12 (mostly) NEW NOVELS from Hearts & Minds Bookstore – 20% OFF

We’re sorry this edition of BookNotes was a bit delayed. Maybe you saw at the Hearts & Minds Bookstore Facebook page that Beth took a tumble while working at an off site gig (she lugs a lot of book boxes and is the packing queen, organizing the van) and suffered a pretty severe concussion. And then my mom, Betty Borger, rather unexpectedly died; we are almost too sad to think. She was 93 and used to work in the bookstore herself (behind the counter and, for a while, in our mail-out department.) She liked simple, religious novels, so in a way, this one goes out for her. Buy some books and smile!

Thanks to those who expressed appreciation for our last BookNotes on memoirs. I named dropped a bunch of older ones we’ve enjoyed or have sold well in the past and named 10 more recent releases for your own summer reading. If you missed that, we encourage you to scroll back at the BookNotes archives at our Hearts & Minds website and see my apologetic for reading memoirs, especially to widen your horizon and nurture empathy for other fallen people made in God’s image with whom we share the planet. What a great opportunity we have to experience the pleasures of good writing as we look over the shoulder, as it were, of folks narrating their lives, telling their story, showing us how they connected the dots (or don’t) of their life time. I’m a big van of memoir and the ones I mention in passing and the ones I actually reviewed might be helpful for you as you build your library, select books for your book club or reading group. We have heard that a few of these that customers have purchased from us have made their way into vacation suitcases, beach bags, and backpacks, even, for campers wanting a book to read by the trail or lake. How gratifying to get to fill those kinds of orders. Happy reading!

If reading memoirs is a fun way to see how good writers craft sentences as they tell (true) stories, then novelists give us a different kind of related, literary experience. Read mostly for entertainment and at our leisure, we glean so much from fiction. This is not the place to rehearse all that, but we have a whole section in the Dallastown shop which we call “books about books.” Serious literature criticism, memoirs about reading, and Christian arguments for reading widely abound. (I suppose you know we have often mentioned and featured Karen Swallow Prior’s lovely memoir of her own early years by way of the books she read, a great read called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and had her in the store last fall to do a presentation on her must-read book on character formation called On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.

Our selection of novels in the store is large, but limited to what our mostly religious, York County customer base wants. I wish we had more robust sales of fiction and wish we had more room to display even more than we do. Besides lots of inspiring fiction published by Christian publishing house – their releases have changed a lot since my mom fell in love with the inspirational prairie novels of Janette Oke — we carry our share of New York Times fictional mega-best-sellers, like When Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and the new, layered, Elizabeth Gilbert novel City of Girls, set in the tawdry glamour of 1940s New York theatre district (which Beth liked, even though it was fairly graphic in its description of sexuality, a racy feature some will not appreciate.) We feature important ones, especially, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (which we both loved!) or the latest by award winning Moroccan-born, American novelist, Laila Lalami, The Other Americans, a crime novel revealing much about immigration, and, of course, the brand new (very, very heavy) The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, who wrote last year’s amazingly well done, Pulitzer Prize Winner, The Underground Railroad (which is now out in paperback.) None of us have read it yet, and it may be too gruesome for some tastes, but this NPR interview with Mr. Whitehead and a former resident of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida (where the book is mostly set) and an investigative journalist who has studied the despicable place for decades, will explain it’s importance. Unbelievable.

Do you know the work of Miriam Toews, a Canadian with a Mennonite past who writes socially engaged, serious fiction such as her recent Women Talking? It is about sexual abuse within strict Amish-like communities and gained some fame when none other than Margaret Atwood tweeted, “This amazing sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real-life event, could be right out of Handmaid’s Tale.” Another writer called it “an astonishment, a volcano of a novel…” and Laura Van Den Berg says it is a “flawless, ferocious work of art.”

The last few years have seen some excellent books to widen our range of books by people of color such as Everything I Never Told You (by Celeste Ng) and Behold the Dreamers (by Imbolo Mbue) and the provocative There, There by Tommy Orange, a raw, creatively written contemporary story about urban Native Americans. I reviewed it here last summer, and it is now out in paperback. I’ll be you’ve never read anything like it!

Whenever I share a new list of new fiction, I feel a need to note that reading older novels is fine, too. Most who have read the most recent Virgil Wander (by Leif Enger) truly enjoyed it, even if it doesn’t surpass his phenomenally beloved Peace Like a River, which came out in 2001 and which you should definitely read.

Among our store’s perennially recommended ones include the novels of Wendell Berry (start with Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter), Marilyn Robinson (read them in order, Gilead, Home, and Lila, and then jump back to her first, Homecoming, a very different sort of story offered in a few different sort of intense, creative prose.) For sheer joy and amazing writing and spectacularly curious stories, don’t miss The River Why and The Brothers K, by James David Duncan. One is about fishing, the other baseball; the first very funny, the second a lot of fun, but with a more painful plot. And pray that he gets the long-awaited next one done!) And I personally adore the early novels of Barbara Kingsolver, like Pigs in Heaven. You can read a few other favorites I’ve mentioned at BookNotes in the past HERE, HERE, or HERE or  HERE.

12 (mostly) NEW NOVELS – ALL ON SALE. 20% OFF.
ORDER NOW. PLEASE.

We show the original, standard price. We’ll be sure to deduct 20% off when you order. Just click on the link at the very end to be sent to our secure order form page at the Hearts & Minds webpage where you can safely enter credit card and shipping info. Or, if you aren’t using a credit card, and want us to just bill ya, hit reply and send us an email. Ordering is easy. Just tell us what you want. We’ll confirm and take it from there. Thanks for sending orders our way and allowing us to help you out with your summer reading. Have fun!

Fallen Mountain Kimi Cunningham Grant (Amberjack Publishing) $14.99 We were alerted to this indie press book by a good friend of ours, a discerning reader and good writer herself who is a friend of the author. (Hey, Erica Young Reitz, we even saw how you are thanked in the acknowledgments for helping the author think through the ending.) Ms Grant is a central Pennsylvania native and attended Messiah College. She has won numerous poetry awards and received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship grant, so is obviously a young writer to pay attention to. And she is, indeed, a good storyteller, has a way with words, and can craft good, good pages that draw out her characters. This slow, building plot set in the mountains of North Central PA.

I am drawn to stories set in small towns that honor the uniqueness’s of rural life, and Fallen Mountain, indeed, does. (There is a small subplot that is very realistic about how the fracking industry destroys woodlands and mountain streams in a way that many conservationists and hunters find dismaying. (Shades of the must-read Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction work, Amity and Prosperity.) Although Grant’s story isn’t overtly about environmental themes or a diatribe against fast-paced modernity, there is a small touch of Wendell Berry in her approach. The small town sheriff, wanting to retire, and his friendships with those who work a well-described local farm is pleasant and generous and, I suspect, plenty realistic. Anyone who likes the woods (hiking, hunting, or lumbering) will appreciate her good descriptions and the significant plot twist about protecting the land from, well… I don’t want to say too much. If you know the forests of Pennsylvania, you can imagine.

The plot revolves around a character who has disappeared, maybe murdered (or maybe not), so it is a bit of a mystery, with the twists and turns that sometimes accompany such a whodunit. But, more, like the best suspense stories, there is a deeper, more important project unfolding, that of exploring place and relationships, romance and regret, hard times and the search for some kind of meaning; redemption, even.

I can’t give too much away other than to suggest that Fallen Mountain is a fine early book by a rising author, a fascinating setting and plot, with lots to enjoy and lots to smile about and also some hard stuff which causes us to ponder much about this fallen world. Big hot shots from out of town figure as almost bad guys and there are good glimpses into hurts that arise from childhood bullying to opioid addictions, all very real issues in the lives of those in small towns where memories endure as people learn to live together over the longer haul of their lives. This book gives us an entertaining window into these daily dramas, follows the quandaries of a few key characters and brings home a captivating story with an ending that will leave you closing the book with satisfaction.

Light from Distant Stars Shawn Smucker (Baker) $14.99 I so badly want to explain what we like about this great new book, and have so much to say. Since the death of my mother, this book that opens in a funeral home and is largely about the relationship of a son and his deceased father, is more poignant for me than I knew when I started this review almost a month ago. I have carefully read this fascinating, entertaining, curious novel, written about it, erased it all, tried to re-write a better review, participated in a book release event party (sponsored by the author’s Lancaster friends The Row House Forum and Square Halo Gallery) and have pondered it over and over again. It means a lot to me this summer and we would be very happy if you ordered it from us so you can join in the buzz.

For starters, as we have said before, Shawn Smucker is a fine writer, a friend of Hearts & Minds, and a truly decent guy; he received great acclaim for two very well-written YA fantasy novels (The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There that we have highly recommended) and an inspiring (dare I say necessary) memoir Once We Were Strangers about his friendship with a Syrian refugee in his hometown of Lancaster, PA. He’s co-written a few biographies too, so has been honing his artful writing chops since his days as a lit major in the good program at Messiah College.

Light from Distant Stars is an apropos title as one of the characters in the story has a fascination with this notion that we see light that left their respective stars a million years ago; stars that perhaps now may be long gone from the galaxy. He doesn’t explore any didactic meaning to this fact, but it lingers, hanging in the air and as I reader I wondered why. It’s a moving metaphor, allusive and suggestion-rich (as Calvin Seerveld might put it) and hints at deeper things going on in this wild story.

Deeper things? How about Stranger Things? (I haven’t even seen that pop-culture TV phenomenon, but the lined worked. Ha.) This new book offers some pretty stranger things. It is set in a town (like Lancaster?) and rural areas nearby. The main character, Cohen Morah, works, unhappily, in his father’s undertaking business. (A fun aside: Shawn has told me he is a good friend with feisty funeral parlor owner and author Caleb Wilde, who he thanks in the acknowledgments. I hope you know his book Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life.) On the first page, Cohen’s father is dead on the floor of the embalming room and Cohen wonders if he killed him. So there’s that.

The book is not terribly gruesome, but as somewhat of a kinda murder mystery, there’s a tiny bit of disturbing description. Much of the book is set in flashback — stuff that happened a long time ago, that we’re just seeing now? – and Cohen’s father, an undertaker who used to be a preacher named Calvin, play baseball together. The beautiful description of young Cohen in a hot evening church service is captured wondrously and the domineering, cold, religious mother comes across painfully. Although it isn’t overly intense, there are shades of the likes of Pat Conroy or others who write about dysfunctional families here as Smucker explores the dissolution of a family and hints at the brokenness that ensues.

My family was healthy and safe and good (Beth and I both daily are grateful for the wholesome setting we were given by our decent, middle-class families and as we grieve the loss of my mom this week, we recall that intensely) but I was deeply moved by Smucker’s gentle explorations of a religious family broken in so many ways. Cohen’s good sister, his bitter mother, his father trying at another shot at redemption in his later years, his slow, lingering death in the hospital, all weave in and out of the story which is loaded with interesting plot turns, odd-ball characters (wait til you meet the mysterious street kids Than and Hippy) and includes moments of sheer genius.

That Cohen, during the long hospitable vigil, sneaks out at night, walking to a nearby Episcopal church to find a late-night priest to whom he can confess his sins, illustrates the plausible way faith – by which I guess I mean sin and redemption, fear and hope, trauma and healing, the search for resolution and the forging of meaning in memory and moving forward – is quite naturally woven into this story of darkness and light. And a story of light it is. Light amidst some very real darkness.

There’s a bit of surreal stuff that is a major part of the story as Light from Distant Stars slips into what the fancy-pants critics might call “magical realism.” That is, this isn’t a fantasy novel (there are no Hobbits or wizards or talking, Narnian-like creatures), not a supernatural thriller (although some might describe it that way since there are moments of mysterious spookiness) but there is some inexplicable weirdness (imagined or real?) with a bit of a blur between what is actual and what may not be. There is a force, a cloud, a Beast – think of the “smoke monster” from Lost — that soon enough we realize represents something utterly pernicious, something mentioned in only a passing paragraph but is achingly significant. A burning horror is in the book significantly, and it adds some gonzo oddness that, for me at least, was fun and captivating, making this more than a dour story of family sin and interior struggle. I am not a fan of this device, usually, but that damn thing came to intrigue me and kept me turning the pages, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

Near the end there is another huge plot turn and a new character shows up – not his grumpy mother, not his healed-up sister, not his new priest friend, not his elementary school baseball playing girlfriend now turned detective, or his flashback dear, now dying, dad. It’s a kid in the hospital and I won’t give away what happens in this crazy episode, but it is a tad over the top. I liked it, and the images of how that whole thing plays out in what I assume is Lancaster General Hospital is the sort of rising action that made me almost stand up and cheer. I won’t spoil it – but, again, Light From… isn’t a ponderous or overly dour study of the human condition, but a great, entertaining read, full of plot and character and light and goodness and a batch of surprises that keeps coming and coming. Who thinks up stuff like this?

At the release party for Light from Distant Stars held at the Square Halo Gallery in downtown Lancaster, the articulate, profound, delightful, non-fiction writer Christie Purifoy (you must read her fabulous Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace) interviewed Smucker about his new novel. Christine read an excerpt from her book — gorgeous prose poetically delivered, about, well, about decay. (Okay, it was about homemade kombucha and sauerkraut.) Entropy, decay, death. Can we control such forces? Is there hope in the ruins? Her reading set up Shawn to talk soberly about his own book, and his own fascination with these things, about death and history and hope. In those moments, this spiffy thriller about smoke monsters and baseball and sinning pastors and reconciliation with stern mothers and careers and callings and confessions all took an even deeper turn, and I realized more of the genius of this fun, easy to read, (but well-crafted) curiously profound story. The late night confessions and hymn singing and deeply rendered loneliness spires downward and outward and light shows up, light that the Bible tells us reveals all. Light that John 1 tells us the darkness cannot overcome.

Whether you want a fast-paced and very entertaining thriller or an allusive reflection on families and regret, shame and healing, whether you want a murder mystery or a tender tale of death and birth, Light from Distant Stars is a great read, perfectly described by somebody as “eerie and enchanting.” I doubt if Smucker is considering a sequel, but I want to know more about Cohen Marah, his old friend Ava, his sister Kaye out near Philly, and maybe even the sexy Miss Flynne. And what the heck happens with Thatcher after, well, after that? 

The Overstory Richard Powers (Norton) $18.95 Good friends who read a lot of contemporary fiction kept telling about this and we watched as some smart customers bought it and it was increasingly mentioned on literary blogs and appeared on “best of” lists in newspapers and journals all over the country. This was before it won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. Beth eagerly picked it up this Spring and found it to be one of the most beautifully crafted works she has read in ages. She has a good eye for good writing and was so taken by some passages she put little Post-it notes on certain pages to read them out loud, later. What writing! What an artful, respected piece of modern fiction.

I cannot say too much about the plot, but it is complex and fascinating. In the shortest of annotations we might say it is about trees. And about how in God’s creation the inter-working aspects of reality cohere. (Do trees really talk to each other as another best-seller has documented? Do they “clap their hands” as the Bible says?) In this novel, they indeed do, and more.

So, yes, what you may have heard, that this is a green, tree-hugger story, is true, but it is so much more. Although (Lord have mercy) we need to care about trees and climate change and environmental stuff, and be brave in protecting the Earth God gave us to care for, and maybe good fiction is the way to motivate us to care more. (It may be that that is increasingly the case, that a good story can be more persuasive and formative than several didactic lectures.)

Evangelical MD turned environmentalist Matthew Sleeth recently wrote Reforesting Faith: What Trees Can Teach Us About God and if you’re not up for Mr. Power’s strikingly imaginative story about trees, read Sleeth, first, and then read Overstory. Or, if you find the beauty and power of a fictional story about trees and greed and conflict and life and death to be deeply compelling, then read Power’s novel first, then the non-fiction Reforesting Faith next.) In any event Richard Powers is a gifted writer, an astonishing storyteller, and his drama is thick and engaging. It’s a beauty of a book.

I might add that The Overstory actually isn’t all about trees and saving the bioregion. One major character has a severe disability and finds it exceptionally difficult to navigate the material world, so he enters – vividly, with extraordinary detail – a parallel universe on line. Some of this big story raises questions about the reality of virtual reality, the experience of (and ethics of?) so-called digital culture. What is really real in this story of life we all live? This book is gorgeously done and surely unforgettable. Powers is, as he has been before in his other highly regarded novels, simply dazzling.

“Monumental…A gigantic fable of genuine truths.”

Barbara Kingsolver

“The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.”

Ann Patchett

“This book is beyond special… it’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that id desperately needed.”

Bill McKibben

Shades of Light Sharon Garlough Brown IVP) $18.00 I have written about this before and a few interested customers were eager to pre-order it. We just got it into the store last week, a bit ahead of the scheduled mid-August release, and we’ve sent it out to those who have already ordered it. You may recall that I touted it as a realistic spiritual story that moved me, surprisingly so.

The author, Rev. Garlough Brown, is in real life an ordained clergywoman and a certified spiritual director near Grand Rapids who has written a series of easy-to-read Christian novels about the process of spiritual direction, with episodes of the stories unfolding in retreat centers, among folks struggling with spiritual disciplines, lingo drawn from, maybe, the sorts of folk who read Richard Rohr or walk the labyrinth, who are active church congregants, wanting a transformative, engaged spirituality, who maybe are learning about discerning God’s work in their lives day by day, learning the monastic practices of solitude and silence and are trying out the examen. Or they try to. These four “Sensible Shoes” novels (each published by IVP) are a delight because there isn’t much popular storytelling about those sorts of topics or characters who take up intentional spiritual practices.

Well, this new one is about an idealistic, young adult social worker, whose name is Wren, who is burned out and has a break-down, struggling, as we come to learn, with serious, clinical depression. Her Aunt Kit takes her in, offering a room in which to stay while she recovers. The room happens to be in Kit’s apartment in a contemplative retreat center where Kit works, and, slowly, the depressed Wren begins to heal by taking up a project of painting the stations of the cross for an upcoming Lenten retreat that Kit is running.

This plot turn makes perfect sense as much of the story revolves around Wren’s interest in art. Her passion for and knowledge about Vincent Van Gogh is significant; her conversations are peppered with quotes from Van Gogh (often from his beloved Letters to Theo, some of which are about his own religious and artistic struggles and his own deep inner demons.) She comments about this or that famous (or lesser known) painting of the legendary Dutch artist and it was so fun learning a bit about the great master in this tender, poignant story.

I am not sure I’ve read a novel quite like this before and I greatly appreciated the descriptions of Wren’s interior life and psychological condition. I appreciated her hard episodes with her disturbed (bi-polar?) friend, and resonated deeply, as any parent might, with the portions of the plot about the out-of-state parents who so badly wanted to help their hurting daughter, but did so mostly by keeping their distance. Some readers will appreciate that Hannah, a pastor from the earlier “Stepping Stones” stories, makes a brief appearance.

The Shades story unfolds from a variety of views and the redemptive message for those who suffer, or those who care for the suffering, is inspirational (without being overly simplistic.) There is a lot of “spirituality” God-talk that I often don’t appreciate in novels, but, it works well in Shades of Life as this female pastor, rooted in contemporary evangelical spirituality, trained in spiritual direction, naturally does have this gentle, hospitable demeanor and propensity to speak a certain way, even if some of it sounded a bit clichéd. It was, in fact, spot on. Her graciousness and gentle spirit reflects a certain sort of clergy and pastoral caregiver many of us know well, and Wren’s helpful expertise in Van Gogh’s work, rings true. What a pleasure (and help) to read a book about grief and God, about art and psychology, about social work and spirituality. Highly recommended.

By the way, for book groups, IVP has nicely published a little study guide booklet, too, that sells for $10.00.

My Dearest Dietrich: A Novel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Lost Love Amanda Barratt (Kregel) $21.99 This is a brand new novel that I just had to mention even though we have not yet read it. There have been a few other authors brave enough to create a novel set in World War II era Germany, using that backdrop to explore, in fictional storytelling, what it might have been like to be romantically involved with Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the years of his underground seminary and resistance to National Socialism and Hitler. We have letters from him during those years of his imprisonment starting on February 7, 1945, the day after he turned 39 when he was transferred from his prison in Berlin to Buchenwald to Regensburg to Flossenburg.

Some of those previous historical fiction works were very well respected although a few were not so well done, not so accurate, and, perhaps, not so artful or interesting. My Dearest Dietrich is said to be very solid and it may stand in league with Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, the recent novelization by Patti Callahan about Joy Davidman that became a sensation last winter. Like that one, My Dearest Dietrich, follows the life of a brave and thoughtful woman who stands alongside a legendary Christian leader. Becoming Mrs. Lewis was fraught with the unforgettable story of Lewis marrying the smart, former Jewish atheist from America on her deathbed, and if that was gut-wrenching and made for a great read, My Dearest Dietrich is surely equally fraught. What a story this is — what one reviewer called “as beautiful as it is brave.” This isn’t a spoiler alert, really, since anyone who might be drawn to pick up this new historical fiction story surely knows that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Third Reich in 1943.

Some may know that his relationship with Ms Maria Wedemeyer to whom he was engaged but did not marry, was itself complicated.

There is included in the story some of the actual correspondence of Bonhoeffer taken (naturally) from his famous Letters and Papers from Prison but also the lesser known Love Letters from Cell 92 by Bonhoeffer and Maria which was translated into English and released in the States in the early 1990s. I’m eager to see what this good storyteller does with this previously unexplored story, what one Christy Award winning author (Jamie Jo Wright) says is “a haunting love story with beautiful prose and picturesque descriptions” and what Jocelyn Green (of Between Two Shores) calls “a multifaceted story of the highest stakes and the deepest loves.”

Where the Crawdads Sing Delia Owens (Putnam) $26.00 I mentioned this in passing, above, as it has been riding at the top (or near the top) of all the standard best-seller lists and is hugely popular this summer. It has sold more than 2 million copies (in part due to its choice as a “Reese’s Book Club” selection. (That Reese Witherspoon has very good Southern taste, I must say!)

I will also say that it took me just a bit to “get into it”as they say. Perhaps the writing (the character’s speech, actually) will be appreciated like the famously difficult, if at times playful, black cadence found in the stunning, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, a beloved, unforgettable work, considered a great classic of American literature, despite (or because of) the demands it places upon the reader. In any event, Where the Crawdads Sing starts with this complicated vocabulary that (foolishly) I tried to read as some ancient, New Orleans/Cajun dialect. Soon enough, we learn that the young character is living in the land of palmettos in North Carolina, in a region having developed and maintained its own unique dialectic, in the American Southeast One reviewer says it is “steeped in the rhythms and shadows of the coastal marshes” and is “fierce and hauntingly beautiful.”

In what is in part a murder mystery and a story of grave injustices, Where the Crawdads Sing is also a gripping coming-of-age story, what Alexandra Fuller calls “a lush debut novel… her mystery wrapped in gorgeous, lyrical prose.” It has been called “astonishing” and “heartbreaking” and “ambitious, credible, and very timely.”

One of the things I liked was the good writing about the natural world – the marsh ecology, the herons, the slow, slow days of this child, Kya, living alone along the wetland shores of the Outer Banks. In that, it was very lovely.

The New York Times Book Review says that, “In her isolation that abandoned child makes us open our own eyes to the secret wonder – and dangers – of her private world.” We don’t know if many other religiously-oriented bookstores carry this kind of work, but we are happy to recommend it.

Southernmost Silas House (Algonquin Books) $15.95 This publisher is renowned for good, classy, meaty (Southern) stories, and this one just released in paperback – called “bracing, honest, and luminous” — is no exception. The fictional Asher Sharp is an evangelical preacher who is, as it says on the back cover, “willing to give up everything for what he believes in. Except his son.”

The writing is mature, highly literary, and, like Mr. House’s other important books of fiction, youth fiction, and non-fiction (he edited Something’s Rising, a book we carry about Appalachian folk resisting mountaintop removal) it is set in the South, including more or less a chase/road trip from the mountains of Tennessee through Kentucky and finally to colorful Key West, actually – hence, the title.) We saw a review of this when it first came out in hardback last year in Sojourners and realized it had profound insight about hopes and fears and struggles and faith and family, mostly revolving around the questions of religious allies of persons with same-sex attraction and the consequences of this pastor’s preaching about tolerance and his loyalty to his gay son. Recently, we saw a stellar review in The Englewood Review of Books from which a blurb is drawn and reprinted in the inside of Southernmost.

Many good writing and reading folks have endorsed this, from Southern and rural writers like Dorothy Allison and Charles Frazier and the lovely (and funny) Lee Smith, who ends her amazing review with these words:

“With its themes of acceptance and equality, Southernmost holds a special meaning for America right now, with relevance even beyond its memorable story.”

 

All Manner of Things Susie Finkbeiner (Revell) $15.99  I think the simple cover and the curious title (hasn’t that ever been used as a book title before?) first struck me, as did the imagination-capturing blurb from Jocelyn Green, a Christy Award-winning author of Between Two Shores, who wrote, “Some books are meant to be read. All Manner of Things is meant to be lived in.” If the characters are real and the story important, this quote is a huge invitation, eh?

This is the story of a young man who enlists in the Army in 1967 and, from Viet Nam, sends his sister, Annie Jacobson, the address of their long-estranged father. If anything were to happen in Nam, Mike wrote, Annie must reach out to their father.

Unexpectedly, the father returns and there are tragedies in this already tense time. There is grief and struggle, hardships and family stuff. For those of who lived in those hard if exciting times, stories like this could be healing and hopeful. That it is explicitly Christian will appeal to many.

You may recall how we touted The Solace of Water, a story set in central Pennsylvania that told of the friendship of an Amish woman and a black woman, united by grief, written by Elizabeth Byler Younts.  Ms Younts writes about All Manner of Things,

“With intimacy, a poetic voice, and an ever-present grip on hope, Finkbeiner writes with breathtaking admiration for the common American family in the throes of unbearable circumstances. Beautiful. Honest. Artfully written. A winning novel.”

The Most Fun We Ever Had Claire Lombardo (Doubleday) $28.95 Okay, I’ll admit it. I got this into our store mostly because I loved the cover. And I read a fabulous review. (But mostly the cover.) Some people just love holding this kind of a big, thick, novel — I recently ordered for myself another hardcover copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s splendid The Signature of All Things just because such a sprawling, epic, wondrous novel deserves a material heft in the hand to match the story. The Most Fun We Ever Had, a debut novel with amazing endorsements from the likes of Richard Russo and Affinity Konar, despite the cheery title, just seems to deserve this good, fat, 500 page volume. It’s apparently an ambitious, sprawling, multi-generational novel about the life-long friendship of four sisters and their respective families. The Guardian said it could be the “literary love child of Jonathan Franzen and Anne Tyler.” Ha.

Advance praise has been significant and fun:

“A wonderfully immersive read that packs more heart and heft than most first novels…A deliciously absorbing novel wit–brace yourself-a tender and satisfyingly positive take on family.”
–NPR

“This juicy saga spans more than four decades…You’ll be glad this loopy family isn’t yours, but reading about them is a treat.”
–People Magazine

“A family epic…It resembles other sprawling midwestern family dramas, like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The result is an affectionate, sharp, and eminently readable exploration of the challenges of love in its many forms.”
— Booklist

“Everything about this brilliant debut cuts deep: the humor, the wisdom, the pathos. Claire Lombardo writes like she’s been doing it for a hundred years, and like she’s been alive for a thousand.”
— Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers

“Lombardo’s impressive debut is a gripping and poignant ode to a messy, loving family in all its glory. She juggles a huge cast of characters with seeming effortlessness, bringing each to life with humor, vividness and acute psychological insight.”
— Madeline Miller, New York Times bestselling author of Circe

“What a splendid, spacious, gripping novel Claire Lombardo has written. These pages sparkle with wit and wisdom. I love the four difficult Sorenson daughters, each in the grip of her own emergencies. The Most Fun We Ever Had is a gorgeous and profound debut.”
— Margot Livesey, author of Mercury

The Tubman Command Elizabeth Cobbs (Arcade) $25.99  If you follow serious historical fiction you may know of Cobbs for her best-selling novel, The Hamilton Affair. Here she offers a fictionalized account of a lesser known event in American history, the time in May 1863 when the demoralized Union Army (having suffered fresh losses at the Battle of Chancellorsville and Fort Sumter stood to taunt the American Navy) recruited a woman with the code-name Moses. You know this is the heroic (and by that time, hunted by the Confederates) Harriet Tubman.

The episode this novel recreates is one of the most daring and dangerous in all of the history of the Civil War. In Beaufort, South Carolina, Tubman plots an dramatic expedition behind enemy lines to liberate hundreds of bondsmen and to recruit them as soldiers. And you thought she just led the chillin’ North to safety.

This novel “tells the story of Tubman at the peak of her powers, when she devises one of the largest plantation raids of the Civil War.” Plantation raids? Who knew? Union General David Hunter places her in charge of a team of black scouts even though he’s skeptical of what one woman can accomplish. If you care about or enjoy learning about the Civil War at all, this is simply a must – it will blow you away!

What an adventure this book tells of: there are alligators, overseers, slave catchers, sharpshooters, and even some hostile Union soldiers, gunships, and men who simply didn’t believe in her abilities. Did you know Tubman was married? Her husband – who she has left to pursue her unbelievable calling in this crisis of American freedom struggles – figures in to the story as well. I’ve only started it, but I’m finding it exceptionally compelling, a real page-turner, human and humane and yet visionary and exciting. The Tubman Commands is extraordinary fiction.

Here are just a few of the colorful, persuasive, endorsing reviews:

“If you think you know all about Harriet Tubman, think again–this novel brings her alive as only fiction can. With a historian’s grasp of detail, Elizabeth Cobbs spins a gripping tale of romance, wartime spies, and daring escapes. The story of Harriet Tubman’s leadership of black troops behind enemy lines, The Tubman Command illuminates the unfathomable bravery of people fighting for liberty and the birth of a better nation. Harriet emerges from these pages as a brilliant strategist, master of psychology, and a fully-rounded woman whose legendary heroism has made her a cherished American icon.” –Kate Manning, author, My Notorious Life

“Cobbs is that rare writer who possesses both the uncanny eye of the historian and the dynamism of a natural storyteller. By the last chapter I was breathless and near tears, captivated by the true tale of one woman who railed against injustice and changed the course of history.” –Fiona Davis, national best-selling author of The Masterpiece

“A phenomenal piece of writing which humanizes one of America’s most beloved icons and shows a different side of a woman whom many think they already know.”– Edda L. Fields-Black, Author of ‘Combee’ Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid (forthcoming)

“Cobbs paints a vivid portrait of Tubman at the heart of one of the most innovative, daring, and dangerous missions of the Civil War. The heroic and brilliant Tubman is brought vividly to life as a flesh-and-blood woman and a strong and cunning leader in this compelling and instructive fictional tribute.” — Booklist

The Last Year of the War Susan Meissner (Berkley) $26.00 I wanted to list this since it is one Beth found very engaging and very entertaining. It is a beautifully poignant novel, with what one reviewer said “explores the complexities of love, friendship, and the fleeting truths of identity.” The prose is truly lovely, even if it highlights a dark aspect of our culture and a sad time in American history.

In this new novel Meissner tells of two older women who realize they are both still alive (in their 80s) and plan a reunion. You see, they met at a Texas interment camp that the USA ran for Japanese citizens and for German citizens during World War II. One, the German woman, whose name is Elise, is starting to get Alzheimer’s – she calls her condition “Agnes” – but she surely recalls her friendship with a Japanese woman who she met in the awful camp. Beth was struck by this story about Agnes (she read some of it out loud to me as we ourselves death with my own mother’s loss of memory) and how Elise (14 years old when her father, a second generation American citizen, was arrested for being a Nazi sympathizer) ended up meeting Mariko in the camp. This elegant story tells of the friendship of these two different women, how their lives evolved, and how they reunited in happy friendship near the end of their days.

Michael Gable, of the historical novel A Paris Agreement, says,

Powerful and at times chillingly contemporary, and it reminds us why we read historical fiction in the first place.

Piano Tide Kathleen Dean Moore (Counterpoint) $16.95  This is not a brand new novel, but we somehow had missed it, even though it was written by a memoirist and nature writer that I adore. I’ve read several of Moore’s beautiful non-fiction works (such as Pine Island Paradox and Holdfast and Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature.) Her recent polemic is important and passionate, called Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. We stock them all, of course. I had completely missed that this philosophy professor and mom and ecologist and climate change activist had tried her hand at a novel. She’s such a good writer that I figured we should carry it.

I think we first learned of it when we heard that Ms Moore spoke at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing and then, again, came to the college to present a spoken word piece on climate change set to a moving classical piano composition (starting with a mournful bit by Rachmaninoff.) What a wonderful idea!

Knowing about this creative work by Kathleen Dean Moore, then, we certainly wanted to stock her novel. We’re happy to recommend it to you.  Beth read this one right away, and found it compelling; a rip-roaring read, funny and entertaining, all about the bad guys who are ruining the environment for a quick buck, the complexities of family loyalties, and a bit of a nifty romance. Set in the gorgeous timberlands of a remote Alaskan island with a greedy industrialist named Axel Hagerman as a protagonist, Piano Tide plays out with some very surprising twists. (You’ll see how the piano fits in, as it does.) It includes elegant descriptions of the landscape and social ecology of this distant place and yet has energy and subversive wit. (In this, it brings to mind the legendary Monkey Wrench Gang.) Oh my, what a nearly “Romeo & Juliet” this then becomes as the young adult children of two opposing players in the battle for the land fall in love and move into the very spot where the turmoil and flooding will happen. Whewie!

I suppose this could be considered a well-written morality tale and a spectacular telling of what could become a transformative act of resistance. We hope all of our fiction makes some sort of difference in your life, transformative, enjoyable — a great use of your funds. We wouldn’t say this if we didn’t truly believe it.  Books matter, reading stories can be great enjoyable, and, who knows, you might find some new insights, new vistas, new passions. Happy reading, one and all.  Thanks for caring.

 

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10 RECENT MOVING MEMOIRS — ON SALE at 20% OFF. ORDER FROM HEARTS & MINDS.

Any of these books can be ordered by clicking on our “order here” link below which will take you to our secure order form page at the Hearts & Minds website. Just tell us what you want, and we’ll deduct the 20% discount, confirm everything back to you, and then send your credit card receipt along with the package. Or, we’ll handle it any way you ask.
We usually send small order via “Media Mail” which is a bit slower but cheaper.USPS Priority Mail is as quick or quicker than UPS and cheaper.
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Next week I’ll do a similar list of recent novels,
ideal for enjoyable summer fiction reading.

THE VALUE OF MEMOIRS AND SUMMER READING

Summer is a time when many spend some extra times reading stories. Novels, short stories, poems, even. And memoirs – we love memoir, including many of the must-read great ones, like Mary Karr’s spectacular Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit, or Augusten Burroughs Running With Scissors or Sara Mile’s eloquent, surprising,  coming to faith narrative Taste This Bread: A Radical Conversion or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first book (about growing up in Baltimore), The Beautiful Struggle. Hard stuff sometimes yield unforgettable stories like Jeanette Walls classic The Glass Castle or Frank McCourt’s best-selling Angela’s Ashes.

We have had Lauren Winner in our store reading from Girls Meets God and we someday would so love to meet Ian Cron whose Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me: A Memoir, of Sorts is so very enjoyable, moving and memorable.  Outdoorsy types love the fabulously written Wild by Cheryl Strayed while edgy bohemian types genuflect over Traveling Mercies by the trippy, remarkable Anne Lamott. (And for those who want a writer even a bit more flamboyant, I loved Lily Burana’s faith story called Grace for Amateurs.  Beth enjoyed Pattie Smith’s Just Kids and I was blown away by Roxane Gay’s Hunger. A year or so ago we were celebrating H is for Hawk (by Helen Macdonald) and earlier this year the former first lady, Michele Obama, gave us all a beautiful glimpse into her life – including personal matters such as her miscarriages – in a well written book called Becoming.

I have reviewed before how moved I was by Given Up for You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief by Erin O. White, an eloquent and exceptionally touching story of a lesbian Catholic convert who felt she had to choose between a life-long marriage to her partner or her faith and life in the church. I like reading memoirs of those who struggle with the church and I like reading stories of people’s marriages, so it was a wonderful read for me. I think the late Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday is her best. I think Eat Pray Love, despite its wacky spirituality, is better than the movie. We are glad Educated won the Pulitzer and is one we’ve carried since it first released. One of the most popular books we’ve sold on race and racism this year is the remarkable memoir I’m Still Here by Austin Channing. I suppose not everybody cares about a Calvin College bred Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (he of many scholarly books, studies of aesthetics and justice) but his In This World of Wonder: A Memoir of a Life in Learning was a treasured read for me. We wish more would read C.S. Lewis’s wise memoir of coming to faith, Surprised By Joy or the poignant story of loss, A Grief Observed, written by Sheldon Vanauken, who narrative of loss includes correspondence with Lewis himself.

On and on we could go, naming books that have helped us understand how people make sense of their lives. For those who are Christians, especially those who care about outreach and evangelism, appreciating the worldview and texture of the lives of our fellows, all made in Gods image, all with some particular way they tell their story, is crucial. Not only is buying and reading memoirs an enjoyable entertainment option – some of these stories rival the best novels in artful plot and character development – it is training in understanding the human condition. If I were teaching an evangelism class, besides doing some basic gospel review and some Biblical guidance, I’d invite folks to read a memoir or two written by people very unlike yourself. Unless you hang around with tons of colorful, diverse characters and are a really good listeners, this method of immersing yourself in another’s story can’t be beat.

So, here are a small handful of a few we’ve enjoyed in recent months. I’m not kidding, you should pick up one or two of these and ponder how these people-cum-writers tell their life story.  We show the regular retail price but will deduct our 20% OFF for BookNotes readers.

Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved Kate Bowler (Random House) $16.00 paperback/$26.00 hardcover  I know this isn’t brand new and I have to admit neither Beth nor I had read it when it was at the height of its buzz a year ago. We knew Bowler’s impressive and charitable ethnographic study of Pentecostal and prosperity preachers  (Blessed, published by Oxford University Press) and knew that, in the midst of becoming a scholar of religion and teacher at Duke Divinity School, she was diagnosed with an awful, quickly developing, terminal brain tumor. We put the book under death and dying in our store, recommended it to those experiencing illness and, more, loss. I suppose that works, but now I also want to shelve it in our ordinary memoir section; this really isn’t a systematic critique of cheesy things people say or simplistic theology or even a theodicy, as such. It is her story. It is a memoir. And I Couldn’t. Put. It. Down.  I’m not kidding – I laughed and cried and read some of the good parts out loud and told everybody I knew that week that they had to read this right away. My goodness, what a read, what a storyteller, what an experience she has had.

Yes, it is a bit unusual – not everybody has Duke Divinity School professors as colleagues, prayer partners, and extended family. (And not everybody thanking such important academics would call them “you Methodist sweethearts.”) When she thanks the likes of Lauren Winner and Will Willimon you know she has some serious writing support, along with solid spiritual aid. And not everybody has as devoted friends – and ones as funny and adventurous — as Kate has. I loved her pals and girlfriends (and husband, a true gem in the story, too.)  And not everybody is on a first name basis with faith healers, from black store front preachers to mega-church celebrities, even if she doesn’t quite believe their prosperity or positive confession shtick. Although it is Bowler’s (painful) story, as with most stories, it is laced with colorful characters and good folk (and a few bone-headed ones.) She is blessed to have such a troupe of players in her life’s hard drama and it makes for a great story.

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies does explore the mysteries of faith and suffering and God’s providence and grace and more, but it is absolutely rooted in a page-turning, often funny, really well-written, very clever memoir. Kudos to Kate for sharing these hard, hard things with us and for somehow rising to the occasion to write (even with humor and spunk) when she was so very sick. Let’s keep praying for her —  there is another book on the way (about the wives of male megachurch preachers) this fall that is going to be fabulously interesting.

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir Will Willimon (Eerdmans) $24.99  We want to be among the first to announce this – and note that there is a lovely Afterword by Kate Bowler. I suppose Willimon is one of those writers who most everyone who reads BookNotes would have heard of. He’s written dozens of books (which have sold over a million copies) and is often cited as one of the best preachers in America. He has been a rural pastor, an urbane preacher, a scholar, writer (including a novel), a seminary professor, a chaplain (at Duke) and a United Methodist Bishop. He has co-written books with his friend Stanley Hauerwas and is considered, by some, too theologically conservative and, by others, too theologically liberal. Some say he’s cranky, others say he’s a softy. We first heard him here in Dallastown (yes, at a small UCC church, decades ago) and he spoke at our Pittsburgh Jubilee conference.  He has been outspoken on the need for the church to be theologically astute, for pastors to be caring but deep, and for the church to bear witness to the ways of Christ in society, standing against injustice, racism and apathy about poverty. He’s our kind of guy.

Accidental Preacher is in my bag as we speak — I’ve got an out of town trip to do some speaking and teaching and mentoring and bookselling in a collegiate discipleship program – and if I have any down-town, I’m diving into Will’s memoir.

