Faithful Witness in a Fractured World: Models for an Authentic Christian Life (How Not to Be  Crappy Christian) by Nicole Johnson & Michael Snarr AND Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus by Jim Wallis AND Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That’s Scary as Hell by Jeremy Courtney ON SALE NOW


Faithful Witness in a Fractured World: Models for an Authentic Christian Life – How Not to Be  Crappy Christian by Nicole L. Johnson & Michael T. Snarr (Cascade) $18.00 As I explain below, a collection of great stories of ordinary folks doing good work in taking up their vocations as social activists with principles and insights gleaned from traits they each exhibited. A great study, important for all of us.

Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus by Jim Wallis (HarperOne) $25.99 . The latest by Sojourners founder, a book he says may be the most important one he’s ever done. It’s about questions Jesus asked and their implication for us today in these trying times.  It’s brand new and I describe it a bit, below.


Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That’s Scary as Hell byJeremy Courtney (Zondervan) $17.99 . The brand new set of memories and stories from a peace activist who lives in the war-zones and needy places of the Middle East, learning to see beauty, stand for justice, and live beyond our fears into a better world. Wow.



All books mentioned show the regular retail price. When you order from Hearts & Minds we’ll deduct the 20% off discount. Our order form below takes you to our secure order form page and you can enter credit card numbers safely. Or just ask us to send you a bill if you’d rather pay later by check. Easy. We’re grateful to tell you about these kinds of books and hope you will support our indie bookstore by ordering some soon.  Thanks for caring.


I hope you saw the last BookNotes column which featured two serious books about world and domestic hunger. Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work for Everyone by our friend Art Simon (founder of the citizen’s anti-hunger lobby, Bread for the World) is a very important new book, up-to-date and informative. Although fewer children are starving to death than 50 years ago, this dare not lull us towards an optimistic apathy; needless starvation and chronic, painful poverty are evils that must be battled. Bread for the World may be the most important and effective anti-poverty organization because of the legislative work they do and the sheer scope of the impact of public policy (from foreign aid to funding for TANF and SNAP and the like.) You should read that book and learn how (and why) it all works.

Yes, Jesus said “the poor you will have with you always” but that is, I hope you know, a quote from Deuteronomy. He didn’t’ have to finish the sentence because they knew the indictment – therefore we are not to hardened our hearts or close our hands.  For a deep theological and Scripture dive into this topic of poverty in the Bible, see Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor by Liz Theoharis (Eerdmans; $25.00.)

Another book I highlighted in that review was I Was Hungry: Cultivating Common Ground to End an American Crisis by Jeremy Everett (Brazos; $16.99) which documents the exciting work done by the Texas Hunger Initiative.  I loved this book and the energetic stories of faith communities partnering with civic and even governmental agencies. No matter what state your in – the play of words and smile – you need this book! 

We know that some of our most loyal customers are rather brainy types, and look for us to highlight more scholarly books. (Although, truth be told, Art Simon is as scholarly on this topic as you may need; as I mentioned in that review, he knows some of the world’s leading economists, development scholars, think-tankers who spend their days crunching the numbers making his book very, very well-researched.)

There are plenty of more theoretical books, too. Think of the book released just this past summer, the magnum opus of Duke University scholar Luke Bretherton entitled Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Eerdmans; $49.00.) It has been called “a tour de force, a “monumental achievement”, “a transformative contributions” and “impressively expansive.” He moves from secularity to pluralism to democratic ideals to what notions of neighborliness mean for our public thinking and, everyone agrees, breaks new and important ground.

Think of the much-discussed (although, in my opinion, not read or discussed enough) third volume in James K.A. Smith’s “cultural liturgies” trilogy, called Awaiting the King: Reforming Political Theology (Brazos Press; $22.99.) Think of the vital, serious study by Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (Basic Books; $17.99.) For deep Biblical study in conversation with political theorists like John Rawls, you’ve got to see the remarkable, new God’s Sabbath With Creation by CPJ founder James W. Skillen (Wipf & Stock; $35.00.) And don’t overlook (for whatever reason) the book I mentioned earlier this season, the recent, remarkably interesting and valuable collection called Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice edited by Mae Elise Cannon & Andrea Smith (IVP Academic; $36.00.)

Less academic but so very foundational and wise – I recommend it for anyone wanting a uniquely and truly Christian way to think about the meaning of life and human flourishing – is the one I commended to you in the last BookNotes called Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty is Not the American Dream (Moody Publishers; $15.99.)

Through all of these serious works are questions of what we mean by the common good, what social justice is and how a Biblical worldview gives us a framework that is beyond the ideological poles of left and right. The must-read political science book from this reformational Christian perspective is, as I say over and over here at BookNotes, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David Koyzis with a thoughtful foreword by Richard Mouw (IVP Academic; $33.00.)

And yet, we have to think about how to live this stuff out. We need deep thinkers pondering the “neither left nor right” ideal, policy folks considering what reforms and norms should guide our proposals for the society we want to see, but we also have to respond to the awful poverty and injustice and racism we see here and now. We need truly Christian thinkers and public intellectuals but we need on-the-ground, daily discipleship, what Shane Claiborne calls “ordinary radicals.” People who pick up the cross of sacrifice, get involved with the issues of the day, learn to know the needs of the marginalized and accompany them towards fresh starts and new hopes. We need scholars and we need activists.

The brand new book called Faithful Witness in a Fractured World: Models for an Authentic Christian Life – How Not to Be  Crappy Christian by Nicole L. Johnson & Michael T. Snarr (Cascade) $18.00 [our sale price = $14.40] makes an important claim – that many young adults are drifting from faith (and sometimes loudly denouncing traditional religion) because it does not do this. Big name televangelists and Christian right loud-mouths condemn gays and mock science and want to push their views on everybody, but it seems they do little to care about the hurting, the disillusioned, the poor or oppressed. Unlike Francis Schaeffer – who some on the Christian right seem to claim to like, even if they haven’t read his more serious works – they don’t show that they want to weep with those who weep over our culture’s lack of compassion and the injustices that are so prevalent these days, from gross injustices in immigration policy to police violence to species extinction to sexual abuse cover-ups, even in exceedingly pious evangelical churches. They don’t offer young seekers “honest answers to honest questions.” They just want to fight culture wars and defeat anybody they don’t like.

And so, younger folks are leaving the fold, rejecting evangelical purity culture and conservative economics and right wing politics in record numbers. If the cool songs and hip branding and relevant video clips attracted young seekers who found some evangelical churches relevant for a while, those very churches, insofar as they’ve adopted an a-political or right wing agenda, have turned off the very young ones they previously attracted. Nobody contests that this is one of the big religious stories of our time, the exodus from the evangelical community and the animosity many feel about them, indicating an erosion of moral authority among their leaders.  At the very least, read Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons (Baker; $16.00) or You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman (Baker; $16.99) to get a sense of the data and the urgency of this huge concern.

Or just dive right into Faithful Witness in a Fractured World: Models for an Authentic Christian Life – How Not to Be  Crappy Christian.

Enter, as your guides, Niki Johnson and Michael Snarr, friendly and popular profs at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. As a religious studies teacher (and former campus minister) and poly sci teacher (who has served with Christian Peacemaker teams and other lively activist groups), these two listen well to their young students, work eagerly with the emerging adults these college students are, and help them navigate the big questions of their search for direction, their making of meaning, their grappling with the faith of their childhood and their new experiences in college. Like most caring professors, they do more than relay information in the classroom but are accompanying students on a journey of discovery and walking alongside them in these critical years.

And so it comes up. Former church kids and new atheists alike, wondering what in the world is that rabid “God hates fags” guy about? Why do churches seem so judgmental? Why would religious leaders be so happy about the harsh anti-immigration policies of President Trump?  Why don’t churches invite their members to serious dreams, to big issues, to passion and conviction about making the world a better place? Why are so many religious folks, to use the language their students give them, “shitty Christians”? Not a bad question, eh?

Heaven help us all, when a common vulgarity is the way some describe the religious people they know.

Although, I guess it isn’t as bad as what Jesus called religious leaders in his day. (See Matthew 23 if you don’t believe me.) The problems of hypocrisy and power-mongering among the religious are perennial, it seems.

Now here’s the thing: as Johnson and Snarr show in their new book, and show beautifully, I might add, not everybody who follows Jesus is all that bad. Sure there are “crappy Christians” and no not one of us gets it fully right. But there are lots of “ordinary radicals” out there, taking up causes, serving their neighbors, living self-sacrificially to help others, being servants of the poor and winsome agents of the sorts of goodness Bob Goff describes in Love Does and Everyone Always. Bob has an all-new devotional coming out mid-October, by the way, called Live in Grace, Walk in Love: A 365-Day Journey (Thomas Nelson; $16.99.) You may want to pre-order that from us at our 20% off discount.  I suspect we’ll have it a bit early.

We have any number of books that hold up some of these kinds of exemplary Christian leaders who made a difference in big ways. There are anthologies that look at Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Caesar Chavez and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu and Mother Theresa and the like. Just think of David Gushee & Colin Holtz’s recent Moral Leadership for a Divided Age: Fourteen People Who Dared to Change Our World (Brazos Press; $24.99) or the exquisite, serious, Can I Get a Witness?: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle & Daniel Rhodes (Eerdmans; $26.99) which we’ve raved about here at BookNotes or a personal favorite by Mae Elise Cannon Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP; $17.00.) I’ve mentioned these before and they really are good.

