledge of the subject to anyone who likes to learn, who loves good, intelligent discourse, and who wants to learn more about the Reformed faith lived out in contemporary social life. The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship is so carefully written, so learned and covers so much that I think it should be read by serious faith-based social thinkers, whether they want to be in the line of Kuyper or not. It is that important, or at least most of it is.
Here is a very short excerpt of one of the chapters from the Eerdmans webpage.  I like this part, a story Mouw has told before, about the different instincts and phrases to describe things shared between he and his friend John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite scholar.  “Created, but fallen,” is how Yoder once described Mouw’s Reformed view.  “Created, but fallen,” is how Yoder preferred to put it.   This is a great little expert. Check it out.  And then order the book at our 20% off Hearts & Minds discount.


Well, you’ve made it to the end of my overly wordy, admittedly repetitive rant.  Maybe I wrote this as much for myself as for our readers. a reminder of my story, and what books I find to be most basic, foundational. I appreciate your reading along over my shoulder, as this may help clarify your own story, too.

If you’ve read this far, we’ll reward you.
Clicking HERE takes you over to our Hearts & Minds website order form page and we willProblem_Poverty.jpg send to you, for free, an important book written by Abraham Kuyper, a book that is considered by some a true classic,  The Problem With Poverty edited by James Skillen (Baker.) All you have to do is type in that you want it, and be willing to pay $5 shipping.

This book’s message was orginally offered as an address at the first Christian Social Congress in The Netherlands on November 9th 1891. It was then, I believe, published as Christianity and the Class Struggle. This short but heady book showed — I love this stuff! — how a uniquely Christian and mature Reformed view ought to be, frankly, different than what we today might call the right or the left. Kuyper clearly calls us to great concern about poverty and offers astute insight into the nature of industrial-age problems, the dignity of workers and such.  But he is critical of standard formulations of free market capitalism, even as he is very hard on Marxist views.

Conservatives might be struck by how much he sounds like a “peace and justice” advocate today, using the Bible to remind us of God’s great concern for the poor and for public righteousness.  Liberals, though, might be challenged as he exposes some weaknesses  of a society that relies on the State perhaps more than it should.  That is, he forges a creative “third way” between the standard options!  He isn’t exactly what today we would call in the US a Republican and he i
sn’t what we’d call a Democrat.  Oh, my, if we had more who thought like this today!

This grand speech was given about the time of the famous Catholic Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII and may stand with that as one of the best, most thoughtful and powerful declarations of Christian social policy of that era.

Our friends at the Center for Public Justice reprinted it several years ago in a fresh translation and through the generosity of Jim Skillen, their former executive director, made some available to us.  We are happy to send them out for free.

Here’s the thing, again: shipping would cost us about $5.  We’ll send this important book at no charge if you pay the shipping. I wish we could afford to do the shipping gratis, but it might add up, and you know we’re not quite able to do that. 

Of course, we can add it in for free the next time you place an order.

If you want two, we have plenty.  Just ask. (No extra shipping charge for two, either.)
When you go to our order form page, as always, you just have to type in what you want. If you type in The Problem of Poverty and we know to send it at no charge.  The page is certified secure so you can put your cc in and we will just charge you the $5 for the media mail shipping.

This offer for a free book is good until June 30 2013
while supplies last-

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