Just listen to these nice endorsements:

If I believed in Bishops, I’d want one like Will Willimon — flawed, fearless, and wickedly funny. Accidental Preacher reveals a real human being who has been consistent in his commitments to Christ, the church, and the truth.  Lillian Daniel

Bishop Will Willimon is a Jesus-loving, story-telling, truth-talking, laugh-generating gift from God for the church. This is a literary gem, an honest and holy revelation about vocation. Luke Powery

If Mark Twain had been a Methodist, his name would have been Will Willimon. Follow the Willimon wit to the source of Willimon’s wisdom, and I guarantee you, you won’t be disappointed.  Richard Lischer

Called to Forgive: The Charleston Church Shooting, A Victim’s Husband, and the Path to Healing and Grace Anthony B. Thompson, with Denise George (Bethany House) $17.99  This past June was the fourth year anniversary of the awful day when Dylann Roof attended the Wednesday evening Bible study at the predominantly black Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof killed nine African-Americans as they prayed and one was Myra Thompson, the wife of Reverend Anthony Thompson.

I needn’t say much about this holy, sacred story. It is about tragedy and pain, about the devastating impact of this on the faith community and, yes, obviously, on Rev. Thompson. Yet, as you can tell from the title, Thompson chose to forgive — both privately and publicly. And that wasn’t easy and it wasn’t necessarily considered appropriate.  As the book makes clear, some in the church and broader community still don’t understand why Thompson — of Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church of Charleston — spoke out about forgiveness for the obviously demented, racist murderer. He had a piece in the Washington Post and other national media picked up the movement in the stricken city for unity and reconciliation. Called to Forgive is, in a way, a study of forgiveness, but at first it is an account of the Charleston Church shooting as viewed by the husband of a woman who was there, killed in the massacre. It is a study of the community, the story of a movement for healing, and the hardships and noble faith of this one man, deeply connected to Emanuel AME.

There is a long appendix that includes the letter Thompson sent to Roof (at his incarcerated address in Terre Haute. There is also a copy of the resolution “A Call to Prayer from the Bishops of South Carolina” and a “Resolution to Recognize, Denounce, and Apologize for the City’s Involvement with Slavery”

Unlike many literary memoirs, Called to Forgive does have a preacher’s agenda. The Reverend wants us to learn to forgive. There is a good Bible study in the back, making it useful for anyone wanting the Biblical basis for acts of selfless reconciliation, which includes discussion questions for book clubs reading the story who want to process it together along with some Scriptural content as well. It makes for a very nice package, and we’re earnest in our desire to commend it to you.

For what it is worth, although not a memoir, we recommend the major report on the Charleston story called Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by expert journalist and religion writer (and Pulitzer Prize winner) author Jennifer Berry Hawes (St. Martin’s Press; $28.99.) For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness After the Charleston Massacre by Sharon Risher (Chalice Press; $18.99) is more like a memoir —  Risher lost her mother and two cousins in the attack by Dylann Roof. Her own story looks riveting and is said to be very good. We have it, of course, but I haven’t read it yet. As the publisher explains: “Sharon’s story is a story of transformation: How an anonymous hospital chaplain was thrust into the national spotlight, joining survivors of other gun-related horrors as reluctant speakers for a heartbroken social-justice movement. As she recounts her grief and the struggle to forgive the killer, Risher learns to trust God’s timing and lean on God’s loving presence to guide her steps. Where her faith journey leads her is surprising and inspiring, as she finds a renewed purpose to her life in the company of other survivors.” 

Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America Ayaz Virji (Convergent) $26.00  This is pretty much just what you’d expect, but I was very, very moved, nicely entertained, a bit troubled, and very glad I picked this up. It had me hooked by the fist dramatic page. It had gotten a coveted starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and is (I think) the first book by an Islamic author published by this progressive, Christian publishing house. Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home is a great read — lovely, hard, important.

The story begins in a tense meeting where the good Doctor Virji is presenting about his life and faith to a very mixed crowd – friends and enemies, it seems, supporters and protesters – in a small town in Minnesota. He left his high-pressure practice in a big hospital in Pennsylvania to take up a slower pace of caring, humane medicine (his story about that is almost worth the price of the book)  in a town of not even 1500 folk. Things were going well, or so he and his wife thought, but somehow, at some point in 2016 (during the campaign of Donald Trump) anti-Muslim rhetoric started sprouting up, hate speech and ugliness emerged, and (as the only Muslim in the area) was asked – by his friend, a Lutheran pastor – to just tell about his life and faith for those who wanted to understand a bit about Islam. That his wife wore hijab in this rather rural, upper mid-Western town was not controversial until it was. His kids were safe in the schools, until they started facing hostile remarks.  Some of his patients who once were loyal and appreciative started to question whether he and his family belonged there.

Mandy France, the seminary intern at Grace ELCA church, rather bravely asked him to do a talk for the community at large which they called “Love Thy Neighbor.”  Even though the church asked Dr. Virji to present (in the public school auditorium) and she explained her Christian credentials as the host, rumors flew that this was going to be a time of propaganda and mind control in order to recruit Islamic terrorists. Fearful, some protested. The nasty stuff got ugly.

So begins the story of this caring doc in his small town where he and his wife – who owned a skin care salon on the square – thought they were well loved. Love Thy Neighbor is a very timely book.

Dr. Ayaz Virji is a family physician practicing still in small town Dawson Minnesota. He received his BA in history from Georgetown University and his MD from the School of Medicine there. He did his residency at Duke University Medical Center. He has published peer-review scholarly medical journal articles but also, in his free time, continues to present his “Love Thy Neighbor” lectures in schools, libraries, community centers, faith communities and colleges. In fact, some of this story continues as he faces both good and bad experiences on the road, telling his story and building inter-faith coalitions of good will throughout the country. This is a really interesting book, and I’m sure you’ll be glad you read it, knowing a bit about Islamic faith, but more, about what it is like to be a Muslim in middle America in these hard times. Want to protest our President’s careless tweets about “sending back” people who protest his insidious racism? Buy this book and share this other perspective!

Embracing the Journey: A Christian Parent’s Blueprint to Loving Your LGBTQ Child Greg and Lynn McDonald (Howard Books) $26.00  Not everyone will agree with this journey – reluctant at times – towards acceptance and inclusion that these evangelical parents promote, but I do not list it firstly as a self-help guide for religious parents and their LGBTQ+ adult kids. I list it here as a memoir, a story, a captivating, engaging narrative of a family coping with their own unique situation and the conflict and renewed deepening of discipleship and faith in evoked.

The title says it all, but you should know that this book offers an honest glimpse into the journey of decent (if at times conflicted or confused) Christian parents and their experience of their beloved son coming out near the end of his senior year of high school. Unlike some of the truly awful stories – think of the powerful read, Boy Erased, or Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, say – these parents loved their son well, wanted to support him in ways that seemed right and good, and struggled as many do who are in rather ordinary evangelical churches. They have their disappointments and perplexities, and this book shares some of that in page-turning story, Greg’s view and Lynn’s view, shared back and forth. It makes for a good read.

This is not a harrowing, gut-wrenching story of shifting away from the vile hatred that some fundamentalists pour out on their own gay children, but it isn’t a story of just “hey, whatever…” either. I suspect that it is a fairly common sort of story, good Christian folks just wanting to figure out what to do and how to respond to the (not so surprising, it turns out) revelation of their son, Greg. Greg McDonald, Jr. in fact, has a wonderful foreword that made my heart glad. You see, we know some young adults who are sexual minorities, as we sometimes say, gay or lesbian or trans, whose religious families have abandoned them, hurt them, betrayed them, and it is a God-given grace that this family did not go through that sort of spiteful hostility. They had their moments, their tears, their mis-steps, and Embracing the Journey is candid, if not raw.

In a way, the wisely gracious, fairly non-sensational insight learned – sometimes slowly, sometimes painfully – within the McDonald family makes this a more moving book than a gross story of abuse and tragedy. The nearly mundane ways the mother (Lynn) and the father (Greg) experienced moments from their son’s high-school and college years, his dating, his faith experiences as he followed Jesus as an out gay young man, and their own “coping” and learning to be candid about it all, is itself page turning.

As evangelical writer and leader John Ortberg (senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian) says of Embracing the Journey, it is:

“Filled with extraordinary levels of love and pain and humility and learning and grace and hope.”

Pastor Bill Willits of North Point Ministries says that this book is “a compelling description of a challenge faced by more and more people in the modern church: how to love God and their gay child without losing their faith or their relationship with either…”

Congratulations, Who Are You Again? A Memoir Harrison Scott Key (Harper Perennial) $15.99  For some of us, taking books on a vacation or sitting under a canopy in the back deck, is a special pleasure this time of year and I wanted to suggest at least one book that was wise and truly funny, engrossing and sure to make you chuckle out loud. A buddy of mine and mail order customer of ours mentioned to me that he is in a little band in his church – a bunch of older guys who get together to rock out about old guy stuff, which itself is kinda of funny – and that memoirist Harrison Scott Key was in this little side hustle of his. Holy smokes, I couldn’t believe it. Key wrote the best-selling and evidently hilarious memoir-ish collection of essays called The World’s Largest Man and thereby won the prestigious Thurber Prize. As in James Thurber. As in fine, literary comedic prose.

So I was delighted to have this little connection and glad to know this best-selling Thurber Prize winning writer was a follower of Jesus and active in a church. Or least in a church-based an oldster rock and roll cover band.  This is just great, I figured.

And, whew, was I right – this Southern Man is funny and wise and a really witty writer. His story is “inspiring and riotously funny” as the back cover puts it. It is, actually, very much in keeping with our own visions of vocation and hopes that our bookstore can help people make a difference in the world as they take up their own sense of calling.

Mark Twain (speaking of wise-cracking and often wise and funny American writers) is said to have said that the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why. That preaches and I’ve said it often, although sometimes I forget who said it and just make something up. (Maybe James Thurber?)

Mr. Key reports this well-known adage, noting that this is really is talking about dreams, about one’s destiny and such, but observes, “What Mr. Twain doesn’t say is a dream is also a monster that wants to eat you.” (“Nobody tells you this part of the American Dream,” he writes. “Until now.” Ha!)

Harrison grew up in Mississippi, we learn, and “possessed many special gifts, such as the ability to read and complete college applications.”

From the back cover:

Yet, throughout young adulthood, he failed at many vocations until one day – after drinking perhaps too many beers and dusting off his King James Bible – he stumbled across a passage about a lonely pelican, which burst into flame inside him. In a mad blaze of holy illumination, Harrison realized his dream: to set the world on fire with a funny book. All he had to do was write one.

So, maybe we could call this an instructive tale of pursuing one’s destiny with relentless (of sometimes misguided) devotion. And it does get serious as he grapples with priorities and family and art and sanity. But I mostly just want to call it a great read, a fine memoir, a story to enjoy no matter what season of life you are in.

Whence and Whither: On Live and Living Thomas Lynch (WJK) $18.00  With a nice textured cover with French folds and deckled edges, this handsome paperback book bears a certain sort of weight, insinuating that it is serious, mature, heavy, even. And it is. The writer is the nearly legendary author of the late 1990’s book about the funeral business called The Undertaking: Life Notes from the Dismal Trade and it’s wonderful, must-read sequel, Bodies at Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Morality. These are among my all-time favorite books, by the way, and we have subsequently carried and promoted Lynch’s poetry, his memoir about going back to Ireland, Booking Passage, and, of course, his co-authored books with theologian and preacher Thomas Long on a theology of and righteous practice of funerals (The Good Funeral.) Lynch is a literate figure, intellectual and writerly, and his prose is stunning; it moves from humorous storytelling to philosophical observations, from artful lines and illuminating insight. And he wrote me a letter, once, so there’s that. I love this guy.

I mentioned this book when it came out this Spring, but want to share a bit more about it again, here, now. It is to be savored so is ideal for the slower pace of summer reading.

Lynch is a reader’s writer, just a great, learned, well-read and literate character, Irish, Catholic, a sober, recovering alcoholic. Younger writers about “the dismal trade” (like the lively, central Pennsylvanian Caleb Wilde, who recently wrote Confessions of a Funeral Director: How Death Saved My Life or the punk rock energetic, fabulously quirky, cussing Caitlin Doughty who wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes And Other Lessons from the Crematory) all adore him for his dignified telling about the vocation of helping the dead get where they need to get, and the living do what they need to do during the time of death and repose. Lynch is so good that not long ago I read an excerpt of this new one at a funeral of a dear, dear friend (who himself loved Lynch’s books and workshops for pastors.)

This great Whence and Wither book is not exactly a memoir, like The Undertaking or Booking Passage, but his writing is so engaging, his storytelling so vivid, his cultural studies and faith-infused ruminations so interesting (and rooted in his own life and times) that this feels very much like a memoir. Spiritual writer Heidi Haverkamp calls it “a wistful but vivid collage of memoir” (even though it includes some poems and even a short play.) “Here more than ever,” she continues, “Lynch writes with the very soul and guts of himself and invites us to peek alongside him through the veil and into the eternal.”

As theologian Tom Long says about Lynch:

Tom has the discerning eye of a poet and essayist, the wisdom and gravitas of a funeral director, and most of all, the empathetic imagination to be a shrewd observer of people, living and dead, with whom he has shared this planet. And he tells these stories – his story – the beginnings, the middles, and the anticipated endings, with the elegance of one who is a master of language and with the whimsy of one who relishes his Irish roots. This is a book to enjoy, to learn from, and to savor.

Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace Christie Purifoy (Zondervan) $18.99  It is one of the great joys of recent months to have gotten the chance to finally meet Pennsylvania author Christie Purifoy, a memoirist and essayist of the finest quality, who can turn a phrase like nobody’s business. A few years ago she wrote a lovely book about her spacious, old farmhouse “in four seasons” (Roots & Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons) and it was quite good. But his Placemaker book is extraordinary, delightful, compelling, enjoyable on many levels. The other evening at a book event she read movingly from a section about fermentation (you know, sauerkraut, kombucha, making pickles, even.) The Earth’s processes of death and decay, entropy, chaos and the like became a window for reflecting on our desires for control, for reigning in the chaos. She frets about these things as we do, but she also tends orchards and writes glowingly about trees. Creation and Fall and Redemption swirl together in her gorgeous reflective prose and a book about place becomes a vision for living into God’s healing ways, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

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

Leaving the Witness: Exiting Religion and Finding a Life Amber Scorah (Viking) $26.00  I don’t usually feel a need to warn folks about a book, although this (and the next I’ll describe) carry a bit of a concern. Bear with me while I describe this too quickly. I couldn’t put it down, staying up to the wee hours, and yet was so very deeply saddened by how this story ends, as the subtitle implies, in atheism. This calm willingness to face an essentially meaningless life devoid of faith or the transcendent is unsettling, and I trust that it will not unduly influence readers in that (tragic) direction. I worry about such things.

Still, this book was so very interesting and valuable in many ways. Here’s the short version: Amber was raised in the super-strict confines of the Jehovah Witness cult and her telling of her growing up with their rules (and shame when she transgressed – by making out with a boy, say) is riveting. The danger of cults was well-known a generation ago, but there are fewer books these days in our pluralizing culture that tends towards a “whatever” sort of tolerance. Of course we should always be gracious to any of our neighbors and friends, regardless of how toxic their religion, but I found this a vivid reminder of how religion can be weird, life-denying, scary, even. So this is an insider’s look at life in the JW faith, what many call a cult.

The telling of her youth in the Witness family is captivating, but the heart of the book, though, is when Amber and her new husband – who she realized too late was not in love with her, nor her with him – became Witness missionaries in China. Her story is page-turning. (Having friends who themselves lived in China and knowing some who served as missionaries in that vast, extraordinary land, made her descriptions that much more captivating.) This sharply written memoir carries us towards this odd missionary calling and her own stepping into a work for which she was not trained. (Unfathomable, I thought.) What does one do there? How does one meet people?  How does one develop friendships with the hope of reaching out with faith and hope? How does one share the gospel?

Back when I did campus ministry, I felt very much like this – hanging around the student union and dorm, hoping that God would lead me to open seekers who might want to talk about meaning and purpose, grace and goodness, salvation and eternity. How does one act normal and yet strike up authentic conversations with new friends about the truth of the gospel? That was this author’s struggle, and it was so interesting learning of her contact work, her building trust with new friends, her desire to share what she thought was good truth for hell-bound Chinese folks. (All of this subtle outreach being attempted with language and cultural barriers, and the constant fear that if one talked about God or religion with members of the Communist Party she or her husband could be deported, or worse.)

I will not spoil how it all happened but Leaving the Witness is a sad but very human story of loss of faith, of friendships gained and lost, of sexual desire, longing for healthy relationships, the process of discerning a career, discovering human curiosity, trust, cross-cultural friendship, politics, the fraying of family relations, intellectual growth, grief, and more.

As Katherine Zopf (of Excellent Daughters) writes:

Amber Scorah has written an unforgettable book. With warmth, curiosity, and humor, Scorah examines how the experience of living in a society that operates according to different rules, informed by different values, can ultimately change the way we see ourselves.

One reviewer says Leaving… is “part Graham Green expat intrigue, part Orwellian groupthink expose” and “a vivid and unflinching account of what it means to live on the fringes of society.”

I am not glib about her story, her unfaithfulness to her religion, her marriage, her family. She is not either. But yet, to break out of a cult is finally very good news, I believe, even if it means one loses everyone and everything. One reviewer says Leaving the Witness is “for the fearful and the brave.” Exactly.

Alas, I must say: I wish in the part of the book in which she tells of her conversations with those who help her deconstruct her JW faith, there would have been on the table an evaluation or consideration of the claims of classic, historic, Christian faith. I have asked others who have left super-strict, toxic, fundamentalism why they became skeptics or atheists rather than moderate, rather ordinary Protestants. Why not try the Mennonites or Episcopalians? There are such robust, rich, and healthy sorts of thoughtful faith – from St. Francis to C.S. Lewis, from Martin Luther King to Rowan Williams, from Dorothy Sayers to Dorothy Day, from Lee Stroebel to Anne Lamott, from Marilyn Robinson to John Stott – whose vision of a meaningful, lively faith that believes the gospel to be true truth. To reject theism, generally, and Jesus, particularly, because of toxic and cult-like fundamentalists, without considering the historic church and the healthy goodness of classic Christianity (not to mention the question of the historicity of the gospel account of Jesus) seems to me to be intellectually dishonest. I get that the great pain and the great freedom experienced by the likes of Amber Scorah may not allow for consideration of the plausibility of serious religion, at least not at first. Read this book, take in her tale, and pray for insight as to how to respond well to this sort of story. Hers is more curious than most, wrought as it is, but it is not uncommon.

Heavy: An American Memoir  Kiese Laymon (Scribner) $26.00 hardback; $16.00 paperback Oh my, this is another that I couldn’t put down, that moved me considerably, that I want to commend, but feel like I have to offer some honest notes so you can determine if this book is for you or not. I picked it up for a variety of reasons; like many Hearts & Minds friends and customers, I am a white guy wanting to be more deeply aware of the stories of people of color; as the subtitle suggests, it is a deeply American story and I do not want to look away. I am also interested in questions of the body, how weight is seen and experienced – I mentioned feminist hero and great, great writer Roxanne Gay, above, and it was her lively endorsement of Heavy that really caught my attention. If she says the topic and the prose is that breathtaking, I knew I wanted to read it.

Reviewers and critics raved about the writing as it garnered accolade after accolade late last year. It has been called “dazzling”, “bone-deep crackling”, “cathartic”, “unflinching”, “gutting”, “searing”, “staggering”, and “artfully crafted.”

Kiese tells of his own growing up poor and obese and black in Jackson Mississippi in a home with a mother who curiously abused him violently and who was, herself, working as an academic in African American and gender studies. I do not know if I know anyone raised in such a high-octane, intellectual environment that was so full of Black Panther fury against whites and the systemic injustices of America and who was poor and working in higher education. Kie’s extended family were not highly educated but all were deeply, deeply wounded by racism and deeply, deeply suspicious of white people. And some pretty crafty and street smart. What characters!

I must warn you that this book includes scenes of physical punishment that are harsh and disturbing. There is some sexual violence and graphic descriptions of Laymon’s own sexual awakenings. There is lots of vulgar language, course talk, candid observations. If that offends you, this book is not for you.

Further, much of the writing is exceptionally creative, modern (postmodern?) in flow and style. Heavy is often (but not always) written in a notable black vernacular, what the scholars used to call Ebonics. As one who studied this years ago, and who lived in an inner city setting for a while, this was actually almost playful to read at times, although I swear I didn’t know what he was talking about on some pages. In his youth and college years Kiese and his friends had funny nicknames for almost everyone and they are as witty and fast-paced as any rapper laying it down. Mississippi slang from this contemporary era is a lot different than the urban jive I became familiar with decades ago and so one can enjoy this for the sheer abundance of the language.

I was half-finished with this moving portrait of a big black boy becoming a trim but still large black man, teaching up North at Vassar for a while, when the New York Times Book Review published their list of the top 50 memoirs of the last 50 years. What a list. I do not think there was any memoir from this past year listed except Heavy. In that review they said:

Heavy is a gorgeous, gutting book that’s fueled by candor yet freighted with ambivalence. It’s full of devotion and betrayal, euphoria and anguish, tender embraces and rough abuse…the liberation on offer doesn’t feel light and unburdened; it feels heavy like the title, and heavy like the truth…Salvation would feel too weightless—as if [Laymon] could forget who he is and where he has been. This generous, searching book explores all the forces that can stop even the most buoyant hopes from ever leaving the ground.

 

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OUR LAMENT AND HOPE — NEW BOOKS ON CIVILITY and some on Christian political thinking, too. ON SALE 20% OFF

Every day; every day and even every night, there is controversy on the news. Those of us who feel called to be good citizens and have convictions about things – even mild convictions about a few things – can get riled up in a heartbeat. It’s exhausting, making us cranky and tense. It is bad for our relationships, maybe even our souls. Of course, there is plenty we ought to be concerned about. But it’s hard.

Part of it is the 24/7 news cycle which shows important, even tragic, news events in detailed ways that make it hard for even the most tender hearts among us to keep from getting jaded or overwhelmed from the info-glut, leading to what some call “compassion fatigue.” Neil Postman wrote about this in Amusing Ourselves to Death decades ago, how we are barraged with stories about floods and famines between commercials for hemorrhoids; today it may be stories of torture or children in cages and ads for Viagra, disturbing and banal. We hear a lot and we are on edge.

Some of it is how we come to experience bad behavior as normal – well dressed, supposedly well-informed people on TV yelling at and over each other, mocking each other, insisting on their self-righteous certainty. These pundits on the panels are paid to be boisterous and prideful. Sooner or later, their style of discourse rubs off; it’s a new normal and seems so commonplace we no longer notice unhealthy it is.

Short of opting out, it is hard to get some distance and maintain our virtue when we see awful stuff and then watch people yelling about it. Beth and I don’t do cable so I only have seen this stuff in snatches but the other day I tuned in to some local right wing talk radio and heard two well-known political shock jocks and I could hardly believe my ears, how rude and vulgar and hostile they were, spewing anger about “libtards” and such. (At least the reprehensible Michael Savage has a name well suited for his nasty demeanor.) It was heart breaking and alarming to think some of our customers and neighbors like this immoral propaganda.

And, of course, let’s say it: our current President invites howls of protest in a way that previous Presidents of previous administrations in our lifetime (Republican or Democrat) never have. He knows so little and says so much that is just baldly wrong, and says it so poorly. I’ve lived through Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal and followed my acquaintance Ken Starr when he prosecuted Clinton over the Whitewater corruption, which revealed the gross Monica Lewinsky situation. I’ve campaigned against Democrats like Janet Reno for their bad asylum policies and Republicans for their disregard of environmental legislation. I’ve protested Jimmy Carter (almost face to face) over militarism and opposed Obama’s support of partial birth abortions. But even in what I considered horrific policy injustices – Reagan shifting to a “first strike” posture re-aiming our nuclear weapons and thereby threatening to start a nuclear holocaust, his bloody mass murder of civilians in El Salvador and Nicaragua, some of Obama’s bail outs of big businesses or nearly everybody’s bi-partisan decision to attack Iraq, just for instance — those Presidents could make a decent case for their policies which I opposed. They could engage in meaningful argument about why these terrible matters were necessary and, it seems, they at least entertained their opposition with good faith conversations and even, on occasion, some compelling nuance as they tried to persuade their opponents across the aisle.

Politics is often messy and debate can be vigorous, but in those past decades it wasn’t quite as laden with the sort of nearly nihilistic, battle-ready, partisan polarization we see now. Things got ugly during the 1980s during the Bork judicial nominations, for instance. The Clarence Thomas thing was really consequential. The hard left started getting nearly deranged about Bush after the WMD fiasco in Iraq and the alt right grew to hate Hillary in a way that seemed sometimes unhinged. As a candidate Trump was scandalous in adding to the fear-mongering “birther” movement. Scholars are still trying to figure out when these socio-political culture wars ramped up to where we are now. The hostility shown now in our current era is certainly not the cause, but a symptom, or so many think.)

We used to complain about gridlock and the lack of civility. Now we have a left wing guy shooting Republican congress-people while they are playing baseball. And lefty feminista politicians get vile rape threats almost daily. Helping fuel this ugliness we have a President who cannot be civil because he can’t follow the plain Bible command to tame his tongue. Or his twitching, tweeting, fingers. We elected a man who said he was proud about his greed and who exhibits traits of narcissism, a self-professed sexual abuser and then some fundamentalist Christians circled the wagons around him, saying he gets a “mulligan.” In response many others grow more and more angry. Both sides accuse the others of holding to double standards. (Thanks to PennLive for the cartoon.) It seems to me that nobody should be happy with how things are these days.

I want to suggest some recent books on civility that are very good that give us some guidance about how we might move out of this morass. But since I’m in the thick of it here, I might as well first share another thought about our current civic situation. I’m trying to be a bit candid here, so trust our customers and BookNotes readers won’t mind.

THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF TRUMP SUPPORTERS I SORT OF APPRECIATE

A first step towards civility is at least some kind of understanding of, maybe even a bit of appreciation for the views of others. That is, we each have caricatures and assume the worst of others, which is a violation of the Golden Rule. We should try to give others the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, disagree as we may, we should search for some sense of understanding with those with whom we disagree. Find something admirable in their stance.

There are two sorts of folks that support Mr. Trump whose motivations or logic I think understand, even if I vigorously oppose them. There are folks, including friends of mine and customers of ours, who are under no illusion that Mr. Trump is a good man or a good leader. They know the White House is a mess, our diplomacy a hot mess, and the President himself a bad individual. But they think it is worth putting up with these notable problems in order to get a few key pieces of legislation or judicial appointments in place. As a Christian, I do not condone this “ends justifies the means” pragmatism, but I get it. They hold their nose and do what they think is best, supporting what they might call the lesser of two evils. I can respect that, or at least try to, and ought to remember to realize that these friends hold certain principles dear for the sake of the common good. They are so eager to see those goods enacted, they are willing to get into the mud by offering a qualified sort of partnership with an unsavory businessman turned politico. They have weighed their options and are trying to do the right thing and for that I salute them.

The others whose support for Mr. Trump I think I at least somewhat appreciate are those who see themselves as true believers, those whose populist ideology is almost, ironically, Marxist or Maoist in its use of blunt force to accomplish goals “by any means necessary.” How odd it is to hear self-proclaimed rednecks and patriots, usually poorer white folks, citing Malcolm X. This alt right worldview believes in disrupting things, rattling the cages, draining the swamp. They relish Trump’s chaos, his bad speeches, his dishonesty, his vulgarity. It’s all part of their strategy, such as it is, and they see this as a way to stick it to the (elitist) Man. Like their left-wing/counter-cultural forebears from the 1960s, they take a page from the playbook of community organizer Saul Alinsky (who they so loudly criticized just a few years back when it became known that Obama was an Alinksy-trained community organizer in the inner city of Chicago before he got involved in electoral politics.) They love it that the current President “tells it like it is” even though, of course, he doesn’t. They love the appearance of being revolutionary with their “Don’t Tread On Me” flags — “Power to the People” they shout, as did the violent revolutionaries of the ‘60s like SDS and the Weather Underground. I can appreciate anyone who cares deeply enough about anything to want to man the barricades, so good for them. I have spent enough time with far left activists on the picket lines to both appreciate the commitment of such true believers, and to greatly fear this kind of hard-ball ideology gone amuck.

So. The 24/7 media doesn’t help but the President himself causes some of our angst with his contradictory statements and vicious tweets and chaotic policy. Then, those who over-react against his populist supporters for overlooking this weirdness naturally make it worse. Everybody holds the others in contempt. I know. I suppose I’m an NPR sort of guy – tilting left but trying to be fair with some degree of nuance, considering various angles – and can’t imagine what it’s like to have one’s political views, postures, and attitudes so decisively  shaped by the biased one-sidedness of Fox News or MSNBC. But there we are.

DEVELOPING A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF POLITIC AND PUBLIC LIFE

I’ve written much, before, here at BookNotes, about developing a uniquely Christian worldview that funds a distinctively Christian approach to politics. Before we get to the topic of civility and the fraying of our culture and perhaps our Republic, I want to remind us about this. See here, here, or here. I recommend books like James Skillen’s The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (Baker Academic; $24.00) which documents a healthy, truly Biblical perspective on the nature of the state and a Christian view of law, government, civil society and public life, including much about how throughout the history of the church key theologians and leaders have gotten this sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

Heady stuff like Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (now out in an important second edition) by David Koyzis (IVP Academic; $33.00) critiques the ideologies of the left and the right and the roots of their pagan, Enlightenment-era political philosophies. What a powerful, important read — vital for the serious-minded Christian citizen. Similarly, James K.A. Smith’s third volume in his must-read, if demanding, “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic; $22.99) is, again, intellectually robust but very, very important. I reviewed it here – do check it out. Maybe these books aren’t for everyone but thought leaders, anyone thinking about civic life, about public faith really should be grappling with this non-partisan, third way stuff.

We have recommended the fascinating five-views across the spectrum dialogue expertly edited by P.C. Kemeny called Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views (IVP Academic; $22.00) and the more recent five-fold back and forth in the Counterpoints series dialogue in Five Views on the Church and Politics edited by the wonderful Amy Black (Zondervan; $19.99.) Whenever I mention this I rave about Jamie Smith’s helpful contribution not only offering a Kuyperian type neo-Calvinist pluralistic approach, but in his ecumenically astute feedback after the other chapters a Lutheran, an Anabaptist, a Roman Catholic, and a historic, black church approach.

More simple but helpful is Vincent Bacote’s little The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life (Zondervan; $11.99) which can persuade the apathetic to care and those accommodated to either party to think a bit more about social holiness and Biblical distinctiveness so that our public witness might be more aligned with Christ’s rule and intent and less partisan. It’s part of a series of nearly pocket-sized called “Ordinary Theology” and is very useful.

In under 100 pages, Professor Bacote unpacks four great chapters each starting with a “P” word —

  • Permission: Can We Go Out in Public?
  • Perspective: Identity and Allegiance
  • Posture: Pursuing Public Holiness
  • Perseverance: Staying in the Game

I’m a fan of Bruce Ashford’s small and often delightful Letter to an American Christian (B&H Books; $16.99.) He is a Senior Fellow in Public Theology at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (Cambridge, U.K.) and a Research Fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the co-author of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics, author of Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians so he has been bringing his wholistic, if a bit conservative, Christian worldview to bear on public issues for a while, now. This one is especially fun as it is written as a kindly, pastoral letter to a young person who has recently become a Christian but is perplexed about the relationship of faith and public life here in the USA.

One of the books I think is the very best on all this is Ronald Sider’s meticulous Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Brazos Press; $24.00.) It offers a complex template for developing a Biblical worldview, a Christian social theory, a faithful view of political foundations, a batch of policy goals, and then a guide for thinking about detailed issues, policies and advocacy, with due Biblical diligence, theological sophistication, social savvy about realities on the ground. And, always, a good bit of humility since good citizens, even good Christian citizens who have done “all of the above” in getting their ducks in row, can still disagree. Many will disagree with Ron’s conclusions about the Biblical material or the social science data, but no one should criticize his intention to be coherently Christian and informed by good faith, good thinking, and good care for the betterment of society.

FORMING HABITS OF CIVILITY – UNCOMMON DECENCY

Alongside the longer project of learning to think faithfully about citizenship and politics as such, and applying it prudently in our complex, pluralistic culture, we also have to do something immediately about how we conduct our conversations and what we can do about the fragmented polarization. We have got to be assertive advocates for better dialogue and less hostility. We have to re-visit the topic of civility.

Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP; $18.00) remains the gold standard for me, and I very, very highly recommend his fabulous, small, inspiring book. I know I am not alone in declaring how much I like this book. I’ve written about it in greater detail HERE and would be delighted if you read my review and ordered a bunch. Maybe you could suggest it now as an adult Sunday school class or small group book study for this fall. It’s the best to choose, I think, for a Christian study class or faith formation group or adult ed forum and I explain why in that older BookNotes column.

Here is a BookNotes refresher on who Dr. Mouw is. His own compelling intellectual memoir, Adventures in Evangelical Civility is reviewed here, and it shows how he models hospitality and grace and convicted civility even in his work as theologian and church leader. I mention Uncommon Decency a bit.

EIGHT RECENT ONES

There are new titles now inviting us to ponder well the current mess we’re in, how to move forward, and what we all might do to understand and reform our current political habits. Complaining about right wing radio and Trump’s dumb tweets and the liberal snowflakes and elites and the mainstream media isn’t enough. These books can help us dig in, understanding the contours of our current context, the nature of the recent threats, getting beyond the nice rhetoric about civility and learning to actually perform the habits of civility.

I’ve already written more than I intended so I’ll try to keep this brief. We have all of these books on sale for 20% off. You can use our secure order form by clicking the link that says “order here” below. Just tell us what want and enter your info. If you are unsure, you can ask us any questions by clicking on the inquiry tab. Or give us call or send us an email at read@heartsandmindsbooks.com

ON SALE – 20% OFF the REGULAR PRICE

I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth Silvers (Nelson) $24.99 This is a delightful book, a lovely study that came out of the friendship of these two politically engaged moms with tons of grass-roots civic experience. They know their stuff, have significant disagreements, and have fun talking about them. They famously co-host the “Pantsuit Politics” podcast.

As Jen Hatmaker writes on the back, “Sarah and Beth are an absolute gift to our culture right now.” Book-loving Anne Bogel says it is written especially “for those overwhelmed and exhausted by the current, toxic state of political discourse…” I Think You’re Wrong includes really practical stuff, great stories, good advice about listening well and extending grace. Tsh Oxenreider says this is a “grace filled handbook” for you, “no matter how busy you are, no matter your stage in life.” It is pitched for women, I suppose, but anyone can enjoy it and learn from it. I suppose you realize that one woman tilts red, the other blue. What fun.

Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country Senator Tim Scott & Congressman Trey Gowdy (Tyndale) $16.99 What a great little book this is! It is easy to read, co-written by two elected officials – one black, one white, both Republicans — and they are, almost surprisingly in the current climate on Capitol Hill, good friends. This describes how their relationship has allowed them, compelled them, to take each other’s life experiences and views more seriously and with greater good will. For those that long for a story that gives us a glimpse of how to find harmony within diversity, this is a great read.

 

There is a nice companion booklet to Unified called The Friendship Challenge: A Six Week Guide to True Reconciliation – One Friendship at a Time (Tyndale; $12.99) which enables you to work for greater unity in your own community. Grab some friends and work through this together.  Here is a little 8 minute video that describe their book, their “Friendship Challenge” and what you can do to build bridges, especially around racial and political differences.

 

Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How to Heal Ben Sasse (St. Martin’s Press) $28.99 I hope you know the fabulous books by Senator Ben Sasse. Agree or not with his principled, mid-Western conservatism (and his rather incongruous voting history) his books are fantastic to read. He is a thoughtful, well-spoken, multi-faceted civic leader, less concerned, it seems, about politics as such and more about cultural renewal and civil society. His book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis–And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance (St. Martin’s Press; now out in paperback for $17.99) was about problems with the rising generation, or, I might say, with how older Americans have raised and perhaps coddled Gen Z. He invites self-sufficiency, wide reading, consideration of things that matter, local loyalties, family ties, and the like. It’s smart and not condescending.

At any rate, this new one is really important and we recommend it. His Nebraska good sense, and interest in American history is grounded in notable Christian values and convictions, principles and assumptions that shape this book. Also, importantly, he thinks our political problems are not unrelated to our cultural problems, specifically loneliness. He’s right! Erudite, yes, but he offers a plan of action to deepen our commitments to good conversation, bolstering notions of free speech and good listening, resisting crass partisanship and moving us towards a better culture and glimpses of social healing.

Listen to these really good endorsements that grace the back of this good book:

“Mr. Sasse’s experience as a senator in a time of hyperpartisanship gives his analysis a special poignancy… [his] remedies are wise and well-expressed… his prose has a distinctively cheerful warmth throughout. Perhaps at last we have a politician capable of writing a good book rather than having a dull one written for him.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Sasse is highly attuned to the cultural sources of our current discontents and dysfunctions. … Them is not so much a lament for a bygone era as an attempt to diagnose and repair what has led us to this moment of spittle-flecked rage… a step toward healing a hurting nation.” –National Review

“Sasse is an excellent writer, unpretentious, thoughtful, and at times, quite funny … even if you disagree with some or all of what Sasse writes, it’s an interesting book and his arguments are worth reading — as are his warnings about what our country might become.” –NPR

“If Sen. Ben Sasse is right – he has not recently been wrong about anything important – the nation’s most-discussed political problem is entangled with the least-understood public health problem. The political problem is furious partisanship. The public health problem is loneliness. Sasse’s new book argues that Americans are richer, more informed and “connected” than ever – and unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled.”   –George Will, The Washington Post

“Sasse emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But ‘the dysfunction in D.C., ‘ he says, stems from something ‘deeper than economics, ‘ and ‘deeper and more meaningful’ than politics. ‘What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word, ‘ he writes. ‘Loneliness.'” The New York Times

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt Arthur Brooks (Broadside Books) $27.99 Wow, this subtitle alone should capture your attention and inspire you to want to start a book group, right?  I have heard Mr. Brooks (no relation to David, by the way) and know him to be kind and eloquent and thoughtful. The New York Times recently reviewed this in their Book Review section which indicates its seriousness and its importance. With great endorsements by Simon Sinek and Ben Sasse, cofounder of AOL Steve Case, and important and eloquent Roman Catholic author, Bishop Robert Barron, you might realize that this will appeal to readers from across the political and religious and cultural spectrum. When he warns us not to “weaponize” the values of others that we disagree with, but to treat them with understanding and respect, he’s speaking boldly and wisely. When he says we have more in common than we realize, he’s surely correct and, as you might guess, I love hearing that good news about common ground and such. (Alas, he seems to almost under-play our most serious differences, though. In fact, some of really don’t have much in common. I appreciate the line from Os Guinness who years ago spoke of learning to live “with our deepest differences.”)  Kindness and grace are hugely and urgently needed, but I wished for a bit about the structures and principles of pluralism and how we can actually honor serious diversity and what may seem like impassable conflict.

Still, Love Your Enemies offers a grand proposal, warm-hearted and witty, patriotic but not ideological. It is a great read, and helps us learn to “disagree without being disagreeable” as the old saying goes. Can the sorts of values and virtues that shape decent folks actually play a role in the hard-scrapple world of legislation and activism? Can we be kind in our Facebook debates and still be taken seriously? Can we set aside our increasingly toxic contempt? These are really important questions and you will be a better person, I’m sure of it, by spending some time with this inspiring book.

Listen to what the brilliant and often goofy Jonah Goldberg, author of the not so zippy, important and complex Suicide of the West says:

Arthur Brooks is a…former French horn player who decided to be an egghead late in life, he is a unique mix of Catholic piety, data obsession, sartorial connoisseurism, physical fitness, old-soul wisdom, and basic decency.

I wanted to note this, too. Again, I love this “love your enemies” stuff and need to, myself, take this advice to heart, daily. But, of course, this does not mean we must curtail our serious critique or our big-picture evaluations. We can be forthright about our disagreements. To wit, it is worth noting the “Letter to the Editor” that appeared in the New York Times Book Review the week after Mr. Brooks’s Love Your Neighbor received a glowing review there written by none other than Ralph Nader (himself an author of a lovely book that includes some homespun profundity about taking care of each other and building a more civil society. See his wonderful memoir, The Seventeen Traditions: Lessons from an American Childhood (Harper; $13.99.)) In that July 5, 2019 Letter to the Editor, Mr. Nader suggested that Brooks’s own right wing think-tank and advocacy organization (the American Enterprise Institute) has itself created some of the current hostility and contempt in our society as it has for decades been bombastic and tireless in resisting compromise and has helped dismantle a more congenial sort of politics, advocating for things that Nader claims have been detrimental to civil society. Nader isn’t the only one suggesting that as noble as Mr. Brooks’s book sounds, his own policy work in DC hasn’t quite gotten the message.

The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump Peter Wehner (HarperCollins) $25.99 This book is powerful, unrelenting, nuanced, very well-written, even elegant, and mostly right, I think. Peter Wehner worked in the Reagan White House, served President Bush, and is one of those who, we might say, helped craft the ‘80s itineration of the religious right, at least the more intellectually sound corners of that movement. Almost a decade ago he co-wrote a book with the “compassionate conservative” Michael Gerson, Wheaton grad, Bush speechwriter, now an anti-Trump, Republican Washington Post columnist. That short book which of course we continue to stock was called City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (Moody Press; $19.99) and was wise, balanced, reasonable. Mr. Wehner works at the brainy, principled, conservative, think-tank The Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written for The Atlantic and is a contributing editor to the The New York Times. I say all this to add weight to this incisive study of our current context and our dysfunctional discourse and bad views of government, politics and the use of power, so that you will take seriously his lament and diagnosis, his urgent call for reform and, at least, dignified civility.