These can inspire us, pointing younger folks (and others) to real models of coherent and feisty Christian change-making. I named them and their prices for you so you might consider ordering them. These really are great collections and they truly make a difference if we read them openly.

(To see how one old saint, Dorothy Day, influenced an elite public intellectual in his own road to recovered faith, see the nice recent essay in America about David Brooks.)

But you know what? You do, I’m sure. These books, as inspiring as they may be, aren’t usually as transformative as we would wish because they are about big-name heroes. Few of us have the status or calling of William Wilberforce. Who of us can be in a place like Nelson Mandela and become what he became? Who of us are situated in a context like Oscar Romero? Admire them as we should, and learn from them as we can, at the end of the day, I’m simply no Bonhoeffer and you are no Dorothy Day.

Which is what makes “How Not to Be a Crappy Christian”, that is, Faithful Witness in a Fracture World, so very, very good. It follows the lives of a handful of people the authors admire, some who are former students that they’ve come to know well, that are living out faith in concrete ways, in authentic ways, sometimes in rather dramatic ways. But they are fairly normal people, doing good work but nothing that will catapult them to international fame. Our authors call them “unsung.” These folks are living what John Perkins once called “a quiet revolution.”

In Faithful Witness… Johnson and Snarr tell us about this handful of folks, serious Christians of a rather activist sort, and ask what traits they all hold in common. How did they discern their call into their respective passions or ministries? What shaped their moral imagination? In what ways do they sustain their good work? How do they understand their identities? How did they get a broad view of the scope of God’s redemption – repairing the world, restoring creation – when they most likely were introduced to faith as a personal, inner sort of salvation.

Unlike some of these other anthologies that introduce us to valiant (super) Christian lives to serve as models for us, Faithful Witness…does not give a chapter to each person, but rather, each chapter explores a sustainable spiritual trait, a practice or way of understanding faith that, it seems, most of their case studies exemplify. Almost all of their friends to which they introduce us had these similar sorts of stories, a constellation of traits that became the insights that created the book. These are case studies, and the authors nicely extrapolate from these interesting stories and fascinating testimonies a handful of features that will allow any of us move beyond our crappy religious lives.

UCC leader (and Messiah College professor) Douglas Jacobsen says,

“This is the best and most refreshing discussion of what it means to be a Christian that I have read in years… it winsomely preaches the gospel without ever getting preachy.”

I think Jacobsen (himself author of a lovely book called Gracious Christianity) is mostly right, although being a little preachy ain’t a bad thing, in my view, and this book has plenty of passion and zeal and wit and sass. The authors are deeply committed to seeing a better sort of model for those of us who want to help bridge the fractured and hurting world and repair the “branding problem” that Christianity has these days. They do generally write like scholars, documenting their subject, presenting the evidences, making their cases by quoting their subjects extensively, being nicely teacherly because they want us to get it; these testimonials and the insights they draw from them become somewhat of a manifesto. This makes for a book that is oddly both scholarly and yet easy to happily read, exciting and restrained, winsome and hard-hitting. You’ll be glad to meet their friends and learn about their practices of holistic discipleship. And you’ll learn from them. And have fun doing it.

Kudos to Johnson and Snarr not only for telling us these stories and introducing us to these witnesses, but for drawing the principles from them, sifting through their narratives to find humble, gospel treasure, as an alternative to crappy Christianity.

The Apostle Paul, I might note, used a bit of dung language himself when he exclaimed that anything other than following Jesus and knowing Him was a pile of crap. (Don’t blame me, let alone Niki and Michael; if you don’t like the lingo, take it up with the Holy Spirit who inspired Saint Paul.) But here’s the thing: for Paul, knowing Jesus was not unrelated to following Him. We are one with Christ, transformed from the inside out to become people remade into His own image and members of his subversive, counter-cultural community. This has huge, huge, socio-political implications and although none of the characters described in Faithful Witness in a Fractured World are professional Biblical scholars, they would, I think, resonate with the anti-Empire, pro-justice themes in the detailed exploration in Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press; $26.99.) If you missed my review of that stunning book, check it out, HERE.

Which reminds me: if there were any weaknesses to these “models for an authentic Christian life” I’d have wished to learn more about their own engagement with Scripture.  Even as these young Jesus followers and their creative witness become springboards to deeper reflections about holistic faith, church and state, white supremacy, and Christian social ethics (the authors are United Methodists, so there’s some good Wesleyan stuff, too) there isn’t much about the practice of Bible study to sustain a faithful sort of social gospel.

Sure, good guys like Bob Goff humorously quips in his own talks that he’s tired of mere “Bible studies” and would rather be a part of “Bible doings” but anybody that knows Goff knows he quotes the Bible by heart endlessly. As do Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper and Miroslav Volf and Ron Sider and Donna Barber, to name a few leaders in the movement to help Christian folks be more active in caring for God’s world. 

Johnson and Snarr quote lots of reliable Bible-based thinkers to undergird their call to a gracious sort of “non-crappy” Biblical social gospel such as Al Tizon and his Whole & Reconciled: Gospel Church and Mission in a Fractured World and Lisa Sharon Harper and her The Very Good Gospel and NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope.  Although their cast of characters tends more towards Hauerwas & Willimon’s Resident Aliens and The Upside Down Kingdom by Don Kraybill and the feisty multi-ethnic perspectives of Healing Our Broken World by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, they also quote John Piper and Tim Keller. Which makes this a truly fascinating book, not just a hall of heroes, but a study of real life activists, living out their faith, making a difference. There’s a lot to learn, and we’re happy to recommend this book.

Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus Jim Wallis (HarperOne) $25.99 This brand new book just arrived a few hours ago so I’ve hardly got a chance to look at it. I wish I had an earlier version, or took time to study it before telling you about it, but it so fits this week’s theme that I simply have to announce it. I’m very excited.

I’m excited to share this for a number of reasons. Wallis is an old acquaintance and, in fact, he was one of the first authors we ever had in-store here in Dallastown, decades ago, when we crammed a dozen or so people into our small space. (That was before the expansion when we doubled our size back in the last century.) I’ve always read Sojourners and we’re glad to still carry the magazine here. I’ve read and appreciated all of Jim’s many books but his first two – Agenda for Biblical People and The Call to Conversion — were very, very important for Beth and me. I have a hunch that Christ in Crisis may be somewhat of a return to his earliest evangelical roots. It is, after all, a book about Jesus.

And he says it may be the most important book he’s ever written.

The thesis of this brand new book is simple enough: the way the religious right has so enthusiastically entered politics in a fairly undiscerning way, behind the morally suspect President Trump, makes us all wonder if they’ve lost their first love for the Lord Jesus. Jerry Falwell, Junior was quoted saying not long ago that he simply doesn’t look to Jesus at all for his politics. Can you believe it?

(Of course, this isn’t new: Martin Luther King complained (in Stride Toward Freedom) about Niehbuhr trying to talk him out of Jesusy nonviolence and Deitrich Bonhoeffer, as Eric Metaxas documents in his big biography, was frustrated that he studied all manner of things at Union Seminary in the year he was there, but they failed to talk about Jesus.)

And so, has the church become captive to the modern American Babylon? This was an early theme in Sojourners when they were more obviously influenced by William Stringfellow and Daniel Berrigan and the like. Things were dire, and this radical “politics of Jesus” was counter-imperial, helping us say “no” to Empire and power and such. It may be the crass compromise of the evangelical right in these Trump years may have shaken Jim back to his roots – a call to conversion to the ways of Jesus.

In the book Wallis has ten major chapters, one introductory, one at the end, the other eight, a question evoked by a question Jesus Himself asked. He asks how Jesus addresses “the neighbor question”, “the truth question”, “the image question”, “the power question”, “the fear question”, “the Caesar question”, “the peacemaker question”, and “the discipleship question.”

I think it is a good thing that some non-Christians endorse the book saying that they are drawn into thinking about the life of Jesus through this hard-hitting, socially relevant reflection. The last chapter is called “Becoming Salt, Light, and Hope” and the Epilogue is a lovely reflection on “The Light of the World.” Agree or not with all of Jim’s stands (or lack thereof) there is no doubt he’s a good preacher, and this heart-felt and passionate manifesto is going to help us recalibrate our faith back to the center of our Biblical story: the person and work of Jesus the Christ.

The soul of the nation is at risk, he says, and these eight questions from Jesus have to be answered. Wallis thinks that getting these things right about Jesus will have helpful and healing consequences in the broken, divided culture.

There is a movement afoot called “Reclaiming Jesus” with a document (of course, there is always a document) and Jim offers it at the end of the book. It’s worthy of our prayer and reflection and oodles of good elders have signed it – from Barbara Williams Skinner to Wes Granberg-Michaelson, from Ronald Sider to Bishop Vashti McKenzie. From Otis Moss to Pegter Borgdorff, Richard Rohr to Will Willimon, JoAnne Lyon to John Perkins, there’s many good leaders from a variety of faith traditions within the broad Body of Christ, although – since it is somewhat of a rebuke to the accommodation of conservative evangelicals, it is almost exclusively Protestant.

The book just arrived, so you can be among the earliest readers, joining this call for the sake of the common good to refocus on Jesus and take seriously a public theology connected to His teachings. Here are what some advanced reviewers said:

“Wallis courageously calls us to de-Americanize the Gospel and reclaim Jesus. Take and read; these words will feed your heart, and if heeded, heal the soul of the nation. Wallis resurrects the spiritual wisdom and moral clarity so desperately needed to speak words of prophetic power, integrity, and truth.”– Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, author Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century

“Jim Wallis reminds us that the core of Christianity is not a policy or a principle but a person–Jesus Christ. For anyone who wants to carefully ponder how to live as a person of faith, a loving neighbor, and a concerned citizen… Christ in Crisis is an indispensable guide.”– Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise

“This is Jim Wallis at his best, a ‘Jesus book’ better than any I’ve seen in some time, and could not be more timely or more challenging. It offers a drink of fresh water to anyone who has felt despair at the state of the world–Christian and non-Christian alike.”– Richard Rohr, author of The Universal Christ

“To choose to follow Jesus is necessarily to engage in a quarrel with the world. For fifty years, Jim Wallis has worked to help Americans remember the politics of Jesus. His Christ in Crisis is a timely reminder of what it means to confess, ‘Jesus is Lord.'”– William J. Barber, II, President of Repairers of the Breach & co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival 

Jim Wallis is faithful, relentless, and intrepid in voicing the prophetic reality of Gospel faith. He does not flinch at truth-telling, and he is not weary of hope-telling. This book will provide energy, grit, and courage for the living of these days.”– Walter Brueggemann, author of The Prophetic Imagination

Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That’s Scary as Hell Jeremy Courtney (Zondervan) $17.99 I can’t tell you how glad we are to get to announce this book by a friend we respect immensely. We’ve only been together two or three times, I thinks – once for a great evening when he allowed us to host him at our church as he shared about his first book, Preemptive Love and the amazing organization he created mostly arranging heart surgeries for children in the radiation enhanced war zones of Iraq.

As I wrote when I did a long review at BookNotes about Preemptive Love and as I’ve often said as I’ve commended his ministry, I was delightfully surprised to see such a passion for peacemaking from a Southern evangelical doing overseas missionary work — the great subtitle of Preemptive Love is “Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.” (Howard Books; $16.00.) God has worked quite a shift in many younger evangelicals with a global vision who have written widely about this – a middle Eastern missions guy name Rick Love comes to mind, as does Carl Medearis . They have come to embrace peacemaking (between nations and between religions) as central to the overall Christian missionary task. With scholars like Al Tizon writing major works like Whole & Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World (which is cited in the Faithful Witness book reviewed above) we see a good and healthy shift uniting not only words and deeds, evangelism and justice, but peacemaking and reconciliation. The kingdom of God really does include the hope of restoration!

Jeremy found himself in a war zone helping children – sick in part from the product of the Gulf Wars – in a culture torn by mistrust and violence between Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others as he was thinking about these very things. To hear a philanthropic medical mission also talking about multi-ethnic reconciliation and global peace-building efforts more than caught our attention. We rejoiced and celebrated the amazing, rare, brave, solid work of Preemptive Love. It is compassionate and savvy, bold and brave, evangelical and ecumenical. And we still tell people that Jeremy’s memoir, Preemptive Love is a great, great read.

And just today we got a carton of the brand new paperback Love Anyway. I would love to describe this in better detail, but I can assure you it is jam-packed with stories of Jeremy and his teams heading off into war zones. There are heartbreaking reports from his time with the viciously persecuted Yazidis. (For a short season he was truly one of the world’s spokespersons for this awful standoff in Northern Iraq as he was there trying to serve the poorest of the world’s poor.)

Some of these chapters are fairly short and they seem to have the feel of a memoir. There are memories and stories galore, Biblical insight, missionary bravado, honest testimony of his fear and brokenness. He and his family have seen so much and I hope you, like me, can’t wait to read about it.

Love Anyway starts off on the first page of the first chapter with a sort of preface, an invitation to you, the reader. That first chapter is called “Your Presence Is Requested on the Other Side of the Way Things Are.”

In a footnote (I always start with footnotes!) Jeremy says,

In my first book, Preemptive Love, I called this place that I was pursuing The Far Country, but I’ve since seized onto this new phrase, “The More Beautiful World Our Heart Know is Possible” thanks to the wonderful book by Charles Eisenstein by the same name, as he deftly puts words to so many of my longings.

So, Love Anyway is a call deeper in to this Far County, this beautiful world that we believe just might be possible. I think many of our Hearts & Minds customers and even occasional BookNotes readers will love it.

Look: I really think the above books are all important.

We need scholarly analysis and a balanced, coherent framework for thinking about public justice in our hard times. I listed a good handful of important, serious works.

We need testimonies and stories to keep us going – those of the famed and sometimes martyred are good, inspiring, important, even. I named a few really great collections.

But I’m really glad I got to tell you about Faithful Witness in a Fractured World: Models for an Authentic Christian Life about some good souls who, in the hands of the authors Nikki Johnson and Michael Snarr, help us learn how not to be a “crappy Christian.”

Jim Wallis helps us learn to focus, or re-focus on Jesus, on His answers to life’s biggest questions as we try to live out the public implications of our deep, personal belief in Jesus as Lord. Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus is a vital, important manifesto.

But this —  Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That is Scary as Hell is as honest and urgent as can be. It is the beautifully written tale of one man and his seeking, his serving, how he and his family and the movement he’s started are truly making a notable difference in some of the most hellish places on Earth. And he finds beauty and goodness there. He and his friends are creating home amidst the displaced. Now that’s worth reading about, eh?

Like I said, it’s brand new. Here is what some early readers report:

 I was transfixed by Jeremy’s writing. This book, this way of life, is a game changer. Propaganda, hip-hop and spoken word artist

Jeremy Courtney understands the moving truth that hate breeds violence, and he acts on that truth in ceaselessly bold preemptive love for the enemy. I strongly endorse his actual life of peacemaking. We Koreans urgently need a peacemaker like Mr. Courtney – truly shalom incarnate – today. Dr. Han Wan-sang, former deputy prime minister of South Korea, former president of the Korean Red Cross Society

I read every single word, perched on the edge of my seat… You’ll keep turning the pages as fast as you can. Jen Hatmaker, New York Times bestselling author of Of Mess and Moxie!

Love Anyway is raw, honest, wrenching, and beautiful. Jeremy lays it all out there with a story that will rip your heart out and inspire you. This book is a call to put everything on the line. Shane Claiborne, activist and author of Irresistible Revolution and Beating Guns



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TWO IMPORTANT REVIEWS – “Silence Can Kill” by Arthur Simon and “I Was Hungry Cultivating Common Ground to End An American Crisis” by Jeremy K. Everett and a whole bunch more — ON SALE NOW

Thanks to those who read and even shared our Labor Day BookNotes that described a few recent books on faith and the work-world. We listed a compilation to past columns that we did on this topic and I’m sure if you click through on those you will learn about books you haven’t heard of, religious ones and more general ones. There are so many resources to help us think about our careers and callings, the good and bad of our working lives. And new ones keep coming – for instance, any day now we’ll have the long-awaited Working in the Presence of God: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Work by Denise Daniels & Shannon Vanderwarker (Hendrickson; $24.95.) If you missed that column, skim back to our past BookNotes and check out those links. You won’t want to miss that James Taylor video!

In that column I mentioned Tom Nelson and his “Made to Flourish” network.

They have a simulcast (A Church for Monday) coming up October 5th – it would be a great way to enter or learn more about this conversation, this aspect of ministry. Learn more about it here.

One of the books that Tom Nelson wrote that I didn’t mention the other day is a helpful guide to thinking about the economic development and consequences of the work world. In The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity (IVP; $18.00.) he makes clear that people of faith should always be thinking about how we can help our regions flourish; supporting good businesses and even being entrepreneurial can be ways to serve our neighbors. Voting in the marketplace (that is, the decisions we make as to we chose to spend our dollars) has consequences, often significant ones. (Tom doesn’t address it, precisely, but this is one of the big criticisms of mega-size and placeless entities like Amazon, who drain money from local economies and get out of paying taxes, even as they hurt local businesses and services. Data shows that wherever Amazon moves in, the wealth flows away from the local community, especially when municipalities and states give them huge tax incentives; I support them with my tax dollars and then they announce they want to put me out of business. Yep.) More can be said about community development and what “neighbor love” means for our stewardly, home-making economics, but this book by Tom Nelson is a nice start, recommended for anyone who hasn’t read this sort of thing.

Another great, great book (that was reviewed in greater detail in one of those older links I shared to past BookNotes) that addresses this and, no doubt, influenced Nelson in his own Economics… book is the magisterial Kingdom Callings: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP; $22.00.) by Amy Sherman. In that book she makes a powerful case (based on Proverbs 11:10) that even the poor and marginalized will rejoice in the success of a just business; truly righteous, just businesses make things better, even for the poor. So she invites us to think faithfully about stewarding our vocational aspirations in ways that not only please us or help us find our own professional sweet spot but in ways that serve the common good. She offers several different styles or “levels” of involvement showing numerous ways (from the simplest to the most sophisticated) that our work lives impact and serve the world.