Like other anti-Trump conservatives, he offers a cry from the heart and a manifesto of the mind, what EPPC scholar and ethicist Mona Charen says is “learned, humane, and wise.” If you tend conservative, you may know Wehner and I’m sure you respect his long service to the thoughtful conservative movement. If you are sour on Trump, you’ll want to read his particular take; it is considerably more profound than the endless partisan snipping from topic-of-the-day CNN pundits. I think this book should have a wide, wide, readership and it think is it very important.

The blurbs on the back are remarkable and remarkably diverse – Jon Meacham, Joe Scarborough, Karl Rove, David Axelrod, John Danforth and evangelical historian, Mark Noll. It is, as Noll describes it, “a conservative’s reasoned indictment of President Trump, a moving appeal for truth-telling, and practical strategies for combining civility with conviction.” I like that one reviewer said he is like “a literary Paul Revere.” Ho! Politics is a noble calling, Wehner insists, and we must recover the dignity of that vocation. More, we need to recover the dignity of our vocation as citizens.

Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation Harold Heie (Read the Spirit) $24.99 Sorry, no discount on items from this publisher. I am very fond of this very interesting book and want to highly recommend it because it does two or three important things. I suppose the project it foregrounds is firstly to teach us to be civil in our discussions, even our on-line debates. Secondly, it helps us develop –by walking through a series of reports about on-line debates and evaluating their civility – a consistently Christian vision for and perspective on government and politics and citizenship.

So this is a twofer kind of book. You will learn the art of conflict resolution using tools of conviviality, compromise, collaboration, and nuance, even as you are invited to actually ponder what a truly Christian viewpoint might be on various social and public policy issues. You can see why this is the “big ending” to this BookNotes newsletter on Biblically-grounded Christian politics and the gracious practices of convicted civility. It’s all here!

Dr. Harold Heie has spent a lifetime as an institutional peacemaker. He has worked at Christian colleges and universities and has written about their project of integrating faith and scholarship, which (as you might expect) has brought conflict to nearly every department of nearly every Christian college in the land. If one starts saying that this scholar or that viewpoint in science or art history or economics or psychology is more Christian or less Christian than another, even the most devout Christian scholar will feel attacked or accused of compromise. Over the last several decades there have been debates (often civil, but sometimes not, I gather) about what it actually looks like to relate Biblical faith to Christian scholarship across the curriculum and departments. I have been party to conversations at Christian institutions of higher learning where some have said the very project of developing some theory of Christian scholarship in business or counseling or engineering is itself unnecessary. So the debates have been hurtful as otherwise devoted church people in various scholarly fields have debated this or that school of thought, asking if it is faithful to be aligned with this movement or set of ideas in the academy. (Just think, for example, of the robust discussions about origins and creationism, intelligent design, Darwinism, and such. Or the debates about so-called Biblical vs. Christian counseling. Or the discussions about whether Biblical teaching is congenial to or opposed to free market capitalism, say. What should we think about scholars who draw uncritically upon Marx and Freud and Derrida, after all? Heck, I’ve seen fights break out over lesser things.)

And, again, to give the context of Heie’s experience and expertise, just add to this mix of conflict in higher eduction the struggles of what a faithful sort of student affairs department might look like, what co-curricular activities Christian colleges should propose, what kind of engagement with the popular arts — rock? hip-cop? — the roles of race and gender within our institutions, ponder what it looks like to be faithful and hospitable to LGTBQ students and/or faculty and other explosive, human issues, and you can imagine that those navigating these areas of cultural and theological conflict become either wizened or jaded, adept and peace-making among differences or hardened or burned out. Anyone who is an institutional leader knows some of this.

I mention all this to say that Heie has written books about peacemaking within the context of Christian higher education and that he has learned a lot. He has been both scarred and wizened and is now a master at this sort of conflict management among differences.

Reforming American Politics is the fruit of an on-line research project Heie developed that – to put it a bit too simply, I fear – invited conversation partners (from within the Christian tradition) to debate various policy questions on line. For this book, then, he interviewed the participants, asking how they felt when this person said that, or that statement was made or that assertion challenged or ignored. It isn’t just a tedious play-by-play dissection of these on-line discussions, but it does offer good summaries and what might be learned by evaluating how the debates unfolded.

Fascinating, huh? I don’t know why any one hasn’t thought of this before. Writing a book about deeper conversations by observing conversations on line, which he called eCircles — even Parker Palmer didn’t think of that! — is brilliant, isn’t it?

Again, his intention seems two-fold. He is firstly asking us how we can engage in on-line (and face-to-face) discourse without getting ugly, and how to better comport ourselves in the middle of heated exchanges. He’s a peace-maker and his guidance on best practices for civility is very helpful, especially as it relates to politically charged discussions.

And secondly, Heie helps the participants and interlocutors come to some conclusions about presuppositions and principles that shape policies. Which arguments are fair and which are non sequiturs and which are straw men and which have Biblical substance; what proposals are right and good and what makes them compelling? Which are sustainable in light of the real world of contemporary politics? Heie, for what it is worth, has served at a Board member one of our favorite political organizations, The Center for Public Justice and this book has a very fine foreword by like-minded civility leader and Christian political thinker Richard Mouw.

Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation asks if we can reach some conclusions not only about how to be pleasant and fair in our discourse, but actually reach some common ground on what a Christian view of politics might actually be? And if not, can we agree to disagree with some sort of fidelity and grace?

I mentioned Mark Noll, the esteemed evangelical historian, who endorsed one of the previous books, above. Noll says “It is hard to imagine a better book for times like these…”  He continues:

 In an age of flaming rhetoric, fractious politics and fissiparous ideology, Harold Heie exemplifies a much better way. The discussions he moderates in this book treat red-hot issues like immigration, health care, economic inequality and money in politics … The marvel for readers will be to see believers airing their differences frankly, but doing so with Christian friendship preserved and Christian wisdom to the forefront.

You see, this book nearly brings us back where we started. We simply must deal with our bad habits of debating poorly and being inappropriate in our hostile partisanship. We’ve got to learn (I’m speaking to myself, too, here) the ways of humility and kindness even within robust discussions about our current affairs. But also, as we talk about politics, as Christians, at least, we cannot sidestep our call to be faithful, theologically informed, Biblically-shaped in what we think of and wish for in our political views. We need to love like Jesus, sure, but we also have to have the mind of Christ.

A House United: How the Church Can Save the World Allen Hilton (Fortress) $16.99 I reviewed this at greater length in a BookNotes last fall. I highlighted it in a column I did for the Center for Public Justice, in fact. Even though it isn’t brand new, I have to list it here. I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t so sure about the title and premise — can the church save the world? But what Hilton means is powerful and poignant, and, frankly, exceedingly practical. In a nutshell, his common sense (but explored with helpful theological substance) argument is this: we cannot help heal the culture wars in our civic spaces until we within the Body of Christ (at least!) learn to respect one another. There are huge theological and ethical differences within various denominations (and even within our own congregations.) Sometimes, we allow our worldly dispositions and partisan political loyalties to trump our affection for our brothers and sisters within the one body of Christ. There may be no more practical and urgent starting point for our efforts to heal the fallout from the cultural wars than for people of faith to love one another. (Sounds a bit like John 13, doesn’t it?)

But here is part of the brilliance of A House United. The author does not expect us to leave all of our political beliefs at the door of the church. We don’t have to all agree! In fact, the gospel of grace and the vision of reconciliation seem to imply disagreement. We should find unity within diversity.

Richard Mouw in Uncommon Decency reminds us that it is fairly easy to be civil with those with whom you agree. And it is easy to be civil if you don’t really have any strong convictions. The goal is to develop the art or spiritual gift of “convicted civility” where we can be gracious especially when we disagree. I think A House United by Allen Hilton could help us get there. May it be so.

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Books on the Arts — A reflection after selling books at the 2019 CIVA conference. ALL BOOKS ON SALE – 20% OFF.

As on on-ramp to a review of William Romanowski’s important, new book Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Faith and Film I reflected in our last BookNotes a bit about our observations as a bookseller at church conferences and clergy events, and things we sometimes hear people say at these events. And things we hear here at the shop.

Oh no, I’m not spilling the beans on any of the personal, poignant stories and struggles good church leaders sometimes share with us – one pastor called me his confidential “bartender” – but just offering this broad realization: many folks (clergy and congregants alike) expect a Christian bookstore to carry mostly books about what we typically think of as religious — spirituality, faith formation, basic discipleship, theology, worship, congregational renewal, Bible study, ministry renewal; that is, churchy stuff.

And we do; when we go to pastor’s events or ministry conferences those kinds of books are obviously most germane. But people are surprised to know we carry books on faith and the arts, on science and work, on play and politics. God cares about all human endeavors and our books can help people – people like you! – develop a uniquely Christian perspective and a set of coherent practices as you engage the world around you. We sometimes call this “whole-life discipleship” showing that followers of Jesus should care about the Word and the world. So many of our favorite books are about nurturing a posture towards and perspective on all areas of life. We reject as unbiblical any principled division between the sacred and secular spheres of life — all of life is created good by God, marred by sin, at once beautiful and broken, and Christ is redeeming it all.

Why people don’t seem interested in books that explore how faith informs what we think about nursing or engineering or leisure or teaching or voting or shopping or town planning or hiking or banking is beyond me. These sorts of books are vital resources for faithful discipleship that you don’t usually hear about in your local church or public library. We know that people are struck by them, perplexed, even. Maybe glad; amused, curious. But such books just don’t sell very well.

Well, we’ve got ‘em and have been called by God to try to make our living trying to sell them. We’ve been thinking about this for nearly 40 years and our selection just keeps growing.

Who knows, maybe the new one coming in early July edited by our lit prof friend Karen Swallow Prior (along with Anglican theologian and director of New City Fellows in Raleigh, Joshua D. Chatraw) will help. It’s called Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic; $29.99) and should at least inspire those with a broad worldview who are willing to have these (mostly, but not exclusively) moderate to conservative scholars stimulate their thinking. I’m glad for the relative diversity of authors and views. With dozens of topics (work, the arts, creation care, immigration and race, reproductive technologies, war, gender, and more) and very thoughtful contributors such as Katelyn Beaty, Vincent Bacote, Robert George, Ellen Painter Dollar, Joel Salatin, W. David O. Taylor, Michael Wear, Tish Harrison Warren, Mako Fujimura, this is going to be a very helpful handbook. Who puts Matthew Vines and Rosaria Butterfield together? Rod Dreher and Andy Crouch?  This book is loaded with fascinating ideas, good stuff to struggle with. You can PRE-ORDER this now if you’d like at our BookNotes 20% OFF. Just use the secure order form page at our website by clicking on the link at the bottom of the column.

Or maybe we just need to remind folks of some of our recent favorites like Tish Warren’s amazing Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP; $16.00) that shows how our worship practices in church can equip us to find God in the sacredness of the ordinary, hour by hour throughout the day. This truly has been one of my favorite books in recent years and it wonderfully shows how we can practice the presence of God in the mundane moments of ordinary living. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should — we love it!

Or, somewhat similarly, we might re-recommend the excellently written and astute little book by Ashley Hales called Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP; $16.00) that explores the concrete (and sometimes tempting) social realities of suburban living in light of gospel values. That is, how do we embody faith in the day to day, finding God’s presence and living Christ-like lives in those sorts of settings of yards and cul-de-sacs and commutes and status and busy, fast-paced lives? Does God show up in your sub-division? Can we think Christianly and live faithfully in the development by the mall?

These books push us to incarnate, embody, live out, the gospel in ways that are not abstract or “spiritual” in some lofty sense. They help us do what Barbara Brown Taylor evokes in her beautifully written memoir An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne; $15.99) about finding holiness in the down to Earth. You know I’ve said often how much I value this good book.

 

All of which reminds me of a book I recently started, the remarkable, energetic, scholarly papers of a conference called Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World edited by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson (IVP Academic; $25.00.) Co-published by the Center for Pastoral Theologians, it includes gloriously stimulating pieces by Andy Crouch and Deborah Haarsma and John Walton and Kristen Johnston and many others on everything from medicine and technology to the insights of Wendell Berry to the role of a robust doctrine of creation in the history of science to the hope for restoration of a renewed cosmos to the significance of beauty in theology. This has much intellectual rigor and has much to do with providing a Biblical resource for scientists, it seems.

And that exceptionally important Biblical truth — This Is Our Father’s World — is the the first theological basis for any engagement with culture and for our interest in, just for instance, the creative arts.

SELLING BOOKS AT CIVA (CHRISTIANS IN THE VISUAL ARTS) – AN EVENT ABOUT CULTURAL RENEWAL, CREATIVITY, ART, AND THE COMMON GOOD

Last week we had the great privilege of sending some books to the remarkable bi-annual conference of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts.) We are grateful for their work and witness these last forty years — they have literally saved the faith of many young creatives and encouraged many to be faithfully allusive in their art work — and we have been honored to provide books for them on occasion over the years.

Special kudos to our friend and supporter Ned Bustard, manager of Square Halo Books, a niche indie publisher who does very fine books on faith and the arts, who staffed our CIVA book table there at Bethel University and told conferees about our passion for selling books. He did a bit of lugging and loading, too, so we are grateful.

Here are some of the sorts of books we took to CIVA, some that you may want, and some that you might want to buy to give to an artist friend you know. Surely you could be a lifeline to a painter or dancer or sculptor or writer or videographer you know. We have more books on this topic than this list, but this gives you a glimpse at some of the best. Spread the word if you can. Thanks.

All books mentioned are 20% off. As always, just click at the bottom of this Hearts & Minds newsletter and click on the link that will take you to our secure order form page. Just tell us what you want. Or, you can always call our Dallastown shop (717.246.3333) where we and our small staff are eager to serve you further.

MOST BASIC AND FOUNDATIONAL – BEAUTIFUL, INSPIRING BOOKS FOR ANYONE

Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity Michael Card (IVP) $18.00 This is a truly fantastic read, both as a Biblical study and a set of wise musings, a lovely look at creativity and the life of Jesus. Some of Mike Card’s own story as a thoughtful songwriter is included, so those who like his good music will especially enjoy this. There is a great appendix, too, offering several short “Letters to a Young Artist” (by the likes of Mako Fujimura, Calvin Seerveld and others) that are themselves worth the price of the book. Very nicely done. In fact, it is much more than “nice” — Publisher’s Weekly called it “stunning” and writer Larry Crabb says, “This book touched my heart as few others.” Yes!

 

Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts Philip Ryken (Presbyterian & Reformed) $6.99 One of the most brief but potent little arguments for the idea of Christian art rooted in a Christian world-and-life-vision. As Hans Rookmaaker used to say, “art needs no justification” and this makes that clear for anyone with doubts, or how God is pleased by our interested in the arts. We don’t want to fall into an idolatrous and unhelpful “art for art’s sake” approach, but we surely don’t want an “art for the sake of a message” approach, either. This is a nice way to begin and the argument is concise and lovely. Give this to any seriously Christian high school or young college student who loves the arts or anyone wanting a succinct starting point.

Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts Steve Turner (IVP) $18.00 Turner is one of the best rock critics in the world; he was the authorized biographer of Johnny Cash, and has done other serious rock bios (Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, and several important works on the Beatles.) His new (and lots of fun) Turn, Turn, Turn: Popular Songs Inspired by the Bible (Worthy; $24.99) shows how the Bible has influenced popular music (from the 50s through nearly contemporary times) and is so very, very interesting. Imagine (now out in a recently updated, 2nd edition) is an accessible, insightful book making a case an “in the world but not of” engagement with culture and the arts, offering a fine foundation for anyone doing creative work out of a Christian orientation. Imagine is especially good for those involved in the world of popular culture, film or the contemporary music scene, since that’s his specialty, but it’s a good book about being faithfully open to common grace in the art world for nearly anyone. Great reading, especially for those who perhaps feel like maybe this isn’t that important or right.

Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture Makoto Fujimura (NavPress) $24.99 Mako Fujimura was just becoming known as an evangelical thought leader, doing impressive abstract art in lower Manhattan when he started writing these ruminations on art and culture. Some of these essays and prayers emerged from his important work post-9-11 when he helped show how the arts can help citizens and neighbors lament and grief and recover from the awful attack. Handsomely designed on good paper, this is a humane, beautiful book to cherish. Makes a great gift and is a great example of a handsome and thoughtful Christian book for those who may not be inclined to read something more directly religious. We often recommend this as one of the first to read in this topic, and you will not be disappointed. Very nicely done.

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life Makoto Fujimura (IVP) $18.00 This potent little volume, a more recent one by Mako, is about the common good, our responsibilities for caring for our culture, and the particular ways in which we can be cultural stewards by feeding our culture’s soul with “beauty, creativity, and generosity.” Good for “creative catalysts” who desire a renewal of culture that yields human flourishing. Why not join with some others in your church or fellowship and read this together and see what comes of it. Excellent. By the way, don’t miss his reflection of beauty and cultural healing as it comes up against sorrow, suffering, and injustice in his splendid, thoughtful study of a transforming book in his life, the famous Silence by Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. Mako’s study, in a very handsome hardback, is called Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (IVP; $26.00.) There’s an excellent, extensive introduction by Philip Yancey.

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts edited by W. David O. Taylor (Baker) $18.00 This is another one of those books that nearly anyone should read and from which nearly everyone would benefit. What a great collection, interesting and upbeat with a variety of contemporary scholars, pastors, critics, patrons, and artists, from Luci Shaw, Andy Crouch, Eugene Peterson, Barbara Nicolosi, Lauren Winner, Jeremy Begbie and Joshua Banner. This really is an excellent collection, particularly useful for local church study. These chapters emerged from a conference at a church, so isn’t only for artists, but for anyone who cares about how the church can affirm and appreciate the arts and artists.

By the way, editor and organizer David O. Taylor has a book coming out in September called Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Eerdmans; $22.00) and we are already taking PRE-ORDERS at our discounted price. Jeremy Begbie is writing the foreword.

Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts Jerram Barrs (Crossway) $18.99 We have an extensive selection of books – at various scholarly levels – of books mostly about literature, so wanted to name at least one. That this also is good for any sorts of creative workers or anyone interested in a faithfully Christian insight about the arts makes this one great for nearly anyone. Barrs is a beloved professor at Covenant Theological Seminary and we stock all of his books, from Being Human (which properly frets about Gnostic influences in some contemplative spirituality) to excellent books on prayer and evangelism, Barrs is really solid. Our dear and trusted friend Denis Haack of Ransom Fellowship has a very nice blurb on the back of this, as does the always-discerning William Edgar. Timothy Keller says it is “the most accessible, readably, and yet theologically robust work on Christianity and the arts that you will be able to find.”

It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99 I love this book and very, very highly recommend it. When a very handsome revision of this classic was released a decade ago, I wrote this:

This one of the few books that I can say with confidence is one of the best we have had the privilege of carrying in our 25 or more years here at Hearts & Minds. It is a collection of great essays illustrated with beautiful artwork (both ancient and modern) and seems to be the perfect book for anyone who needs an introduction to thinking faithfully about the arts from a Christian perspective, or that needs more maturity after having read a bit of the classic stuff for starters (Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer, say, or Art for God’s Sake by Philip Ryken or Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle.) With pieces from working artists like Mary McCleary, Ed Knippers, Karen Mulder, Ted Prescott, and others, it is the best collection of its kind in print.

You can enter the title into the search engine of our archived BookNotes at our Hearts & Minds website to see a few times I’ve commented on it, or see my older review, here. but please know that, I still believe this to be true. It Was Good: Making Art… is just a marvelous book to behold, packed full of wondrous essays and good, good writing that is Biblically faithful and very aware about the issues faced by faith-based artists of all kinds. Highly recommended.

It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99 Okay, this was the sequel to the wonderful It Was Good: Making Art… and I invite you to check out my long review of all thirty glorious chapters, here. If I loved the first, I adored this second one and have revisited many of the chapters multiple times and they always are rewarding. If you know anyone who is at all interested in music, they simply must have this exceptional book, the best book on faith and music of which we know. There are chapters on jazz and classical and blues and children’s music and rehearsal and choir and songwriting and lament. Even a very well written chapter by Calvin College SAO folks on hosting a live concert.  So much. Very highly recommended.

It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99  Ahhh, this is the third in this splendid set of thoughtful books that explore the cutting edge of that line between theory and practice, between significant (but not dense) aesthetics and good ideas and the practical matters that artists face. This one is exceptional in part because it is just about the only book like it that offers good guidance and inspiring reflections about the craft of being a performing artist. For dancers, actors, folks on the road, people managing theaters and doing choreography or filmmaking and the like. What a book! See my longer review, here.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art Madeline L’Engle (Convergent) $15.00 Recently released with a new cover design and compelling forward (by YA novelist Sara Zarr), this little classic is one of the most-often mentioned and certainly cherished books among those who care about this topic since its release in 1980. Sublime. Interesting. A must-have book for anyone involved in writing or the arts. It may be surprising to some how deeply knowledgeable she is about the contemplative tradition, about the Orthodox, about others upon whose shoulders we stand in our understanding of faith, life, the arts, and the creative process. Certainly of interest to arts, but a good, provocative read for nearly anyone.

Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life Thomas J. Terry & J. Ryan Lister, with foreword by Jackie Hill Perry (Moody Press) $14.99 Just the look and feel of this hardback volume sets it apart – it is sturdy, black and white, textured, sans dust jacket. The authors are leaders of humble beast, an underground hip hop music label out of Portland that does important, gospel-centered rap and other hip hop records and concerts. They are not only way cool and authentically down with that scene, but they are wanting to forge a community of artists who are rooted in the gospel and thoughtful about aesthetics, the arts, cultural engagement, social renewal, and the like. For those who have followed the deepening worldview of performing artists like Lecrae or Prop or Sho Baraka or others in those circles, Humble Beast is highly, highly regarded. And so, this first volume in what may become a series of studies is insisting, “God is reclaiming creativity for His glory and our good.” Yep, it’s hip hop meets Jonathan Edwards, or so it nearly seems with Terry & Lister dropping names like Dorothy Sayers and Dostoevsky, Abraham Kuyper and Flannery O’Connor, this study is foundational and wonderfully realized. There are some pretty cool touches to the book too, with some light notations and illustrative graphics and reverse printing on full color pages. Kudos!!

Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery (Revised and Expanded, 2nd edition) Gregory Wolfe (Square Halo Books) $22.99 I adored the first small volume of this that had the minimalist markings of the great Barry Moser illustrating the essays by famous Image Journals editor Greg Wolfe. In this second edition there are many more essays and much more artwork illuminating this wonderful anthology of some of Greg’s best short form essays that appeared in Image from the days it was so masterfully developed under his watchful eye. I love these short pieces on all manner of artful observations, about poetry and paints and movies and rock critics and dance and visual artists. Greg, an evangelical who became Roman Catholic years ago, has this wide vision and learned view and a winsome ability to tell a good story in a short essay. Intruding Upon the Timeless is a great introduction to a major voice in the faith and art movement in the last decades and will appeal to many sorts of readers.

Create vs. Copy: Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination. Ken Wytsma (Moody Press) $14.99 We have a lot of books like this, about creativity and the process of being inspired. I respect Ken Wytsma so much and this is great on the power of imagination. Bob Goff says he is “one of the most creative guys I know” which surely makes it well worth considering. This is good for leaders, for artists, for anyone wanting to develop their God-giving creativity. Highly recommended.

 

Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff Justin McRoberts (Justin McRoberts) $9.99 I love this little book by our good friend Justin, a singer-songwriter, consultant, coach, speaker, and author with lots of social media savvy. He has worked with visual artists and collaborated in all sorts of church and mission project and know much about being a maker. This offers an outline of sorts, with lots of stories, good teaching, and upbeat prose, for exploring your own drive to create.  After an opening thought on “who needs another book on creativity?” he invites us to the journey. There are sections called “Get Your Bearings”, “Map Your Territory”, “Pay Attention to the Weather”, “Course Corrections”, and “Enjoy the Journey.” Lots of ideas for good practices and some hard stuff and some fun stuff. We’re glad to stock this rare little guidebook and know it’s going to inspire somebody out there.

When Poets Pray Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.99  Granted, this is not about the visual arts, but, as a matter of fact, Marilyn McEntyre was at the CIVA event and although she was not doing a plenary session, we sold out of several of her great books – her Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is a favorite and this marvelous thin hardback is nearly sublime. It offers deeply spiritual ruminations on poems (many which you may know, others which you may not) and asks if these well-worded lines and phrases could actually be used as prayers. There are two dozen select “prayer-poems” to learn from and live with. As the publisher puts it,

“Poetry and prayer are closely related. We often look to poets to give language to our deepest hopes, fears, losses–and prayers. Poets slow us down. They teach us to stop and go in before we go on. They play at the edges of mystery, holding a tension between line and sentence, between sense and reason, between the transcendent and the deeply, comfortingly familiar.”

Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life Carol Berry (IVP) $22.00 This brand new book is the long-awaited reflection on the course Nouwen taught (just once) at Yale on compassion, learned by and from Vincent Van Gogh. Ms. Berry audited that class and took copious notes; she was approached by the Nouwen literary estate to write this spiritual formation book that shares what she learned by spending time with Van Gogh under the guidance of Henri Nouwen (who, as we know, loved his Dutch painters, especially Van Gogh.) What a great book, wonderful for nearly anyone who appreciates the arts. Thanks to IVP for doing this fine work and including some nice full color reproductions, too.

Shades of Light: A Novel Sharon Garlough Brown (VP) $18.00 Speaking of Van Gogh, keep an eye out for a forthcoming novel by Sharon Garlough Brown coming this August called Shades of Light. This nicely told story (by the author of the popular Sensible Shoes novels about spiritual direction) while mostly about a young woman recovering from depression and anxiety (and her anguished loved ones and aunt, Kit, who is a spiritual director) includes a whole lot about Van Gogh, who the main character (named Wren) is inspired by. I was actually very deeply moved by how Wren took comfort in the pain and paintings of Van Gogh and how beautifully she could describe the famous correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo. I also enjoyed the vivid description of this novice painter setting out to paint… uh, I can’t spoil it. You’ll have to read it yourself! You might enjoy it too, and be moved by the sorrow and regret and beauty and hope found as someone ponders great art. PRE-ORDER it at our 20% off discounted price today.

THOUGHTFUL, IMPORTANT, NEXT-LEVEL BOOKS ON THE ARTS

Rainbows for the Fallen World Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press) $35.00  Rainbows is certainly one of the most esteemed and often-cited books in the last generation of Christians thinking deeply about faith and art and culture, and certainly a very significant book (from a very significant leader) in the history of CIVA. (Its first edition was published in the 1976, and I treasure my first edition as much as any book I own. For a variety of reasons, it is a personal favorite.) In Seerveld’s many books that we stock, this flamboyant writer colorfully studies Scripture, art history, aesthetics, and cultural renewal, always reveling in the sturdy goodness of God’s creation and the call for an allusive and imaginative human response. Rainbows has a few chapters about what we might call obedient aesthetic life — that is, not stuff just for artists but for all of us. And some wonderfully rich and deeply thoughtful calls to cultural renewal, inspired by his astute reading of various paintings and arts movements. He has a heady chapter about philosophical aesthetics and some inspiring talks about why we need a robustly Biblical framework for imagining the gifts artists bring to our lives. You should know his next book that was released as a follow up to Rainbows was Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Piquant Press; $35.00) which I also adore. And then, we are proud to stock his large collection of miscellaneous and sundry works (such as Normative Aesthetics, Redemptive Art in Society or Art History Revised) which I explained in enthusiastic detail here. Some of this is heavy, but it’s so important, we commend it to one and all.

Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts Hilary Brand & Adrienne Chaplin (IVP Academic) $34.00 This is also surely one of the best books in recent decades exploring a uniquely Christian involvement in the world of the arts. Lots of interesting side journeys cover all manner of scholarly and practical stuff. Chaplin, by the way, took up Seerveld’s chair in aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto when he retired. Mature, thoughtful, important. I sometimes tell the story that I once knew a young art student at a state university who was being told by her advisor in the art department that she simply had to give up her faith, that her efforts to integrate her faith into her creative work was inappropriate and doomed. She bought this book from us, gave it to her teacher who later apologized, saying, “I didn’t realize that this is what you mean by developing a Christian perspective on the arts…” It’s that good.

Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life Jennifer Allen Craft (IVP Academic) $30.00 This fantastic book is the latest in the excellent “Studies in Theology and the Arts” series and the author was a CIVA 2019 speaker. We are thrilled to suggest it to you. For starters, it breaks new ground, showing how Wendell Berry-esque localism is enhanced by art that attends to local space and, conversely, how local artists can enhance awareness, flourishing, and redemptive justice in their local places. There is nothing like this in print, making it a must-read, even urgent book. We reviewed Placemaking and the Arts a bit more extensively when it first came out and we continue to think it is brilliant. It’s good not only for those interested in the arts but for anyone interested in a sense of place, caring about their local region, those doing missional work for the common good. Very highly recommended.

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature and Aesthetics Clyde Kilby, edited by William Dyrness & Keith Call (Paraclete Press) $28.99  What a beautiful book this is, a great volume for your own personal library or to give as a very special gift. Kilby, you may know, is legendary for being an early friend of C.S. Lewis and one of the primary people who influenced American evangelicals to adopt Lewis and his lucid apologetics and his astute literary criticism and, of course, his colorful, creative fiction. He founded the marvelous Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College (where he taught literature for decades.) This collection has been called a “landmark book”  with “breathtaking scope” by an author who has been “profoundly influential.” Luci Shaw says that Kilby “set the course of my life.” The significance of this author and this collection is hard to understate.

There is, in fact, a lovely, handsome, companion volume to this entitled A Well of Wonder: Essays on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings also by Clyde Kilby, edited by Loren Wilkinson & Keith Call (Paraclete Press; $28.99) which explores the seven key British authors who make up the writer’s group known as the Inklings.) In both volumes, the editors have carefully and thoughtfully selected and compiled the best of Kilby’s many essays, articles, lectures, chapters of other books to create two great readers: one on Kilby’s work on the Inklings and the other, more general in nature, on Kilby’s own writing on the arts. These are extraordinary, important, nearly historic, I’d say. Kudos to Paraclete for these two very nice matching volumes.

Arts Ministry: Nurturing the Creative Life of God’s People Michael J. Bauer (Eerdmans) $29.00 There may be some chintzy books on this, some guides that are somewhat self-evident, but this is mature, wise, complex, and well worth having around any congregation that cares even a little about this vital (but often not adequately considered) aspect of local church ministry. Published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in their Liturgical Studies series (edited by John Witvliet) this volume is clearly “the best available guidebook to the emerging field of Christian arts ministry.” There are 18 different illustrative case studies that make this an inspiring and energizing read. The pioneering Catherine Kapikian (of the Henry Luce Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary” calls it “an unprecedented expose on arts ministry – what it is, how it works, and why it succeeds…” written with “unblinking, erudite analysis.”

EXCEPTIONAL BOOKS FOR ADVANCED STUDY

Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God Jeremy Begbie (Eerdmans) $18.00 Of the new books in this field that came out this year, this may be the most important, and certainly one which carries the most amazing endorsements. A musician and a classical composer by training, Professor Begbie is one of the best scholarly voices in this movement, and you should read whatever he writes. This recent book explores, as only Begbie can, the questions of awe and wonder and mystery in the arts. Of course, he “employs a biblical, Trinitarian imagination to show how Christian involvement in the arts can be shaped by the distinctive vision of God’s transcendence opened up in and through Jesus Christ.” Very highly recommended.

See also his recent book about theology called A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts (Baker Academic; $32.00) which advances similar themes. As I said in an earlier BookNotes review, Redeeming Transcendence is about the arts, considered in light of theology and A Peculiar Orthodoxy is about theology, in light of the arts. What an amazing scholar and author he is!

He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art Christian Wiman (FSG) $23.00 Certainly one of the nation’s most esteemed contemporary poets, Mr. Wiman movingly wrote about his return to Christian faith in his 2013 best-seller My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; $14.00.) That was reviewed positively in prominent venues, with Kathleen Norris writing the extraordinary review in The New York Times Book Review. Now at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, this is his recent work exploring theology and art in what Marilynn Robinson calls “scholarship that has a purifying urgency.” It’s a bit dense, has significant interaction with poetry and poems, but for those studying this field, it is one of the most important books published this year. If you are a fan of Wiman’s poetry, or care to read his moving studies of contemporary writers, you will love this.

The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts Cameron J. Anderson (IVP Academic) $28.00 Special kudos to the previous director of CIVA for offering this mature and sophisticated appeal for how contemporary evangelicalism can come to appreciate the arts and how a deeply rooted faith can inspire artists today. This should be on the shelf of any person of faith who is an artist, and anyone who does ministry with and for artists. Many who are in this movement find their editions dog-eared and well used. This is a must-read that is meaty and scholarly enough, without being tedious or obtuse, thoughtfully written with a vast knowledge of the best literature in the conversation, and thoroughly engaging. The Faithful Artist is a great overview, but more than an overview, it is nearly a manifesto. Whether you identify with the evangelical tradition or not, this is a fabulous book. By the way, I’m not fond of the cover and if you are like me, please don’t be dissuaded. This book is beautiful, thoughtful, rigorous, and important.

Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worldsedited W. David O. Taylor & Taylor Worley (IVP Academic) $30.00 An exceptional release in the important “Studies in Theology and the Arts” series sponsored by CIVA, this is perhaps the definitive volume (and will be for quite some time, I suspect) pushing a deeper conversation about exceptionally contemporary art work and its reception within the Christian community. This includes expertly edited versions of talks and panels from the extraordinary 2015 biennial CIVA conference and includes inspiring and provocative transcripts of the wonderful presentations from that gathering. Nearly all the great thinkers and critics and patrons who have forged the foundation of CIVA these last decades are in here. This splendid book is nothing short of spectacular and a great tribute to the profound state of the discussion about this topic. I’m in awe. Order it today!

God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art Daniel A. Siedell (Baker Academic) $26.00 Dan Siedell is a deep thinker and curator who has been a pioneer in writing about modern art from a Christian perspective. The concern of this book is to think faithfully in ways that are germane to the real world of contemporary art moving the conversation about faith, culture, and the arts into the 21st century. Not at all limited to a faith-based cul-de-sac or echo chamber, Siedell is embedded in the real modern art world and is a trusted thinker; this was groundbreaking when it came out in 2008 and remains a must-read standard. He is also the author of, among other works, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? (Cascade Books; $24.00.)

Putting Art (Back) In Its Place John E. Skillen (Hendrickson) $24.95  Many professors and students have admired the wonderful arts-oriented semester abroad program in Orvieto, Italy, founded by Dr. Skillen, a medievalist from Gordon College. This thoughtful book “takes readers on a fascinating journey through the world of Christian art in medieval and Renaissance Italy to rediscover the sacred role artwork can play once again in our churches.” Part historical survey, part manifesto about art commissions and collaboration and a vibrant call for church folks to realize the value of art and insist upon its flourishing. Skillen knows the cultural context of medieval and Renaissance Italian art (and storytelling) and its impact on art history and Western culture. This is a grand and unique book; highly recommended.

Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art edited by James Romaine & Phoebe Wolfskill (Penn State University Press) $34.95 We were particularly glad to hear that at the bi-annual CIVA event in June of 2019 they intended to focus somewhat on the relationships and interfaces of art, social change, cultural transformation, and the unending project of seeking ethnic justice and racial reconciliation. Respected evangelical art historian James Romaine here joined up with Dr. Phoebe Wolfskill, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, to offer a collection of essays that explore prominent African American art. Sometimes these artists engage overtly religious themes; often this work is transformatively Christian. As the publisher explains, these essays “examine the ways in which an artists engagement with religious symbols can be an expression of concerns related to racial, political, and socio-economic identity. We were glad to sell a few of this hefty book at CIVA and are happy to tell you about it now.

Normative Aesthetics: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 This collection of various pieces – ranging from exceedingly dense scholarly philosophy to delightful sermons and brief essays – is the best place to dig deeply into Seerveld’s famously unique (and Biblically sound) aesthetic theories. No one in the contemporary world has done what he has done, and anyone interested in the topic, if they are intellectually honest and at all curious, owes it to themselves to study this volume.

 

Redemptive Art in Society: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 One of my great joys in my bookselling and book reviewing “career” was being asked to provide a quip on the back of this volume as an endorsing blurb. I mentioned how important it is to see art as a gift that can stimulate and be a part of social change, bring shalom and voice to the oppressed. Better, though, are these sample lines from the good introduction by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, who wrote:

Art, for Seerveld, belongs to the very infrastructure of a good society, in the same way that a country’s economy, transportation system, or media network do: “With a vital artistic infrastructure priming its inhabitants’ imaginativity, a society can dress its wounds and be able to clothe and mitigate what otherwise might become naked technocratic deeds.”

Art History Revised: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 As the publisher explains: “The essays in Art History Revisited follow a general course from the historiography of philosophy to the historiography of art and aesthetics to analyses of individual artists like Antoine Watteau and Gerald Folkerts and the theory and practice of artist/aestheticians like William Hogarth and Anton Raphael Mengs. As this selection of essays attests, Seerveld is both well-versed in the history of art and has made significant contributions to this field as well.” I know very little of any of this, and enjoyed learning, and was considerably blessed to see Seerveld in action, to imbibed from his integral worldview and his, deep, Godly passion.

Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of John E. Walford edited by James Romaine (Crossway) $40.00 This is a very handsome, hardback festschrift for a legendary art historian, known for his many good years of teaching at Wheaton College. Each chapter has a contemporary art historian exploring the deep insights of a certain work, or body of work, as they were taught by their teacher, or colleague, or friend, John Walford. A few of the pieces are very, very good, examining the process of Christian art historical discernment (including one I truly loved by Calvin Seerveld.) A rare, specialized collection for those interested in the methodologies of art history.

 

ReVisioning: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art edited by James Romaine & Linda Stratford (Cascade Books) $43.00 We were delighted to announce this book when it came out in 2014, now noting that it is somewhat like the Art as Spiritual Perception, above but more sprawling, diverse and intense. With over 20 chapters (and 350 pages, complete with color plates) it remains a seminal work in the field of nurturing a uniquely Christian art historical method. The publisher explains it like this: ReVisioning examines the application of art historical methods to the history of Christianity and art. As methods of art history have become more interdisciplinary, there has been a notable emergence of discussions of religion in art history as well as related fields such as visual culture and theology. This book represents the first critical examination of scholarly methodologies applied to the study of Christian subjects, themes, and contexts in art. ReVisioning contains original work from a range of scholars, each of whom has addressed the question, in regard to a well-known work of art or body of work, “How have particular methods of art history been applied, and with what effect?” The study moves from the third century to the present, providing extensive treatment and analysis of art historical methods applied to the history of Christianity and art.

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A thanks, an observation, and, eventually, a review of Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning AND Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue ALL BOOKS MENTIONED 20% OFF

In this week’s BookNotes I will review a new book that we think is very good, a lot of fun, and even, I would say, important. It’s important for ordinary folks as well as for those who study this particular field professionally. Its retro cover matches the topic: Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning by Calvin College film studies professor (and excitable film buff) William D. Romanowski (Baker Academic) $22.99. Our 20% OFF ON SALE discount makes it just $18.39.

There are a plenty of things I want to tell you about this interesting new book but I’d like you to indulge me a bit with a bunch of other comments first.

You can just jump right to it by scrolling down to the review itself if you’d rather. You can even just skip to the bottom and easily click on the “order here” tab at end of this column to be taken to our secure order form page if you just want to order it now. We’re ready to send ‘em out.

But first, this.

WE’VE BEEN ON THE ROAD AT SEVERAL CHURCH-RELATED EVENTS

We’ve been on the road a lot this season and we want to thank those who hosted us at big gigs across the mid-Atlantic. Our on-line/mail order business friends say they enjoy hearing about our escapades here and there, so I want to ruminate just a bit on selling books at church events.

I have a particular observation that might sting just a little, but I’m surely not intending to diss our good friends in Lutheran, UCC, Episcopal and Presbyterian (USA) circles; we love doing this off site gigs. My observation will be a segue to telling you more about Dr. Romanowski’s great new book about the movies.

We are tired but yet exhilarated by our work at this recent string of clergy and church events. We loudly thank all those who helped us lug and unload or lug and reload our vans in recent weeks. We couldn’t do this work without the help of friends with strong backs. Thanks to friends old and new.

Over just the last few weeks we’ve gotten to set up big book displays for several great church events. We’ve put miles on the vans and lugged boards and shelves and supplies and boxes and boxes (and more boxes) of books to an Episcopalian retreat with The Rev. Fleming Rutledge (a hero of ours – you should read her many books! Her most significant work is The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ although, The Battle for Middle Earth, her major work on Tolkien’s “divine design” is majestic) to a church education conference with PC(USA) Presbyterian congregational educators, to a UCC clergy convocation (with Sarah Griffith Lund leading as a vibrant speaker whose book Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church explores hard mental health issues in typical churches), to a small academic theology conference about Mercersburg Theology (where we launched a brand new and quite lovely introduction to that 19th century movement by Erskine professor William Evans called A Companion to the Mercersburg Theology in the “Cascade Companions series) to a large central Pennsylvania ELCA Synod Gathering where they re-elected their current very good Bishop.