I don’t know if you hear about this stuff at your church, but it seems to us that any wise missional vision will include this fairly ordinary (but extraordinarily interesting and challenging) task of helping each other think about faith in the marketplace. Start with Sherman’s call to “steward our vocational aspirations” and see how it leads to, as Nelson puts it, “the economics of neighborly love.”

Which leads me to the theme of this BookNotes column.

It is good for us mostly middle class folks to talk about serving God in our work-a-day lives. What else can we do? Christ as Lord calls us to honor His rule over “every square inch” of our lives, so obviously we must thinking religiously about our jobs, our callings, our employment, and occupations.

But we must be aware of the fact that for many, talking about such things – being a Christian in the business sector, seeing the relationship of faith in the sciences, thinking about education from a Christian perspective, wondering about how to be a faithful follower of Jesus in health care or media or computer science or management – is a luxury. Most people in the world are poor; even these days in our country, many are unemployed; here and abroad, children are starving. And are all, as Steve Garber reminds us in Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, we are all implicated. We are part of the broken, broken world that God so loves.

Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Thomas Nelson; $15.99) remains a must-read to explore and motivate us to care about the poor; it is surely one of the most important books of the last 50 years. The best-selling The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World by Richard Stearns came out ten years ago this month, and we have a brand new, 10th Anniversary Edition (Thomas Nelson; $17.99) His story of finding meaning by shifting away from his successful big business career to take up more directly the cries of the poor important and inspiring reading for all of us.

HERE ARE TWO NEW EXCELLENT BOOKS ON HUNGER & POVERTY and a few others on justice work…

Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work for Everyone Arthur Simon (Eerdmans) $29.00 Does our apathy or even our silence really indict us? Can silence really kill? It is a strong accusation and Art Simon is careful to explain why. This book is the most important and comprehensive faith-based study of poverty and hunger (in the US and abroad) in ages; Art has written some wonderful books in the past but this may be his magnum opus. In it, he deftly explores the complications and controversies around poverty and public policies that might fruitfully address the crisis of hunger. Although trained as a Lutheran pastor, he has spent most of his adult life organizing citizens to lobby –through the organization he founded, Bread for the World – for legislation that helps the poor, so much of our political legislation has direct consequence (sometimes for good, sometimes for ill) on the impoverished. Maybe you’ve heard the story – Art and other Bread for the World leaders tell it often – of how one year, in one quick vote in the Reagan years, US Congress cut more from life-saving foreign aid than all the charities of all the US churches combined had given that year. I forget the exact figures, but imagine if all the churches, together, raise and generously share 10 million dollars for relief. And imagine that the government cuts $100 million from our aid budget. For those that truly want to save lives and bring relief to starving brothers and sisters in Africa, say, might it have been better to spend more time letting our congressional representatives know that we favor such aid? If we love our neighbors by sincerely donating to charities, why are we silent when so much more is cut?

So Bread for the World helps citizens who are willing, inspired by their Biblical faith, to pay attention to the sometimes obscure (but oh-so-significant) legislation battles brewing in Congress, or even in Congressional committees. Sometimes just a few House Representatives or Senators can prevent a bill from even being voted on, so even a few letters to a few leaders or one or two letters to the editor in the paper can make a difference!) This is true in legislation regarding international aid and global concerns as well as for domestic concerns affecting those in poverty here. From TANF funding or SNAP reform to clean water proposals or the significance of the much-discussed Farm Bill, Mr. Simon knows more than almost anyone, drawing on experts from across the ideological spectrum and nurturing friendships in think-tanks, philanthropies, front line relief agencies, among third world church leaders, in small town church-based food programs, and dysfunctional urban school systems; he has listened and learned and advocated (building bipartisan teams) for decade after decade about how to reduce poverty and end hunger.

And he has learned to be savvy and wise; nobody wants to “throw money” at a problem or squander limited revenues and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the critiques made against foreign aid and US entitlement programs. When Art Simon and his BFW movement leaders invite church folk to get behind a certain piece of legislation you can be assured they have studied it from a variety of perspectives and have held consultations with theological scholars and policy wonks and anti-poverty activists from here and abroad. As this book documents, they know what they are doing.

You may recall the movie Schindler’s List about the German businessman that tirelessly shuttled Jews out of Nazi-occupied Poland. He increasingly put his time and money and life at risk to save just one more family. He is rightly held up as a hero, an example of the “righteous Gentiles” who rescued Jews who were being lead to the slaughter.

When I think of heroes like Schindler, I think of Art Simon. It may be that he has saved more people from unjust death than anyone living today. This is not hyperbole — give the guy a Nobel Peace Prize already! Read Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and you’ll learn much and you will be impressed by Simon’s extraordinary life, about which he writes humbly.

As you will learn, briefly, it all started in the early 70s while a pastor of a small urban parish in New York City. Pastor Simon realized that although several churches were doing food pantries and offering immediate assistance for the neediest, include those ground down by poverty and racism and slumlords in his own parish, so many of the causes and so many of the answers to systemic poverty and hunger was structural, most with a political dimension. Which is to say, food pantries were not enough: restoring justice and flourishing was a matter of public policy and legislation. (The Bible has said this all along, of course, with the clear policy mandates in the Old Testament law that give the poor a fair second change, and holy warnings like, “Woe to those who pass bad laws that crush the poor” which you know if you’ve ever got far into the book of Isaiah.

That is, a simple vote in Congress to support a life-giving policy can literally change lives, even save lives. (Just think of the fair housing legislation or of the early legislation about child labor or the impeccably documented value of Food Stamps and the perennial congressional battles about funding; or more globally, the huge questions of foreign aid, how our aid is sometimes tied to our military support for corrupt dictators that refuse land reform or ways in which global banking legislation through the World Bank or the IMF ripples consequences to developing economics from South America to South Africa, from East Timor to East Asia.)

So, as we’ve said, Mr. Simon and some other church folks started what they imagined to be a faith-anchored citizen’s lobby. They would get church folks to actually vote – this was before the rise of the Christian right when voting against homosexual rights or for pro-life issues became part of the identity of many conservative evangelicals – inspired by what would best serve their poorer brothers and sisters. They would be invited to lobby as politically engaged Good Samaritans. Church folks would be called to unite around a seemingly non-controversial but overlooked piece of anti-hunger legislation, or some anti-poverty bill, or something about WIC, say. It grew to become a nation-wide movement, organized by church folks in each congressional district and Bread for the World was formed. BFW passed out no bread; it is not a relief or development organization. I invites Christian citizens to use their gift of citizenship to lobby their elected officials to vote in ways that reflect our desire to help the poor, to do justice, to create (insofar as government is able) a sustainable, healthy economy, and to prevent economic injustice while fostering solutions to poverty and hunger, here and abroad.

In other words they were inviting citizens to get busy doing the hard work of shift the conversation and passing legislative initiatives for the sake of the poor.

Art often tells the story about a British economist who had met (in the early 1970s) with the Vatican, where Catholic leaders were calling on religious folks to step up their advocacy around world hunger concerns. Barbara Ward seemed enthused as she talked with a US Senator, suggesting that any day his office would be flooded by calls from the faithful, showing citizen support for a certain anti-hunger bill. The Senator said “I’ll call you when I get the first call.” Later, the Senator reported to Art that “I never had to make that call.” That is, nobody contacted his office, and the legislation – as it sometimes does – dies of atrophy, of apathy; our elected officials aren’t going to go to the mat on an issue they don’t think anybody cares about and since most citizens only call about stuff that peeves them, personally, the bigger issues of reforming unjust economic policies or offering aid to the poor often languish. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they sometimes say, and this is a truism in citizen political action: a few calls from ordinary folks supporting this or that bill or resolution, can make a huge difference as Congressional aids sit up and take notice when they start hearing from constituents about a certain obscure bill about food or water or foreign aid or school lunch programs. We can make a difference. And conversely, our silence can kill.

Art’s many years at the helm of Bread for the World brought him into conversation with anti-hunger scholars, front line folk doing work in refugee camps and in well-digging programs and girls schools in the Third World. He learned what works and is the first to admit that government and policy cannot solve all the problems of poverty. However – as this book shows — very many of the injustices of global (and domestic) poverty are connected to big picture, systemic matters. The realities of war and climate change, the legacy of colonialism, old and new racism, practices such as government subsides of cash crops exporting wealth, arcane details of tariffs and trade agreements, immigration law, bad faith in dangerous technologies, naïve hopes, corrupt legislators and leaders, the undue influence of self-interested agribusiness lobbyists, and what educational visions governments support, all come to play to create a better or worse economy.

The right bill (alone) cannot change the world but an increase in certain kinds of aid administered in directed ways can save lives. Years ago BFW speculated (based on their own research about how many letters and calls to Congress it took to get a certain piece of foreign aid legislation passed) that each person who wrote a letter saved thousands of lives. Sure you should continue to support your Compassion or World Vision child. But being involved with Bread for the World will magnify your life-saving influence and incarnate your compassion one hundred fold!

After Art retired from Bread for the World, another extraordinary Lutheran leader, David Beckman, took the helm (after a time working at the World Bank where he lead Bible studies with global leaders.) Beckman wrote a short and really useful little book called Exodus From Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger (WJK; $18.00) that tells the BFW story in the 21st century; it, too, is very highly recommended.

The new Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work for Everyone, though, is amazingly comprehensive and a must-have resource for anyone seriously engaged in this work. It is, in a way, the fruit of Art Simon’s decades of living and learning in the midst of this amazing, complex, fascinating, dramatic story of making strides to reform our economies.

It seems to me that if you care about this topic, it will be a great handbook to school you in more of what you need to understand. (And, frankly, as the Presidential primaries are heating up, and there are more debates about economics and taxes and tariffs and welfare and charts and statistics, this would be a useful primer to help you sort out much of the contested claims and counter-claims.)

It also seems to me that if you have read some of the criticisms about the corruption and waste in government-based foreign aid programs and are a bit skeptical of this whole project, it is worth reading this for a fair-minded, evidence-based view. Agree or not with everything Art concludes, it is an exceptionally useful contribution to the discussions about all this and you will be better informed to make up your own mind.

I’m not going to lie: there are some (nicely explained) details about the percentages of aid the US actually gives, about complicated economic theories, about wealth and wage differences, about the injustices we hear about. There are a few charts. He is making a case for what he thinks are wise and helpful solutions and to do that he has to dive a bit deep.

He explains what government can and should do. As we’ve said, charities alone cannot solve these complex big-picture problems. Although ideologues on the right end of the partisan spectrum insist that it’s mostly the private sector’s task, almost everyone on the front lines of global poverty relief or who work with the poor in the US say otherwise; they all see and experience the limits of charity and the need for appropriate governmental action. (President Reagan was just wrong when he said, simplistically, “government is the problem.”) So Art explains all this with data and stats and footnotes that are themselves an education, explaining (thanks be to God) the complexities of dense scholars like Thomas Piketty and other Nobel Prize winning economists, wading into questions about wealthy creation, the implications of the national debt, etc. etc. etc.

Years ago a Dutch economist and Reformed Christian leader in the old Kuyper party in Holland, Bob Goudzwaard, wrote a book about the idols of our age. (It was later updated and expanded with two other authors as Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crisis (Baker Academic; $24.00) and, upon reading it, Brian McLaren was inspired to write Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Thomas Nelson; $14.99) that explored the ideologies and philosophies and assumptions about society and culture and government and meaning and values that propel our idolatrous cultures. Goudzwaard’s rather dense book and McLaren’s lively interpretation of it are both excellent and I recommend them for those wanting to see the way big issues (from poverty to environmental degradation to militarism) combine and are driven by certain spirits or ideologies.

Arthur Simon doesn’t tackle many of the philosophical assumptions pushing our cultures and economies, but his insights will take us a long way towards asking the right questions about this unavoidable, central part of our lives. His data and insights really to get us “under the surface” and force us to reflect, even as we are equipped to act. If we are to be like the “sons of Issachar” in 1 Chronicles 12:32 and understand the times, and “keep ourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21) we must be aware of these spirits of the age, the idols of progress and growth and materialism behind standard-fare capitalism.

(Just the other day a conservative journal that I read did a book review about some books about economics and celebrated the “engines of progress” in ways that assumed, without question, that growth is good, that driving towards bigger and bigger is the essential meaning of healthy economics, an assumption behind both the right and the left, by the way; both who ought to know better, that “progress” is more than economic growth. (Yeah, tell that to the child of rich parents who are getting a divorce, that they are experiencing “progress” by getting their nicer house, even if their family is demolished. Try telling them that those singular “engines of progress” were a blessing and not a curse.)

Goudzwaard called this “reductionism”– where we reduce the multi-dimensional development of human and cultural flourishing to just one thing: money. As we all know, when we elevate money to that height, asking it to bear that sort of idolatrous weight, it is called Mammon. Art Simon himself did a beautiful, thoughtful book on this a few years back, for personal reflection and it is as potent now as it was then. It is called How Much Is Enough?: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Baker; $16.00.) For a comprehensive study of all the key passages about money/Mammon in the Bible see the hefty Money and Possessions (in the Interpretation series) by Walter Brueggemann (WJL; $40.00.) For a more practical and delightfully well-balanced study of how all this might inform our daily financial habits, see Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give by Michael Rhodes, Robby Holt and Brian Fikkert (Baker Books; $19.99.) It is very, very useful, balanced, thoughtful, wise.

Mr. Simon is aware of these deep theological questions about economics but he’s an activist, wanting to save lives through marshaling political will to achieve sensible ends. He wants evidence based reforms and he’s listened and learned and here interprets for us a way forward towards how to change the world in helpful ways.

One of the ways this vital book is helpful is its reminder that reducing the gross tragedies of starvation and hunger and poverty is a moral matter that could unite us beyond our partisan divides. As Senator Bob Dole writes on the back cover “ Silence Can Kill makes a credible case that ending hunger is a surprisingly attainable goal.” It offers a hopeful, healing vision and it’s an issue most of us would agree is important. The question is if we are willing to learn, to become empowered to use our voices, to speak up. This book by this fine gentleman will help.

Tucked away in a small footnote is a hint to how it is that Rev. Simon learned to speak up and get involved. In the book he is exploring some of the related matters in the constellation of issues that affect the poor, that contribute to the causes of poverty. He tells about the legacy of racism in our culture and, without much drama – Simon is never flamboyant or breathy – quietly tells of the sudden and unfair internment of our Japanese citizens during World War II and how his father protested. Simon writes:

On the spot in Eugene where many were taken away on short notice with only what they could carry, a memorial to those citizens includes a stone with my father’s name and the inscription: Martin P. Simon. He spoke in protest. His courage inspired others.” My brother and I were among the “others.”

Perhaps this story will remind you of the legacy we leave among those who watch our lives, even our children and grandchildren. Will you be known as one who speaks up for the poor and oppressed? Will you consider doing the sort of civic work that BFW calls us to, leveraging our citizenship for others? Will you commit to reading Silence Can Kill?


I Was Hungry: Cultivating Common Ground to End An American Crisis Jeremy K. Everett (Brazos Press) $16.99 What a blessing to have a second major book released this season within the religious publishing world – kudos to Brazos Press for taking up this terrific, exciting read by a young-ish activist, founder of the Texas Hunger Initiative. Informed by the framework and inspiration of Bread for the World and other faith-based public policy initiatives, Jeremy Everett (a graduate of Baylor University and Truett Theological Seminary) has spent years as an advocate for the poor. From an inspiring story of being moved to give away his stuff to the homeless after watching the Saint Francis film Brother Son, Sister Moon to the riveting opening pages about running a special needs medical shelter for hundreds of evacuated folk in the immediately aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we learn that Everett has a big heart and has learned, often the hard way, what it means to not only be proximate with the poor and hurting, but how to organize social services in ways that help stem the tide of human anguish. He’s colorful and dedicated and, I gather, not only winsome but seemingly unstoppable. I suppose one has to be if one is doing serious research to learn the facts and doing on-the-ground, directly care giving and energetic advocacy for the poor. His community organizing skills become evident early on in this page-turner of a book. I Was Hungry ­– notice the way the words are crossed out in the art design of the book – is a wild, hopeful read!

What other book makes the Consumer Price Index and discussions about SNAP interesting, and playfully calls Father Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theologians, a “Peruvian Yoda” and tells about singing happy birthday to him at a Southern Baptist preacher’s home? Or tells a story of inviting gang members who had broken in to their community coffee shop to a re-opening celebration, showing how “love wins” can be more than a slogan, but a business practice?

In fact, Bread for the World President David Beckman (who has read and written tons on this topic) writes in a moving foreword, “Once I started the first chapter of this book, I had a hard time putting it down. Jeremy Everett is a great storyteller. And the overarching story of this book is God’s call to Jeremy – to all of us actually – to end hunger.”

After his early episodes of giving away his stuff inspired by St. Francis, and his eventual entry into the worlds of poverty and dislocation, homelessness and abuse, Everett tells us about his years working in community-based organizing. He introduces us to people he knows – giving essential faces and back-stories to fellow-citizens who struggle with what some call “food insecurity.” Unlike some in utter starvation in Sub Saharan Africa, say, or the malnourished in Haiti or Chad, there are many in the US who simply don’t know if they will have enough to eat, especially for the working poor, between paychecks. Economic injustice and policy questions are complicated – as we’ve learned from Art Simon’s book, Silence Kills. I Was Hungry dives in to some of this, too (although with an exclusive focus on domestic, and often rural or small town poverty.)

Everett’s Texas Hunger Initiative is an organization that partners with the United States Department of Agriculture, Texas state agencies, the corporate sector, and thousands of churches and community-based organizations. When he says in the subtitle that this book is for “cultivating common ground to end an American crisis” he knows what he’s talking about. I’d say you might read it just to learn about his adept navigation of various social sectors, non-profits and governmental agencies, to advance social entrepreneurship, uniting different kinds of folks to accomplish this good, lasting work.

I like that as he tells the story of the organization’s history he tells stories of its work with communities “from West Texas to Washington DC” and — get this! – “helping Christians of all political persuasions understand how they can work together to truly make a difference.” I like that he talks about building trust. It seems to me that he is right: if we are going to eradicate hunger and work well on helping stop poverty and food insecurity (or any other pressing social issue) we are going to need everybody involved. Our civic infrastructures and local friendships are going to have to become more bi-partisan. We are going to have to learn to trust each other and work together.

So there’s that.

In fact, Everett has a chapter on politics called “Searching for Consensus amid a Landscape of Contention.” There are some brilliant stories and essential lessons learned.