We are glad to report that our biggest seller at that big gig was the most recent book by our friend Wes Granberg-Michaelson called Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Cenutury (Fortress; $18.99.) Thanks to Bishop James Dunlap from teaching from it.

We often smile about and enjoy the theological diversity in these groups; around the spacious book displays we discuss the theological wisdom of popular authors like Richard Rohr or Diana Butler Bass or Tom Wright or Barbara Brown Taylor and debate the usefulness of words like evangelical or progressive, liturgical or Reformed. I often (unsuccessfully, I might add) try to sell them books like Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon Smith (IVP; $18.00) or Rich Mouw’s wonderful Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels (Brazos Press; $19.99.) I always takes books about ecumenicity and Christian unity such as Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus by John Armstrong (New City Press; $15.95.)

With these folks we celebrate their vibrant churches and share the anxiety about the numerical and financial decline of mainline congregations. We delight in the vision and energy of young, creative (and often quite theologically aware) clergy and mourn the loss of aging pastors that we’ve known for years who are no longer in ministry. We are glad when we hear about how the gospel is being proclaimed and people being served in and through congregations large and small, in cities and towns and rural areas. What a privilege!

We are told over and over that our books make a difference, that our presence matters at these denominational events. Historically, mom and pop Christian bookstores have been part often simplistic pietistic and fundamentalist traditions and have sometimes not been very serious-minded about theology; they have often eschewed working with mainline congregations. When large evangelical chains won’t even carry certain Bible translations or the work of certain publishers, there is good reason for animosity towards Christian booksellers among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. We have been graced by those in mainline circles who have welcomed us, knowing that we are a mom and pop, small town, Christian bookstore whose most core convictions remain orthodox. And we are grateful for those who have trusted us.

We do have good resources for local congregations seeking congregational revitalization, for those doing strategic planning, missional discernment, for those starting spiritual formation groups, revisiting mission statements, searching for a pastor and the like. Whether you want to explore more creative worship planning or are doing appreciative inquiry, or are hoping to move your congregation towards social justice advocacy, we have books to suggest. We have oodles of books on congregational stewardship, on church conflict, on pastoral integrity, on leadership development, youth ministry, and Christian education. Some rather evangelical books can be wisely used by mainline folks and we have tons of books from more liturgical, mainline traditions. We take books like The Art of Transformation: Three Things Churches Do That Change Everything by Paul Fromberg, one of the priests at St. Gregory of Nyssa (Church Publishing; $18.95) or Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom by Adam Gustine (IVP; $17.00.) or the new one by the remarkable Peter Steinke, Uproar:Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman & Littlefield; $19.95) and dozens and dozens more.

Many folks at these mainline denominational events, clergy and congregants alike, it seems are not very aware of the often very thoughtful resources that are out there. From Eerdmans to IVP, from the defunct Alban Institute (whose books are still available!) to broad-minded evangelical presses like Zondervan and Baker, there are tons of resources for congregational health. I wish more church leaders – elders, vestry members, council members, deacons, vicars, and the like – reached out to us and sought out resources to help them with their vows of service to the local church. There’s literally something for everyone. We can help.

A CURIOUS THING WE OFTEN HEAR FROM FOLKS AT THESE EVENTS

But here is what we often notice – and this is the long-in-coming segue to my book review this week: people especially love the books that we bring that are a bit surprising, books that are not about the church, but about the arts or science, creation-care or nurturing a sense of vocation that allows people to serve God in the work-world. One doesn’t need to read Abraham Kuyper who used that great phrase about Christ being Lord of “every square inch” of His creation to understand that God cares about more than our churches. (Although it wouldn’t hurt to get it from the proverbial horses mouth – the third Pro Rege: Living Under Christ’s Kingship volume in the massive Kuyper translation project was just released (Lexham Press; $49.99) offering remarkable insight about cultural engagement from the early 20th century Dutch theologian and statesman.)

People seemed surprised so see that we feature books that remind us that God cares about Monday as much as Sunday. That all of us who follow Jesus are called to obey God by helping serve the common good. That this somehow means being in but not of the world, in civil society, the arts, education, recreation, politics, and more.

(Do please read last week’s BookNotes review of Jake Meador’s new book In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World and note the great chapters about how simple practices of going to church can help equip us to become better civic-minded public servants and good neighbors. As I explained, his study of culture is astute and his call to be active in the local church is so helpful, even though it’s a book about repairing society, healing the world, and seeking the common good.)

(And then back up and read my big review Romans Disarmed and Walsh & Keesmaat’s radical call to be a subversive community that stands with the hurting, even in an age of imperial injustice. There’s so much to be found in their amazing book Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice and even my wordy review doesn’t tell it all.  Both books show that a Biblically-grounded sort of socially engaged gospel depends upon a quality of congregational life that nurtures a lifestyle of stewardship, compassion, and activism.)

As much as mainline church seminary profs like to dabble in edgy and often eccentric theologies that are supposed to be empowering and relevant, most mainline churches are way behind the best evangelicals in fostering conversations around the intersection of faith and science, art, business, work, even racial reconciliation. Few mainline churches (judging from what we hear at these events, at least) are doing much in their churches about relating faith to stuff other than churchy or missionary things. When at mainline denominational events for church folk we display books about art or culture or work or science, there is almost always a bit of surprise. Folks are overjoyed to see Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art or The Language of God and Science by pioneering researcher of the human genome, Francis Collins or Josh Larsen’s excellent Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice our Deepest Longings but you can tell that many have never seen books like that before. People do a double take when they see books about the doctrine of vocation, or books like Os Guinness’s The Call next to books about work and the marketplace. They seem to think that sensing God’s call only means being called to church life or religious things.(Curiously, in many more traditionally evangelical events, it is almost expected that we’ll have books on work and race and art and technology and civic life.) In our recent string of events everybody was delighted when they saw that we had, say, Wendell Berry’s agrarian books or David Brooks’ social criticism or Makoto Fujimura’s artful study of Endo’s novel Silence (in Mako’s wonderful Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering) or Sherry Turkle’s critique of digital culture or Andy Crouch’s wonderful Tech-Wise Family or Robert Capon’s “culinary reflection” Supper of the Lamb or books about sports and recreation. But mainline denominational folks tend not to buy them. They notice — books about faith and food, faith and popular music, books about hiking? But it seems surprising to them. And the pastors, usually, skip right over those things as if faithful reflection about real life doesn’t interest them much.

I don’t know if the surprise is that evangelical booksellers like us are savvy about life in the real world (do they think I’m a little hobbit sitting in a cave reading theology all day?) or that there even is such a thing as a Christian perspective on seemingly secular things like advertising or sports or neuroscience or work or film. This observation vexes me a bit.

BEING ECUMENICAL, YES

Almost everywhere we go we like to display books that honor our deep commitment to ecumenicity. As a matter of principle we like to offer both evangelical and progressive stuff; we always have Roman Catholic authors mixed in with Protestant books. We carry Chesterton and Nouwen and Alexander Schmemmann; Joan Chittister, John Stott and Walter Brueggemann; we feature Bible books by the late Rachel Held Evans and conservatively Reformed Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie. We have books on sexuality by Wes Hill and Matthew Vine and Austen Hartke side by side. Mainline folks rarely buy C.S. Lewis, but we take his stuff and put him near Rowan Williams and Marcus Borg. Maybe it was only to amuse myself, but in a recent display I put John Piper’s little Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons next to our stack of Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice.

But being ecumenical is only one of our passions.

A BROAD VISION OF THE WIDE SCOPE OF REDEMPTION

As you can guess, we are passionate about this wholistic vision – learned mostly from the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Abraham Kuyper and in books like Creation Regained: Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview by Al Wolters and Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation by Paul Marshall and Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living by Cornelius Plantinga – about how we can find God in the ordinary stuff of life and how we are called by God to be faithfully attentive about how to think and live in all spheres of life; no arena of culture or aspect of society or corner of your life is off limits to the saving power of Christ and the renewing power of the Spirit. It hardly needs saying – but yet, in religious circles, it does – life in God’s creation is multi-dimensional. We think and feel, work and play, vote and shop. Theorists of all sorts get at this when they talk about two hemispheres of the brain or when educators talk about multiple intelligences or even when we hear about personality types (like with the recent interest in the Enneagram. As multi-faceted people made in God’s image, we are more than bodies and souls.  Which is why the church must proclaim a big gospel of all sides of life and why faith-based booksellers must carry resources for living in every sector of life and culture.

We are not just “brains on a stick” to use Jamie Smith’s colorful phrase or disembodied souls, like some mystics imply. From sex to science, from law to leisure, God’s creation is the “theatre of God” (to quote John Calvin) so all human endeavor is irreducibly religious. That is, all of life is lived – like it or not – corem deo; before God. We are in God’s world, living before the gracious Holy One, 24/7. As one recent book title by an Anglican leader, Win Mott, puts it, The Earth Is the Lords: There Is No Secular. We may live in a cultural era which is called “the secular age” but that is about the ethos of our time. We can live as if there is no God and our our cultural landscape can be arranged without reference to Christ’s reign, but we our hearts are still committed to some story, something religion-like.  What we really trust can be misguided and our religion can be an idolatrous one, making an idol of our sense of self or some other ideology, but worship we do.

From a Christian perspective, all of life is at once good and bad; blessed, cursed, damaged, and being redeemed and healed by the resurrection power of the Ascended King. We can serve that God of the Bible with all we’ve got or we can allow our hearts desires to move us in another direction with all we’ve got. It’s really pretty simple: as that old hymn puts it, “This Is Our Father’s World” and (as Richard Mouw unpacks in a book title taken from that same hymn) “He shines in all that’s fair.” God is pleased when we do what the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.”

So folks walk into the book room at a conference or, more so, into our Dallastown bricks and mortar store, and see books on Van Gogh and cooking and nursing and engineering – books written often by wise authors calling for reform in the profession or industry — and if they look carefully they will realize that the authors may be people of deep Biblical faith, writing some of these books, integrating, if you will, their Sunday beliefs and their Monday world. From school teaching to lawyering, from math to aesthetics, from farming to journalism, there are Christian authors offering up their workspaces as holy ground, as mission fields. There are people that get what my friend John Van Sloten says in his clever book title (and very excellent book) Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greet, Nurses and Astronauts Tell us About God. Such folks may not be church leaders but they are trying to be salt and light, leaven in the loaf, blooming right where they are planted in the factory floor or work cubicle or sculpting studio or kindergarten classroom.

It is why we often recommend the great collection of Christian graduation speeches about taking up our callings to serve God in professions and careers that I compiled, Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life (Square Halo Books; $13.99) and why I’m sad when people think that even young adults wouldn’t be interesting in such a thing. It is unfortunate, I think, of how few churches honor their college grads. Maybe if we all read Serious Dreams it might help.

One would think one would be delighted to see books about real life in the real world that might make you say, and mean it, “Thank God It’s Monday!”  But, as I say, people smile and seem surprised, and maybe a tad confused.

I GIVE THIS SPIEL BECAUSE OFTEN PEOPLE ARE SURPRISED

I give this little spiel often at our book display at conferences. It seems that I have to explain these kinds of books to most church folks at a church conference when they see – often with delight – that we’ve got books like Watching TV Religiously or Game Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, & Wannabes or Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual or Social Lives or Robert Benson’s spiritual meditation on his backyard called Digging In or that great Square Halo Book release edited by Gregory Thornbury on Doctor Who, Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who. If they look at the table of contents, we are sure to have a little conversation about something in Steve Turner’s book Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment. Who knew there were Christian insights about fashion and video games and comedy?

I was dismayed that a book that is getting rave reviews in places like Christianity Today called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It by Dave Zahl didn’t sell at our recent mainline gigs, even though Fleming Rutledge (an Episcopalian) had a great blurb on the back, and it is published by the ELCA-related Fortress Press. It is an interesting, playful, grace-filled, feisty study of our culture – the sort of things he does at his exceptional website and podcast Mockingbird.

Maybe people are surprised to see these kinds of books because their pastors don’t talk about all this; their adult ed forums during the education hour at church don’t tackle these sorts of things in principled ways. Or maybe it is because (at least the last time I formally investigated this, admittedly years ago) there simply weren’t many Christian bookstores that stocked faith-based books about helping us be whole-life disciples across the whole of life and culture. For a few years I’d call the new winner of the “Best Christian Bookstore” award and ask if they had books on, say, art, or if they had a political science department, or any books about urban planning. Or even books about racial reconciliation. Often the clerk was baffled. We’re a Christian bookstore one dear frontline staffer replied, as if that settled things. Of course God Almighty doesn’t care about art or science or public policy. And these are the best CBA stores!

EYES WIDE OPEN

One book we always take out with us to events is Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Brazos Press; $24.00.) It is a personal favorite written by an old college pal, author of the brand new Cinematic Faith, William D. Romanowski. Decades ago in those critical years, under the influence of older mentors in the CCO, we talked about this “all of life redeemed” vision, learned the deeper meaning of worldviews and social imaginaries as we read Dutch philosophers and colorful Christian thinkers like Bible scholar, art historian, and aesthetician, Calvin Seerveld. Bill nearly memorized most of Cal’s seminal Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press; $35.00) and to this day laughs about helping scholarly, artful Cal learn a bit about popular entertainments. Soon, Bill felt the call to do PhD work in the study of popular culture; these were the days when MTV was a new thing, when film was starting to use rock music in soundtracks (the topic, in fact, of his first co-authored book.) He prepared to make a contribution to the burgeoning field of pop culture studies by getting his PhD at Bowling Green (then the epicenter of much of this academic study, using a bit of critical theory and other new ways to discern what is really going on in popular entertainment and cultural proclivities and social practices. His Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life (Wipf & Stock; $45.00) remains a major work – critiquing, by the way, the very way we assume that there is a difference between high art (that we should study and learn from) and low art, or pop culture (which, well, is just amusement, after all, or so many assume.) That the original cover had a picture of Rocky Balboa and William Shakespeare and Bruce Cockburn made a nice point. Bill was a lit major in college, was a performing artist himself, had worked in campus ministry with emerging adults (through the CCO) and soon became perhaps the leading voice in the early 1990s discussions about evangelical faith and popular culture. He was speaking widely and doing research and meeting important voices in the entertainment industry. (The picture above, by the way, is with the legendary Jack Valenti, the late President of the Motion Picture Association — you know, the institution that runs the Academy Awards and gives out the Oscars.

As you may recall from our BookNotes review, in 2012 he released a major scholarly work, published by Oxford University Press entitled Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. It remains a standard study in the history of film, and especially Protestant engagement, about which little has been written. Romanowski had remarkable access to important archives and did interview with older Hollywood producers, including some ground breaking research into the role religion or didn’t play in the formation of the now famous MPAA rating system.

LOOKING FOR GOD IN POPULAR CULTURE

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (in an expanded second edition) was his first popular level book and it became a perennial best seller. It is still one of the very best books to offer a broad and thoughtful Christian worldview as a lens to help us be faithful and discerning in engaging modern entertainment. From video games to televised sports, from advertising to rock shows, Eyes Wide Open helps us understand how pop culture works, how it both reflects the dominant culture’s values and shapes them. And how it can – from varying viewpoints and perspectives – help us criticize and even be motivated to reform society. (Erin Brockovich, anyone? The Big Short? Dallas Buyers Club? Selma?)

Anyway, Eyes Wide Open is a fine and thoughtful book, only a bit dated, now, and still my favorite resource for thinking in foundational ways about the joys and challenges of watching movies and listening to music and such. If you don’t have it, you should. If you were with us at any of the aforementioned church conferences you probably saw it. Maybe you were intrigued. I know we didn’t sell any.

(By the way, another vital favorite, which we also take everywhere we go – with a more allusive writing style, and a bit more punchy evaluation of important popular culture works – is David Dark’s amazing Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos Press; $20.00.) Don’t you love the cool, old-school juke box on the cover design?

David is the one who wrote The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land that I reviewed at length at BookNotes a month or so ago. Why are some folks surprised that a Christian bookstore stocks and promotes these kinds of books?

And can you help us fix this problem by promoting in your circles books about culture, the arts, society, science, work, citizenship, play, education, health care technology, food, farming and more?

Maybe, at least, you could invite them to subscribe to our free BookNotes so they learn about these kinds of books… we’d appreciate it and it would serve to advance the cause of thoughtful Christian literature.

ANNOUNCING: CINEMATIC FAITH A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON MOVIES AND MEANING

Years in the making, we are very, very glad to get to announce a brand new book by professor Romanowski. As we’ve said, it’s called Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning (Baker Academic; $22.99 – OUR SALE PRICE = $18.39) and I’m reading through it happily for the second time. For anyone who likes going to the movies or can’t wait for the next NetFlex DVD to show up (please don’t tell me you watch films on your little phone!) this big book will be an education and a joy. It isn’t preachy and it isn’t simplistic but it isn’t overly academic. If you love movies, you need this book.

READING DOESN’T HINDER OUR PLEASURE

Let me get this off my chest right away: reading books about various aspects of our Christian discipleship — work, play, voting, shopping, being a parent, being a choir member, considering schooling or health care or gardening, or vacationing, watching movies, whatever – isn’t going to dull our enjoyment of these good spaces where we live out our lives.

No! Unlike the beloved but confused chorus that says when we turn our eyes to Jesus “the things of earth will grow strangely dim,” the Bible says the opposite: Jesus is the Light of the world. In Him we are given light to see (the Bible is, after all, a light before our path!) So knowing God more deeply and deepening our faith and catching a vision of how it connects to various spheres of society and sides of life allows Christ to shine in all of life – we don’t want our marriages or work or our voting or our church life or our entertainment life to grow dim. We are to let our light shine! John 10:10 promises an abundant life, not a dim life.

READING ENHANCES OUR FAITHFUL ENJOYMENT

However, to really shine, to see God’s common grace in ordinary things, knowing something about those ordinary things is essential. Our enjoyment of making and eating good food is enhanced when we read a thoughtful cookbook! Our enjoyment of sports is better when we know some of the nuances of the game. We can even enjoy politics (Lord help us) when we know something about what we’re voting on and why we get passionate about it. Dare I say that some of us might enjoy sex a bit more if we read a book or two about Godly married life. Reading rock criticism or film studies or a book about the nature of digital culture and the like allows us do what the Bible says: attend to and listen to God’s will revealed in reality. (Psalm 19 says the heavens speak to us; Job says to “listen to the fish” and Isaiah 28 compliments a farmer for learning the science of soil and seed. This is basic to life: wisdom and joy come from knowing where we are and learning something about what we’re doing — whatever it may be. Systematic theology and inner spiritual formation and hearty worship cannot replace the need to pay attention to what Matthew Crawford calls “the world outside your head.” Biblical wisdom always is down-to-Earth, often quite literally. Reading and study is necessary and it can truly help us life in fidelity to God’s good ways. It’s as simple as that.

Books help us see and appreciate and develop the creation God has given us. To use the language of Andy Crouch’s essential text, we become Culture Makers who “recovery our creative calling” and can then, as Romanowski puts it, “find God in popular culture.” (By the way, we take Crouch’s Culture Making everywhere we go, too  – it’s such a very, very helpful book to help us find meaning and purpose in our day to day lives.)

Who doesn’t want to understand what it means that we are made in God’s image and therefore called to be creative, involved in culture? Who doesn’t long for more God sightings in daily life? Who doesn’t want all of life to be worship – including, in this case, taking in goofball comedies, romance flicks, or action adventure films? Books like this will help you have more fun at the movies. And, trust me on this: Bill has very eclectic tastes and has a lot of fun at the movies.

(A fun little fact: Bill was led to Christian faith and discipled mostly by a guy who became not only a mentor but one of his life-long best friends. This guy, Dr. Terry Thomas of Geneva College, was himself raised working in a Pittsburgh-area movie theatre that his father managed. Nobody has more fun at the movies than Terry, who Bill mentions in his book. Terry’s love of film, including comedy, is infectious, and Bill learned well.)

MOVIE MUSINGS

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

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

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

READING WIDELY, VIEWING WIDELY

We loved, by the way, having literary scholar and teacher Karen Swallow Prior in our store last fall helping launch her marvelous book about virtue and literature On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. She started her talk, as she does in the book, with the advice of old John Milton, who advised that we “read promiscuously.” The word didn’t have quite the immoral overtones in his 1600s that it does nowadays, but even then, the advice struck some as dangerous. Like Prior and her love of a wide range of reading, Romanowski is convinced that watching a lot of movies of different sorts is a good thing. Unlike literature, where reading widely is mostly admired, though, we tend to dismiss a thoughtful, spiritually aware engagement with our popular amusements.

Some think we shouldn’t watch many movies at all and others think it’s all fine, but don’t want to think about it much — who wants to think much, after all, let alone about God’s Kingdom or our moral formation, when we’re vegging out? Anyway, what’s the point of entertainment, after all?

TO ENTERTAIN OR ENLIGHTEN?

Romanowski addresses this a bit in a section called “To Entertain or Enlighten: That Is the Question.” You’ll have to read his answer, but, again: nothing is secular, so we are always being formed, one way or the other, and all moments in life can be avenues for construing meaning and growing as a person made in God’s likeness. Of course, we don’t have to have a steady diet of Schindler’s List and socially conscious documentaries. Remember, the first “Movie Musing” in this book is on Groundhog Day. And did I mention he likes Rocky?

So. What makes Cinematic Faith an important book, besides being a bit of a sequel to the important and popular Eyes Wide Open? We have literally a dozen recent books on faith and film that have come out in recent years. A genre that was once rather provocative and cutting edge has, it seems to me, become almost commonplace. And we don’t sell them as much as we used to.

Movies and digital entertainment (here in a new golden age of TV) are more popular than ever, taking up more of our time than ever before. (Indeed, we just got a new book by Dan Strange called Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith with Everything You Watch, Read, and Play that carries rave reviews by the likes of Bill Edgar and Tim Keller.)

Still, most Christian people, I’d guess, have never read anything about the relationship of faith and entertainment, have never studied any of the many books we stock on this. We really should, you know; like work or relationships or eating or voting, God wants us to take pleasure in this part of our discipleship, but in a fallen world, things can be distorted and depressing. We have to study up, learn more, deeper our curiosity so we can grow in to maturity in these aspects of life.

But what makes this book on film that urgent? Besides my personal loyalty to my old friend and the reputation of his well-respected work at Calvin College, why Cinematic Faith?

SEVERAL GOOD THINGS

I will name several good things that make this a very important contribution, not only for anyone serious about developing a uniquely and inherently Christian way of approaching film, but for ordinary folks who enjoy a good movie night from time to time.

First, as I’ve already suggested, the good professor is, in fact, a good professor. He is clear and teacherly about critical approaches — theories or ways of thinking about film. He explains how different schools of thought about film can enhance our own viewing. However, again, this isn’t abstract scholarship for insiders; he specifically says that a good approach should be practical and can “provide reliable insights, and sharpen our judgments.”

He is clear and informative and this will be helpful for you. As he puts it, “appreciating what makes movies artistically interesting and effective can make us better viewers and more creative storytellers.”

So: it is practical and helpful. Who couldn’t use a bit of help in knowing better what makes a film good? With this small investment of twenty bucks and time – okay, a bit longer than it takes to watch a movie – you’ll benefit by enjoying movies more. You can even eat popcorn as you turn the pages and nobody will shush your crunching.

Secondly, Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning is valuable because of the author’s main assumptions; that are potent and wise. Again, the primary framework for Romanowski’s work, as we’ve noted, is that there is an insightful, Biblically-informed way to think about film as a cultural artifact, as art. I mentioned (significantly) that he has been informed by the aesthetic theories of Calvin Seerveld (Rainbows for a Fallen World, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, Normative Aesthetics, Redemptive Art in Society) and more, including study and conversations with other philosophers of the arts such as philosophers such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Lambert Zuidervaart as well as pop journalists like the great Steve Turner whose Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts is a great book for anyone wanting to dip into an integrated Christian perspective on art and culture and whose Popcultured I already mentioned.) This means that Bill has worked very hard at a deep level to wonder what it means to take up theories and mindsets that inform dispositions and practices that are not only coherent and consistent from a Christian perspective but that are deeply integral. In this, he doesn’t get all preachy nor does he particularly wear his faith on his sleeve, but he is a reliable, faithful guide. Faith, in his scholarship, is not an afterthought nor is his sense of quality and value in a film based on cheap inspiration. I suppose we don’t have to say it here, but a novel or movie can tell a profoundly immoral story and be brilliantly made and wise; similarly an overtly Christian movie may have a lively religious message but be poorly made. Such films and books can even be dishonest about the way faith works in real life. Some of the most theologically sane movies have be made by deeply troubled filmmakers and some of our worst films are made by otherwise Godly people trying to use the art form for evangelistic purposes.

Art – visual art, multi-media art, literature or pop music – must not be propaganda. In fact, if a piece traffics in cheap clichés and/or pushy messages, it most likely isn’t very good art, which, by definition, must be allusive and imaginative. I’ve already counseled young Christian rock musicians to lay down their guitars and find a pulpit since they seem to think their calling is not to be an artist but to be a preacher. Preaching is a noble (and, at its best, also an artful) calling. But art – and in this case, movies – aren’t mere vehicles of didactic content. Art must, to cite Emily Dickinson, “tell it slant.” For a film, to work well, it must firstly be a good film; that is, good art, imaginatively telling a story.

We all know when a movie or TV show has been ham-fisted, and we feel like we’ve been manipulated or pummeled with a message. Marxists and progressives tend to do this a lot; evangelical Christians too often, too. Even if we tend to agree with the message, it hasn’t been a particularly edifying few hours of entertainment, has it? A good message is usually diluted by bad form or a propagandistic ethos. Conversely, an artistically nuanced and allusively subtle vision can be quietly powerful.

This insight – which is pretty basic, I suppose – has formed in Bill a professional passion (and, after watching a zillion films over a lifetime, a finely tuned craft) for understanding film not merely in its content, but it its style. And this is what makes Cinematic Faith a major contribution to and somewhat unique within contemporary Christian film studies.

It seems to me that most of our best Christian thinkers in film studies (many published by the same good publishing house as Cinematic Faith who over the last 15 years or so have served up a bounty of faith-based scholarship about culture and review of modern movies) have fallen somewhat for this inadequate perspective of how to evaluate film. That is, they spend a whole lot of time and effort to discern the worldviews of the filmmakers, or doing narrative criticism, exploring the story and the content and the message as if every movie has a moral. As Bill himself notes, this is natural—when telling a friend about a movie you’ve enjoyed or when considering with a date what film to see, we ask, “What’s it about?” Nobody first asks what stylistic vision the cinematographer has and to what effect their film-editor worked, as she spliced scenes with the soundtrack? But you know what? Maybe we should ask that sort of question about form and function, about aesthetics and craft. Because, after all, for a film to work it not only needs a good story but that story is told by artists with a point of view that is embodied in their craft, their form, their filmic skills.

“The critical approach presented in this book,” Romanowski writes, “is anchored in the film itself and its unique capabilities as an audiovisual medium.”

He continues:

Even professional film reviewers tend to rely on, “a heavy dose of plot synopsis,” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concedes. They pay very little if any attention to the specifics of the medium, to how film makes meaning with images – with framing, editing, mise en scene, with the way an actor moves his body in front of the camera.”

He sets up our expectations for the book reminding us that:

This book does not propose to replace an emphasis on content with an emphasis on form but rather to treat film as both an aesthetic object and an experience – one that can be exciting, pleasurable, boring, disagreeable, or mind blowing.

This is really important stuff that I don’t see enough about in other such books.

ANOTHER GOOD THING: UNDERSTANDING INTERPRETATION

Further, Romanowski also writes about the interplay of production and reception; that is, our response to a movie is a dance with the filmmakers and her skills and perspective.  Our “interpretive stance” comes into interaction with the worldviewish perspective of the filmmaker and the way in which they tell their story, which, I’d suppose, is itself embedded with all kinds of cultural baggage; the same story can be told from a variety of viewpoints from varying ideologies and perspectives, and different viewers will find meaning in different ways in this whole arty mess. No wonder the evaluations at Rotten Tomatoes sometimes vary so very vividly that conversations about favorite (or hated) films can be explosive.

Again, in Romanowski’s clear-headed prose, he reviews a major point:

The main concern is with the essential relationship between form (the patterns and techniques used to tell stories), content (the film’s subject), style (the filmmakers distinctive use of patterns and techniques), and perspective (the film or filmmaker’s point of view.)

And, oh my, how he later peels layer after layer of different sorts of interpretation – the surface meaning, and the directors deeper meaning and our own interpretive meanings. In this modern entertainment that blends art and outlook, through film-making style and vision, we somehow come out either enlightened in ways that are consistent with God’s Kingdom or we are recruited to other stories, conscripted (to use James K.A. Smith’s word) into false ways of being in the world. That Bill cites his colleague Jamie will be a touchstone to many who have read Smith’s extraordinary three volume cultural liturgies project (or the one-volume summary version, You Are What You Love.) Interpretation matters as we thereby can be more intentional about what movies shape us and in what way.

FOUR BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES

In the second chapter Romanowski offers in a no-nonsense manner four basic Biblical principles to serve as a guide for a productive engagement with cinema. In a few pages he packs extraordinary insight; for some, they might be new insight, or intuitions articulated in sensible ways.

The first of these ruminations is on the role of the arts (which “enriches by subtle disclosure rather than instant clarity.”) These few paragraphs are not to be missed.

Secondly, he offers a rare insight about the sense of the divine that Christian Scripture tells us everyone has, making, therefore, everyone somehow religious, and every film some sort of tribute to the filmmakers or directors “ultimate concerns.” No one is neutral or somehow not making meaning or framing life by some lights; all movies have this avoidable religious/ideological commitment to something.

Thirdly, Romo writes about how faith encompasses all of life and therefore “we should expect movies to deal with our full humanity.” Faith, in this approach, is the context for thinking about all films, not a topic that is only treated in some “religious” films. Our Christian convictions are like a lens through which we see all of life and can help us evaluate all films – that is, we aren’t just interested in overtly religious messages.

Lastly in this short section he explains what the Reformed tradition, at least, calls “common grace” – which carries the reminder that even if we always have a critical, aware, posture, we must never “lose sight of the fact that all people have the capacity for creativity and truthfulness.” Oh was a generous and important insight, especially in these days of deep polarization.

THE GOLDEN RULE FOR FILM CRITICISM

And then, Mr. Romanowski gives us The Golden Rule for Film Critique:

Together these four principles lay the groundwork for a two pronged approach that is both discerning and exploratory, characterized by encounter and dialogue. With this approach comes a certain attitude. This way of doing film analysis recognizes and values diverse perspectives, while also maintaining the importance of one’s own perspective in thinking critically about cinema.

The next few pages are, again, worth the price of the book, reminding us of the ups and downs of this process and posture. We must understand the value system of the film. Yet, we must be open to how other people (made in God’s image) experience and interpret life. Movies change us, and this isn’t altogether a bad thing.

Read this great little excerpt:

How can we critically engage film in imaginative ways that are mindful of and consistent with a faith perspective while also respecting the filmmakers vision and artistic expression? Or, to give it a slightly different twist, how are we to engage movies that are artistically praiseworthy and culturally significant but contain ideals and assumptions that might run against the grain of our own? Becoming impartial critics — fair and just in our judgments, and rising above our own prejudices – is easier said than done. Who would deny adhering to one’s own agenda when thinking about a film? The risk, of course, is that we might fail to refuse to give a filmmakers viewpoint a fair appraisal, or we might find it difficult to even appreciate an honest artistic effort.

Cinematic Faith advises us to engage a film on its own terms, “to resist the temptation to unfairly impose your own point of view, which adhering to your own vantage point as a place of reference to understand and think critically about the film. This calls for,” the author continues, “an approach that plays itself out along the border between conviction and humility.”

And with this, we’re really off to the movies!

MOVIEMAKING MAGIC

Chapter three is called “Moviemaking Magic” and here Romanowski unpacks“poetic portals and the power of perspective.” He starts with a splendid reminder of the Scorsese film Hugo, which is adapted from the great children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret – a spectacular YA story about a turn of the twentieth century French filmmaker. This is a great chapter reminding us about how stories really work, how filmmakers interpret reality and how we viewers then bring our own deeply felt value judgments to the experience of the film. He cites some other film scholars who talk about “imaginative orderings of experience” and a few other heady notions but this is really important and very interesting.

FORM AND CONTENT

He moves then into a chapter that might be considered a key one for Cinematic Faith, working more on what makes this book particularly special – the matters of style and craft and film-making (and not only content or message.) This part is called “Creating an Illusion of Reality: Film Form and Content.” Here we get into the weeds a bit, but it’s really fascinating. His first discussion as he teaches us about this is of 1995’s witty coming-of-age film set in Beverly Hills high school, Clueless. (Did you know it is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma and critics said it had a “razor sharp script”?) Professor R names a dozen other movies in as many pages exploring this dual emphasis of style and content, of medium and message, if you will. I am no expert on this, so I learned a lot and I am convinced it is important.

I recall decades ago Francis Schaeffer saying that, just for instance, a movie about nihilism, say, couldn’t be well told if it was lighthearted; form somehow is related to function, right? Bill used to give talks about this stuff when we worked in campus ministry and I recall him speaking about how a beautiful/joyous concept can’t be captured in ugly forms; different styles of songs are suited for different settings – from a wedding night, say, or to a tragic funeral. One can’t express the heart-wrenching sadness of a tragic death in a peppy little disco tune, right? Good cheer and gravitas have their places, and aesthetic form carries much of the weight of these human emotions, in music and TV and dance and other art forms. And so it is in film, perhaps even with style trumping content, sometimes. Ideally, Romanowski says, “form and content are essential and mutually dependent aspects of a film — two sides of the same coin, so to speak.”

So, naturally, we should know a bit about cinematic tools such as narrative, cinematography, production design, sound, acting, and editing. Under his helpful tutelage we learn not just what happens in a film, but the way it happens.

And – bam! pow! — he sure gives us lots of examples of just what he’s talking about. From the special effects team in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince showing the Death Eaters flying to some sexy opening shots in Top Gun that places gender in the center of the story, to great, if brief, comments about the much-awarded cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who, Romanowski reminds us, won an Oscar three years in a row for Gravity (2013), Birdman(2014), and in 2015 for The Revenant) this section is chock full of quick examples and fun illustrations and even movie stills.

On and on we go through this book, covering all sorts of things that are fun to learn, helpful to realize, wise reminders and fresh formulations. This book could serve as a good read for a film-going group or a college class or a book club. Again, you’ll enjoy movies more and be more faithful (Christian) viewers if you learn a bit. It shows how filmmakers connect the dots by exploring further the relationship between “style and meaning.”

Romanowski opens this good chapter by highlighting a debate in Commonweal about a Catholic film critic who appreciated a fundamental moral center to movies like Pulp Fiction. In answering the popular critics who thought he went too far in affirming the goodness of a violent film, reviewer Richard Alleva replies, “I will persist in recognizing the morality in art by exploring the art in art.” What an interesting line; Romanowski jumps from there into the insights we can get when we have enough awareness of these things to relate a film’s form and content and style – especially when the film itself is artful enough to harmonize these features.

EVALUATION & CRITICISM

This notion that we can be redemptively Christian in our interpretations (by being savvy about film style and enjoying a movie as an artfully constructed story) has long been part of Bill’s strong repertoire. But his scholarship over the years (in academic film studies journals and papers presented at mainstream academic conferences) has been on the “American style” redemption that movies often present us (and how those often violent myths are a different sort of redemption than that offered by Christ and the Christian gospel.)

Others have written about this as well, but I appreciate Romanowski’s take – in one chapter he looks at Titanic “a consummate Hollywood blockbuster film” (which explores melodrama) and in another chapter (“The Yellow Brick Road to Self Realization”) he looks at classical Hollywood cinema and the tropes and values inherent in this sort of storytelling. You’ll be surprised to see how he weaves together comments about Oz and Casablanca, The Big Short and (get this) Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Even those not interested in action adventure movies will appreciate the chapter called “A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do” in which he offers his seriously Christian worldview and faith-based guidelines to explore a whole host of important issues in this popular genre. From stuff about gender and violence and heroism he brings new insights to films that he sees connect to this particularly American mythology. He has a “Movie Musing” here on 2014’s Noah – “a big-budget Hollywood epic drama conceived as a variation of sorts on the American mono-myth.” That was a surprising (and compelling) take on what I supposed was just a nod to the religious market by doing a Bible story.

And then he goes from he assessment of the conventional American myths to a full-on study of gender in mainstream Hollywood. As a guy with long-standing sensitivity to the critiques of machismo, a critique he has himself been making for decades, this chapter, called “Stop Taking My Hand!” (which is a line from Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), looks at “gendered cultural patterns” about the ideal man or woman. Do these images reflect our values and assumptions or shape them? What might the recent interest in strong female characters bode for film and storytelling? With explorations of Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) to Hilary Swank’s awarded winning Maggie Fitzgerald being trained in boxing by Clint Eastwood’s character in Million Dollar Baby, Romanowski brings fascinating and I think wise insight to questions of gender and sexuality and relationships.

He does not particularly address films about LGBTQ characters, by the way, but his framework about being critical of American mythologies of traditional gender assumptions (he reads the Bible as offering a trajectory towards egalitarian justice) could provide tools for a positive Christian engagement with all sorts of films around those themes, as well. There are a host of other topics and issues in contemporary culture that his film studies approach will prove generative for us as we seek to “find God in popular culture.” His gift to us, besides lots of musings on lots of specific movies, is a deeper framework and wise orientation to film interpretation, appreciation, and evaluation.

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

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

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

FILM AND THEOLOGY?

A final comment about why on some occasions, it seems, church folk (almost all of whom surely watch TV and movies) seem surprised when we have books displayed at their events like Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective…

I think it is because some religionists and many common people in the pew seem to think that all God cares about is church and maybe the study of theology.

And, you see, technically speaking, Romanowski’s book is not about theology (proper) or even “in dialogue with” theology or church leaders. It is deeply Christian, particularly standing in this reformational tradition, that doesn’t favor theology over other areas of study. He teaches at a Christian college, but he isn’t a theologian. He attends his church, but isn’t primarily a churchman. He’s a (Christian) film professor and a movie-watcher. He wants to offer us a faith-based, Christian perspective on film making and film viewing, for film makers and film viewers whether they do theology or church work, or not.

He wants to equip us to live our ordinary faith before God with intentionality in ways that are distinctive to this side of life – leisure, entertainment, the arts. That is, he isn’t pretending to do theology and he isn’t particularly asking theologians to chime in. And I think that is as it should be.

And yet, that is an approach that is so popular (also in the sciences, it seems) that it’s nearly a school of thought, with many books that invite us to listen in on a conversation between film buffs and theologians. Can you see how that is a bit different that what Romanowski’s project is? He doesn’t privilege theologians and the book isn’t about theology: it’s about movies and entertainment and those moments of allusion and imagination and nuance and artfulness we experience went we enter into a creatively told story. It is for artists and those of us eager to open up our aesthetic side of life, even in our entertainments, our play, our going to the movies. The recent movement of conversations between film-makers and theologians is fascinating, and many books with that approach have chapters that are nothing short of brilliant. But most are doing this rather arcane project – uniting Christian movie lovers with Christian theological scholars. Romanowski, in Cinematic Faith, as he has done throughout his career, has engaged mainstream film studies and taught us ordinary folks how it all works. Informed by good scholarship – from an integral Christian social imaginary and Biblically-grounded life perspective, to be sure – he helps us all be more attentive and faithful, even in our entertainments. In this regard, Cinematic Faith is for us all.

ONE MORE GREAT RECENT BOOK ABOUT FILM & FAITH

Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue Robert Johnston, Craig Detweiler and Kutter Callaway (Baker Academic) $26.99 As I’ve hinted above, I’m not inclined to be particularly interested in seeing what theologians, as such, have to say about film studies. A book about movies that has churchy stained glass on the cover strikes me as awkward. This sort of approach just seems somehow off to me, as if we have to somehow sanctify the ordinary act of watching movies not by thinking Christianly about movies (as Romanowski would argue) but that we need these professional thinkers about theology to make it so.

For what it is worth, I’d similarly say that that businesspeople need a Christian view of economics, not a “theology” of business and that, likewise, Christians in the sciences, say, need a faithful view of their research in God’s good world, a Christian approach to to the philosophy of science, less a “dialogue” with “theologians.” That these important authors of Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue (who have also done several other significant books that emerged out of their Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary) are all fine gents who served at a seminary probably makes this approach a natural in their world, I suppose. And, in this case, it sure is interesting, I’ll give that. Wow.

I just seem to discern – and I admit this may be a little unfair – a lurking dualism, rooted in the “sacred vs. secular” dichotomy that actually evolved in the church from pagan Plato, in this talk about a “secular” profession (business, science, art) needing to be “in conversation with” theology. Theology is an interesting, important, specialty, but why somebody with that specialty is privileged to be a necessary conversation partner conjures up for me an image of some some sacred/spiritual icing on the secular cake where faith is an ad-on, perfunctory. I’m sure they wouldn’t put it this way, but it nearly sounds as if secular movies can’t be discussed Christianly with Christianly-conceived aesthetic theories and coherent film studies approaches by movie makers and movie goers unless the religious guys from the theology department bless it all. It’s a caricature, I know, and a bit picky on my part, but it’s what this “theology of..” or “theology and…” lingo too often connotes.

Having said that, I was gobsmacked by how much I loved this Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue book.

Yes, I loved this book and found it hard to put down.

I can’t explain it all in detail now, but allow me to say I think this is the best volume yet to come out of this Reel Spirituality movement, and there have been some good ones (we we stock them all.) The authors really know their stuff, tell some personal stories about moments they’ve had at the Cineplex and I found it very enjoyable, quite stimulating, and even provocative. I’d highly recommend it as a follow-up or companion to Romanowski’s must-read  Cinematic Faith.

Listen to Stefanie Knauss of Villanova University as she raves about Deep Focus:

Offering great movie choices, insightful analysis, wonderful prose, rich knowledge about film and theology – this book has it all. It’s a great read for all who are interested in the field of film and theology and offers the necessary tools to engage in this conversation in a knowledgeable, substantial way.

The publication of this new book this season – called “engaging, fluent and timely” – is curious. Romanowski, in his neat book, implies (but does not rail out loud) that too many Christian film studies volumes overestimate the role of content and underestimate the role of style, the art of the filmmaking craft. As we’ve seen above, Professor Romanowski suggests this isn’t adequate, that we must see how the aesthetics of the art of the filmmaking and directing and acting crafts influences how we then engage the movies themselves, as films. He suggests, as I’ve implied, that not enough of the Christian books on film do this that much.

And he’s on to something. Funny — I read one academic review in a scholarly journal once suggesting this same thing; a thoughtful Christian film prof was saying we simply have to get beyond a moralistic evaluation of a film’s content/message and pay equal attention to the art of the film and its production. And then that scholar continued on with the essay citing example after example of content, with hardly any word about angle of vision or editing or sound or even acting. That is, even those who say that we need a more aesthetically nuanced view of the art of movie-making, rarely get around to doing it.

Happily Deeply Focused: Film and Theology in Dialogue really does do a good measure of this, making it a very up-to-date, delightful, informative, and valuable contribution to those wanting a better Christian understanding of film. In this regard, at least, I’m sure Romanowski would applaud Deep Focus and how it helps us see the importance of the very stuff he is writing about. Kudos to Johnson, Detweiler, and Kutter for making this a central – and very enjoyable – part of Deep Focus.

There are three good chapters in Deep Focus that are entitled “Fade In: A Narrative Lens” and “Sights & Sounds: An Audiovisual Lens” and “Where Form Meets Feeling: A Critical Lens.” This is really, really good stuff, although I suspect I appreciated it all the more because I had just finished Cinematic Faith which alerted me to the need for such good material.

These authors do bring rather in-house theological terms to how they approach their topic – seeking an “ecclesial lens” and a “theological lens” and an “ethical lens” in other chapters.

In the chapter offering “an ecclesial lens” they are showing how God’s people in Christ’s church have been diverse in how we’ve engaged the culture and have held differing postures of appreciating or appropriating modern art, cinema, and popular movies. This is a bit obtuse at times, but they are trying to invite us to get beyond our historical debates within the church about film and the popular arts. They bring in lots of theologians (Tillich, Niehbur) and spirituality writers who will appeal to those who want this sort of churchy dialogue. It is interesting to me that the neo-Calvinist Romanowksi mostly quotes film critics and Christian philosophers and reviewers and rarely cites theologians as such.

 

The Deep Focus chapter exploring a theological lens is subtitled “Discerning Mystery” and, again, it is fascinating. I truly enjoyed it – like I loved Movies are Prayers by Josh Larson. The trio of Reel Spirituality authors tell very moving stories, actually, about their own film-going experiences and make a case for watching movies as a spiritual experience. Well, who doesn’t want that? I really appreciate this, and use this sort of “practicing the presence of God” sort of language to a contemplative approach to life fairly regularly. But, again –why must an experience of the arts before God’s face in God’s world be somehow a “spiritual” experience? Why can’t it just be a human experience, aesthetically charged as storytellers edify us with their search for meaning? What if we just have a good belly laugh or found ourselves strangely moved by touching romance? Sure these “common grace” gifts are a blessing from God but must they become mysterious encounters with the numinous in luminal space? You know what I mean?

Again, I almost sense a lurking dualism here, as if the “secular” art of movies has to be justified by bringing it into dialogue with theology and validated if it is a devotional experience. Sure some movies move us to tears and for Christians their tears are holy unto the Lord. But this move to make movies “spiritual” in search of an encounter with “mystery” somehow seems a bit fragmented. We don’t have to have a “dialogue” with theologians or have a “spiritual” experience to watch a movie faithfully.

I suspect that these scholars would all agree, actually, so perhaps I should just receive their deep focus approach as another helpful tool for all of us to sense God’s presence in all things. There is absolutely no doubt that Johnston and Detweiler and Callaway are real film buffs and it is clear they have friends, literally, in the film scene in Hollywood. (Fuller Theological Seminary is near Hollywood and they’ve been in extraordinary discussions with real filmmakers and producers and directors, with those who write screenplays and win awards for costuming and who are actors and actresses on the silver screen. They know their stuff and they’ve offered us important, inspiring stuff. In a back cover blurb, Terry Lindvall calls them “ophthalmologist of the cinema.” I love that!

As faith leaders who are obviously serious disciples of Jesus, we should listen to them and their good call to media literacy. Lindvall is correct in saying that:

This stellar work invites readers to join an ongoing conversation among some of the most cinematically literate companions one can find.

So, pass the popcorn and let’s get going, reading Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning and Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue. Let’s surprise our churchy folks and show that followers of Jesus do not keep their faith to themselves, cordoned off from real, ordinary life. Lets help get that surprising message out there — that God cares about all of life and that we can (we must!) find ways to relate Sunday faith to Monday work as well as to our entertainment habits. Learning to be intelligent and wise and faithful in our discussion of and appreciation for contemporary movies is a great way to work that out, learning to discern God’s power and presence even in popular culture.

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Two new Library of America editions of Wendell Berry essays AND “In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World” by Jake Meador ON SALE – all books mentioned 20% OFF

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Last week’s BookNotes review was a long, complex overview of the breathtakingly vital, very important (and not a little controversial) Romans Remixed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press – regularly $26.99; our sale price = $21.59.) Reading this book will help you understand your Bible better and help you gain a better vision for dedicated Christian living in these trying times. In my review I insisted that it is one of the best books of the year, certainly one of the most stimulating, informative, and compelling Biblical studies books I’ve read in years. They use a variety of teacherly devices to help us understand what life was like under the debased and violent Roman Empire and how revolutionary Paul’s letter was in the ears of the first hearers. Far from an abstract theological document about atonement theory and predestination and personal salvation so we know who goes to heaven, it is a manifesto about unity and inclusion and justice and stewardship and God’s Kingdom coming as Christ is increasingly seen as Lord – a political phrase in those years. If Christ is King we can resist the false machinations of the current fake empires, live in ways more subversive to the idols of that age and, quite practically, filled with this humble goodness that comes from God’s grace, we can welcome others into the safe home that God’s people themselves are becoming. This is potent, missional stuff, directly inspired by a close reading of Romans.

As I explained, Romans Disarmed book fits well within the decades of work and witness and writing Brian and Sylvia have done. They are a bit rare — academics who publish in the finest scholarly journals who work an organic farm, stewarding it well with old ways and some innovative permaculture approaches. (And they have animals and heirloom tomatoes and do workshops on all kinds of homesteading skills.) Plus, they have served among the homeless in Toronto, done campus ministry with college students, have mentored young adults in starting social service ministries and justice-seeking businesses. (Check out this video about 541 Eatery for instance; the house manager was an intern at Russett House Farm and Brian supervised his Masters thesis in theology at Wycliffe College.)

In case you missed it, I noted that Brian and Sylvia did a previous book in this same creative genre – an amazing, potent, radical, application-oriented (conversational) creative commentary called Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic; $28.00; our sale price at 20% off = $22.40.) In that column I named some of their other books as well.

Which is all just a way of saying that their broad intellectual and life influences, their years of research and writing and their fruitful leadership has made them into the sorts of authors we want our customers and friends to know about. Agree fully or not with this robust new (or is it ancient?) reading of Romans from the margins, it is one you should read.

We hope you are glad for this advice from us here at the shop (even if it is a hard adventure further up and further in.) You most likely aren’t going to hear about this book in the evangelical bookstore chains or the secular mega-stores. We would be honored if you ordered it from us.

It pleases us greatly that we have had the pleasure of shipping a bunch of these out this past week. Romans Disarmed, we think, might now be our best seller of 2019 (which, given our small scale, isn’t saying that much, I realize.) We don’t have the exact numbers but it is vying with Fleming Rutledge’s Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday (Eerdmans; $18.00; our sale price = $14.40) as a bona fide Hearts & Minds bestseller!

Rev. Rutledge has an excellent book of sermons on Romans as well, called Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Roman (Eerdmans; $22.00; our sale price at 20% off would be $17.60.) It would make an ideal companion – more conventional, but powerful, eloquent, and inspiring. She has deepened her own positions on Pauline teaching in her more recent, award-winning, nothing-short-of-magisterial The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans; $30.00; our 20% off sale price = $24.00.) I wasn’t kidding when I said in that BookNotes review that I’m hoping that some of our best Paul scholars – Fleming Rutledge, Tom Wright, obviously, and friends like Michael Gorman will weigh in on Romans Disarmed. I suspect that they would have much in common and a few significant differences, and a bunch of quibbles about exegesis text by text by text.

There have been a lot of books on St. Paul, lately. Those of us who don’t read a lot in this field may not know it, but it is stimulating to find the various scholars who are helping us solve our problems with Paul. Of course, we have raved about the novel-like biography of Paul colorfully written by N.T. Wright called Paul A Biography (HarperOne; $29.99; our 20% off sale price = $23.99) and we highly recommend it.

Here are a few others:

  • Four Views on the Apostle Paul edited by Michael Bird (Zondervan) $19.99
  • Reading Paul Michael Gorman (Cascade) $22.00
  • Paul: An Apostle’s Journey Douglas Campbell (Eerdmans) $22.00
  • The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica (Baker Academic) $26.00
  • Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives edited by Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica (Eerdmans) $20.00
  • Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel Jeremy Gabrielson (Pickwick) $26.00
  • Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons John Piper (Crossway) $14.99
  • The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking Craig Keener (Baker Academic) $29.99
  • Paul and His Recent Interpreters T. Wright (Fortress Press) $39.00
  • Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission Jackson (IVP Academic) $20.00
  • The Damascus Road: A Novel of Saint Paul Jay Parini (Doubleday) $27.95
For any of these, we’ll deduct 20% off the regular retail price, which we show above. Send us an order if you’re interested. Or email, asking for other suggestions…

We need serious evaluations of Romans Disarmed from the Biblical guilds and scholars and theologians and preachers but we also need reviews “from the margins” or at least those in the trenches. Does this book equip those who are doing front-line Kingdom ministry “kicking at the darkness”? If you are working to alleviate the injustices of our day – the crass militarism, the sexual abuse, the way the Trump administration is undoing environmental policies, the raging hostility against immigrants and the apathy towards refugees and such – I’d love to know if Romans Disarmed helps. I think it will.

If you are a campus minister or youth worker or one who hangs out with those who are on the fringes of faith; that is if you are an evangelist or friend of the un-churched, I wonder how this can help you share the gospel more faithfully? I think the way Brian and Sylvia interact and reply to the good questions their fictional interlocutor raises would be very helpful to model healthy conversations.

Or maybe you are feeling a bit stuck these days, maybe in a safe and solid suburban life, with a bit of privilege and a conventional understanding of God’s grace as explained in Romans, but you’re seeking something more, something to pull you out of the doldrums, the churchy routine, the too-often uninspiring devotions. Know anybody like that? Know someone who maybe needs a shift in perspective and some renewed energy to move deeper into Christian discipleship? If you need to have your world rocked a bit, Romans Disarmed will shake some truisms you thought you knew and push you into some wild waters. Hang on, and go for it. It could save your life!

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One of the significant influences on Brian and Sylvia – starting years ago – has been the potent cultural criticism and refreshing agrarian worldview of farmer/poet/novelist/public intellectual Wendell Berry.

Rather than merely reminding us not to spend so much on consumer goods and pressing us to avoid plastics and toxic junk, they (channeling Berry) invite us to a stewardly vision of life, rooted in a sturdy view (and a quite Biblical view) of creation.

Practical books come to mind as helpful resources for more simple living like Nancy Sleeth’s delightful and very inspiring Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life (Tyndale; $14.99 – our sale price = $11.99) and wise, profound books like Norma Wirzba’s Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Brazos Press; $20.00; our sale price = $16.00) and A.J. Soboba’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop Road (Brazos Press; $19.99; our sale price = $15.99) which are exceptionally helpful to shore up the Christian lifestyle proclaimed as good news in Romans Disarmed.

All of these books – some of our favorites – have (at least) one big thing in common. They not only perfunctorily quote Berry (nearly a requirement in some hip circles these days) but they take his work seriously, they read him deeply, they actually commit themselves to “practice resurrection” taking cues from creation and new creation, law and prophets, wisdom and gospel, and the “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” poem.

If you want to deeply understand Walsh & Keesmaat you not only have to read uber-texts like Dooyeweerd and Goudzwaard, Wright’s New Testament and the People of God and Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and anything written by J. Richard Middleton (not to mention listening to the albums of Bruce Cockburn) but a whole lot of Wendell Berry. A whole lot of Wendell Berry.

Who doesn’t love his fiction, such as the popular Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter? What great stories they are, lovely, calm, mature, wise, and perfect for summer reading. We just received the re-issue edition of the previously out of print short story collection The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership (Counterpoint; $16.95; our sale price = $13.56.) We hope you have at least a few of his poetry collections. But to understand Wendell Berry’s impact on so many of us, and how his work has influenced Romans Disarmed, you have to study his serious non-fiction essays and his several long-form books.

BRAND NEW LIBRARY OF AMERICA EDITIONS OF WENDELL BERRY ESSAYS

It brings us great delight to announce the release this past week of the prestigious Library of America’s simultaneous publication of two handsome, sturdy cloth hardbacks (expertly bound with high quality, acid-free paper, Smyth-sewn binding, even ribbon markers) of some of Wendell Berry’s most significant essays.

As with a rock star’s boxed set compilation or “best of” double-album collection, fans will endlessly debate why this piece wasn’t included or why that work wasn’t honored. Let the arguments commence for those fans that are true Berry aficionados. For most of us, we need a reliable introduction, a good, well-chosen collection and these are almost perfect. There are other introductions – The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (Counterpoint; $16.95; our sale price = $13.56) just came out in paperback and isn’t bad, although it is missing some vital stuff, and the great Wirzba-edited Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint; $15.95; our sale price = $12.76) is very nice, but specifically oriented to (as the subtitle denotes) his farm-oriented, agrarian writings.

So these new, handsome Library of America editions are wonderful and fill a real need for those wanting such a good collection.

There are three ways to buy them. There is volume 1, offering work from his earlier years, there is volume 2 which includes more contemporary writing, and there is the boxed set of both, entitled Where I Stand that comes in a very nice slip-case box. What a treasure!

Wendell Berry: Essays 1969-1990 edited by Jack Shoemaker (Library of America) $37.50 OUR SALE PRICE = $30.00

Wendell Berry: Essays 1993-2017 edited by Jack Shoemaker (Library of America) $37.50 OUR SALE PRICE = $30.00

What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017 Boxed Set edited by Wendell Berry (Library of America)

$75.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $60.00

 

 

 

 

 

For those wanting to dip into Mr. Berry’s extraordinary fiction world – all of his novels and short stories are set within the membership of the same fictional Kentucky community, haphazardly scattered over more than a century — Library of America has published (and we have announced, previously) the first of a several volume set of his stories and novels, arranged, cleverly, in fictive, Port Williams historical order. That is, they are not chronological based on when Berry wrote or published them, but are ordered within the historical unfolding within Berry’s Port Williams world. We don’t know when the next volume is coming but this LoA is very, very nice.

Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II edited by Jack Shoemaker (Library of America) $40.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $32.00                                  This includes Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, A World Lost and A Place on Earth  

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In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador (IVP) $25.00  BookNotes 20% OFF = $20.00

Oh my, this is another one of those exceptional books that to describe well I simply have to use superlatives. In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World is a truly remarkable book and, yes, surely is in the running for one of the Hearts & Minds choices for the very best books of 2019. You can pre-order it easily by using our order form link shown below. We’ll deduct the 20% off BookNotes discount and send it out when it arrives the third week of June.

In Search of the Common Good travels some ground that other important authors have explored lately – which is a good thing, underscoring and adding to a often dense conversation about what ails our culture previously, as studied by the likes of James K.A. Smith, Alan Noble, Nancy Pearcey, and those who invite us to redemptive, human practices to counter the harsh pace of life and what Noble calls (in his Disruptive Witness) “our distracted age.” Several of these authors explain the heavy philosophy of Charles Taylor, who famously wrote the academic bestseller, The Secular Age (Harvard University Press; $22.95; our sale price= $18.36.) Although most church folks don’t think about it much, we need all the help we can get in discerning how this vital cultural criticism can help us navigate our days and be wise about what we do or don’t do as we lean into life here in the 21st century. In what ways have our imaginations been captured and in what ways do our ordinary assumptions and lifestyles pay homage to false gods and unhealthy attitudes and practices that don’t yield appropriate human and cultural flourishing? It’s a simple cliché, but what does it mean to “be the change” you want to see in the world.

It is surprising to me how – like fish that don’t even know they are in water – few of us study our culture, or think about it very seriously. We breathe in the toxic air, take up habits and values and ways of being in the secularizing, modernist world without too much self-awareness that it could be otherwise. We don’t (to harken back to the power of Walsh’s books) have much of a subversive faith that nurtures a truly Biblically-shaped social imaginary that enables us to say no to much. (“Be ye not conformed…” and all that from Romans 12:2, ya know.) Which is why books like this are so very important. And this one is happily not only insightful and important, but interesting and enjoyable and practical. Kudos!

Jake isn’t just piling on guilt about living at ease in the modernist world. And he isn’t just bemoaning the alienation and fracturing of our politics and neighborhoods and families; he helps us understand our cultural context and its damaging ways. He helpfully explains the thesis of Bowling Alone, for instance, and sounds maybe a bit like David Brooks at times, but shows that the complications of our times didn’t happen over night — he helpfully cites the brilliant Alan Jacobs’s book The Year of Our Lord: 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford University Press; $29.95; our BookNotes sale price = $23.96.) Interestingly to me, he cites, as I often have, Jacob’s insights on Jacque Ellul. In other words, this is a deep level critique – he’s not merely saying we should just use our cell phones less or be nicer in public. He is looking not only at symptoms of our discontent but the ethos of the age.

And, yes, he explains Charles Taylor. He does this in the clearest way I’ve read yet, I think. (Tim Keller’s one short chapter in Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism [Penguin; $16.00 – our sale price = $12.80] about Taylor is succinct and clear.) This isn’t just an academic critique from ten thousand feet; Meador roots all of his insightful social analysis in real-world settings, with lots of entertaining stories about his parents, his home-town, and its social problems – okay, it’s no Hillbilly Elegy but he names all kinds of ways our modern society is deepening our divides, including domestic poverty and family hardships, in small towns and big cities.

He’s concerned about polarization, of course, and he’s hoping to bring a case for hopefulness to those who are anxious about the future of the church.

Jake brings brilliant learning and fine writing (he is vice president of the brainy Davenant Institute and the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy) but he’s a real Wendell Berry buff, so he’s always down to Earth. His sense of place – and his invitation to us to deepen our own loyalties to our own places – is palpable. It may be because he’s a Husker from Nebraska and has seemingly fierce loyalties there. As Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition says of Meador’s writing, “You’ll see his characteristic combination of deep learning with an earthy touch.” That’s putting it mildly. There’s real dirt under this guy’s fingernails.

And. man, he can tell a good story about how to smoke barbecue.

Lately, many Christian folks have shifted in how we talk about our work in the world (and I think it is a good thing.) Many are now talking about their efforts to love their neighbors well by describing commitments to the common good. We hear talk about civic virtue. There is even a fantastic group called “Made to Flourish.” Churches talk about being missional, not just sending missionaries, and we are learning to evaluate our North American culture, asking how its spirit and structures create systematic injustices and bad habits among us. These are all pretty nascent and it is encouraging to hear this kind of talk about social architecture and civil society and the common good. Jake is on the cutting edge of all this and his book will help us all.

The best of these efforts sound refreshingly neither old school left or right but something new, offering a counter-cultural witness, a city on a hill. We are wanting to live into that call from Jeremiah 29 to “seek the peace of the city where God has sent you.” This is all exciting and important and In Search of the Common Good helps us get a firm diagnosis and a vision for moving forward. It is indispensable for anyone wanting to think well about our time and place and what God is calling us to.

And, yes, he uses Wendell Berry a lot. He also cites Steve Garber (another Hearts & Minds favorite, as you surely know; if an author is reading Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good it is a very good sign.) Timothy Keller has an excellent forward saying why this robust cultural analysis and this helpful guidance into being “in but not of” is so very good. I don’t say this lightly, but Keller’s foreword is nearly worth the price of the book.

Keller notes, by the way, that when he entered evangelical and Reformed pastoral ministry nearly forty-five years ago the lines of debate in conservative churches were largely theological in nature. He outlines in a sentence or two some of the issues that many argued about (and I felt the knot in my stomach as I read) but he observes that increasingly the fault lines between churches and the most vehement debates nowadays are about culture. “As I look around,” Keller says, “I see this same division roiling Christian denominations and organizations everywhere.”

And as our culture is weakening and fragmenting and the dissatisfaction with political leaders (and churches and other formerly respected institutions) wanes, we are increasingly moving towards very hard times. I assume you know this. Keller reminds us what Francis Schaeffer predicted decades ago: when a Christian consensus and fidelity to principles of justice and beauty and goodness erode we will be left with “personal peace and affluence.” And those who hold those values will be tempted to vote for leaders who will merely protect their privilege. This has long been a classic conservative argument, that as society is unmoored from deeper roots by (even well intended) revolutionary goals, we lose tradition and values and end up with just atomistic individuals doing whatever pleases them. And voting for those who will help them keep their stuff.

(An aside: Jake knows, I’m sure, but does not cite Abraham Kuyper’s political strategist, Groen Van Prinsterer, and his book exposing the terrible cultural consequences of the spirit of the French Revolution entitled Unbelief and Revolution, now out in a newly translated edition by Harry Van Dyke (Lexham Press; $15.99 – our sale price = $12.79.)

So, as Jake illustrates (without pressing this exact point) we need something more profound than a left wing critique or a historic conservative critique; both have true insights but neither are adequate. We need some (Berry-esque, neo-agrarian?) vision that can point out problems with “both sides” of our cultural ideologies. On some pages of In Search of the Common Good Meador sounds pretty darn conservative (and he is pretty traditionalist on matters of family and sexuality) and on other pages he rails against unjust income disparities and institutional racism. He’s clearly no socialist, but he’s hard on right-wing, free market capitalism that isn’t moderated by values of the common good. In this, he might offend older conservative types, but he seems to have the church fathers and the best Christian scholars over his shoulder, so this is no facile jive.

Indeed, he bolsters his critique of the economic gods of progress and growth by citing the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. These and other church fathers and doctors are bold in applying God’s concern for justice in our economic practices. He isn’t bombastic at all – his calm and gracious tone is a plus in this book – but he shows how if one is standing in the traditions and values the great church tradition, not the secularized world of modernism, it is not uncommon to question unfettered capitalism, unjust interest rates, and talk of unqualified private property. He quotes the classic, conservative, Catholic, Acton Institute’s journal Morality & Markets but not Sojourners. (He does love Oscar Romero, and quotes him from time to time. Presente!)

Yep, he exposes the weaknesses of the foundations of the modern world’s worldview – John Lock does not fare well, for instance. Jake invites us through careful and helpful historical teaching, to be aware that our modern world and the social visions and values that emerge from it, are not neutral, but may be rooted in bad thinking about God and about God’s creation.

He tells us, in other words, how we got ourselves into this mess. Like a serious doctor giving a diagnosis, nothing cheap will do. So he goes deep and gives us the bad news.

One senses a lot of hopefulness, though and joy, even, because once we are clear how urgent the stakes are and how radical the treatment must be, we can get going, moving in what the old liturgies call “the newness of life.” This book will help you live that way.

Jake is young and idealistic and has a healthy small church and good friends who, together, are forging a new way of being faithful to God in their daily lives. They are deeply involved in church, in each other’s lives, and they serve others beautifully. I have rarely read a book that has such a delightful survey of deep philosophical currents and which is also so lovely in being down to earth.

And this exact thing is a key insight for In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, being down to Earth, I mean. He offers good practices to restore our sense of wonder, inviting us to regain a child-like appreciation of the joy of small things.

Get this: in a way, our culture, especially since the Enlightenment and the start of the so-called modern age, has moved towards increasing fragmentation. You know that Yeats poem warning that “the center will not hold.” Things are falling apart, and our lives seem not to cohere. We wear so many hats and can hardly imagine being whole, seamless. We feel like different people at work and church and home; some days it feels like we should just drop out and watch Netflix. Many of us hardly even know our neighbors. Our suburban ennui is felt even in small towns and rural spaces and it is palpable. Our very streets and housing designs and habits of commuting and such preclude a holy life of simple service to neighbors. What in the world does the common good look like in a cul de sac?

(Ahh, that’s a good part of the splendid book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales [IVP; $16.00] a lovely, well-written book that would make a nice companion to Meador’s search for “fidelity in a fractured world.”)

Some of all this exhausting trouble is caused by the (over) specialization that leads to abstraction, living in our heads, failing to engage the real world around us, as Matthew Crawford writes. You should know the motorcycle repairman Crawford’s splendid works on manual work, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin; $17.00) and The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (FSG; $16.00) both of which Jake Meador effective cites.

To wit: Jake points us in new ways to get, literally, more down to Earth. We can fight incoherence and alienation and abstraction by slowing down. He doesn’t cite the aforementioned Alan Noble but Alan’s brilliant study of how our phones and tablets these days add to this is essential, here. His Disruptive Image is a kissing cousin to In Search of the Common Good. Alan probes our fast-pace habits through the lens of Taylor, but Jake takes us back a bit further, looking at how our utter individualism, enshrined in some of our American civic documents and our revivalist religions, drove capitalism and disruption and abstraction.

SUMMARY OF THE BOOK

The first half of In Search of the Common Good is a vital and compelling few chapters – about 30 pages – on “The Breakdown of Community.” He explores what he calls “the passing of the American church” and then explains, brilliantly, “the unwinding of common life in America.” You know this stuff in your bones, but we need words to say it, and we need some sense of why we’re experiencing this unprecedented unwinding. It is very good writing; I was engaged from the beginning. And it offers a view that isn’t alarmist, but is urgent.

PART TWO

Part two looks seriously at three problems that emerge when we live in “a secular age” and these are all at a crisis point, it seems. They emerge from our age, but they become problems, or obstacles, then, that keep us from experiencing authentic community. So this stuff isn’t just armchair theorizing about Descartes and Locke and secularization, these are keys to why we don’t have abundant life. The chapters are on the loss of meaning, the loss of wonder and the loss of good work. I have to say I cried through some of this — in part because I was so glad to hear these words so plainly put, translating my own decades of reading about the roots of Western culture and the idols of our age. I was strongly moved by this, being reminding of very important concerns.

Reading, as he does, old theology and Wendell Berry, citing Oscar Romero next to Oliver O’Donovan, studying the Word and the world in this way allows you to become a wise voice like Meador. He names these losses in the modern age and it is good to hear, painful and tragic as it may be.

So that’s the first half of the book — two big parts of diagnosis, as succinct and clear as nearly any such social critic I’ve read. He’s drawing on Jamie Smith and David Brooks and Steve Garber and Stanley Hauerwas, leavening it all with spot-on reminders of poignant scenes from Mad Men or Camus novels. I love how he cites an indie-rock singer songwriter on one page and John Keats on another. And I love that he quotes Matthew Dickerson’s Narnia and the Fields of Arbol (University Press of Kentucky; $70.00 – our sale price = $56.00) exploring the ecological vision of C.S. Lewis. And he nicely retells a scene or two from a Wendell Berry novel. What fun!

PART THREE

This is a short book, so the second half is not even 100 pages, but in it he invites us to quite a lot. In Part Three Meador explains the why and how of Sabbath, church involvement, “the membership” and good work. These chapters are under the heading of “the practice of community” and it is – contra the neo-monastic movement or the Rod Dreher Benedict Option proposal – a broad and generous vision of church and neighborhood and workplace. We are called into community – membership is Berry’s potent word – in and for the world, so we dare not view community as merely our small group or intentional household or congregation.

I would like to write more about this (and I might) but his short chapter “Work” is nothing short of prophetic. It is one of the finest explorations of faith and work in the modern work-world that I have read. He shows how an increasing facelessness and inhumanity surrounds us – shades of Jacque Ellul, again, and his critique of how we overvalue and overdo technique and speed and efficiency. He calls the current faith/work movement to explore good and meaningful labor in humane and healthy workplaces that are socially just and serving the common good, which will mean seeking a human-scale sort of inefficiency. I have to say I felt rather validated with our down-home approach and older-school website, since it certainly forces us to correspond with our mail-order/on-line customers, honoring them with real chat and (yes) honest mistakes. That Meador says we should be thoughtful and intentional about what kind of businesses we support is precious. I take it he tends towards a “buy small” approach, supporting local economies and mail-order places whose values are consistent with Kingdom ways. (As you know, it is our opinion that this generally precludes working with Amazon, faceless and greedy as they are.) In any event, this chapter is provocative and wise and influenced by the right sorts of cares and concerns. It is what Steve Garber would call “morally serious.”

PART FOUR

Part Four of this fine book is called “The Promise of Community” and there are two chapters. One is a bit heady called “Political Doctrine and Civil Virtue” and it is needed now more than ever. As he should, Meador cites David Koyzis and his new 2nd edition of Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP Academic; $33.00 – our sale price = $26.40.) He is asking hard questions about what a Christian commonwealth might be like and how Christian societies might emerge. This will, necessarily, involve repentance and sacrifice.

He’s got lots of spicy illustrations and good quotes – such as the fabulous piece by film critic Alissa Wilkinson “View and Worldviews” that was in Comment magazine some years ago. Some of this chapter is just sensible stuff – distinguishing between political doctrine and policy, for instance. For a short chapter it is very wise, the kind of thinking we’ve seen in the author’s Mere Orthodoxy blog.

Mr. Meador, as I’ve suggested, doesn’t fit the typical patterns for worldly American political culture and their ideological leaders (or the worldly churches that have lined up often unquestioningly right or left behind them.) I suppose this is partially because he is so rooted in a Christian democratic appeal that is in part-pre-modern, taking hints for contemporary citizenship through a lens of Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. I know he studies the likes of Abraham Kuyper. (And, for those who relish obscure stuff, his colleague at Davenant, Brad Littlejohn, is a Richard Hooker scholar and what we here in central Pennsylvania celebrate as “Mercersburg Theology.” Jake is well read and wide-ranging, for sure. And did I mention he likes Wendell Berry?)

So, he’s neither right nor left, although – for (admittedly inadequate) shorthand, we might say he sounds at times like those classic conservatives that are “Never Trumpers.”(It is a phrase coined specifically about anti-Trump conservatives, by the way, regardless of how often the President misuses it to include all of his opponents.) Meador cares about place and beauty and integrity and family and order and competency and joy and sacraments and grace and kindness and, well, who can support a leader who despises these deeply Christian values? Again, his vision of citizenship is not left-leaning or liberationist but is gracious and humane, maybe the sort of stuff one might catch at the Front Porch Republic. He tends to talk about covenants, not contracts; the common good, not individual rights; like the Bible, when talking about politics, he talks more about public justice than individual freedom. He is interested in nurturing among us a long-haul sort of discipleship that creates good neighbors and good citizens.

And so, in a very important section, he asks “Where Do Good Citizens Come From?” Of course, some of his answer comes from his loyalty to place, to the local church, to Word and Table, to the small practices that he highlighted earlier. Those who trust God by keeping Sabbath and who are in communion with local folk in church and neighborhood and workplaces, those who are full of wonder and joy will necessarily embrace their civic duties with a sort of wisdom that isn’t ideological. They will care about peacefulness and neighborliness and solidarity.

Yes (he reminds us) when considering politics we have to think of policy. But policy proposals are often ambiguous, proximate; good people can disagree. He reminds us, though, that policy isn’t everything – Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” and the Catholic notion of “subsidiary” call us to a more multi-dimensional view of civil society, of the value of other voluntary associations other than the state (the arts, businesses, non-profits, sports teams, neighborhood groups, churches, and such), and that civic membership includes much more than politics, proper. He does not use this to justify a right-wing absolutization of some idea of “small government” but he does help us evaluate what the government can and should do. It’s brief but a very helpful section.

THE ETERNAL CITY

The final chapter is a big picture look at the promises of “The Eternal City” and he starts with a lovely story of a child’s longing to be in Narnia. Indeed, it may be that heaven is very much like Narnia, a world restored, a garden healed, a renewed creation. I am so glad he does some direct exegesis (of the mistranslated and misinterpreted 2 Peter 3:10, for instance) insisting that God is not going to destroy the world. He quotes Robert Farrar Capon and Al Wolters and he could have easily cited the splendid When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem by Richard Mouw (Eerdmans; $15.00; our sale price = $12.00.) This is new creation theology and visionary hope that thrills me. I hope it thrills you.

I love how it ends with his own love of the stories of The Hobbit. He tells of a painting they own that reminds his family of the song Bilbo Baggins was so fond of singing, “The Road Goes Ever On and On.”

Meador writes:

It reminds us that the road runs right to our very door, and that road might take us anywhere and toward anything. It reminds us that there are no boring places in God’s world – no boring people, for that matter. It reminds us that God stands over and above his creation calling us further up and further in. The road will lead to a cross. But only things that die can be resurrected. And so as sure as the road leads us to the cross, in leads us to the eternal city, to the home of a king, to the desire of all nations, to the joy of every longing heart.

That is the sort of Tolkien-esque, virtuous, costly, hopeful, adventure a deep Kingdom vision that serves the common good might evoke. This righteous concern for the rhythms of creation and common good is growing among us, and realizing the obstacles and challenges and Biblical guidance is urgent. Whether you are younger older, evangelical or more mainline, a quieter type or a missional activist, I think In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador will be a great companion on your journey. Order it today.

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An epic review of the exceptionally important, brand new “Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice” by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh ON SALE – 20% OFF

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) ON SALE  – 20% OFF  regular price = $26.99 / our sale price = $21.59

Okay, I’m just going to admit it. I’ve got writer’s block. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’ve got so much to say. I don’t know how to begin, and this is important. I want to make a case why this new book is one you should buy from us here at Hearts & Minds, right away. But it is admittedly complicated and I just don’t know how to get going.

Okay, I’m just going to say it: I want to honor my friends Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh by reviewing their new (long-awaited) book with care and some detail, but I’m afraid I’m not quite up to it; even though I’ve read Romans Disarmed twice, it is daunting to tell you about it in a review that would be short enough that you, dear reader, are likely to read it. I want to say a lot about it, but know some of you will tune out. I wish I could be more succinct, but this is one of those remarkable books that I truly want to honor (even if I don’t agree with all of it, and even knowing some of our customers will disapprove of some of it.)

This new book, bravely published by Brazos Press, is a very socially-potent, painfully relevant, righteous application of the social ethic of Paul’s long letter to the Romans, in which the authors call us to a counter-cultural politics of Jesus by way of studying the ways the marginalized and powerful alike would have heard Paul’s famous epistle situated, as it was, in the midst of truly awful Roman imperial idolatry. That is, they offer us a very creatively-written, super-engaging, and well-informed study of the socio-cultural-political habits of first century Rome and how that context helps us properly appreciate the revolutionary vision behind Paul’s anti-imperial social ethic. Romans Disarmed is very much like their much-discussed Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. On steroids.

LIFE IN FIRST CENTURY ROME. WHAT INSIGHT WE CAN GLEAN!

Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice has a long chapter that could nearly be published as a short novel. It tells of two fictional characters that aren’t imagined out of thin air, but are drawn from what we know about first century social experience in Rome. In a chapter called “Kitchen Walls and Tenement Halls” we meet a slave, Iris, (who is named after a person who is actually described in a scholarly work by Peter Oakes called Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Zero) and we meet Nereus, a Judean who lived among the dock workers and leather makers in the lowlands by the Tiber, but who ventured into the heart of Rome to hear Paul’s letter. Where he meets the pagan slave woman, Iris. What a story, laden with scholarly footnotes and even Bible references (who knew the list of names in Romans 16 could be so informative and yield such an interesting story!)

I might add there are several fun books that do this sort of thing, but not many. Keesmaat and Walsh site the fabulous The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World by Bruce Longenecker (Baker Academic; $19.99), a book we championed it its early first edition. See also the clever books in a recent series by IVP such as A Week in the Life of Corinth and A Week During the Fall of Jerusalem (both by Ben Witherington) and A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge) and several others.

Besides this page-turning fictional device in Romans Disarmed (that is just one chapter in a book that weighs in at just under 400 pages), there are so many fascinating and important historical details, including first-century urban archeological, linguistic, political, and theological matters that are above my pay-grade to comment critically upon. Whenever I read a Biblical commentary and the writer asserts that a Greek word really means this or ought best to be translated like that, I have to choose to appreciate their scholarship and trust their instincts (or not.) In this case, I think their exceptionally interesting and very extensive footnotes illustrate their extraordinary research chops; they’ve read whole books and numerous scholarly journal articles about, say, the room designs in first century Roman houses (did you know slaves often slept in the kitchen, or sometimes in their master’s rooms?), what we can learn from the graffiti in Pompeii, the sexual relationships between Roman masters and their slaves, or the particular dining habits of Roman Judeans, Gentiles, and those in the palaces of the Emperor. The vividly described debauchery (sexual and culinary) of the Roman elite helps us understand Paul’s passionate pastoral reminders to the Roman Christians of why they must live in ways that are not morally stained by the ethos of the Empire. From the famous conflict between the Judeans and the Gentiles in the Roman house churches to the equally famous vile spectacles of the likes of the Nero and Caligula, Keesmaat and Walsh have done their scholarly work and brought it alive in astonishing, colorful, detail. If you like this sort of historical background stuff, you will be riveted by all they explain. If you don’t do much of this kind of reading about the social context of the New Testament, you will be astonished.

IT’S IMPORTANT. REALLY IMPORTANT.

I might as well just say it. I think Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice is the most important book of Biblical study I have read in years; perhaps ever. I promise you that you have never read anything like it, and it is one of those few books that the often-used (but rarely accurate) phrase “it could change your life” applies. It surely deserves a Best Book of the Year award, but, because it is so politically charged, don’t expect to see it on evangelical “Best of 2019” lists. I suspect most Christian bookstores won’t even carry it. I assume (but one never knows) that the respected New Testament commentators who are active – Douglas Moo, Tom Wright, Fleming Rutledge, Beverly Gavanta, Katherine Grieb, Michael Bird, Frank Matera, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight, Richard Longenecker, Michael Gorman, Stephen Westerholm, Thomas Schreiner, Richard Hays — will be weighing in on its merits. Will they appreciate how much social location matters? Will they know why they draw so much on Elsa Tamez and her book Amnesty of Grace exploring justification by faith through the lens of suffering and repression in Latin America? Romans Disarmed is a very important book and I can’t wait to hear what others think about it.

SOME WILL DISAGREE and SOME WILL EVEN  BE OFFENDED.

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it. This book will upset some people. It is relentless in bearing witness to what they themselves experience as they grapple, as a married couple, parents, homemakers, pastors, preachers, scholars, permaculture farmers, citizens, and leaders of faith communities (mostly among college students in Toronto although also in more conventional Anglican parishes) where they have ministered to and become friends with marginalized folks, those cast aside by other churches and the mainstream culture. From LGTBQ students and friends to urban homeless folks to First Nations people seeking reparations from stolen land and treaties broken, Brian and Sylvia care for their land, their place, and those whom God has given them; their taking Pauline mandates to welcome all, to serve the stranger, to be inclusive and caring to outsiders, has become a huge part of their lifestyle and is a lens through which they do life. They are able to see the subversive teaching in the Bible (and let it be said: they know and love their Bibles much better than most) and especially of the Apostle Paul, because they themselves spend time with the marginalized and oppressed. And, boy, do they ever see these themes in Pauline writings!  Wow.

As they tell of these painful stories (some of us met their late friend Iggy in Brian’s powerful Habakkuk Before Breakfast; Books Before Breakfast; $14.00 which I reviewed here) about racism and injustice and ecological abuse, they mince no words. Like the Old Testament prophets so beloved by Paul, they are nearly crass in their punchy denunciation of idols old and new. Few contemporary political movements and leaders are left unscathed in this broadside, so my fear is that our customers (especially those on the political right) will be offended. I hope (as Brian and Sylvia do, I know) such readers hang in there with their arguments about how the epistle of Romans can help us live in a more Christ-like way. They are convinced, and their argument is compelling, that Paul’s letter is less a systematic theology treatise and more (like so many of Paul’s letters to house churches around the Mediterranean of the Greco-Roman world) a passionate, Holy-Spirit inspired manifesto of how to create a new community, resolve conflict, repent of complicity with the injustices of the social order, and live out the gospel-centered life of the Lordship of Christ in the face of the grinding oppression of the Roman imperial regime.