One story is about how, due to state budget cuts, regional offices were closed that had been the places for poorer folks to go to sign up for benefits (like SNAP, which we used to call “Food Stamps.”) This proved a hardship on many, many people and the Texas Hunger Imitative partnered with the State government to retool delivery platforms and venues. Talk about caring about the common good, about wise and savvy faith-based partnerships working well with big governmental bureaucracies. Alas, that story doesn’t end there and there is another chapter of the story about justice advocacy groups waging a campaign which ended up demonizing conservatives who disagree with a certain plan about serving refugees. It gets ugly and counterproductive.

Everett explains,

Just like the group fighting the golf course in San Antonio, this group was on the right side of justice, but their tactics proved to be not only unpersuasive but also damaging to the communities they served.

He continues,

State leaders were outraged by the public shaming and looked into the organization behind it. When they found the organization had a contract with the state and was playing a leadership role in providing the poor with federal benefits access, the state leaders attempted to end the program. When that did not work – because it was legislatively created – they cancelled the contract with the P3 consortium and slowly strangled the initiative until it failed to exist.

Granted, that is sometimes how the big boys of the far right work, deliberately hurting agencies that serve the poor. I’ve seen it, and this is not an exaggeration.

However, Everett’s take-away is golden:

…the tactic of shaming the powerful didn’t just fail to change the minds of the powerful, it also motivate them to look for ways to hurt those opposing their interests. Once again, the shared-power approach proved to be life-giving – generating the model to increase access, nutrition, health – and the shaming-power approach proved to be life-taking. When we are operating on a state or federal level, politics can be catastrophic when we get it wrong. Demonizing those who we are trying to persuade does not work.

The rest of the chapter will be worth the price of the book for some of us, I think. He reminds us about shared power, about building consensus, about common ground. He reminds us that we are all made in the image of God and we dare not hurl insults against even those with whom we disagree. Collaboration and finding common ground is not easy, but we must “honor the createdness of the other.” We want to “move the world toward just, toward shalom” so our “tactics and strategies must reflect the integrity we hope to achieve for our cause.”

His story of the slow change of the heart of a congressman, a Christian, who gradually learned more about the realities of poverty in his district brought tears to my eyes. I know a congressman like that, a leader with whom I had regular political disagreements. Praying together in his home about how his party’s policies were causing great harm in Central America is a memory I’ll never forget, regardless of how he ended up voting on that particular foreign policy bill. I so love that Everett doesn’t want to throw anybody under the bus on the way towards the beloved community.

This short book is an excellent primer on anti-hunger activism, on the questions of poverty that plague these United States. It is faith-infused, but civic minded, pushing for good goals in good ways. It is a prefect companion to Silence Can Kill by Arthur Simon. We have purchased a lot of these for our little store and hope many folks pick it up. It would make a great small group study or book club title.


And Social Justice for All: Empowering Families, Churches, and Schools to Make a Difference in God’s World Lisa Van Engen (Kregal) $13.99 This is an excellent resource, more than 300 pages, with information and insight about a dozen different topics — from creation care to human trafficking, from fair-trade wisdom to disabilities rights, from racial justice concerns to family care. There’s stuff about bearing the “fierce light” of being a change-maker and guides on creating a community gathering. There’s even a plan to raise awareness, topic by topic, month by month, which looks intriguing to try. This evangelical educator and mom from Holland, Michigan, has given us a rare combination of gospel-centered faith and down-to-Earth education for social change.  She and her family are members of Covenant CRC in St. Catharines, Ontario. Highly recommended.

Loving God and Neighbor with Samuel Pierce Michael A.G. Haykin & Jerry Slate (Lexham Press) $12.99 This is the second in a little series called “Lived Theology.” (I will be writing more about the other, an introduction to the public engagement theology of Abraham Kuyper, also in this little series.) Those that know much about evangelical missionary work may know the name of Samuel Pierce, a nearly forgotten saint who embodied a late eighteenth-century Baptist piety and advanced a wholistic vision of the gospel. This handsome little book invites us to explore Pearce’s “holy love” and tells of his years of ministry in England (and his trip to India and preaching trip through Ireland.) Loving God and Neighbor models how older-school evangelical faith can propel one to care deeply about serving one’s neighbors and about caring about God’s world as an expression of a deep appreciation for the saving grace of Christ.

Missional Economics: Biblical Justice and Christian Formation Michael Barram (Eerdmans) $26.00  We have a pretty hefty economics section (besides our section of global development, world hunger, and international affairs.) Some are heady, some less so. Some are tough in their critique of mainstream capitalism, but some, like, say, Redeeming Capitalism by Kenneth Barnes, with a foreword by Miroslav Volf (Eerdmans; $25.99) are thoughtful, with a serious, moral center, but more balanced. We have extraordinary, serious works like Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization by Brent Waters (WJK; $40.00) that seem very much like something neither right nor left, but seeking a deep, alternative vision. That is also why we’ve often recommended Completing Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World by Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub (Berrett-Koehler; $19.95) about their surprisingly good work with the Mars Corporation.

Steve Garber, who has worked with this team of authors, says,

With a rare willingness to ask the most critical questions about the nature of business, their ‘economics of mutuality’ is a vision for doing good and doing well in the context of one of the most iconic brands in the modern world. Neither charity nor corporate social responsibility, but rather a way for sustained profitability, Completing Capitalism argues for making money in a way that remembers the meaning of the marketplace.”

With so many good resources like this, it is hard to suggest just one, but these days, I’m inclined to most heartily recommend this Missional Economics for starters because it so helpfully explores the biblical material. It does not do everything a book on economics does, but it does what we Christian must have: a good study of the pertinent Biblical texts. This is a remarkable book, exceptionally helpful and vital.

Mark Labberton of Fuller Theological Seminary calls it, “a stunning gift.”

Our friend, New Testament scholar Michael Gorman, writes:

This readable but challenging book compellingly unpacks the Bible’s consistent focus on transforming the ways we think (and therefore act) about money, possessions, the poor, and more. The result is a desperately needed antidote to the consumerist, self-indulgent culture in which Western Christians live today. And it is also a persuasive invitation to participate in God’s loving care for a needy world.

The publisher says:

Barram searches for insight into God’s purposes for economic justice by exploring what it might look like to think and act in life-giving ways in the face of contemporary economic orthodoxies. The Bible repeatedly tells us how to treat the poor and marginalized, Barram says, and faithful Christians cannot but reflect carefully and concretely on such concerns.

Written in an accessible style, this biblically rooted study reflects years of research and teaching on social and economic justice in the Bible and will prove useful for lay readers, preachers, teachers, students, and scholars.

Bread for the Resistance: 40 Devotions for Justice People Donna Barber (IVP/The Voices Publishing) $15.00 We’ve written favorably about books by Leroy Barber and it is a delight to know of Donna, his wife and ministry partner, co-founder of The Voices Project which is trying to “influence culture through training and promoting leaders of color.” She is the director of Champions Academy, an initiative of the Portland Leadership Foundation and is the first African American to serve on her local district’s school board. This is just what you’d think, a feisty, visionary, inspiring set of devotional readings for justice activists. Are you tired or over-worked, struggling, wondering how to keep on keeping on? This will refresh your soul and keep you going. Brand new – we have it on our counter at the shop!

Rest for the Justice Seeking Soul: 90 Meditations Susan K. Williams Smith (Whitaker House) $14.99 FORTHCOMING – PRE-ORDER: due to be released November 12, 2019 Wow, this is another small collection of daily meditations by an experienced leader who is a woman of color, the communications director and secretary to the Board of Directors for the Samuel D. Proctor Ministers Conferences. Those who know the African American church know that the Samuel Proctor name is deeply esteemed and Ms. Smith’s connection there is indication of her stature. Perhaps more importantly, she’s known on the streets as a voice for faith-based social change; she has been involved in organizing in her home-town of Columbus, Ohio, and on the national level. She is involved with numerous social justice organizations, including Dr. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. These short readings were designed for those who are feeling beleaguered and battered down in their activism during these hard days. Kudos to Whitaker House (not known for these sorts of social action books) for taking up the writings of this important sister in the struggle. PRE-ORDER IT NOW.

Created to Flourish: How Employment-Based Solutions Help Eradicate Poverty Peter Greer & Phil Smith (Hope International) $19.99  What a handsome, joyous, wonderful book this it. It is not new, but wanted to mention it here because we are so glad to stock it, and you may not know of it. I hope you do know about the remarkable ministry directed by Lancaster-based Peter Greer called Hope International. They do micro-financing and employment-based work in developing countries and, as such, know so much about what actually works in helping create human flourishing all over the world. This wonderful book — made with full color photography on nice paper, making it an attractive artifact of their good work — was formerly out in an edition called The Poor Will Be Glad. This updates that excellent book adding new insights from their recent years of good work. There is a foreword by Jeff Rutt, founder of Hope International. There is more I could say about this book, but know it is handsomely designed, with lots of great stories, and in this lovely resource you’ll learn a lot about the Biblical call to wholistic development and economic possibilities.