And, in case I’m being coy, I’m going to just say it: they insist that we, too, live under the boot heel (even if many of us benefit from it) of the Empire of our age and that if we are serious followers of Jesus, and are serious about being rooted in the Biblical narrative, we, too, will need to be attentive to how the Word and Spirit calls us to denounce and resist the 21st century Empire, by which they mostly mean the confluence of United States political and military power and its corporate allies. (Or is it the other way around?) They (rightly in my view) think our imaginations have largely been captured by the ethos of technology and progress and greed and hubris and that our own government and media are seducing us into acceptance and complicity in grave injustices.

NOT THEOLOGICAL ABSTRACTION, BUT EMBODIMENT IN COMMUNITY

Christian faith is never mostly about holding the right abstract theological truisms, but always about what we embody as we live out the deepest convictions of our hearts, “against the world, but for the world” as some put it. (By the way, as an aside: did you know that James K.A. Smith, who wrote the must-read “cultural formation” trilogy, summarized in his one-volume You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits (Brazos Press; $19.99), studied with Brian Walsh when he was a grad student at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto? One can see their common concerns about not weaponizing the language of worldview and realizing that our faith is embodied, not abstract, lived out in but not of the surrounding culture and its deformed and deforming ethos.)

IDOLS

You see, the idols we give ourselves to are nearly the same in our day as in first century Rome and, curiously, like then, are made into virtues not only by classic capitalist theory but by President Trump and his cheerleaders:  hubris, greed, sexism, individualism, power, tribal nationalism, white supremacy, detached rationalism, sentimental piety, gross militarism, all rooted in a worldview driven by faith in technology to help us grow, grow, grow, economically. Bigger is better, don’t ya know?

That a religious-like trust in and love of material progress has become a demanding, devastating god has been a theme in Brian’s writing since the 80s; this critique rooted in the pathos of a prophetic imagination has only become more bold and blunt as he and Sylvia became students of simpatico Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann and localist farmer and activist poet Wendell Berry and anti-globalization prophet Naomi Klein. If you’ve read the latest from Brueggemann (like Tenacious Solidarity or Truth Speaks to Power or God, Neighbor, Empire) or Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom Community or Citizenship Papers, or any of Ms. Klein’s anti-climate change manifestos (or, for that matter, anything by their friend Norman Wirzba, who writes on faith and food, farming, Sabbath, and the like, and edited the Wendell Berry agrarian collection The Art of the Commonplace) you’ll have a sense of where they are coming from. Or, maybe, you could pick up the book I last spotlighted in BookNotes, The Possibility of America (WJK; $17.00) by David Dark, who, with a poet’s eye and patriot’s heart, gets so much of this.

Nobody, though, has put this stuff in conversation with so close a reading of the Apostle Paul. Romans Disarmed is a major, major contribution to a distinctively Christian social-political vision and a major, major contribution to Pauline scholarship. It is a must read for anybody who cares about the New Testament.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE TRANSFORMING VISION, SUBVERSIVE CHRISTIANITY, and BEYOND HOMELESSNESS

That they learned much of this analysis about ideology and idols from Dutch Kuyperian economist and socio-political observer Bob Goudzwaard is no secret, and Brian’s 1980s classic (co-authored with Richard Middleton) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic; $25.00) remains a succinct and powerful study of the development of the idols of our time that they named as scientism, technicism, and economism. (Idols, you know, are good things that become ultimate things; things we trust for communal salvation and that we start to serve and even become like.) That their imagination of seeing and saying this stuff has been deepened by Canadian folk-rock-pop singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is no surprise, either, and Brian has explored how a Christian social imaginary can be enhanced by a close reading of Cockburn lyrics in his brilliant Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos Press; $19.00.) Believe me, it’s illuminating about the arts, about music, and about the idols of our time, helping us “see” things anew, whether you happen to like Cockburn’s songs or not.

We have often promoted Brian’s small but potent collection of essays/sermons (with a foreword by N.T. Wright and a blurb on the back by yours truly) called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (Wipf & Stock; $17.00.) Even for those old friends who have the first edition, the second edition released in 2014 has a very important, long, new chapter that anticipates the work being done here analyzing the American empire, globalization, economic injustice, the violence of the state, and how the Bible itself can deconstruct – subvert – the harsh ideologies that, in Cockburn’s lyric (in a song about the International Monetary Fund’s dubious work in the developing world) offer “deification of tyranny – idolatry of ideology.”

Almost a decade ago, Brian teamed up with beloved environmental studies professor and creation-care advocate at Hope College, Stephen Bouma-Prediger to write a book that, again, forms a nearly essential backdrop to the work he and Sylvia have done in Romans Disarmed. It is called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmans; $29.00) in which they play with the classic shorthand for the Biblical narrative, “creation-fall-redemption”, by talking about “homemaking-exile-homecoming.”(For those who get the inside joke, I have called that book Al Wolters meets Wendell Berry meets James Howard Kunstler.)

Listen — if you’ll go with this short digression — to what their friend Marva Dawn said about it:

This astutely timely book deserves an extensive audience — environmentalists, pastors, low-income housing advocates, students, those who forecast doom, good citizens eager to make changes, allChristians! Just to whet your appetite, you’ll learn such things as nine kinds of homelessness, eight characteristics of ‘home,’ many imaginative ways to ponder Scripture, ten drivers of environmental deterioration, and one colossal hope. Broadly researched and splendidly written, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants truly to comprehend and mend our culture!

Or, what the great environmental writer and anti-climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote:

This book brought me back to my years running a small homeless shelter in the basement of my church — and it brought me forward to the madly globalizing world we live in now. A brilliant use of metaphor that makes clear why the world leaves us feeling so uneasy!

Beyond Homelessness is admitted a big and sprawling book, but it is a wonderful and significant companion to Romans Disarmed.

Christian faithfulness, in that amazing, generative, ground-breaking, truth-telling, critiques the way our upwardly mobile culture causes a sort of homelessness; many of our most “established” middle-class (not to mention upper class) Westerners (and, increasingly, rich Asians) are nomads, metaphorically displaced from home, alienated from a sense of place. (This theme of longing for a safe home was conjured up beautifully in Brian’s book on Cockburn in which he preached the gospel of homecoming in tandem with Bruce’s song “The Candy Man’s Gone” and previously in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP Academic; $26.00) which made the case that a longing for home was behind much of the and ennui and restlessness of postmodernity.It remains the best book on the subject, and the one the engages the Bible the most!)

This theme of the call to home-making comes out not just in Brian’s earlier writing but — get this! – it’s all over the book of Romans! They show it over and over, and it gives a new insight into what is going on in this part of God’s Holy written Word. You don’t have to read those previous books to fully appreciate Romans Disarmed, but after reading it, you just may want to.

HOME-MAKING IN ROMANS? REALLY?

Home-breaking, Homelessness, and Home-making in Romans? You have got to read it to believe it!  Chapter 4 of Romans Disarmed is called “Homeless in Rome” and Chapter 5 is called “Creation and the Defilement of Home.” In fact, the second to last chapter (“Imperial Sexuality and Covenantal Faithfulness”) uses these themes of fidelity to the project of creating a safe home and how the gospel grafts us into God’s true home to explore what Paul was and wasn’t saying at the end of Romans 1. (Their explanation of what Paul is saying about human sexuality in the end of Romans 1 and into Romans 2 is too complex to be described here, but I will say it isn’t utterly new, but it brings forth an argument that I have long found compelling and that they press home with vivid, passionate exegesis. It really should be pondered.)

I am familiar with Brian’s writings because he’s written (and co-written) a lot of books. But Sylvia (who got her PhD from Oxford under N.T. Wright and whose work is sometimes cited by him as influential in his own thinking) is, within the more scholarly world, a major conversation partner and professional colleague with many other renowned scholars. She has chapters in many books, including one in the British festschrift for N.T. Wright called One God, One People (Fortress Press; $89.00.)  Sigh — I know. Why, Fortress, why? Brian has one in that collection as well. Her preaching is often imaginative and poetic and she laces her Biblical exegesis with stories of planting environmentally helpful shrubs around their watershed and their solar panels and their eating habits, but she has earned the right to be taken very seriously by the guild of Biblical scholars. Her most substantial volume is called Paul and His Story: (Re) Interpreting the Exodus Tradition (Sheffield Academic Press) and it is generative and important.

She is remarkably gifted and has studied long and hard to be able to see the inter-connections between different parts of the Biblical story, how New Testament writers draw on the Hebrew Bible. There’s lots of rich Bible study in Romans Disarmed and, just to remind us of what their friend Richard Hays calls “echoes” of the Old Testament in the New listen to this excerpt of Romans Disarmed drawn from a portion called “Redemptive Homecoming the Spirit (Romans 8:1-38):

Here’s the good news. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! This is not a house of condemnation! Slavery is never the last word in this story. Liberation is always at hand. Homecoming remains available. The promise is not nullified and cannot be nullified even by our home-breaking ways.

After a rumination on sin dwelling in us (“yes, it has become at home in you”) they use dwelling and home-building images about the role of the Spirit to contrast the sin that “dwells” in us (Romans 7.)  And then a paragraph about being called out of slavery (8:14) and being crowned in glory, etc.

And then, this beautiful homily of echoes, one of many throughout the book:

Of course, this language echoes the exodus from Egypt. When a Judean talks about being set free from slavery, the exodus is the memory being evoked. When a Judean says that we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, the story of fearful Israel in the wilderness longing to return to Egypt resonates through these words. When a Judean talks about being led by the Spirit, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night is the unmistakable reference. When a Judean speaks of receiving a spirit of adoption, wherein their slave status is overturned through covenant promise, then the nation-constituting exodus is undoubtedly ringing in the background. When a Judean refers to the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God, their language of inheritance reaches back to Moses leading the children of God toward their inheritance. And when a Judean places all this in the context of our crying out, “Abba! Father!” then it is impossible not to hear the Israelites “crying out” to God in the midst of the Egyptian bondage, groaning under the weight of Egyptian brick quotas.

Oh my, this line of thought goes on for a page more, and it is wonderfully inspiring. I think I’ve only ever heard such good inter-textual story-telling/truth telling from fiery black preachers! It brings a lot of insight about how these texts might have been heard and, in doing so, help us get their import and impact for our own faith communities.

WHAT WE MISS…

They remind us, helpfully, that each generation has certain sayings or (in our culture, especially) clichés we know from advertising; at least sayings and slogans that were popular in our own era. In some circles, just for instance, Christian people have played on those sayings – the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would say, referring to Jesus, “He’s the Real Thing” which was (some of you may know, and others may not) a riff off a very popular Coke commercial. Leaving aside the question of whether it is wise to appropriate secular ad campaigns for evangelistic purposes, the point Brian and Sylvia are making is helpful. We don’t catch allusions in the Pauline letters that their first hearers or readers would have easily picked up, just like Millennial Christians would be unaware of the ’70s Coke marketing slogan, “It’s the Real Thing” and therefore would be clueless about the meaning of a “He’s the Real Thing” tee shirt. Brian and Sylvia help us by introducing us and unpacking what might have been assumed and understood on the streets of first century Rome. It’s pretty eye-opening when they tell us that first century Jews or first century tenement dwellers in Rome would have heard or understood something in Paul that maybe we’d not fully get.

So, this is a really useful book, functioning as a socio-cultural Biblical study with a good eye for the original social context. And it insists – as most Bible commentators would, but few really do much with — that this pastoral letter from the great apostle to the Christ-followers of Rome has great application for our discipleship, congregational life, and spirituality today. Where they really are fresh and provocative is how they insist Paul was knowingly (and the hearers were knowingly aware) of a subversive rhetoric against the powers and values of the Empire, and how that may be a key for understanding the power of the gospel for us today. Like them, we must be “non conformed” to the ways of the world, and form communities of resistance to structural evil and forge new habits anticipating the ways of Christ’s eschaton. We are welcoming and non-violent as Christ was and as the Kingdom should and will be.

A few specific observations to help you see what’s going on in Romans Disarmed so you can see if it is book you should purchase and study:

WE SHOULD READ FROM THE MARGINS, THROUGH TEARS

First, Brian and Sylvia teach us (although they are not the first, but they are among the most vivid and clear and compelling about it) that our social location matters if we are going to see and interpret the Bible well. C.S. Lewis’s narrator says in The Magician’s Nephew that what we see and hear “depends a great deal on where you are standing, and on what sort of person you are.” Let that bit of critical theory sink it from good old Clive!

After energetically describing a joyful moment one night on the dance floor at Sanctuary in downtown Toronto, they tell how the mood changes as they needed to embrace some hurting brothers as some harsh songs brought prophetic denunciation of injustice perpetrated against First Nations peoples. Their empathy is palpable and they remind us of how this is, if you will, a hermeneutical key:

Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are going to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans. We will need to find ourselves both on the dance floor in liberating joy and on the sidelines holding Frenchy, keeping vigil at Iggy’s bedside, bearing witness to one more death, one more betrayal, one more deep, deep hurt, with tears running down our cheeks. Without standing in such places, we will miss the power of this epistle both in its ancient context and in a contemporary setting.

I think they are right. If one is heart-broken by gay youth taking their own lives because of being shamed by their God-fearing churches, if one know and hears the story of the rural poor or the urban evicted, if one has ever met anyone jailed for their expressions of faith, if one sees the toxic pollution in one’s own water supply, one just might notice stuff in the Bible that others may miss and one may even wonder “why didn’t I ever see that before? It is right there in the text!”

And so, our own effort to “weep with those who weep” (even as we rejoice with those who rejoice) and hear the stories of the poor and oppressed and marginalized and misunderstood will allow us to become the kind of people who see things in the Bible that we might not otherwise have been sensitive to. They say this specifically and directly and their own personal stories have illuminated their work as Biblical scholars. This becomes evident in the first two pages that had me wiping tears away from my cheeks as they told us about the joys and sorrows of the ragamuffin folk that make up the Sanctuary Community in downtown Toronto to whom the book is dedicated.

WE’VE GOT TO KNOW OUR BIBLES BETTER

Secondly, our knowledge of the Bible itself in its narrative flow, its major themes, its socio-political setting and the interconnection of texts and themes is immensely important. Too few of us really understand the key moments of the Biblical history of redemption. It is curious to me that some who most loudly espouse a conservative theological perspective don’t engage the Biblical texts as seriously as they do the logic of this or that theological idea or thinker. Serious Bible scholars may agree on the importance of background and context, but my sense is that so much of the way Keesmaat and Walsh connect various themes, Older and Newer Testaments and the socio-economic stuff is exceptionally illuminating, bringing fresh and solid insight into what was going on in that context. N.T Wright has done this for us a bit; our old friend the late, great Kenneth Bailey did so in remarkable ways.

Some scholars I trust have expressed concern that some have overstated the anti-Empire themes in the New Testament. For instance, see Scot McKnight & Joe Modica’s Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic; $22.00.) Reading Romans Disarmed has rekindled in me a conviction that this is a very helpful interpretive lens to help us understand the first century Greco-Roman books of the Bible as they would have been understood in that setting and to apply the truths of God’s Word in our own urgent context of the fraudulent and often objectively hurtful Pax Americana.

For many of my generation, by the way, it was Ron Sider’s exquisitely important Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Thomas Nelson; $15.99) that showed, over and over and over (and over) that the Bible is crystal clear about denouncing social injustice, economic abuse, and structures that cause or deepen poverty, even while wealth is relativized and often seen as a threat to one’s spiritual vitality. There’s so much in the Bible that we had previously just missed! Similarly, my Dutch Calvinist mentor Peter J. Steen gave me Walter Brueggemann’s groundbreaking book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Fortress; $25.00) in the late1970s and, again, it opened up vistas of Biblical knowledge which are still reverberating for me decades later. Who knew then that stewardship was more than giving money to the church, but the primal call of humans to care for creation? That salvation in the Bible often include inheritance of land, and that land reform and social justice are often talking about in the Bible. It’s just right there, plain as day for those who care and have ears to hear. There are so many texts and stories in the Bible that directly call us to a counter-cultural social ethic and many of us just miss them; we glaze over, we don’t connect the dots, we fail to catch the allusions. Perhaps it is because of our “ease in Zion” [that’s Amos 6, by the way] or the kind of people we are, but authors like this can truly help us. For some, spending a month with Romans under the tutelage of Walsh & Keesmaat could be considered “doctor’s orders.” You may never recover from it, or “un-see” that which you learn and see in this revolutionary text and I suspect you’ll read the Bible (any part of the Bible) with fresh eyes and desire to live it out with more willing hands. Thanks be to God.

Shane Claiborne is mostly right, then, when he says that Brian and Sylvia are two of his favorite Bible scholars. “Whether your over-churched or under-churched, they stir in you a fresh curiosity for the Bible. This new book is perfect for scholars and new Bible readers alike, and for everyone in between.” I’d only add that the book is dense with detail and is broadly thematic, which might take some getting use to for some conventional Bible students. That is, they don’t just wade through the Romans epistle paragraph by paragraph, but mix it up a bit. And they constantly shift between way back then and today, talking about what it must have been like for Christ-followers in Rome to welcome those of different eating habits and positions of power in the city and those with different degrees of loyalty or disdain for the Empire itself to break bread together and then they reflect on what it is like for most of us in our own congregations as we try to be friendly to guests or talk well among ourselves over matters of importance. The shift from the era of Paul and Caesar to your church and Trump moves quickly and it is stimulating and provoking, to say the least.

It’s a fun read, I’d say, but it even could be disorienting, maybe, for those who expect a linear, line-by-line commentary. On the other hand, it could be a godsend of Biblical insight to stimulate those who are put off by the sometimes abstract and nearly pointless detail of some Bible commentaries. Romans Disarmed is, as the subtitle shouts, both a serious bit of Biblical scholarship and a charter for a counter-imperial Christian community. Like I said, other than their Colossians Remixed I bet you’ve never read anything like it.

HAS ROMANS BEEN WEAPONIZED?

A third point to underscore: from very contemporary debates about climate change or sexuality or race and ethnicity or theological doctrine, the letter of Paul has been weaponized (used to bolster a strident view, to exclude others, or, as in Boy Erased, where a Bible was literally used to pummel a teen, making a point that God’s Word can pound out same-sex attraction.) From a Trump official saying last summer that we have to obey them because of Romans 13 (oh, what a misreading!) to insistence on certain views about Jews or predestination, this weaponizing is prevalent. Drs. Keesmaat & Walsh insist we have to read it in a more generous and disarming way so it can function for us today as it surely did in the first century in Rome.

Just to clarify: they are not trying to soften hard theological truths or eliminate all classic doctrines or only emphasis the lovey-justicey social gospel pieces that today’s cool kids want to hear. Not at all. I just want to be clear that this is not that kind of a book. Those who assume it is primarily a magisterial theological outpouring will be challenged to think about Romans in this new perspective, but it is quite compelling, I think.  (And why do some assume that it is the zenith of Paul’s doctrinal systematics, anyway? Just because it is long? 1 Corinthians is longer, and nobody thinks that is Paul’s systematic masterpiece just because it’s long and complicated.)

By taking the letter and its anti-Imperial tone and its socio-political and economic context seriously, it allows us to de-escalate some of the peculiar debates about it, and how it tends to be used these days to close down conversation or flog people with.

HAVE THEY DONE THE SAME THING. WEAPONIZED IT ANEW?

Is this merely a new kind of weaponizing of Romans, using it for a far left, counter-Imperial, anti-American narrative, beating up Republicans and those living for the American Dream? Perhaps. Because they are pushing back on behalf of those who have been hurt, badly hurt, by toxic religion often based on what they believe are mis-readings (and certainly mishandling) of Romans, they can be strident. In some ways, they are trying to help those who are leaving the evangelical world because of the way the Christian right has been so ugly, helping them see a new way to be Christian and a new way to read (and love) the Bible again. I get that. So they do come across as insistent, prophetic, even, sometimes, in speaking (Paul’s) truth to power. But, happily, they are often quite clear about inviting authentic diversity and being welcoming to all (regardless of politics or point of view.)

Hard as it may be, they believe the gospel of God’s grace creates a safe place for everybody. Since they are allies and advocates for the dispossessed and marginalized, it is a live question about how – in a communal conversation or small group Bible study, say – we keep it safe for LGBTQ brothers and sisters, for instance, if someone in the group is bombastic and unkind? (They tell of one such encounter and how they handled it might surprise you.) They talk more than once about this sort of “generous spaciousness” – something more spiritually mature and theologically robust than being PC, by the way, and it is helpful.

UNITY IN CHRIST?

And – of course! – this is a major part of what is going on in Rome. What in the world might it have been like for slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, sexually abused women and children and their perpetrators to hear the great apostle tell people they are one, to welcome all? This is explosive, painful, hard, breathtaking stuff. That few commentaries on this book of the Bible explore with much depth or passion this extraordinary re-making of social relationships then and there (not to mention here and now) is almost professional malpractice among the theologians and Bible teachers. I heard NT Wright talk about how many classes on Romans just peter out before they get to the upshot of it all in the last few chapters, just skipping that as not particularly urgent. In his newer perspective, and in Romans Disarmed, it surely is the point, how the gospel of grace forms a new egalitarian community that can serve as a count-weighted witness to the violence of the powers that be. At any rate, this volume helps us see the need for and helps us become equipped to form this kind of inclusive and just community (despite our huge differences.) This is part of the agenda of Romans Disarmed and what allows the well-informed authors to unpack this so fruitfully for us.

THERE’S A PERSON, AGAIN.

One of the ways they enact this exact sort of hospitable discourse is by using a device they featured creatively in Colossians Remixed. Just when some of their teaching is getting heavy and their Bible interpretation seems a bit speculative, in comes another voice, in italics, an interlocutor. I was hoping the argumentative kid who gave them a hard time in Colossians Remixed, interrupting with skeptical questions that led to fascinating digressions would be back, but it isn’t that guy. This new conversation partner is skeptical enough, but seems to be on board more with their claims, asking wise and good questions, seeking clarification of their exegesis and theological views and telling stories from his own life about the difficulties of applying this kind of anti-imperial lifestyle. They can debate about what Keesmaat & Walsh mean when they say that Romans 1 exposes “the idolatry at the root of the depravity of life in the Empire” and how the Jerusalem Council re-imagined the nature of faithful discipleship and what stipulations are essential for fellow believers, but they also must talk about what difference all this makes for us and what we should be about now, in these times. I don’t recall that we ever learned this person’s name, but she (I thought it is a he, but we learn, eventually that it is a woman) is a great part of the story. This dialogue partner, even though pushing back against some of their statements, is sincere and eager to learn and grow into deeper more relevant fidelity to the gospel. She’s a good part of the story.

Kudos to them for bringing in this other voice from a friendly skeptic who isn’t taking all this “resisting empire-demanding justice” stuff lightly. In doing so they model the kind of robust conversations that are needed within our faith communities and they anticipate the kinds of questions many readers will have while reading Romans Disarmed. Granted, at time he seems like a mere foil, a chance for them to springboard into re-saying what they’ve already said, but it isn’t disingenuous. It makes the book more interesting and more useful for us all.

HOW THE BODY OF CHRIST TALKS

It is true, after all, that we all need to grapple with this matter of hearing each other, of hosting better conversations, which is why I’m sure Brian and Sylvia would love – as we do! – the new book (also published by Brazos) by our friend out at Englewood MO, C. Christopher Smith, who just released the must-read How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press; $16.99.) I suspect that as you are reading Romans Disarmed you are going to want to have some conversations about a lot of different things and How the Body of Christ Talks just might be tool that will save you a lot of grief, guiding you towards being communities of missional conversation and prophetic dialogue. Oh yes, this is rich, thoughtful, good stuff and would make a great companion volume to read alongside Romans Disarmed.

Smith assures us that practices of conversation – especially while eating together — can be transformational within local congregations, and this resonates with the sort of body life that is described in Romans Disarmed. Near the end, Sylvia and Brian note that even in New Testament times, given what we know about what Paul and other apostles said and didn’t say, there was “considerable diversity on discerning what fruitful discipleship looked like.” Learning to talk well together is itself a good and necessary practice; it is mentioned all over the New Testament and healthy churches today bring it on!

“Much, indeed depends on dinner,” they write on page 242. They continue:

Much depends on how you eat, with whom you eat, and what you eat. Eating is, of course, foundational to all of life. And where there is food, there are questions of justice, inclusion, and equality, and, most importantly, of identity.

And then they have a whole section (in a chapter called “Welcoming the Powerless”) in which they note:

It should be no surprise that Paul’s economic vision comes down to food…. if Paul’s gospel is to be embodied in the lives of Jesus followers in Rome, it will be proven at table fellowship. The whole anti-imperial agenda of this letter, together with its commitment to the formation of an alternative home at the heart of the empire, hangs on what happens when Jesus followers gather for the family dinner.

That is, they think Paul’s letter, read carefully and contextually, insists on an open and inclusive fellowship. But they also are clear that (following nearly every other major, well-informed Bible scholar) when Paul uses the word righteousness, he means very much something like what we today might call social justice; as N.T. Wright puts it in his oh-so-British way, a “putting things to rights.” Salvation is not a promise of an ethereal soul floating off to heaven because one got the ticket out of hell, but the breaking in of a new creation order, a regime change here on earth where God in Christ brings His shalom, social health, cultural renewal, a politics of peacemaking, a Jubilee vision of justice. This is not liberal social gospel rhetoric, but the best, most faithful rendering of what the Bible itself really says. We have Christ’s righteousness imputed and imparted to us, and that, properly understood, means we become gospel-infused agents of justice. Which maybe starts with hospitality, being welcoming and listening well, especially to the marginalized and hurting.

You can decide for yourself if chatting with Sylvia and Brian at church, or hanging around the rough-around-the edges ministry of Greg Paul and his Sanctuary Community that they tell us about, or visiting their farm and joining in the daily chores (yes, it’s a real farm with a lot of daily chores) would feel safe and good for you, if they are truly hospitable and welcoming of a variety of views. I have a hunch that even if you find them, as I do, a bit strident at times, you will like them a lot. They know a lot about philosophy, about church history, about contemporary political issues, about rock music, about urban architecture, and contemporary social science, and, yep, they grow food and love to bake bread and do many, essential home-making arts. They know their Bibles and they love Jesus. And you can trust that they’ll shoot straight, telling you what’s on their hearts. What’s not to like?

Their organic farm community that practices regenerative agriculture is called Russet House Farm. The story of their acquiring stewardship of it is itself nearly a miracle; they do educational events and offer hospitality and welcome. Check them out.

I think that the disagreements that this book itself will engender will, if faced in the proper spirit, in the context of the welcoming grace of the gospel itself, mirror some of the difficulties of this new Christian communities forming in and around the Roman Empire in the first century. Many of Paul’s letters, after all, were calling on followers of Jesus to reject identities from the Empire (or “the world”) and to live into the oneness they had in Christ. Just think of Galatians or 1 Corinthians or what are sometimes called pastoral letters. Romans, Keesmaat and Walsh insist, is one of these, writ large. It is not primarily or firstly (if at all) an abstract theological treatise and they explain well why they believe that. The history of assuming and privileging this kind of de-contextualized doctrinal reading is itself part of our problem in blunting the revolutionary socio-economics and political resistance which is nearly overt and surely implicit in this pastoral letter from the hand of Paul. The Paul who would eventually come to Rome and visit all those people he mentions by name in this letter – rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, Judean and Gentile – and end up in jail, killed for sedition against the Empire.

THEY AREN’T THE ONLY ONES SAYING SOME OF THIS…

By the way, even the editors who sounded an alarm [see above] about over-doing the anti-Empire theme in recent New Testament studies, Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica [who do not critique Keesmaat & Walsh directly, by the way] have also edited a valuable volume where some who adopt a “new perspective on Paul” get to explain the contemporary implications and consequences for ministry of some of their new ideas on how to read Paul. See their The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective (Baker Academic; $26.00.) There are some very interesting chapters in there from important Pauline scholars.

A must-read chapter that could have been included in that volume was Brian & Sylvia’s well-intended, painfully hard words to their dear friend Tom Wright in a chapter called “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” found in the great collection Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright edited by Nichols Perrin (IVP Academic; $24.00.) I suggest these titles for those few who want to dig deeper into this bigger conversation and name them just to note that Keesmaat & Walsh are clearly not the only ones insisting that Romans is more than a doctrinal treatise and necessarily has vast social and even political implications. They flesh it out more robustly and with more verve than any other book we know, but this isn’t altogether pioneering stuff. In fact, just a few months back a great book was released compiled and edited (again) by McKnight & Modica called Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives (Eerdmans; $20.00.) These essays and sample sermons illustrated generously how many different views there are about the heart of Romans, how to read it, and how sermons proclaim its grace and grit to us for our daily discipleship. From Fleming Rutledge to Will Willimon to Carl Trueman to Tara Beth Leach, there is good stuff in here. Friends who are sympathetic to Walsh and Keesmaat are included in voices such as Michael Gorman and Richard Hays.

Okay, I might as well just be honest and say it: that was all mostly prelude.

I’m trying to warm you up to the general thesis and style of Romans Disarmed and to warn those who might find it off-putting that there is so much politics and economics and ecological concern in this Bible study work, but that these topics are integral to understanding it properly and to reading it fruitfully. You are going to have to read this big book itself to see if I’m right that this is instructive, enjoyable, provocative, and helpful. I think you’re going to need a book club or study group or friend to talk with you about it, because it is that kind of book. I can’t stop thinking about it!

WHEW, THEY BRING IN A LOT (AND IT MAKES FOR ALMOST A NEW GENRE OF BIBLE COMMENTARY)

What other Biblical scholarship book has pages about permaculture and watersheds and describes ways to be involved in advocacy for Indigenous people’s land rights? What other book spends pages on exegeting Biblical texts (and offering footnotes about where this or that translation gets a word right or wrong and which captures the meaning surely heard by the first century hearers of this public letter) only to follow up with screeds against using cell phones too much or our expectations to eat too much out of season (which, by the way, they call, colorfully, a “culinary indiscretion.”) (It’s a reasonable ethical stance I’m not sure I fully agree with, and about which I know I’d be hypocritical to say I did, but it sure is punchy when they say, “Eating out of season is like having an affair. It is eating in a way that is unfaithful to your place.”) Like I said, there is no other book like this.

And, please know – I assume you get it – that this is not faddish or them trying to be clever, trying to make the Bible “relevant.” This is about our understanding of the huge and hard-wrought question, what is the gospel and the equally huge question how then shall we live? They are joyful and good folks but about this they are deadly serious.

They end the book with a beautiful sort of litany of how Paul called this community to ways that were counter to the values and practices and ways of living in the Rome Empire (and counter to our own culture as well.) Paul’s’ call to offer dignity and respect subverted a world where status and honor legitimated the shaming and denigration of the others (especially the poor and slaves.) Paul’s call to welcome others into community subverted the imperial divisions; “in a world where the enemy is vilified, Paul calls for generous blessing and hospitality for those who have wronged us…”

“In a world where the pain of the suffering was denied and ignored because it was considered collateral damage in the good ordering of society, Paul called this community to weep with those who weep and walk with the oppressed.”

You’ll have to read it in its entirety to catch the hope and inspiration and cadence and implications of this good proclamation.

But hear this, now:

Can we envision a world where the voices of the suffering allowed to subvert the ideology of militarism and consumption that dominates our imaginations? Can we imagine a world where those of us with privilege sacrifice that privilege in order to enter into the suffering of others, of creation, of God?

 It is clear that Paul could envision such a world, and this is a world that we want to live in, too. That is the kind of hope that Paul calls us to. If we truly walk with the oppressed and allow ourselves to be led by those who mourn, perhaps we will find ourselves, with Iris and Nereus, not only imagining the new creation but living in such a way that others too will recognize it when it arrives.

This lovely ending names their fictional characters (Iris and Nereus) that we’ve learned so much about in the second big chapter. Not only does this illuminating device help us imagine the explosive social impact on Paul’s pastoral letter to the Christ-followers in Rome, but other devices in the book help us, too. (I’ve mentioned the conversation partner — that italicized interlocutor that interrupts from time to time, another helpful device.)

TARGUMS. YES, YOU HEARD THAT RIGHT: TARGUMS.

There is another teaching device used, an imaginative practice that was, in fact, used in first century rabbinic circles, a poetic and application-oriented modernized paraphrase of the Older Testament texts. First century Christ followers often didn’t know Hebrew (Hellenized Jews, they were called, that is, Israelites who had been pretty much accommodated to the Greek worldview and living within the Roman Empire, so they didn’t even know Hebrew, let alone the law and the prophets. Not to mention the non-Jewish Gentiles grafted into the story of Israel.) So church leaders would do these preaching performances called targums. Walsh excels at doing them for us.

Pages 297-320 of Romans Disarmed is one such imaginative, improvisational re-telling of Romans 12 and 13 that serves as an update of much of what they are saying Romans is saying to us today. It is worth the price of the book to read and re-read (aloud in your own community, perhaps) this modern, creative, re-telling. I mean that.  Early on they have a great one re-telling the first part of Romans 1 and nearer the end, a vivid one about inspired by the end of Romans 1. These targums are brilliant.

Here is how they describe these (essential) occasional sidebars:

When rabbis would stand up to read the Torah to Diaspora synagogue congregations throughout the Roman Empire, they would have to translate because Hebrew had already been lost for so many Judeans. But they never translated straight. They did not understand meaning to be conveyed through exact and literal translation (that is a modern notion of translation.) No, that would have been too reductionistic for them. Rather, they believed that the Torah was a living word, still speaking into every new situation. So their translations were also interpretations of the ancient text, an updating of the text, an attempt to allow the Torah to speak anew and fresh to a covenant people from their homeland, living as strangers in a foreign land. Are we not in a decidedly analogous situation? We have an ancient text that we have been struggling to understand, sometimes trying to free if from the shackles of dogmatic interpretation, and we desperately want to hear this text speak a word of liberation into our own lives. Such a fresh hearing of this text requires an exercise in interpretive imagination. So we turn again to the genre of targum.

Remember that a targum is invariably longer than the original text. It has to be, because I need to explicate a lot of what would have been implicit in the original writing. What might have been easily grasped by the first hearers if often lost on a later audience. And a targum also needs to bring the ancient text into conversation and perhaps conflict with later historical, cultural, political, and economic realities. Moreover, this particular targum, coming three-quarters of the way through a sixteen-chapter epistle, also needs to spend some time hearing what Paul is saying in light of all that has come before. In other words, the targum needs to take the time to unpack something of what Paul means when he says “therefore” at the beginning of our passage.

Okay: Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice is a guide to new ways to read the Bible, a radical call to live more faithfully in our own socioeconomic times, to be so transformed by God’s grace in community that we become gospel-grounded and Kingdom dreaming people, making a difference against the forces of disruption and distortion in our own broken times. They reject the popular notion that Romans is somehow an abstract systematic theology, neither a simplistic Romans Road to soul salvation nor a treatise on Calvinistic (or other kinds of) intellectual dogma. As originally written and heard, it can be heard a manifesto for staying alive – both in the sense of not being deadened by the swirling seductions in our own fake Empires – and for keeping the true Biblical faith alive, becoming more authentic Christ followers of the sort that populated the counter-cultural, anti-imperial communities that transformed the Roman Empire. It isn’t a call to woodenly return to some golden era or early church purity (if anything, it shows us that the early church was itself pretty dysfunctional and confused.) But it does invite us into an adventure of hearing this letter as part of a story, a controversial, dangerous, adventuresome, almost revolutionary story.

I simply don’t know of any other Bible study book that puts application – improvisational and political, even – in the center of our interpretation of the text, and with such compelling and persuasive (and interesting) power. As I’ve noted, they tell about their own lives of being stewardly within their own watershed (they are part of a movement explored, in fact, in a book edited by Ched Meyers called Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice [Cascade; $30.00.]) Of course they draw on some of the great, clear writings of Wendell Berry, who they’ve been citing for years. They talk about race and racial injustice (which, for them, include a lot about First Nations people in Canada, among whom they have good friends and with whom they have been working for decades, long before the uprising at Standing Rock brought Native people’s contemporary issues to most of our awareness.) They talk about food and music and politics and violence and home-making and sexuality and worship and lament and joy and grace and worldviews. All in a commentary on a book of the Bible that some people think is metaphysical, theological, and beyond their ken. Again I say, wow. Romans Disarmed is one of the most curiously interesting, life-changing books I have read in a very long time.

You can order it from us today at 20% OFF by clicking on the “order” tab below. That will take you to our secure order form page; just enter your info and tell us what you want. We’ll gladly take it from there. Thanks.

A FINAL POSTSCRIPT: A NEW BOOK BY JAMES W. SKILLEN

God’s Sabbath With Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled James W. Skillen (Wipf & Stock) $35.00  Well, if Sylvia Keesmaat & Brain Walsh are feisty farmers and watershed activists, stewarding well their own land even while in conversation with First Nation’s peoples seeking justice, and this sense-of-place informs their study of Romans which they see as an anti-Empire manifesto, this new book – which picks up some (vaguely) similar themes, by political scientist and founder of the moderate Christian think-tank and faith-based, US citizen’s group, the Center for Public Justice – might be a good companion volume. (Here is an interesting interview with him about the founding of CPJ decades ago and his views about the relationship of faith and citizenship.) Although written with a very different tone and style, it, too explores Romans a bit, if in a more conventional exegetical style with lots of theological language, albeit of a “creation regained” / all of life redeemed, worldview perspective. There are no poetic targums, but there are some citations of Abraham Kuyper…

I know that some who have benefitted from the early, influential worldview studies of Brian Walsh – he was the first to hold a professorship and chair of worldview studies (at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies) – would know that in his early years at ICS he drew much of his foundational critique of the secular rationalism of much of the Western philosophical tradition (and the pietism and/or secular rationalism of the Western theological tradition, as well) from the famous Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. Dr. Skillen has long been deeply grounded in that particular stream of neo-Calvinist (“reformational”) worldview philosophy and although he has been a political scientist most of his life (his most recent previous book is one I’ve raved about in a long BookNotes review; it is called The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction [Baker Academic; $25.00]) he has been a serious student of Holy Scripture and knows the very best Biblical scholarship. This is a book he told me years ago that he wanted to write and we are thrilled to announce that it just came out.

A new book by Skillen is always a good thing. A book about reading the Bible is great.

Like Walsh & Keesmaat, Skillen is convinced of the Biblical truth that God’s faithfulness to the good but fallen creation means that, in Christ, this world is being re-made; healed and restored. He so disapproves of “other-worldly” piety and anti-creational dualism that he has a chapter in this book – a collection of essays about the drama of the Biblical promise and fulfillment of God’s Sabbath for creation itself — about political philosopher Eric Voegelin who, in Skillen’s learned estimation, gets Paul wrong, but has a lot to teach us against the debilitating heresy of Gnosticism. Amen!

Skillen – in a way that is more foundational and less vivid about social issues than Brian and Sylvia – is, nonetheless, a public intellectual doing some sort of public theology, if you will. Or, perhaps I should say, he’s doing Biblical study with an eye to the creation-wide, daily-life, public implications of a solid and creative view of what the Bible says about life and times. He knows how the Bible works and the trajectory of the story from creation to new creation; from garden to city; he sees creation and its historical opening up as “disclosing” God’s will; he writes about “hospitality and honor” and how covenantal views are not the same as social contracts. All of this matters as we proclaim that Christ is reconciling all things. As royal priests, we all are called to do work which anticipates the future completion and rest God is bringing to His world. What we do now matters, and it is important to find ourselves immersed in the covenantal promises of God to cause human shalom and flourishing throughout His own beloved creation.

God’s Sabbath with Creation is not a lefty manifesto (as some might see Keesmaat and Walsh’s Romans Disarmed) but it does have within it a socially potent view of the Scriptures as they shine a light revealing the circumference and scope of Christ’s reign and can point us towards a counter-cultural witness in but not of the world. That is, this solid, even dense, set of Biblical reflections has public implications.

As Skillen puts it:

Christ Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one through whom all things are created and all things are fulfilled. We are creatures made in God’s image, called to develop and govern the earth in service to God. The exercise of human responsibility in this age plays a major part in the revelation of God’s glory. Every vocation matters for creation’s seventh-day fulfillment: family, friendships, worship, civic responsibility, and our work in every sphere of life.

This is serious, even if at times a tad tedious; it is edifying and helpful to work through Skillen’s God’s Sabbath with Creation and we recommend it. His quibbles about, say, N.T. Wright’s less than fully adequate exposition of the relationship between this creation and the re(new)ed creation is quite interesting. (Some it is found in a footnote, so don’t miss it!)

Here are the main units of this hefty book that bridges the worlds of contemporary socio-political analysis and his previous books about pluralism and citizenship and our human longing for cultural renewal with careful exegesis of Biblical words and themes. There are several short but meaty chapters in each major section. Believe me, he pulls more implications from these Biblical themes than most, and bases his understanding of our contemporary lives within this hopeful trajectory that God is at work bringing plans to fruition, bringing healing and hope to the cosmos.

  • Created Reality
  • Revelatory Patterns
  • The Covenantal Disclosure of Reality
  • First Adam Last
  • Already and Not Yet
  • Israel and the new Covenant
  • The Way, the Truth, the Life

Jim has a remarkable gift of discernment and can unpack more from a passage than most. He is widely read, almost playfully, so, and here draws on scholars as unique as Alexander Schmemann and Jorgen Moltmann, Christine Pohl and Oliver O’Donovan, Richard Middleton and N.T. Wright, Richard Hays and Abraham Kuyper, Sallie McFague and Herman Ridderbos, Miroslov Volf and Gerhard Von Rad. His own Reformed leanings are evident when he draws on Gordon Spykman, John Stek, Ray Van Leeuwen, Calvin Seerveld, Alvin Plantinga, RIdderbos, and Al Wolters.

Here is a very good endorsement from two scholars and teachers we admire:

Jim Skillen is one of our best Christian thinkers today, a scholar we have long admired. He is, moreover, a top Christian political theorist who takes the Bible seriously in his academic work. And so it is a delight to read the fruit of his many years of wrestling with the scriptural text. He challenges an individualistic narrative of sin and salvation, and articulates a rich view of creation in fresh and surprising ways. Following Jesus means redirecting the whole of our creaturely lives to serve God, others, and the non-human creation in joyful anticipation of God’s coming Sabbath with creation. Highly recommended!                           –Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen co-authors of The Drama of Scripture, At the Crossroads, and Christian Philosophy

 

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The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land (by David Dark) AND Five Other Books to Help us Think about America ON SALE NOW

 

All of these books are on sale and can be ordered through our secure website. Just click on the order link at the end of this column. We will be sure to confirm everthing with a personal reply.

After a hard look at hard stuff during Holy Week, we are lead through the hell of Holy Saturday and, abruptly, into the joy and hope of Easter. I think the apostle Paul and countless apologists are right in saying everything hinges on the truth of the empty tomb. We must believe deeply in the resurrection of Jesus and, then, to use Wendell Berry’s famous poetic line, in the call to “practice resurrection.”

But what does it look like to be a practicing resurrectionary? And how do we bring light and goodness, victory and life, gospel grace and Kingdom power to the still broken world in which we live?

What does it mean to live well in a complicated Monday after a joyous Sunday?

A.J. Swoboda, who has written well in A Glorious Dark about the three days of Christ’s death, what is sometimes called The Triduum, gives us a hint in his major 2018 book, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World; there he reminds us that keeping Sabbath, habits of rest and celebration epitomized in holidays like Easter, ends up subverting the dysfunctional ways of the world. Can holidays, and Christian practices connected to the resurrection really be subversive? Does faithful resurrectionary living present an alternative to the reigning status quo?

Our church (and maybe yours) gladly proclaimed the joy of new life in Christ, celebrating Jesus’ victory over the grave, the forgiveness of sin, but also teased out some of the implications of this newness that breaks in to human history. We confessed our sins, admitted our fears, came to grips with the foibles and failures of life East of Eden. And we were called to be transformed, through faith, by grace, to become people of the Kingdom, missional agents of God’s love in the world. I’m not sure our preacher used the word, but it was deeply subversive, if we realize what it means to “practice resurrection.” We proclaim “all things new,” after all.

Which necessarily leads us back into what is sometimes called “the real world.” To that popular verse in 1 Chronicles 12:32 about “sons of Issachar” who “understood the times and knew what God’s people should do.” After Easter, can we become sons and daughters of Issachar?

That is just what our books are designed to help you with.

Which, like it or not, necessarily leads back to big stories such as the release of the Mueller Report*, our President’s tweets, our local economies, our foreign affairs, the brokenness in which we are implicated, the “groaning of creation” itself (Romans 8: 19-22), and all the rest that might be considered current affairs.

*yes, you can pre-order it from us.

We are sent into the world and we simply cannot be “above the fray” of our contested politics.

I think it was Jim Wallis who I first heard say that Christian faith is “personal, but never private.” Like Abraham Kuyper said, Christ claims “every square inch” of the entire creation.

The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land  David Dark (Westminster John Knox) $17.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder he wrote a fascinating, stimulating book a few years ago called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan; $15.99.) (I might add, although it doesn’t add much, that I am honored to have a back-cover blurb on that one, sharing endorsement space with the late Eugene Peterson, who notes that Dark finds Jesus in surprising places and “he is also a reliable lie detector. And there isn’t a dull sentence in the book.”)

Dark is not only obsessed with lie detecting, with principles and words and “of who said what and how generalizing statements hide specific atrocities.” He is also obsessed – although it seems to come naturally to him – to say things in creative ways, putting side by side words that are not often combined, phrases that raise the eyebrow, that sometimes are jarring, sometimes amusing. (His sneaky little dropping of pop culture allusions, lines from rap songs or phrases from criticism or novels may go unnoticed by most – how many such “Easter eggs” did I miss, I wonder?) Which is just to say he’s a good, colorful, playful, if at times intense writer.

For instance, in that same serious introduction he describes his role as a teacher as the common good of attempted truthfulness. The paragraph-long explication of that sacred space is nearly worth the price of the book. “It could be the most insanely presumptuous task undertaken by any member of our species,” he writes. “I actually attempt to help people with their own thinking.”

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

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

The Possibility of America, as you can tell from the title, is still not without hope. Dark believes in the resurrection of Jesus, after all, and he loves our land. He loves our land passionately, concretely, especially as many Southerners do. Although his writing is at times dense and loaded with metaphor and allusion, he is not, finally, an abstract writer. He’s a deep and colorful thinker, but his writing is full of specificity, of place and details, of vim and vigor, as we used to say, salt and vinegar, maybe even fire and brimstone. And empathy and love and the occasional dose of self-deprecation and honest humility. He speaks his mind, tells stories, explores American writers and singers and films, and helps us see what kind of deep patriotic wells we might draw from in order to become more Christ-like and more earnest in our civic lives. In this, he seems to be nearly a postmodern, 21st century Will Campbell. Campbell, you might know, was a wordsmithy himself, published a theological journal, was a bit cantankerous, a Southern Baptist preacher who was a civil rights activist (the only white person at the founding of the SCLC) and yet friends with several Klansman. (“Jesus died for bigots, too,” he famously said.) It comes as no surprise that Dark cites Campbell’s classic memoir Brother to a Dragonfly.

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

If you know David (or read his Everyday Apocalypse) you know he’s going to cite Bob Dylan, and he does. Alongside Patti Smith, Chance the Rapper, and the lovely young alt-folkie Julien Baker.

David is a very creative writer and some may find him an acquired taste. This is a grand compliment – I regularly say it about two authors I adore, Calvin Seerveld and Daniel Berrigan (and, I suppose, James Joyce, although I haven’t acquired a taste for that kind of weirdness, yet.) It is interesting that David is a student of (saying a “fan of” would trivialize the matter) the poet, priest, and prophet, the late Daniel Berrigan. He thinks like him, it seems to me; he sounds like him. Maybe soon, David will end up in jail, like Father Berrigan — who knows? Civil disobedience, after all, is a very American custom and Biblical thing to do.

Berrigan (for those who weren’t taught it in school) was until his death last year a radical Catholic priest known for speaking truth to power by way of symbolic gestures of civil disobedience, disrupting state events, exposing the ludicrous idolatry of nuclear weapons (among other shameful atrocities, from torture to abortion to our neglect of the ill.) His poetry and Biblical commentary were held in great esteem among a rag-tag group of followers, many who joined him in non-violent civil disobedience and symbolic actions to dramatize the Bible’s call to repent from social injustice, such as throwing their blood on the pillars of the Pentagon, or chaining the doors shut of multi-national corporations profiteering from cluster bombs which knowingly target little children. The Berrigan Brothers (as he and his brother Philip were sometimes called) stood in an old tradition informed by the likes of Martin of Tours and Saint Francis and Tolstoy and Menno Simons and Franz Jägerstätter and Gandhi.

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

I note that David is influenced by the Berrigans and writes in a verbose, eccentric style that is somewhat akin to poet Daniel. (Philip Berrigan was, by the way, stark and blunt, terse and no-nonsense. Of the two, who both wrote prodigiously, only Daniel would do a Bible commentary on the minor prophet called, with some sort of wink, Daniel.) It might be safer for David Dark of Nashville holding affiliations with an evangelical college to get at the foibles and possibilities of the deep American religious traditions by drawing on famously punchy and dark Flannery O’Connor (and he does, somewhat.) But it is brave, and even a bit unexpected, for him, in 2019, to release a book so deeply influenced in the witness of Dan Berrigan.

To wit: see also the great chapter by Mr. Dark on Father Berrigan in the wonderfully grand Eerdmans collection called Can I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith & Justice (Eerdmans) $26.99. OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59 I described this very sturdy and nicely bound hardback previously at BookNotes, exclaiming how profound this collection is, how needed. Edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, & Daniel Rhodes, there are a baker’s dozen chapters by 13 deeply caring authors. Each good author tells about a certain American saint who lived out faith in robust and often-controversial ways, who took a stand, spoke out, paid up. The research for the book came out of a several year project overseen by Charles Marsh at the Project for Lived Theology housed at the University of Virginia.

This Center has released other work exploring how theology and spirituality can be embodied and lived out and (more precisely) how lived experience (which includes social location) influences the doing of theology. They do oral histories, maintain various workgroups, and publish papers, reports, and a few scholarly books. Can I Get a Witness is their most important work yet, holding up major figures about which we simply ought to know more, all who can help nurture a “public conversation about civic responsibility and social progress.” There are chapters on famous thinkers and activists such as Cesar Chavez and Mahalia Jackson; they represent a variety of faith traditions such as Roman Catholic convert Dorothy Day, Native theologian, evangelical Richard Twiss, and ordained Baptist mystic and scholar Howard Thurman.

I have to admit I read David’s chapter on Daniel Berrigan first, even though there are other great chapters I couldn’t wait to explore. I knew he was re-working and re-issuing the expanded version of Gospel According to America, and thought it would be good to read David on Berrigan before taking in Possibility…

As I trust I’ve made clear, he has written about a variety of aspects of American culture and politics, if in a tone of “new seriousness.” The stern Berrigan-esque insight is prevalent but America is not just a nay-saying screed. He truly enjoys thinking about this stuff – one can tell, in part by the way his fertile mind jumps from this author to that, this episode of an old TV show to that, from a memory of being frustrated with a scene in Patch Adams to teaching us the importance of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or riffing on the message of folk singer John Prine’s song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get Your into Heaven Anymore,” or how one of his conversation partners (a student, perhaps?) put Wendell Berry in his pantheon of elders, “right up there with Tupac Shakur and Ursula K. Le Guin.”

Or, in another vital paragraph, how he shows a quick genealogy of civil rights ideas that lead us to Beloved Community – “beginning with Moses telling the leaders of his world, ‘Let me people go,’ moving through the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963, and eventually arriving (but not stopping) at the day Beyonce’s Lemonade dropped…” He cites, then, a bunch of books of the Bible, leading to a reflection on the “Magna Carta of Christian liberty,” Paul’s letter to the Galatians. What a blast!

I love what Ohio poet and rock critic Hanif Aburraquib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us says:

“It is an honor to watch his conflicts and curiosities bear themselves out on the page.”

You may need to think a bit more deeply about our current social situation, about our nation. You may not know where to start. I think this could help. Many others are raving about The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land, so consider these accolades:

“If I prayed, I would pray for all the David Darks—all the smart, funny, thoughtful, quirky, tough-minded, well-read, culturally-engaged Christians in America—to arise and speak up. Because I know that the crabbed, mean, unthinking forms of political Christianity that I see portrayed in the media are not the whole story.”
—Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland

“This revised edition of The Gospel according to America makes this prescient tome that much more salient. Dark regards America—real and imagined, secular and abidingly faithful, horrible and glorious—with a holistic gaze that holds these truths and contradictions together and examines the culture that comes from it in order to better understand just how we got here.”
—Jessica Hopper, author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic 

“This is a book built on the understanding that there is a civic imagination that imagines us into a better way of being human together. Taking Twitter, literature, poetry, music lyrics, film, television, cartoons and conversations as sacred texts, David Dark looks at the things that are held up by language: power, fear, and hatred. Dark’s work holds the hope that love is a muscle we can exercise in public—and he holds us to account for how we practice.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, Irish poet and theologian of reconciliation of the Corrymeela Community

FIVE OTHER BOOKS TO HELP US GLIMPSE THE POSSIBILITIES OF AMERICA

This Land: America, Lost and Found Dan Barry (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers) $29.99 OUR SALE PRCE = $23.99 I came to respect Dan Barry as a extraordinary writer and dogged investigator and great storyteller when I read one of the most gripping books of creative nonfiction I’ve ever read, Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland. (Enter it in quotations in our “search” box at the Hearts & Minds bookstore website and you can find my comments about it in December of 2016 or again when I awarded it Best Book award at the end of that year.) That award-winning expose moved me so that I explored his personal memoir, Pull Me Up, and then his great baseball book Bottom of the 33rd.

This beautiful and inspiring recent book is a collection of years worth of commissioned pieces that Barry was filing with The New York Times in his acclaimed “This Land” column. As he explains in the preface, they trusted him enough to send him wherever he wanted to go along with their finest photographers, to visit, to hang out, to snoop around, to catch the drift, and tell the stories of towns large and small, stories momentous and quiet. It is fabulously entertaining and, often, very deeply moving. We highly recommended it.

If David Dark is a literary and pop culture maven, if he’s an engaged theological thinker, if he has an agenda of learning from our God-haunted writers and critics and reformers so that we might be redemptive in stewarding the possibilities of a better nation, this book by journalist Dan Barry seems to have a more singular agenda: go places, meet people, tell their stories. Yet, this is not mere entertainment (a la Bill Bryson, say) but carries a goal of helping us to see and understand our fellow citizens, care about our country’s places, to be better neighbors and members of our commonwealth. It is truly top rate journalism written by a person of character and virtue, with the hopes of illuminating, too, the pains and the possibilities.

This handsome volume is illuminated with full color photographs from award-winning photojournalists, on thicker paper, making it nearly a keepsake volume. I agree with those who have said it is nearly a historic look at American life, from sea to shining sea. (There is even a chapter on Lancaster, PA.) This Land truly is a magnificent book and it would make a fabulous gift for anyone who cares about our place or enjoys reading short form creative nonfiction.

The compelling, enjoyable essays are grouped in categories; the dozen or so several-page pieces under each section have their own allusive and alluring titles, but room doesn’t not permit me to show them all. I’ll list the themed chapters, though, to give you a glimpse:

  • Part One: Change – After the Ball is Over, After the Break of Dawn
  • Part Two: Hope – Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland
  • Part Three: Misdeeds – Here You Have Your Morning Papers, All About the Crimes
  • Part Four: Intolerance – I’m Always Chasing Rainbows
  • Part Five: Hard Times – Hard Times, Hard Times, Come Again No More
  • Part Six: Nature – The Beautiful, the Beautiful River
  • Part Seven: Grace – Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life
  • Part Eight: The Ever-Present Past – Shine Little Glow Worm, Glimmer
  • Epilogue: In the Middle of Nowhere, A Nation’s Center

Check out these wonderful endorsing blurbs. They are so intelligent and thoughtful and, we think, spot on.

Dan Barry is an American treasure, and This Land is a beautifully conceived, essential book on American lives and places. His understanding and love of the American experience — small towns, fractured lives, beauty, suffering, and the physical landscape — is unparalleled. I’m grateful to him, and for him, for chronicling our lives, honoring our history and recognizing our connection to each other.      Rosanne Cash

Dan Barry gives dignity even to the darkest corners of the American experience. He is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Steinbeck.  Colum McCann

This Land reminds us that the greatest strength of the American character is America’s characters: men and women who are resilient, gracious, eccentric, world-weary, bright-eyed, funny, complex, tragic, surly and yes, even, kind. Dan Barry proves once again that in his intelligent company, attention paid is its own reward. He assures us, too, that eloquence, wit, and compassion — all the virtues we need now — have not been purged from American discourse and are alive and well in these pages.                                                                                                             Alice McDermott

What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musicians Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities – One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time Dar Williams (Basic Books) $27.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.60  We’ve carried the great Dar Williams’ music for years – yes, we still stock CDs – and when we heard she had a book coming out, I was excited. She is articulate, has a good eye for that curious detail, and is known as an environmental spokesperson. She cares about things that matter and has sung beautiful about life in our hurting world. (The New York Times review said this book was more a report from the Green party than the green room. Nice!)

And then, when we heard she was hanging around with new urbanists, talking about small towns, buying local, channeling Jane Jacobs (more than one review said that) we were even more eager to stock it. She has, after all, made her living – as she puts it – “not in stadiums but touring America’s small towns.”

Alas, she oddly – I’d say hypocritically – has only one link to sell her book at her website, and that’s to faceless, anti-small towners at greed-driven Amazon. Not even the customary “wherever fine books are sold” or “at your favorite bookseller.” No IndieBound link, nothing. Sigh.

Still, it’s a book some of our customers might enjoy and it reports on local communities in way that would compliment David Dark’s righteous possibility project:

What I Found in a Thousand Towns is a thoughtful and passionately explored journey of how American towns can revitalize and come to life through their art, food, history, mom-and-pop business, and community bridge building. Dar Williams gives us hope and vision for the possibilities of human connection.  Emily Saliers, Indigo Girls

Dar Williams channels the soul and spirit of Jane Jacobs. With a songwriter’s eye for detail and an urbanist’s nose for what makes cities and towns work, she provides stunning portraits of America’s great small towns. What I Found in a Thousand Towns will open your eyes to the key things that makes communities succeed and thrive even when the deck is stacked against them. I love this book: You will too.                                               Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis

 

The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt David Giffels (Scribner Book Company) $16.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.80  Perhaps you recall that we named as one of my favorite books this past year the fabulously interesting, engaging memoir Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, a memoir about a guy in Akron, Ohio, who is a writer, community college teacher, and who is a bit of a wood-worker – he had written a previous memoir about fixing up his old house called All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House – who is making a casket with his engineer/ woodworking father. It is a book about small towns, about rock and roll, about father-son stuff, the lost arts of working with your hands, and a lot about the grief he experiences as he loses his best friend and beloved mother. It was a near prefect book for me – a memoir of a middle-aged guy with rock sensibilities, an irreverent streak, and a colorful, religious family. Building a coffin. What a great book!

And so, I find he’s written a previous collection of pieces about rustbelt troubles and it strikes me to say that he is the real deal. These essays – which he describes as “wry and irreverent” — are about basketball (he grew up near LaBron James) and the auto industry (Akron was, after all, the rubber capitol of the world; so many people there worked for Firestone), rock and roll (there’s a blurb by a guy from The Black Keys, another Akron icon, not to mention Devo) and what it means to stay in a town most people leave.

These “dispatches” are about identity and place, about Ohio and the great Midwest. His publisher describes the book like this:

…David Giffels was born in Akron in the 1960s, as the golden age was ending, and has lived there ever since. Now he plumbs the touchstones and idiosyncrasies of a region where industry has fallen, bowling is a legitimate profession, extreme weather is the norm, thrift store culture dominates, and sports is heartbreak in a rarely told story of a unique American generation whose deep regional pride was born of economic failure and hardship. The Hard Way on Purpose is the story from the inside, written by someone who never left, about the life that goes on there and what it means. Intelligent, humorous, and warm, Giffels’s collection of linked essays is about coming of age in the Midwest, and the stubborn, optimistic, proud, and resourceful people who thrive there.

I mention this because it is a fun read, because we’ve got friends in that part of Ohio, because the writing is good, and because, somehow, his evoking of hope among underdogs seems to capture something, in a different tone and style, close to what David Dark is exploring. Can we draw upon our better angles? I doubt if Giffels would put it that way, but if you want a book to help you ponder the state of our union, this is a good, fun, way in.

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life David Brooks (Random House) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40  We received a somewhat early edition of this and have been working through it bit by bit. I am a huge David Brooks fan, and appreciate his lucid and eloquent speaking and writing. I know those who are serious progressives distrust him since he is often pitched as the conservative voice on NPR or PBS. Conversely, some of my conservative friends roll their eyes when they think of David as a conservative, since they think he is way too liberal. In this regard he seems akin to another favorite pundit, The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson.

Too liberal for the right, too conservative for the left?

Too intellectual for the populists, too much a popularizer for the elite scholars?

And, recently, as word of his embrace of Christianity has gotten out – one could see it coming in his previous The Road to Character – and as he has been befriended over the last decade by smart evangelicals, I wonder if he is now too religious for the secular mainstream and yet too open-minded for the religionists?

Maybe, even give that The Second Mountain is somewhat about his own religious pilgrimage, is he too Jewish for the Christians and too Christian to be a Jew?

Is he too widely read and none-dogmatic for the rigid evangelicals and yet too obviously religious for those who prefer their questing to be general, philosophical, spiritual, maybe, but not churchy?

Can people embrace a serious, public intellectual who says he is “a wandering Jew and a confused Christian”?

This remarkable just-released book deserves pages and pages of careful review, and I cannot do that yet. I mentioned it now, though, here, as it is very much related to the fundamental project of David Dark and his book on the possibilities of America – it starts with the exploration of the theme that we are happiest when we are living for something beyond ourselves. Which connects us to cares and causes societal and communal. In a way, this is a thought example of (or at least a prelude to) public theology.

As Mr. Brooks began to explore in his previous book, The Road to Character (Random House; $18.00) there is this huge question of how to live for something other than one’s self when we live in a self-centered culture? Where does that virtue come from, and how does one possibly sustain it? The first two chapters are called “Moral Ecologies” and “The Instagram Life.” What social pressures must we resist and how can we trust something other than our own shallow and finally unreliable selves?

One can immediately see the fingerprints of cultural critic and philosopher Charles Taylor and the evangelical Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller. It may be surprising that Brooks – again, like David Dark – is fascinated with Dorothy Day. Day’s striking conversion from a secular worldview to historic, traditional Catholicism, and her subsequent piety linked to a passion for the poor (and her desire to overthrow what she called “this filthy, rotten system”) intrigues the conservative pundit. The Second Mountain is full of stories of people like Day whose lives were transformed by causes bigger than themselves and who found their way to religious faith as a key to their transforming vision.

I loved Brooks’ early books like the essential Bobos in Paradise and the fantastic one about suburban fascination with yards, On Paradise Drive. Of course we stock them both, not to mention The Social Animal and The Road to Character. But this new one is truly extraordinary, catapulting Brooks, I would think, into the major ranks of being a thoughtful, accessible, public intellectual rooted in the Christian tradition.

That he has spoken at Q, has been on stage conversing (at Trinity Forum) with James K.A. Smith, has appeared with Miroslov Volf, and has sequestered himself with scholars at Wheaton College, is nothing short of remarkable for a public figure of his caliber and social situation.

As with his other marvelous books, he is astute in his critique of the American upper and middle classes, even has he seems to have considerable heart for a just social order that values the underclass and helps shape the common good. He is searching for that deeply moral life, emerging from his interest in character, and is candid about his own longing for meaning, purpose, joy, and what we too often too glibly call “a life well lived.” What intellectual and religious commitments are viable? He is trying to ask what causes human flourishing, what sustains it, and what kind of society can help provide the social architecture where it is more likely to occur?

Indeed, in a very important chapter after what seems to me to be the penultimate one about conversion (“A Most Unexpected Turn of Events”), there are several impressive chapters offering a study of community. Again, I cannot now quote the many good lines in this rich section, but he appreciates that we cannot do this stuff alone, that relationships matter.)

Brooks presents, as you might guess, good data and analysis and stories about those who make serious, life-enhancing moral commitments. That’s the “second mountain” – fashioning behaviors that bolster one’s commitments, supremely to family and vocation and community.

That fact Brooks’s own marriage ended (and he has since married a younger woman) has caused many to say he is hypocritical; it is, I suppose, an ironic elephant in the room (although he does mention it in the book.) You will have to decide if a book of astute moral persuasion about keeping family commitments and finding faith from a person from an admittedly broken family is acceptable. That he has been spoken of harshly and the book dismissed because of his frailty is, I think, disappointing. Regardless of what you think of the man and his personal situation, the book is one well worth reading.

Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (2ND Edition) David Koyzis (foreword by Richard Mouw) (IVP Academic) $33.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $26.40  I have maintained since the first edition of this learned and exceptional book came out in 2003 that it is nothing short of essential for those wishing to think deeply and Christianly about faith and political life. In my first BookNotes review of it,  I summoned Bible texts about the mind of Christ, about not being “taken captive” by worldy ideologies, about being “non-conformed” to the ways of this world through having a “renewed mind.” I hope you know those texts. The Bible is clear that we are to “take every thought captive” and as Al Wolters first taught me, the Greek word in Colossians 2:8 (similarly to 2 Corinthians 10:5) does not mean merely any bad thoughts – like take captive our propensity to lust or anger or envy, but theories. That is, we shouldn’t be taken captive by theories or ideas that are not themselves consistent with a Biblical view of reality.

Just a week or two ago I was having a pleasant conversation – a bit of a philosophical debate — with a man much more learned than myself; he has authored Christian books, in fact. He is esteemed in his field and I enjoyed our conversation very much. At one point, I said something about his particular field and areas of expertise and said I just didn’t think his view comported with what the Bible says. What does that have to do with it? he retorted.

I wish I had the time to remind him of 2 Corinthians 10:5 and Colossians 2:8 or Romans 12: 1-2 or other Biblical instructions about having a renewed mind, about not being accommodated to pagan notions, not even in our intellectual architecture. This is why we sell books, actually –  to help cultivate a consensus among readers that we should, in fact, love God with all our minds, thinking in ways that are consistent with what God has revealed to be true. We all must be on guard against syncretism, an undiscerning mixing of Biblical views and ideas that have deep roots in non-Christan ways of seeing life.  Both the left and the right have elements of this, and it won’t due to merely point fingers at the problems with the side we don’t like.  We’ve all got work to do to be more faithful, wise, Biblical people in our views about our jobs, our politics, our economics, our public loyalties.

(This is not the time or place to write an essay about the dangers of wooden Biblicism. One doesn’t go to the Bible for scientific or economic or aesthetic or engineering theories or political policies as such. We study God’s world – reality! – but always in light of God’s Word. As the Bible says itself, it is a “light before our path” but not a direct manual for tax policy or law codes or art theories and whatnot.)

And so, we come to this new, considerably updated, seriously revised, important new edition of the best book that explores the implications of this call to not be taken captive by wrong-headed, unsound, theories and ideologies that are not consistent with God’s Word in the realm of political viewpoints.

Koyzis deserves a rigorous, rigorous review as he is an important scholar, a deep and widely-read thinker, and I don’t have the ability to do that, now (although I did discuss the first edition at length when it first came out; that old review can be found at our Booknotes archives.) But I will summarize it by saying that — to put it more simply than it deserves – critiques both the ideological left and right, liberals and conservatives, showing how their intellectual roots are deeply grounded in the soil of the French Revolution and, more broadly, the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment.

And in so doing, he shows us how, surprisingly, they have much more in common than we might first guess.

Dr. Koyzis, who has taught political theory at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario (and writes at his Byzantine-Rite Calvinist blog and in journals such as First Things and Comment) is, besides being an astute political theorist and good teacher, a student of the big picture, the genealogy of ideas, discerning not just the zeitgeist like a son of Issachar, but the DNA of the ancestors of the zeitgeist. Dylan maybe said you “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” but you sure need some schooling (and maybe Holy Spirit guidance) to know where it’s coming from. And why.

Those following King Jesus should be neither left nor right, I sometimes say, and, I will admit, it is a slogan verging on a cliché. Yet, for Dr. Koyzis, it is a very, very deep notion, rooted from his own immersion in the profoundly Biblical political science of the likes of Groen van Prinsterer, the brilliant and feisty anti-French Revolutionary social theorist who framed much of the Christian political party that eventually came to be led by Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper in early 20th century Holland. That is, van Prinsterer (we have the new edition of his classic Unbelief and Revolution newly translated by Harry Van Dyke and re-issued by Lexham Press; $15.99) was the main intellectual leader behind Kuyper’s movement.

So. Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies is just what it says. Although erudite and astute, it is a broad and big survey of modern visions and ideologies and the principle (religious-like) presuppositions behind them. Dig a bit under the surface of liberals and progressives and conservatives and nationalists and populists, we find certain constellations of ideas which, when held up to the light of God’s Word, are simply found wanting. Indeed, they serve as such controlling ideas they become for their adherents, idols.

Koyyzis is more philosophically minded and profound than this, but let me use an example (not from his book, exactly) but merely as a simple illustration of our quandary and why this book is so important if people of serious faith are going to be more faithful in their citizenship. Many on the religious right believe, as a matter of deep, religious-like certainty, that Jefferson was right that “the government that governs best, governs least.” Big government is considered anathema. Now as a matter of pretty obvious common sense, in many ways this is a wise, prudent concern. (Although, to save me, I don’t know how a small government can regulate international airports or sustain interstate highways or monitor the safety of food and medicines.) But I get that big bureaucracies can be inefficient and stupid.

However, the question on the table is if Jefferson and the Republican adage is correct: does the Bible teach that? Does a Biblically-inspired sort of social theory yield such an idea? Does a Scripturally-directed Christian political theorist believe such a thing? I am not going to try to summarize Koyzis’s complex and nuanced critique of the left and the right and their respective views of the role and task of the State, Christianly conceived. But I will say this: I do not think one can make a case (short of emphasizing maybe a single verse) for a negative view of government, or any assumption that government should be small. (Or, for that matter, that taxes should be low, but, I digress.) If we are trying to honor God by developing a uniquely and distinctively Christian approach to our civic lives and our party involvements, we have to ask this kind of a question: are truisms and slogans and assumptions about government Biblically faithful? Without crude proof-texting, what do we think about basic notions of political science, Koyzis is a help in this for those interested enough in working through a major book like this. Certainly anyone in public office or working for campaigns or interested in public affairs needs this sort of resource. It is less sprawling than Suicide of the West, the best seller by Jonah Goldberg (who makes no pretenses of trying to nurture a Christian perspective), but if one has interest in this sort of thing, Political Dreams and Illusions is your book.

Listen to James Skillen, one of my favorite mentors in this area. He wrote, among other things, a major book on how different faith leaders down through church history understood the task, role, and limits of the state, The Good of Government. Until his retirement, Jim ran the non-partisan Center for Public Justice. Skillen writes:

This second edition of David’s great book is a gem. The brighter light he now shines on his assessment of modern ideologies comes from an in-depth assessment of the story each tells and the idolatry exhibited in each one. This also pushes Christians to examine the extent to which we may be compromising our dedication to God by bowing (even unconsciously) to other gods for political guidance. In this day of heightening nationalism, racism, terrorism, and sheer ignorance, the message of this book could not be more urgent or important. Read and discuss it carefully even if it takes weeks to do so. The multiple forces at work in our homelands and around the world will not be thwarted or redirected by one election or one major event. Christian love of God and neighbor demands responsible civic service and that requires the kind of understanding provided by Political Visions and Illusions.

Here is another of many endorsing blurbs from many sharp thinkers, public theologians, citizen activists, church leaders, and others from across North America. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor emerita of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University. She has long been engaged in public affairs, and she brings a thoughtful social science approach to her (evangelical feminist) citizenship advocacy. She writes,

David Koyzis introduces readers to the range of political theories that have emerged and competed for dominance since classical times. He carefully and respectfully separates wheat from chaff in each of them in terms of a Christian worldview, and in a style that is clear, irenic, and persuasive. The second edition helpfully updates the first in terms of major political events of the past two decades. In an increasingly polarized world, this kind of book is essential reading for concerned citizens of all political and religious leanings.

 

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The best little Board Book on Holy Week and some other great resources for reflecting on the Passion of Jesus. ON SALE at 20% off

As is our usual practice, we show the regular retail price of the items. If you order using our secure order form page (click on the “order” link at the end of this column) we will write back right away and acknowledge the order. We’ll put your credit card receipt in the package, of course, showing the 20% off discount and shipping charges. Or an invoice if you’d rather have us bill you so you can pay be check later. Whatever works for you.

We invite you to tell us if you’d like the slowest, cheapest “media mail” rate (that, for a small order, is something like $2.75) or the quicker Priority Mail (which is still cheaper, and yet often quicker, than UPS.) For a smallish order of a few books that is often $6.95. Since some of these may be needed within a week, you may want to opt for Priority Mail, but we’ll do whatever you request.

Holy Week: An Emotions Primer Danielle Hitchen art by Jessica Blanchard (Harvest House) $12.99 I have rarely been so glad, and frankly surprised, by a board book; this new one called Holy Week is part of a several book series called “Baby Believer.” Maybe that sounds a little corny to your liturgical ears, but these are wonderful books for infants (and maybe up to 4 or 5 years old or so.) Each one has Bible episode or verse, linked to something that is also being taught. For instance, Let There Be Light has the subtitle An Opposites Primer.  First Bible Basics is called A Counting Primer; we love the one called From Eden to Bethlehem: An Animals Primer. There is even one called Psalms of Praise: A Movement Primer.

The one we are featuring now, of course, is the one designed to teach the episodes of Holy Week, and it does so brilliantly. Each chunky page tells of something that happened and lists and emotion.  You’ve got to see it in it’s full color glory with excellent age-appropriate illustration, but here’s what it shows:

  • Palm Sunday – excited
  • Jesus cleansing the temple – angry
  • Jesus washing the feet of the disciples – loved
  • Last Supper – thankful
  • Jesus praying in the garden – overwhelmed
  • Pilate – frustrated
  • Soldiers who crucified Jesus – scared
  • When Jesus died – sad
  • When the women go to the tomb – surprised
  • When Jesus appeared to the disciples – joyful

We have shown this to several customers in the shop and everyone is very impressed; there is nothing cheesy or simplistic about this, and it doesn’t say to much, allowing the child to ponder the Bible text and the art and the emotion. Gladly, Jesus is not portrayed as as European white guy, either, a touch we appreciate.

Danielle Hitchens and Jessica Blanchard have started what they call Catechesis Books. The artist, by the way, is a graduate of James Madison University and also studied at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Goodbye to Goodbyes: A True Story About Jesus, Lazarus, and an Empty Tomb Lauren Chandler, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (The Good Book Company) $14.99 We have highlighted each of the books in this great series, too, and we rejoice that there is a new one, perfect as an Easter gift for young ones ages up to middle elementary ages. Goodbye to Goodbyes is part of a series called “Tales That Tell the Truth” and we love them all. I hope you recall A Christmas Promise or The One O’Clock Miracle or The Storm That Stopped. The recent The Friend Who Forgives is about grace, based on a parable from Jesus. We loved God’s Very Good Idea which shows God’s plan for ethnic and other kinds of diversity in creation, and how God’s plan of redemption includes restoring multi-ethnic reconciliation, never wavering from his “very good” plan. It’s a delight that share the whole gospel — what Lisa Sharon Harper on her adult book calls The Very Good Gospel. 

Echeveri did a Good Friday-themed one in this “Tales That Tell the Truth” series called The Garden, The Curtain and the Cross. It’s very good and would make a great Easter gift.

The new one is also about death and resurrection and it interestingly gets at that by starting with the story of Lazarus, and what it means to lose friends. It is a great tool to help explain sickness and death to children. In a theologically robust way it is reminding us that in the resurrection of Jesus, we don’t have to say ultimate goodbyes any more. As Chandler has Jesus saying, “There is a day coming when we will say goodbye to saying goodbyes forever. Do you believe that?” I suspect she used this Biblical story in her own family teaching her children about the frightening news that her husband had a brain tumor. I am glad for this good, good resource.

As it says on the back cover, “This is happy, and sad, and (in the end) very happy story of what happened when Jesus visited his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and changed everything.” Kudos to the whimsical illustrations, the portrayal of people from many ethnicities, energetic illustration that captures the spicy flavor of Middle Eastern culture, and the glimpse to contemporary times.

 

The Chronicles of Narnia  C.S. Lewis (Harper) I suppose I don’t have to explain the remarkable stories here, their wonder and joy and sadness and adventure and triumph. Beth and I had the opportunity to sell Lewis books at a Lewis conference in an Episcopal church near Philly a few weeks back and we were enchanted again by being around people who knew so much about Lewis (and the other Inklings) and seeing rekindled enthusiasms for these good stories. It is terribly simplistic, but maybe it would be helpful to be reminded of some of the themes in the Narnia books; here is what Wikipedia says, at least:

The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after corruption.
The Horse and His Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” the spiritual life (specially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement.

There are a few different covers and boxed sets available. It’s a little complicated.

We favor the ones that show the original artwork by Pauline Baynes, but that have been colorized with soft pastel color. The 1950s original illustrations were black and white sketches, and the editions that have those are on cheaper paper and not nearly as nice. The colorized paperback editions, however, have a heavier stock glossier paper and are bound nicely.

The cheaper paperback editions have nice covers by Chris Van Allsberg but the Pauline Barnes inside art is black and white; they sell for $8.99 each or $55.93 for a boxed set.

The nicer paperbacks with better paper and colorized Pauline Baynes art sell for $9.99 or $8.99 each (depending which book) or $64.99 for a boxed set.

The hardbacks sell for $17.99 each (or $120.00 for a boxed set.) The cover art is by 2-time Caldecott medalist David Wiesner and interior illustrations are Pauline Baynes originals.

As you may note from the list above, the order of the books, nowadays, as per the wishes of the muckety-mucks at Harper, starts with The Magician’s Nephew, now labeled as Book One. As most older readers know, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe remains the one that should be read first. It makes a great Easter basket present!

Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) $16.99  You may recall my review of this at the start of Lent… it isn’t written as a daily Lenten devotional, so I was surprised how many people ordered it from us a month ago. I wanted to mention it again since its six chapters would make a great reading plan for Holy Week. It’s just 141 pages and a very good read!

Amy-Jill is a thoughtful and energetic New Testament scholar who also teaches Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. (Professor Levine is herself not a Christian, by the way, but is a practicing Jew.) Her vivid insights about first century Judaism has made her an important voice in Jesus studies (in fact, she has an award-winning book called The Misunderstood Jew about the Jewishness of Jesus and another on Jesus’s parables called Short Stories Jesus Told.)

“In every good story,” she says, “there is history and there is risk.”

And that’s a good place to start a re-telling of the passion of Jesus, no? Entering the Passion… offers good scholarship, a bit of cultural and religious and political context, and a narrative that pushes us to wonder what all this matters for today. For those of us who do want to follow Jesus, who see ourselves as part of his Body, the church, this will be a blessing and a challenge.  What does it mean to take risks to fulfill our calling, to be a loving servant of others? There are deeply spiritual and frankly ethical questions that Levine unearths from these classic gospel texts.

Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as Record in Mark Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan) $14.99  Oh my, this is one of the best Lenten books we know, a careful and moving reflection on Mark’s telling of the passion week story.  This offers 41 readings for the season but you could obviously just read the last few weeks as it moves towards Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

This is a hand-sized, compact hardcover and Wangerin is a great storyteller and accomplished wordsmith. Highly recommended.

 

The Undoing of Death Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $24.00  I have described this in better detail other years — almost every year since I was blown away by it in 2003, I believe. If you enjoyed her Advent sermons you will appreciate these as well. These are not Lenten sermons generally, but many year’s worth of Holy Week messages — Palm Sunday sermons, Maundy Thursday reflections, Good Friday words, good, good stuff on Holy Saturday, Easter sermons. This is mature, eloquent, moving, inspiring, collection of real sermons preached by this legendary Episcopal priest. For some chapters there are some art pieces shown on which she helpfully comments. I commend this book to you with all my heart.

Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $18.00  Last year, Reverend Rutledge preached seven sermons in a three hour Good Friday sermon. She has published several such sermons in The Undoing of Death and again in the nice little paperback, The Seven Last Words from the Cross but three are fresh and new and powerful and they cohere well. The book is a compact, thin hardback and is just lovely, a treasure to have and to hold and to share. I hate to sound pushy, but you will benefit from this, and it is a great little volume. Yes!

 


The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ
Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $30.00  I don’t need to explain this award winning book that (with indexes) weighs in at 665 pages. It is, doubtlessly, one of the major theological books of our time and, by some accounts, one of a handful of must-read books on the cross. It won the Academy of Parish Clergy Reference Book of the Year when it first came out, and the next year it was awarded the Christianity Today Book of the Year. We named it a Hearts & Minds Best Book the year it came out, adding our little voice to the choir of accolades. Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals alike have raved about it, using words like “extraordinary” and “monumental” and “supremely illuminating.”

The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion  N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $18.99 You know we are fans of Tom Wright and we appreciate his careful and lively exegesis framed by a big Kingdom vision. This is Bible exploration for the sake of the churches mission, which itself is for the sake of the world — thanks be to God! As I explained when this came out in hardcover a year or so ago, we might describe this as a study of the cross in light of Wright’s essential book Surprised by Hope.  That is, if God’s final agenda is not to whisk us away to some heavenly place beyond the clouds but is, in promissory fashion, restoring the good but fallen world into a (re)new(ed) creation then — with that big restoration/creation-regained project in mind –what is the point of the cross? Wright her looks through the lens of new creation and cosmic restoration at every key passage where the apostle Paul writes about the cross. What is going on in these passages? How might we more fully understand Paul’s insistence that Jesus puts to death, Death? Is it proper to refer to Good Friday as the start of the revolution?  I dare you to read this book and not feel your mind stimulated, your heart inspired, and your feet and hands ready to get back to work on Monday morning. 