Jesus’ Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, The Currency of Love and a Pattern for Lasting Change John D. Barry (Whitaker House) $15.99  I was amazed that folks I respected from a variety of theological views and who tend to tilt left or right, so to speak (favoring more governmental adjustments to reform the economy or those who trust the free market as the best way to bring people out of poverty) all agreeing that this author is a gem, that this book is a great little guide. John Barry is one well-respected, behind the scenes leader.

Barry is a Biblical scholar and has worked in business, and is known as a missionary, I suppose. His bibliography is loaded with excellent resources on missiology and, better, his book is loaded with first hand accounts of folks from all over the developing world who lives – body and soul, communities and cultures – were transformed by a Kingdom vision of Christ’s Lordship in their lives. This is a great, easy-to-read manifesto about God’s love, about the way of Jesus, about His Kingdom coming all over the world and, especially, about the best ways to alleviate poverty and injustice. He is convinced that Jesus’ teachings are the guide to help us make better choices than can help us all help make the world a better place. Simple, direct, clear, and good introduction to a wholistic gospel and economic development strategies. Read something like SIlence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work for Everyone by Art Simon, I’d say, but this is a fabulous intro.

Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream Brian Fikkert & Kelly Kapic (Moody Press) $15.99  Wow, what a book!  I have alluded to this before, mentioned it at book groups, and shown it here in the shop. It deserves an even more detailed review that I am able to do at this time, but, trust me – it deserves your attention. An important project of The Chalmers Center (at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis) it is, in a way, a prequel to the bestselling and much discussed When Helping Hurts. Many have read that important volume (alongside the equally valuable Toxic Charity and Charity Detox by Robert Lupton) and somehow concluded that all foreign aid (or even local charitable mission) is suspect. This has become so common that Calvin College Press published a helpful little study called When Helping Heals by Tracy Kuperus & Roland Hoksbergen (Calvin College Press; $10.99.)

Of course few would argue with the central thesis of When Helping Hurts. Too often big bureaucracies and government programs, or smaller, well-intentioned local charities, are patronizing, even toxic, and build dependency. Nobody wants poor folks to be dependent on somebody else’s charity. And, really, nobody wants to serve our needy neighbors in ways that are hurtful. But yet, we do.

Well, Fikkert and Kapic want to be sure we understand the philosophical assumptions and theological anthropology – a view of society and the person and the like – that informed their big-seller. If When Helping Hurts is a critique, what should we do, to do service well? We’ll get to that – there is a third volume in this trio of books – but, for now, this text, Becoming Whole is a full, nicely written, clear study of what human flourishing is. Obviously, merely helping poor people become rich isn’t the goal. Obviously, helping dysfunctional, unjust economies work more efficiently isn’t enough. Helping Mammon win isn’t what we want, is it? Becoming Whole, then, is a companion volume to When Helping Hurts. It can be read as a stand-alone or as a prequel.

This is one of the reasons I love Becoming Whole. It brings together a Biblical world and life view, a coherent public theology, a seriously Christian social analysis that both affirms jobs and markets and askews receiving simple handouts as normative ways for people to live, but doesn’t suffer under allusions of progress, as if more money is going to solve problems of a fragmented culture and lonely souls. Whether we are helping poor folks at home or abroad, whether we are trying to figure out a Christian view of economics or society, this book exposes the misconceptions and idols of Western culture (and, too often, the Western church.)

I think this book, therefore, is great for any of us, whether we are involved in poverty alleviation ministries or not. With sections like “The Shaping Power of Stories” you know it’s on to something good. And the middle section is so good! This section is called “When False Stories Make Helping Hurt” – warning against two main visions/stories. These two false visions are “you can become a consuming robot” or “who can be a harp-playing ghost forever.” Their Reformed worldview has long been strong in critiquing the errors of this sort of naturalistic consumerism (on one hand) and other-worldly pietism (on the other) but it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been reading N. T. Wright.

They even reference the cult-classic novel Flatland. And then, in “God’s Story of Change” offer a reconsideration of creation, a realization about the profundity of sin and the fall, and the “full embodied hope” of redemption as we await the dawning of the new creation. This is good, good stuff as we all try to live into that creation-fall-redemption-restoration story.

As the publisher promised in their description of Becoming Whole.

Through biblical insights, scientific research, and practical experience, they show you how the good news of the kingdom of God reshapes our lives and our poverty alleviation ministries, moving everybody toward wholeness.

A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries Brian Fikkert & Kelly M. Kapic (Moody Press) $14.99 Okay, as I suggested above: a few years ago this team from the Chalmer’s Center put out what became a best seller, When Helping Hurts. They did a side-project called When Helping Hurts in Church Benevolence and a video curriculum on short-term mission trips. It’s a big deal, and good stuff.

Then, as I mentioned above, they did a prequel to all of this, concerned that the theological and worldviewish framework for their work would help people better understand their proposals about how to best serve those who are in poverty or hurting.-Becoming Whole: Why The Opposite of Poverty isn’t the American Dream is that volume, and it is wise and helpful instruction. Whether you’ve read When Helping Hurts or not, Become Whole is highly recommended.

And now, there is this, the potent little sequel. This little field guide is just that – a no-nonsense field guide to applying the big picture worldview stuff of Becoming Whole in a setting where the principles of When Helping Hurts are taken seriously Of course, there is no “one size fits all” solution, so they don’t call this a “how-to manual.” It really is an evocative field guide, unpacking “ministry design principles” developed over decades. It promises to offer valuable guidelines as you seek to live into God’s story in your particular context.



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A reminder about our best books about faith & work, a bunch of links to vital book lists, and 20% off FIVE NEW BOOKS ON WORK

Happy Labor Day, friends.  I suppose you know this day means a lot to us, here, since part of our original vision for our Dallastown bookstore was to bring to ordinary folks in an ordinary part of the country what was then, as now, somewhat rare: resources for living out the implications of Christian faith in the work-world. Unlike most Christian bookstores, we stocked books on various spheres of life and culture, from business to politics to science, art to education, medicine and law, raising kids to raising crops.  Which is to say, we had books (some theological in nature, some Biblical, some just fun and helpful) on callings and careers, for those in sales or public service or scientific research, for artists and teachers, for nurses and attorneys, parents and farmers. We lamented the gap between worship and work, between Sunday and Monday, and hoped that those who claimed Christ as Lord would see rather obviously, once exposed to these many kinds of fascinating books, that they should read them, talk about them, start study groups and professional associations, maybe even in their workplaces. We thought that pastors, even, seeing books for engineers and journalists and wood-workers and business people, would start to suggest such books for their congregants. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

And so we sit on books offering Christian perspectives on math and medicine, counseling and cooking, books for followers of Jesus who want to honor Him and build signposts of his Kingdom wherever they work, all their live-long days. Butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, as they say.

I describe our vision often by citing Martin Luther’s important line about how the men making  the beer barrels and the women milking the cows are every bit as important to the Kingdom of God as are the priests and the nuns.

Or, at least, Martin Luther King’s famous lines:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

Later, I even edited a book of graduation speeches, each rooted in this central idea that work is good, that God calls us to serve in careers or jobs or occupations, and that we can make a difference for reform of this fallen world (usually in small ways) by allowing the Christian mind to shape our thinking and practices about our work-world. That book is called Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Lives (Square Halo Book; $13.99) and even though it is designed for young adults just out of college or trade school, it captures much of what I think about when Labor Day rolls around. There’s even pretty good reflection questions too, making it a fine book for a book group, especially, but not only, for young adults.

(You can read more about Serious Dreams, here.)

Alas, too many churches fail to invite their congregants to think well about all this. We have all sorts of unbiblical assumptions about work. As is often the case in various arenas, we sometimes nearly make a demon out of it; other times we make an idol out of it. Too often to stop to recall the serious struggle that many (often in the labor union movements) accomplished to humanize work and insist on dignity and fair wages and job safety and the like. Few allude to the work-world in the talk about the missional church, too few sing anthems or praise songs about our callings or vocations, few sermons tackle the subject. Few prayers are prayed about the ordinary laborers that they might see their daily grind as holy ground.

Do you know the great album of worship music that was commissioned to create songs somehow about or alluding to our work and callings in the world? We are proud to know some of the song-writers and recording artists behind this marvelous Porter’s Gate worship project called Work Songs. Here’s a little background about the artistic vision of Porter’s Gate. Check out the incredibly artful, deeply moving videos, from the soulful “Establish the Works of Our Hands” to the lovely “In the Fields of the Lord” to the amazingly, folksy “We Labor Unto Glory” to the phenomenal, quiet “Little Things with Great Love.” Joy Ike’s contribution, “Day By Day” captures the theme wonderfully and is as direct as any on the album; you should sing this at your church!  “Wood and Nails” featuring Audrey Assad and Josh Garrels is gorgeously amazing, about “a humble carpenter.” The one about parenting “Every Father, Every Mother” is so moving. You’ve got to hear this whole album.  We recommend buying it directly from Porter’s Gate…

As you will see below, we have often made book lists about this topic of Christian views of work and thinking faithfully about living out faith in the marketplaces. Most of the best are written (or co-written) by real-world workers, not academics or pastors, but business executives or public school special ed teachers or advertisers or scientists or shop floor stewards. Often considered the very best, Every Good Endeavor Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Penguin; $17.00) is by the always-thoughtful Timothy Keller (whose Manhattan ministry has long been known by his seriousness about orthodox faith related in gracious ways to the contemporary culture, especially to matters of calling and vocation) but in this he got a major assist from co-author Katherine Leary Aldsorf, who has spent years working in the business world, living out her faith in a high-powered corporate culture. Katherine was the first director of Redeemer’s extraordinary Center for Faith and Work.