The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology Richard Mouw and Douglas A. Sweeney, with an afterword by Willie James Jennings (Eerdmans) $19.99 In the last BookNotes blog newsletter I highlighted a fabulous, readable, conversational rumination on evangelical theology called Restless Faith by Richard J. Mouw. I noted how widely read and conversant he is in many faith traditions, how he is generous in taking seriously the proposals and insights of those outside of his own Reformed camp, and is a good conversation partner, learning and growing from others as he seeks theological (and social) common ground. I might have said that he is restless not in an itchy or cynical way, but in a generous sort of open way, always eager to reform, to mature, to give an account for stuff we learn as we live in God’s world.

And so, this little volume is a perfect example of that. It is a bit heady at times, but mostly is a moving bit of theological reflection on how the suffering of others helps us more fully understand God, the nature of Christ, and the work of the cross. He and Sweeney (a professor  of the history of Christian thought and chair of the church history department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) here point us towards “divine empathy” where the incarnate Christ suffers with his fellow humans.

They write:

We began to think about writing this book after presenting papers together at a conference held at Tokyo Christian University…We joined with eight other scholars — from Japan, Korean, Britain, Australia, and the United States — to explore what we could learn from one another about pain and suffering, victory and hope, as they relate to the significance of Jesus Christ in our globalizing and pluralistic world. We wanted to play from our strengths and work with familiar resources, so we turned our our respective theological traditions for guidance toward amore global and compassionate Christology.

They continue noting that Asian Christians seemed to have a long standing tradition of theology that takes seriously the suffering of the Lord, even in novels. (Think of the work of Japanese writer Shusaku Endo.)

They realize, though, that in North America, there have been those that have given voice to these themes. They look at the Lutheran and Reformed traditions — including Lutheran Franz Pieper as well as John Williamson Nevin of (central Pennsylvania, German-Reformed, Mercersburg fame!  And they look at the black church, especially, which has, as a church of enslaved and oppressed persons, had to do their theology in light of the pain and struggle of the people. Their articulation of victory and hope is deeply connected to wounds and trauma.

So here, a white Reformed and a white Lutheran scholar look to the likes of Sojourner Truth and other theologies of enslaved persons.  After these reflections on incarnation and suffering and Christ’s empathy as a corrective to others sorts of images of Christ’s work, there is the chapter called “The Challenge of Application: Christus Dolor in the American South.” It is important reading here in the sad year of our Lord 2019 when (as we learned this week) iconic civil rights sites like the Highlander Center are defaced with white supremacy symbols and burned to the ground. There is a remarkable essay at the end of The Suffering and Victorious Christ by brilliant black scholar Willie James Jennings called “Christus Victor and Christus Dolor: An Afterword.” Mouw, Sweeney and Jennings? Wow. This may not be everybody’s sort of Holy Week reading, but for some of our customers, this book is a must.

The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK) $15.00 This little book, wonderfully printed on heavy paper and full color reproduction, at such a nice price, is, I’ve often said, the best bargain of any book published in recent years. What a great resource this is — so nicely done (if, granted, a bit small.) Okay, so you missed the wonderful opportunity to use this for the last 30 days. You can use it this next week or so, and I am sure you’ll draw on it over and over. We sold a lot of this one last year, and some have re-ordered. Some who loved the Advent one got the Lent on (a “no-brainer” somebody said.) We’re happy to remind you of it again. Get it now, on sale.

 

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13 recent books we love — new Hearts & Minds recommendations at 20% off.

Here are some great new books that we highly recommend, each for their own reason. Naturally, we have lots of other new books — just send us an inquiry by clicking on the INQUIRY button at the bottom to ask if you want to know if we have whatever your looking for. As a full-service bookstore, we can’t begin to list all our inventory. but we love making time to chat with our on-line friends.

These, though, are some we’re fond of, and think they are the sorts of things many of our readers will be eager to know about. If you are as glad about these as we think you’ll be, use the ORDER FORM link below. Easy. We’ll deduct a 20% off the regular retail price I(which we show) and write back to personally acknowledge everything.

Thanks for your support.

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson edited by Timothy Larson & Keith Johnson (IVP Academic) $28.00 Oh my, what a marvelous book, another in the extraordinary collections that are published by IVP from the annual Wheaton College theology conference. Last year the event was a discussion about and with novelists and essayist Marilynne Robinson and it brought together some of our finest thinkers about faith and literature and culture and church and included a response by the notable author herself. (There are contributions here by Rowan Williams and Joel Sheesley and Lauren Winner and Timothy George and others.) This book is the next best thing to being there at the event, and we are so, so happy to get to announce it here. I trust you get the allusion in the title to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Robinson’s second, Gilead. 

Here is a bit more from the publisher about this rich, weighty volume. I assure you there is nothing like it in print. “Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson is one of the most eminent public intellectuals in America today. In addition to literary elegance, her trilogy of novels ( GileadHome, and Lila) and her collections of essays offer probing meditations on the Christian faith. Many of these reflections are grounded in her belief that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin still deserves a hearing in the twenty-first century. This volume, based on the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, brings together the thoughts of leading theologians, historians, literary scholars, and church leaders who engaged in theological dialogue with Robinson’s published work–and with the author herself.”

Here’s the table of contents:

Introduction (Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson)
1. The Theological World of the Reverend John Ames (Timothy Larsen)
2. Heart Conditions: Gilead and Augustinian Theology (Han-luen Kantzer Komline)
3. Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin (Timothy George)
4. The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson (Keith L. Johnson)
5. Thinking About Preaching with Marilynne Robinson (Lauren F. Winner)
6. Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience (Patricia Andujo)
7. Space/Time/Doctrine: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels (Tiffany Eberle Kriner)
8. Heaven and Earth: Reading Gilead Through the Landscape of the Fox River (Joel Sheesley)
9. Beyond Goodness: Gilead and the Discovery of the Connections of Grace (Rowan Williams)
10. The Protestant Conscience (Marilynne Robinson)
11. A Conversation Between Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams (Moderated by Vincent Bacote and Christina Bieber Lake)
12. An Interview with Marilynne Robinson (Philip Ryken)

Marilynne Robinson’s work is saturated in theology–not only in that it is pervaded by engagement with Christian belief in general but in that it is shaped by years of deep engagement with the texts of the Protestant (especially Calvinist) tradition. We have waited a long time for a collection like this. It is certain to be a rich source of interest and delight.”–Jeremy Begbie,  Distinguished Professor of Theology, Duke University

“Marilynne Robinson is perhaps the most vital of living American novelists. This collection contains essay after thoughtful essay exploring various facets of her complex and beautiful body of work. After reading them you feel that you have watched the assembling of a delightful portrait of this most theologically resonant of our writers.”–Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities, honors program, Baylor University

“The religious themes and insights in Marilynne Robinson’s novels and essays–especially her striking fondness for Calvin–have won her a devoted Christian following. Until now, however, there has been little explicit engagement with her work by theologians. In this volume, an impressive range of thinkers opens up a conversation with the novelist about the Christian life, the Reformed tradition, and the American experience.”–David Heim, executive editor, Christian Century

Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation Adele & Doug Calhoun and Clare & Scott Loughrige (IVP/formatio) $24.00 Holy smokes, just when you thought there were enough books on the enneagram and faith formation (well, unless your a 5, and then you can’t get enough) here comes a workbook-sized manual by remarkable folks gifted in creating great resources. (Adele Calhoun did the incredibly useful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook and the powerful, poetic Invitations to God.) Clare and Scott are cofounders of a church where they’ve served for twenty-six years and they are, like the Calhoun’s, are certified Enneagram instructors.  In large print on the back it says “You are more than your type.” Hear, hear.

This book is over 230 pages and offers what they claim is new insight on the Enneagram and the Harmon Triads and it has an appendix called “Soul Resources.” This is for those who have learned a bit about the Enneagram and wonder “What’s next?”

 

Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living Thomas Lynch (WJK) $18.00 Those who have followed our work for a long time might recall the times, years ago, when I insisted that Lynch was our favorite new writer. His award-winning book The Undertaking: Notes from the Dismal Trade and it’s follow up Bodies at Motion and at Rest helped me when my dad was killed and I was unable to read about grief. But these literary, passionate, deeply moral reflections on being an undertaker blew me away and remain all time favs. His great reflection on his travels to Ireland — Booking Passage and the book he wrote with theologian Thomas Long (The Good Funeral) are stellar. We stock his poetry, too. Because of his groundbreaking work doing solid studies of the role of the “dismal trade” and his splendid writing style, Lynch remains the gold standard in this genre, but lately I’ve read a number of other such books. I loved the spunky Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Tales from the Crematorium and, last year, Caleb Wilde’s Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life. But a new collection from Mr. Lynch is nothing short of a publishing event.

This includes a variety of different kinds of pieces. Heidi Haverkamp calls it a “wistful but vivid collage of memoir, poems (his own and others), stories, and even a short play.” She continues, “He knits these myriad pieces together with candor, humor, and some grief, conjuring the mystery that is human living and dying…”

Lynch is serious but often funny. As Tom Long notes, he has “the discerning eye of the poet and essayist, the wisdom and gravitas of a funeral director, and, most of all, the empathetic imagination to be a shrew observer of the people, living and dead, with him he has shared this planet.”

This is one of those books that I am sure is so full of whimsy and care and goodness that I hardly dare open it. I have to wait for the right moment as reading this will be one of the great pleasures of this season. I without a doubt commend it to you.  Kudos to WJK for producing a lovely, handsome, paperback volume.

Brave Souls: Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy Belinda Bauman (IVP) $23.00 Belinda Bauman is one of our favorite people, even though we’ve only met a few times. You know those rare folks who are confident and honest, who show such interest in you that you realize they have a gift — caring, thoughtful, brave, for real. After a few moments in her presence I was encouraged and blessed and glad. She and her husband, Stephen, have lived all over the world, doing relief and development work and caring for the poor and oppressed in the name of Jesus.  As Steven tells it, Belinda was often the energizing force, the one who most readily heard God’s call to risk and serve. They are adventurous people who do excellent work and I’d read anything either of them wrote.

This brand new book is on the surface about brave women who are doing extraordinary work, leading the way, doing justice, bringing goodness and beauty and peace to the world. If these stories were all that were in Brave Souls the book would be a winner and you would love reading it. But there is more going on — finally, it is about empathy. She uses cutting edge neuroscience and Biblical parables and insights gleaned from the women she writes about to offer insights about how to be more empathetic. By nurturing this kind of deep care for others, this solidarity with the human condition, we can be transformed — practicing empathy can be a spiritual discipline which will create in us a character of virtue and inspire us to bravery.

Listen to Kathy Khang, who knows a thing or two about caring well and speaking up bravely. (She wrote a book about it, in fact, called Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up.) She says:

Belinda Bauman gives us a gift — inviting us away from merely hearing someone to embracing empathy and allowing another person’s story to move us into action. The journey isn’t pretty or easy, but Bauman’s belief in change left me more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.

Do you wish to counter apathy with empathy? Do you need to move beyond “compassion fatigue” and take up world-changing actions? By listening well to others, honoring their own stories (even, maybe especially, among those we distrust and disagree with) we can be the peacemakers God calls us to be. This is a book of great joy and great energy.

The cover is a bit busy, but if you look carefully you’ll see some thumb and fingerprints. These show up in the book. You’ll love it.

Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream Brian Fikkert & Kelly Kapic (Moody Publishers) $15.99  Why don’t you order a few of these from us right away — it’s that important, and I’ll be mentioning it often this year. I’m sure I will name it as one of the Best Books of 2019. Let me explain.

Some of our customers (from a variety of religious traditions and from various social sectors) have greatly appreciated the important volume by Fikkert and his colleagues at the Chalmers Center at Covenant College called When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… There are a few spin off items (one for those going on short term mission trips and a good one called Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.) These compassionate and savvy books offer a bigger picture than just critiquing toxic charity or affirming free market capitalism as the answer to poverty and offers proposals for faithful, lasting, initiatives.

Yet, Fikket worried that there needed to be a better foundation so that readers and those wanting to do good don’t misunderstand God’s call to wholistic development or read that call through the lens of a worldly sort of materialism. There are those who would use, it seems to me, When Helping Hurts to swipe at those doing their best to serve with the poor (locally and abroad) and there are those who have a presuppositional loyalty to free market capitalism, and read everything through that debatable ideology. Fikket, and his theological co-writer here, are Reformed and doctrinally conventional. Their worldview is such that they want to discern the spirit of the age and understand the times in ways that are faithful. We might say they offer a prophetic imagination.

And so, they have given us this big, fascinating, deeply spiritual, wonderfully inspiring call to reject the American dream of mere economic growth and materialism. While they may reject some big plans of the welfare state, they are no populists or nationalists. They are shaped by a Kingdom imagination and the Biblical story of God’s redemptive work through Christ. This is practical public theology that is readable and helpful.

Becoming Whole offers fabulous social science research and solid Biblical work; it exposes misunderstandings about the true sources of human brokenness and poverty and they invite us to a multi-dimensional and humane approach to true flourishing. As it says on the back, they “fundamentally reframe success and the path forward.”

Of course this is for anyone doing caring ministries, anti-poverty work, economic development, or service for the common good. But I believe it is for any of us — those who are broke and wishing for greater financial health and for those who are people of means wondering what makes for a truly fulfilling life.

Why are families and communities increasingly fragment? Why is loneliness skyrocketing? What is mental and even physical health deteriorating? Becoming Whole helps us make sure we aren’t spreading dis-ease and our own brokenness even as we are attempting to make the world a better place. It is a great, important book, nicely designed with two color ink and some nice graphic touches.  Good job, Moody!

Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World Volume 2 Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press) $54.99 This is the brand new, much-anticipated volume in the ongoing Kuyper publishing project releasing hefty tomes in the “Collected Works in Public Theology.” We stock them gladly as it was in many ways Kuyperians — the fancy word those who stand in the line of the early 20th century Dutch neo-Calvinist cultural leader and public intellectual who reminded us of God’s redemption of “every square inch” of culture and society — who inspired us with a world-and-life vision of faith that led to founding our bookstore the way that it is. That God has given good gifts that can be discerned by artists and scientists and wise ones who are attentive to the glories and structures of creation should be evident; that such wisdom leads to human flourishing by honoring God’s built-in intentions for His creation is a matter of life and death. The best books help us open up and disclose the meaning of history and the point of life in each and every aspect of society. Preacher, theologian, reporter, educator, Prime Minister Kuyper (1837-1920) had much to say about so much of this, positing a set of Christian principles from which might emerge a renewed, just culture (unlike the brutal French Revolution of the previous century) and his old words still speak today. Kudos to those translating his many newspaper essays and lectures and books (sometimes for the first time in English) and for putting them in these handsome, enduring volumes.

When a book bears on the back cover compelling endorsements by theologians and leaders like Rich Mouw and Jamie Smith, human rights and inter-faith activists like Matt Kaemingk, jazz players and apologetics profs like Bill Edgar, and Godly, winsome teachers like the legendary Davey Naugle, you should pay attention. I’m just saying.

“Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace is founded on a deep devotion to the notions of God’s sovereignty and our obligation to participate in the divine call to be obedient to the lordship of Jesus Christ in all areas of life. The release of this multi-volume series is timely because many Christians these days — Wesleyans, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and others beyond the boundaries of Reformed/Presbyterian life and thought — are looking for resources for equipping Christians to find alternatives to the various ‘world-flight’ spiritualities that have long afflicted the broader Christian community. This work gives us a much-needed opportunity to absorb Kuyper’s insights about God’s marvelous designs for human cultural life.”
Richard J. Mouw, professor of faith and public life, Fuller Theological Seminary

“God’s redemption is as wide and high and deep as the expanse of his creation. This is the central message of Abraham Kuyper that has been heard anew by a generation of young evangelicals who have a new appreciation for the importance of Christian culture-making. This book is a wonderful way to meet Kuyper face to face and hear from him firsthand. I look forward to pointing friends and students to this wonderful anthology. It’s just what we need.”
James K. A. Smith, The Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College

“Abraham Kuyper navigates with a sure hand on the tiller, taking us through the waters of culture, church and state, calling, and collaboration, with theological wisdom. Kuyper knows of no separation between warm piety and cultural commitment, nor of biblical texts and issues in the contemporary world. This fresh translation of Common Grace is a most welcome addition to the growing body of Kuyper’s oeuvre available in English. No one wrestling with issues of church and society can afford to ignore it.”
William Edgar, professor of apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

“How do we make sense of the contributions of, say, a Steve Jobs to human culture? How do Christians account for the rather immeasurable amount of good achieved by those presumably uncovenanted with God? Common grace is the answer: God’s mercies are over all his works. This first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace hits the sweet spot for Christians seeking answers to questions about the breadth of the gospel, their own roles in public life, and the beneficial contributions of others, especially in science and art. Highly needed and recommended.”
David K. Naugle, Distinguished University Professor and Chair of Philosophy, Dallas Baptist University

“Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace has enriched my own theological approach to cultural engagement for years. The release of these translations into the English-speaking world is sure to have lasting ripple effects throughout the fields of public theology, Christian ethics, and systematic theology. Kuyper’s robust theological portrait of a God whose dynamic, creative, and gracious work pervades the entire world will inflame the imagination and warm the heart.”
Matthew Kaemingk, Associate Dean, Fuller Theological Seminary, Texas

 

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church James E. Beitler III  (IVP Academic) $25.00  Maybe you saw on social media that a week or two ago we sold books at a great C.S. Lewis conference hosted at an Episcopal Church near Philadelphia. With several expert Lewis scholars we had a blast, and a few talked about this seemingly arcane topic that so preoccupied Lewis and his Inklings: rhetoric. In many ways, this is a huge topic — how do we communicate? What makes something compelling? How do we present truth (or what we think is truth) to others? In an age of mass marketing and social media, how do we persuade? Does goodness, beauty and truth go together, and does charm and eloquence and elegance count much in persuading others? What is a Christian view of communication and what might a theologically-aware framework offer as we think about rhetoric? What does that verse (Colossians 4:6) mean about having our speech “seasoned with salt”?  Lewis asked these questions, of course.

Alas, this book came a few days after that fine event and some there would have loved it. It includes a chapter on Lewis and a chapter on Dorothy Sayers!  I assume there are other astute readers of BookNotes who will appreciate just how fabulous this book is.

Seasoned Speech looks at five key Christian public intellectuals and analyzes how they spoke and wrote and bore witness  Using this embodied case study approach we learn about different options to understand the core meaning of the gospel story and various styles and ways to speak about such things. Beitler invites us to ponder how each may or may not be faithful and fruitful. What a project!

Here are the five characters (presented after a fabulously rich introductory chapter) and the chapter title — this should itself inspire some of you to order this right away, eh? I’ll offer an admittedly terse phrase that captures something of Beitler’s summary of their understanding of the gospel and their rhetorical approach to how to get that said:

  • Preparing the Way: C. S. Lewis and the Goodwill of Advent  (“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”)
  • Professing the Creeds: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Energy of Christmastide  (“The Christian faith is he most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination.”)
  • Preaching the Word: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Epiphanic Identification (“The glory of Jesus is hidden in his humility and is perceived only in faith.”)
  • Calling for Repentance: Desmond Tutu and Lenten Constitutive Rhetorics (“We are bound up in a delicate network of interdependence.”)
  • Hosting the Guest: Marilynne Robinson and the Ethos of Eastertide (“Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”)

Read these endorsements to illustrate further the scope and significance of this amazing work.

It is often very hard to see the obvious–that is, something as basic as the eloquence required for the proclamation of the gospel. But Beitler helps us recognize that the simple truth has an unmistakable eloquence, which is why it matters that we take lessons from the classical rhetorical tradition. Readers of this book will discover that the rhetorical task and questions of the truth of what we believe cannot be separated.        —Stanley Hauerwas

This is an enlightening and fascinating exploration of five witnesses to the Christian faith and gospel. Even more, these diverse truth bearers–C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson–function as lenses through which James Beitler III shows how the Word, liturgy, and life weave together rhetorically in faithful witness in differing contexts. Beitler’s treatment is itself a keen example of seasoned speech, an embodied and intensely personal witness tinged with liturgical overtones. The effect of Beitler’s evocative analysis is twofold: to encourage the reader to a self-examination of one’s own Christian self, and to invite the reader to participate in the kind of embodied witness that Christian existence entails.                   —André Resner, professor of homiletics and liturgics, Hood Theological Seminary
In today’s toxic communication climate, the apostle Paul’s admonition that our speech should ‘always be gracious’ (Col 4:6) seems impossibly naive. One factor that fuels our skepticism is that we have no models of what gracious persuasion looks like in practical ways. How can we be both gracious and convicted in our communication? We are indebted to James Beitler for offering us vivid examples of Christian communicators — Lewis, Sayers, Bonhoeffer, Tutu, Robinson — who spoke timely truth marked by creativity, passion, and respect. Even if you are familiar with Beitler’s subjects, his insights cast them in a new and invigorating light.                                                         —Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication, Biola University, author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Belief Richard Rohr (Convergent) $26.00  Okay, I’ll say right away that my announcement here does not do this book justice. As I wrote in my somewhat critical review of Rohr’s previous book, The Divine Dance, I have great appreciation for Father Rohr and his Franciscan sensibilities. His peace and justice activism rooted in a vision where “everything belongs” in the “naked now” means a lot to me. When he cites Merton and the other mystics, I’m truly glad and nicely challenged. I want to like his work; I think I’m we’re often seeking similar vistas but using different words and ways into the experience; as we implied above in announcing the new Kuyper volume on “common grace” I am thrilled by the notion that God upholds all things, inviting us to a sacramental worldview, where we see God’s presence in the mundane and God’s redemptive work all over.

This image of the cosmic Christ — think of Colossians 1 or Ephesians 1, Rohr says, rightly —  is part of our story, and when Rohr starts off citing Chesterton, say, I’m fully on board.

Early in the book, Rohr writes,

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of. Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply. I call that kind of deep and calm seeing “contemplation.”

But then without much of an argument or apology he falls into the heresy of pantheism saying dumb stuff, repeatedly, like “God loves things by becoming them.” He has goofy ways of talking about Jesus, about the Christ, about incarnation, about resurrection. I’m not too locked in (I don’t think) to rigorous, logical language about doctrine, which at it’s best should move to mystery and doxology and service. But it seems like Rohr just throws caution to the wind as if proper formulation doesn’t matter. Or maybe he really thinks his formulations — that Jesus on Easter morning was mostly Light — are right. Gosh, I hope such missteps are just poetic license and hyperbole. His central thesis — that Christ is “another name for everything” — just isn’t theologically adequate or nuanced enough.

(I have to say I’m also a little peeved at his marketing schtick which feels disingenuous — in the last book it was the Trinity that was “forgotten” and which needs to be recovered and now it’s the notion of a big reigning present Christ that has been “forgotten.” Yet, his recovery of these things is not in keeping with what the early church really taught and ignores a thousand years of Protestant thought so his project isn’t so much wanting us to merely recover and remember but to adopt his pantheistic interpretation of the creation and the cosmic Christ. What he seems to not want to say is how many thoughtful church leaders have renounced this gnostic stuff. He could be right, of course, but it isn’t just that we’ve forgotten these old notions; one could argue that they were not forgotten but rejected. I wish he’d just be more honest about his unusual phrases and images and points and be clear how he isn’t heterodox. )

I know many like to differentiate between Jesus and Christ and I get that, but he is sloppy about it all — at least so far in my reading. I find sentences that are annoying because they aren’t clear (followed by a scolding that in this book we have to withhold egoic judgements when things aren’t clear. Man, what editor did he bribe to get away with that free pass?) Most readers aren’t exactly the control freaks he implies we are for wanting a sentence to make sense. I could even live with all the sophomoric Capital Letters if it helped bring clarity and brilliance. But sentences about Infinite Primal Sources and Jesus being a Third Someone and the Logos of John being the Primordial Pattern doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it will for you.

I’m still reading this, and there is beauty and mystery and wholeness and a trajectory here that is more right than wrong, I think. I appreciated Teilhard de Chardin in the ’70s and Matthew Fox in the ’80s and while I don’t get Ken Wilber, I have friends that think he’s great. Fair enough. Brother Rohr draws on the Orthodox tradition, too — deification and such — which isn’t as useful for some of us as he seems to think, nor as self-evidently correct. But for liberal Protestants who haven’t had much of an enchanted, all-of-life-redeemed hope, this might help and fire them up.  And for fundamentalists filled with hell-fire and anxiety, it would be a corrective, although no fundamentalist will be convinced by it since he doesn’t speak their language. My hunch is that those who are inclined to like this sort of thing will love it, and those who are skeptical will remain so. It’s a shame, because there is insight and provocation here that could help. I name it here suggesting you give it a try.

I’m sure some of my conservative friends will think we’re wrong to even carry such a theologically convoluted book. I disagree. There are good lines here to ponder and important notions to consider. It would make a good thing to meditate on but, better, to talk about with others. Rohr would like that, I bet, as different sorts of folk come to the table in open-mindedness to grapple with Big Ideas in this Mootable Treatise. That could be fun, eh? Seriously, check it out.

Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of AND in an Either-Or World Jen Pollock Michel (IVP) $16.00  I’m fascinated that there have been four or five (really good) books on paradox in the last year or so, the best coming from evangelical publishing houses like this one. There is afoot a lovely and healthy longing for mystery and a naming of wonder and even for those who want rigorous thinking and generous orthodoxy, they admit that there is a role for ambiguity. Our human categories simply can’t contain all these either/ors.  We need the world “and.”

Again, this isn’t the first book to suggest that, not even from the conservative theological end of the pew. But it may be the most beautifully written, the wisest, the most interesting. Mystical friends like Marlena Graves (author of the fabulous A Beautiful Disaster, a book that obviously knows something about befriending paradox) says it is “wise and compelling.” Lovely writers like Hannah Anderson (author of All That’s Good) rave. She suggests it leads us to the Divine!

I like Emily Freeman’s blurb which says that Surprised by Paradox,

Highlights our call to faith that invites us to form a sacred, expectant circle around one tiny word — and… This book is a subversive invitation to make peace with the paradoxical way of Jesus.

I hope you know Jen Pollock Michel’s other books and DVDs. We love her profound and engaging teaching with almost memoir-like stories in Teach Us To Want about desire and ambition and her wonderful Keeping Place about home, home-making, a sense of place and hospitality. They tend to be used in woman’s groups but we recommend them highly for one and all.

Jen Michel is the sort of practical, down-to-Earth theologian we need. She draws on exceptional sources — Fleming Rutledge, N.T. Wright, Todd Billings, Alexander Schmemann, Eugene Peterson, Ellen Davis. From a section drawing on Salile Tisdale’s Violation to an extended riff on Chesterton to chapters with titles like “The High Treason of Hallelujah,” this is stuff your going to want to read and discuss.

There are good study and conversation questions after each of the four major parts, Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament.

“A book that celebrates the glorious and (not or) of Christian spirituality. Surprised by Paradox has many ands of its own: it is accessible and smart, relatable and challenging, a page-turner, and theologically profound. With clarity and richness, Jen Pollock Michel invites us to sit before the beautiful mystery of God without resisting, diminishing, or seeking to solve or untangle it, which is to say, she invites us into the depths of worship.” Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary

Oversimplifications are dangerous. Especially in theology and public life we need and rely on people who are capable of living into the challenging paradoxes we find in the Gospels. Rich with personal stories and reflections, Michel’s explorations of what it means to live by ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’ offer a vision of Christian hospitality without laxity and theological integrity without rigidity. This is a timely, practical, and thought-provoking book.”–Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Word by Word, and Make a List

Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels Richard Mouw (Brazos press) $19.99 Okay, I’ll just say it: Mouw is my favorite writer in the genre of theology — he makes complex stuff really clear and explains why it matters — and is one of the very best (balanced, careful, thoughtful, wise, generous) when it comes to applying classic Reformed theology to the world and its cultures and issues. If he calls himself a Kuyperian, I call myself a Mouw-ist.

That was a long way to go for a joke I heard from somebody else (maybe Gideon Strauss of the Institute for Christian Studies) but it was worth it. We should all be Mouw-ists — generous, thoughtful, gracious, Biblically-attuned, clear about our own faith traditions and yet open to others.

We did an announcement about this last winter before it came out and took a bunch of pre-orders. It made me as happy as anything, knowing this reasonable meditation on core convictions of orthodox Christianity (granted, sung in Reformed and reformational keys) was being read by so many. Thanks to all who ordered it from us then.

Part of this book retells some of Rich’s own “restlessness” with the phrase “evangelical.” He was an early Presbyterian conversation partner with Mennonites (a move that literally was life-changing for me, realizing I could hold the Reformed worldview and the Mennonite pacifist impulses together) and he partnered early on as a Reformed evangelical philosopher with heros of mine like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider. Again, his writings from Grand Rapids in the 1970s where he taught at Calvin College with Nicholas Wolterstorff and other socially-engaged and culturally-relevant philosophers, were essential for me. Like man, I was glad for the evangelical truisms of simple faith, the assurance of salvation through faith, a relaxed piety; we “Jesus People” even used the phrase “born again” until the Christian right swiped and fouled it; we’d happily commend a “personal walk with Jesus” even as we were a bit uneasy with how that sometimes played out and what others maybe meant by it. (It’s no wonder that many of those whose faith came alive in the great awakening of the late 20th century ended up studying Catholic monks and embracing contemplative spirituality and liturgical church practice.) Beth and I were both raised in mainline denominational churches and hold membership in conventional mainline congregations, we w’eve been restless with our evangelical movement, even though we are stuck in the middle of that subculture as Christian booksellers. We are restless with progressive, liberal theology and we are restless with conservative evangelicalism. Mouw walked this way before we did, and his report on holding these tensions together from a solid Biblical perspective is sensible and good.

He told more of his own life story in a memoir called Adventures in Evangelical Civility but here he explains what the label “evangelical” means and why it matters and why he continues to use it. In a way Restless Faith is an excellent theological primer for our times.

Mouw not only explains his own restlessness with evangelicalism from the vantage point of his on-going conversations with folks from across the theological spectrum (few are as ecumenically aware as he is) but also — and this is important! — why he still clings to the word, the tradition, the movement. That is, even though he disapproves of how the far right (political, socially, and theologically) have captured and co-opted the broad tradition that was once known for Billy Graham and Carl Henry (and now is know from Jerry Falwell and Donald Trump) he still holds to that theological identity. This interesting book is a much needed reasonable voice and will explain much you should know about basic Christian convictions and robust, sensible discipleship. I very highly recommend it.

In Restless FaithRichard Mouw stakes out a thoughtful defense of evangelicalism as a spiritual and even intellectual tradition. Always compassionate, Mouw’s voice is a vital corrective to the invective that distinguishes some prominent evangelicals. You don’t need to be religious yourself to appreciate his earnest pursuit of truth and meaning in our divisive age.
— Sarah Jones, staff writer for New York magazine

Rich Mouw has contributed much wisdom to Christian faith and life over many decades. This wonderful book continues that gift. With characteristic honesty, humility, and hope, Mouw acknowledges the restlessness of his own evangelical identity but then points a way forward to a generous and faithful expression of that identity. For other restless believers, this book contains needed ingredients: some correction, some coaxing, and plenty of celebration for God’s good gifts.
— Leanne Van Dyk, Columbia Theological Seminary

Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin (Brazos Press) $19.99 This book has been called “timely, relevant, and necessary.” It is a study of gun violence from the point of view of a simple-living, urban activist. Shane — whose Irresistible Revolution is a must-read and whose Jesus for President grows more timely every day — lives in a brutally rough part of Camden NJ and has experience drive bys and gang violence and police shootings (that is, police shooting his black neighbors) more than probably anybody you know. He grew up a Southern Baptist boy and still retains a vibrant and happy style of speaking about Jesus. I suppose he grows restless as Mouw does, but because he shares life with the wounded and hurting and sees the glories and dignities of the poor, his restlessness is more with apathy and carelessness and those who have denied the basic teachings of Jesus.

That is, he takes the Bible pretty literally when it talks about peacemaking.

Swords into plowshares? You know those two verses that insist this is God’s plan, an iconic pointer to the reconciliation and hope God is bringing through Jesus (and his people.)

And so, Shane — who knows how to handle a rifle because he grew up hunting, after all —  is just energetic and crazy enough to find some guys who know something about metal working and they’ve learned to forge guns literally into garden tools.

He is on tour now with his co-author Michael Martin, Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith (and now director of RAWtools Inc.) They literally turn guns to garden tools, instruments of death-dealing into instruments of feeding and life. It is practical application of Bible principles, performance art of Biblical teaching, prophecy enacted, a Christian imagination of creative problem solving shown, not just told. This book is the story behind this tour — how they got fed up with mass shootings and urban crime and a religious culture that makes a fetish out of violence and victory. It explains the problem but more, it shows how they came up with ideas of how to respond.

The stories are heartening and very, very moving. Listen to Brenda Salter McNeil (author of Roadmap to Reconciliation) who explains why this book is so important to her:

As a Black woman, mother, and reconciler who has witnessed countless parents losing their children to gun violence, one of my greatest concerns is to find a way to stop this senseless loss of life. That’s why I highly recommend this timely, relevant, and necessary book!”

And listen to Phil Yancey, one of our most reliable and esteemed evangelical writers today who offers this simple endorsement:

Finally we have a winsome, reasonable approach to an issue that usually generates far more heat than light.

I suppose I don’t need to rehearse the grim facts (although Beating Guns explains this stuff as helpfully as any book I’ve seen; Yancey is right — it is a good read even if includes some hard data.)

  • More Americans have died from guns in the US in the last fifty years than in all the wars in American history.
  • Though the people of the United States total 5 percent of the world’s population, they own almost half the world’s guns.
  • With well over 300 million guns in the US, there are more guns than people. America also has the world’s most gun deaths–including homicide, suicide, and accidental gun deaths–at 105 per day, or about 38,000 per year.

As Shane and Michael say on the back cover, “The world doesn’t have to be this way. Beating Guns shows how we can all be part of the solution.”

I might add that this book is nicely designed, on good stock paper that allows full color pictures and some nice graphics. I’m glad Brazos spent extra to make this book a beautiful witness to this good work. It is a clarion call, aimed at our hearts, our minds, and our actions. There is nothing like it — if you worry about this issue, you’l take heart. If you tend to resist thinking about this or are alarmed by those talking about gun danger, I challenge you to read this. It will help us all.

 

Turn, Turn, Turn: Popular Songs Inspired by the Bible Steve Turner (Worthy Books) $24.99 I have been wanting to tell you about this book for weeks now. Turner is an amazing rock critic and Christian thinker about pop culture. His books should be widely known and shared, especially among younger creative types for whom his work could be a life-line.) Oh how I wish we could sell more of his must-read books Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts and Pop Cultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainment which explores very thoughtful Christian principles for all kinds of pop culture pressures and joys, from fashion to video games to advertising to comedy to TV watching. I hope you recall how much I raved about his spectacular book (a must for any Beatles fans) called Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year. 

As distinguished writer of University of Pennsylvania (and hugely significant contributing editor at Rolling Stone), Anthony DeCurtis puts it,

Steve Turner is a splendid writer whose deep and ranging musical knowledge blends inextricably with his understanding of how songs can touch — and save — people’s souls. Those virtues come fully into play in this book, which taught me a great deal and moved me even more.

Holy smokes, did you get that? Anthony Rock and Roll DeCurtis says this book taught him and moved him!

I’m going to indulge my baby boomer rock and roll soul here, myself and celebrate that we have this book that has endorsements on the back by — get this! — these icons: Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins, and Nick Cave. Yeah, Nick Cave says this is “an absolute pleasure to read.”

You should know this, though — the cover, designed, I guess, with the “Museum of the Bible” popular culture display in mind, has this obvious ’60s flower power thing going on. That’s fun. But this book includes song reviews of songs from long before the 1960s and include every decade since. Turner wisely explains the Biblical influences of songs by Noel Paul Stookey like 1971s “Wedding Song (There Is Love)” but also “After Forever” by Black Sabbath.  It includes studies of Bowie’s “Word on a Wing” from 1976 and “Adam Raised a Cain” from Springsteen’s ’78 classic album. I love that he has Cockburn’s 1981’s “Dweller by a Dark Stream” and a couple of good 80s Dylan songs.  Obciouasly he has U2’s “40.” You can see what Prince was up to in 1987 (“The Cross”) and  some good ones from the 90s, from Don Henley, Michael Jackson, ALice Cooper and “New Test Leper” by R.E.M. (1996.) Whitney Houston relased “Joy” in 1996 and Turner’s got it. He of course does a Lauryn Hill song from ’98 and Moby’s “Run On” from 1999.

Turn Turn Turn is unfortunately named and the pop-art cover makes one thing it is about the late 60s, but Turner covers songs from pre-World War II and “Can I Get A Witness” from Marvin Gaye, released in 1963.  And he has almost 20 songs from the new millennium, from Sting and Sufjan Stevens to Kanye West and Matisyahu. He looks at the Killer’s 2006 release “Why Do I Keep Counting?” and “Judas” by Lady Gaga. Of course he looks at Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, but he also looks at Katy Perry, Coldplay, Stormzy (from 2017) and Mumford and Sons. Turn, Turn, Turn is a blast.

I’m going to let the publisher explain why this book is so fun:

Did you know:
– 36% of Bob Dylan’s songs published between 1961 and 1968 had biblical references, including his 1964 hit “The Times They Are A-Changin.'”
– The book of Ecclesiastes has been a great inspiration on popular music including the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Birds, the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, and “Desperado,” the 1973 hit by The Eagles, among others.
– Paul Simon once advised a young prospective lyricist to raid the Bible for memorable phrases. “Just steal them,” he said, “That’s what they’re there for.”There’s no question that Scripture has influenced music since the first ever song was penned. In Turn! Turn! Turn! author and music connoisseur, Steve Turner, takes an in-depth look at the lyrics and cultural context of 100 of the greatest songs from the 1930s to today to reveal an often overlooked or ignored strand of influence in popular music–the Bible.Indeed, some of the “greats”–including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bono, Johnny Cash, Sting, and others–have repeatedly returned to the Bible for such sustenance, as well as musical inspiration and a framework with which they can better understand themselves.

“I hope the book prompts, provokes, and intrigues as it reveals this often-hidden history,” writes Steve Turner. You’ll never listen to your favorite song or popular tune the same way again after discovering how the Bible has influenced music.

The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction Justin Whitmel Earley (IVP) $18.00  We have lots of books here at the shop about self help sorts of things, from time management resources to books helping you get your house in order. Many are useful, some are more profound than others. None of us want cheap promises or easy answers.

This recent book, The Common Rule by Justin Earley, is nothing short of brilliant, and I hesitate to promote it as a self help book as those sorts of personal growth titles are sometimes dismissed. Unfairly or not, some book buyers tend to assume that such books are cheesy or formulaic. We’ve followed Justin Earley on-line a bit over the last year or so and have friends that know him well. We can vouch that he is a solid, thoughtful guy and this book is very rich and wise.  It is inspired by classic theology and ancient spiritual practices but is savvy about modern lifestyles and what forms habits that help us flourish.

In a way, it is fair to say that this is a practical application follow-up to James K.A. Smith’s award-winning, very widely read You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits. Listen to Andy Crouch, author most recently of Tech Wise Family and Strong and Weak:

“This is a wonderfully practical book. But even more, it is a beautiful one—full of glimpses of the life we were made for and the simple choices that can take us in that direction. The habits described here and the wisdom they embody are the path toward sanity in a frenetic world.” Andy Crouch

Here is how the publisher describes the significance of The Common Rule:

“The modern world is a machine of a thousand invisible habits, forming us into anxious, busy, and depressed people. We yearn for the freedom and peace of the gospel, but remain addicted to our technology, shackled by our screens, and exhausted by our routines. But because our habits are the water we swim in, they are almost invisible to us. What can we do about it? The answer to our contemporary chaos is to practice a rule of life that aligns our habits to our beliefs. The Common Rule offers four daily and four weekly habits, designed to help us create new routines and transform frazzled days into lives of love for God and neighbor. Justin Earley provides concrete, doable practices, such as a daily hour of phoneless presence or a weekly conversation with a friend. These habits are “common” not only because they are ordinary, but also because they can be practiced in community. They have been lived out by people across all walks of life–businesspeople, professionals, parents, students, retirees–who have discovered new hope and purpose. As you embark on these life-giving practices, you will find the freedom and rest for your soul that comes from aligning belief in Jesus with the practices of Jesus.”

Want some help saying yes to life-affirming, good things? Want some help resisting troubling or life-sucking habits? This simple graphic, with four daily and four weekly habits (some affirming, some resistant) can provide a way to think about and measure your growth into better life habits.

Listen to Karen Heetderks Strong, senior director, The Falls Church Anglican, Falls Church, Virginia:

Although I’m a church leader who has known the Lord for decades, I struggle to find space in my days to actually abide in Christ. Instead, I’m tethered to the demands that barrage me through my smart phone. The Common Rule offers a practical way back—not only for individuals but also for churches and small groups.

 

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