But I often say that one of the best starter books was, in fact, written by a pastor, my friend Tom Nelson (now of “Made to Flourish” ) who, in Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway; $17.99) wrote about his own “professional malpractice” in not talking about his flock’s true vocations, the way their jobs were their natural venues for Christian service, how their workplaces were their most natural mission fields. He shifted the tone and emphasis and conversations and formational practices and worship language at his church and over time saw remarkable results. It’s a good one to read if you are a pastor, or if you want to give a book to your pastor, but it is also good for any of us (complete with sidebars written by members of Nelson’s church about their own sense of being commissioned to serve God in their careers; these include great little pieces by a teacher, an attorney, an architect, and many more.) Tom rightly observes that this will stretch the imagination of readers and bring practical energy to this bigger theology of work project.  Here’s a short interview with him about the book — nice! I love this guy!

Another that I’ve raved about came out a year ago, also by a pastor, who creatively did a long series of sermons about what we can learn about God from various jobs. I’ve shared the stage with the thoughtful John Van Sloten and think he is exceptionally gifted in offering a profound theological framework for this project of nurturing a spirituality of the workplace, Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses, and Astronauts Tell Us about God (NavPress; $14.99.) To his credit, John interviewed tons of folks about their jobs, thought well about all manner of careers and callings, including some unique ones, and preached on the redemptive aspects of car repair and what forensic psychologists or a residential landlord can teach us about the Kingdom. It’s really, really good.

Here is a fabulous talk Van Sloten gave at the Colorado Christian Business Alliance’s annual conference last fall. It is well worth paying attention to and his book is very highly recommended. As I mentioned in my earlier review of it, I wondered if we really needed yet another book on this faith/work theology, and when I realized what he was doing, and read it, I soon realized he brings more to this than most. What a book!

Because I’ve got two terrible tooth aches — one was pulled a day ago and one is going to be worked on soon, I can’t write much more, now. I’ve got a host of examples of bad views of work I’ve noticed lately (including some awful experiences over 13 hours at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital where they could use some reminders about caring and excellence starting with the receptionists and custodians all the way up to the highly paid docs and specialists) and some good ones, like a teen at our local grocery store at whose line I’ll wait longer to go through, just to interact with her and her cheerful and helpful demeanor. But my essay will have to wait. You can pick up some of my passion and thoughts in the links below – including the one with the great James Taylor song.

Here is what I’d like to do for you. I will link to several past BookNotes where I’ve written on this topic and described some of the very best books on this subject. Some are on vocation and calling, some are on work; some religious, some not. I’m pretty proud of this compilation and the several times we’ve shared about these sorts of resources over the years. Feel free to pass them on. (Please note that the prices may have changed since I first reviewed some of these, and, in fact, may be described as hardbacks although they are now out in paperback.) There is such good stuff out there these days that it’s a shame that they aren’t more widely used.

And then, I’ll list a small handful of new ones on this topic. One is a pre-order option.

So, here are some older BookNotes columns on faith and the work-world. I invited you to read through a few of these as part of your Labor Day celebration and ponder if any of this might be helpful to anybody you know.



    Discovering Joy in Work: Transforming Your Occupation into Your Vocation Shundrawn A. Thomas (IVP) $22.00  I am eager to read this soon (it just came a day or so ago) as I need it, believe me. My own job is harder and more painful than I would wish and our situated context within the current less-than-bookish culture, the broken supply chains, the shuttering of faith-based bookstores, the larger global economy, and more, make my days regularly feel “cursed.” My own sins and foibles loom large, too, so I need this. Do you? Coming from IVP as it does, I am sure it’s going to be very well done. And a quick skim leads me to think this is some fresh and practical stuff.
    Shundrawn Thomas is president of a trillion-dollar global investment management business and is a management group member of a leading financial service company. He’s active in community service work, serves as a trustee of board member of some significant institutions and is active in his local Chicagoland church. He is one of these young men who has already worked in very high-level corporate environments, so Discover Joy in Work might be especially appealing to those who work in the financial sector or in the corporate world.  It is interesting, to me, too, that he is an African-American leader; many of the best books so far on the faith/work conversation have been by white guys. It’s nice to have this significant contribution by a person of color.
    Shundrawn Thomas’s ability to seamlessly weave together timely research, piercing insights, and vivid storytelling provides a truly unique perspective on work as calling.
    –Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management, Morgan Stanley
    In this enthralling book full of personal experiences and practical insights that come from his Christian convictions, Thomas guides his readers through a process of self-reflection that can transform the drudgery of a job into the joy of a calling that serves other people and gives glory to God.”–Philip Ryken, president, Wheaton College


Shundrawn Thomas has written a remarkable book, a work full of cosmic wisdom and concrete advice for anybody seeking to live a life of greater joy, fulfillment, and service. By highlighting the ways our work lives might be improved, Shundrawn shows us a path where our whole selves can be enriched. I highly recommend this book.” –Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith, president of Interfaith Youth Core

Thank God It’s Monday: Flourishing in Your Workplace Mark Greene (Muddy Pearl) $15.99 This book came out of Scripture Union in the UK a decade or more ago and was very widely respected. It was just re-issued in an updated edition by this cool Scottish publisher. Greene (who once was a Mad Man in New York, working in advertising for the famed Ogilvey agency) now is the Director of the brilliant London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This book is packed full of stories, inspiration, transformative opportunities, great ideas about how to be a whole-life follower of Jesus in the ever-changing workplaces of the global economy. As one British Anglican put it, it is “intelligent, invigorating, inspirational, and, ultimately, indispensable.”

For what it is worth, I’ve loved Greene for years, and we have even imported a small booklet he once did rejecting the false assumption of a sacred/secular dualism. That was called The Great Divide and I don’t think it was overstating things by saying it was the greatest challenge facing the church today. In the face of a secularizing materialistic naturalism on one hand and a privatizing, nearly Gnostic spirituality on the other, we simply have to recover a wholistic faith within the story of God’s good but fallen creation.

This delicious book is a must-read for everyone who works – which is just about everyone. Why? It winsomely demonstrates how ordinary people working in the world, whether remunerated or not, are doing something beautiful. Work is an act of worship that is pleasing to God. But more than that, this book shows how our daily work contributes to human and creational flourishing – what Jesus called the kingdom of God. Of course, there are problems, and Mark Greene helps us to navigate the complex reality of today’s workplace; he has been there. In the work we do, people of faith rub brains and brawn with people who do not know how beautiful is the Good News of Jesus and the kingdom. And this practical, biblically founded and richly story-formed book is the best I have read on how we can be ambassadors for Christ and agents of the kingdom of God in the workplace. An empowering gift it certainly is.
–Dr R. Paul Stevens  Professor Emeritus, Marketplace Theology, Regent College, Vancouver; BC    Chairman, Institute for Marketplace Transformation; Author of Work Matters and Taking Your Soul to Work

The first time I read Thank God it’s Monday years ago, it totally revolutionized my thinking, my leading and my preaching. With this latest version, I find myself even more inspired, encouraged and challenged that it’s not just important, but it’s also utterly possible, to see the kingdom of God break out in the workplace. In fact, it’s happening! All over the place. Through normal people who simply make themselves available to God. With his wonderful wit, lashings of scripture, pacey storytelling and gentle – but necessary – prodding, Mark has once again delivered a book which envisions and equips us to live for Jesus wherever he places us. Read it! Pray it! Do it! And let’s see all Heaven break loose … –Matt Summerfield  Senior Pastor, Zeo Church


Work: It’s Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation Daneil M. Doriani (Presbyterian & Reformed) $15.99  You may know enough about us to know that our earliest visions for relating faith to work, to seeing our jobs as connected to the great “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1, of developing a Christian perspective on work and labor, came from our years ago working for the campus ministry called the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) on the committee coming up with the ideas for the very first collegiate Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh. (The Jubilee conference, held annually and now in its fourth decade, remains close to that whole-life vision of Christ-centered cultural transformation and relating faith to work, inviting 4000 college students to grapple with the biggest questions about the Biblical story as they relate to their majors and vocations. You should come to Pittsburgh in February; we will, of course, be selling books there. Or, at least, come to the one-day pre-conference for work-world adults, Jubilee Professional.)

I mention this because the author of this fine, no-nonsense, theologically solid (and yet very interesting) book was also once on staff with the CCO. Doriani has had other jobs too — the book tells us he’s been a security guard, construction laborer, freight handler, tennis coach and tour guide. He knows a bit about the hardships of work, the ugly stuff. He has pastored churches and has served as a faculty member of colleges, most notably, at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, where he is now the vice president of strategic academic projects (and professor of theology.)  My good friend Steve Garber, author of the must-read Visions of Vocation, has done some teaching at Covenant about how to prepare future pastors to equip their future congregants for work-place calls and vocations in the work-world. Not many seminaries have stepped up to make this a clear part of their ministerial formation, and Garber and Doriani have been part of that. Thanks be to God!

And so, Dan asks, “How does work fit into a meaningful, God-honoring life?” Dan has been thinking about this a long time — in a way, his publisher notes, it was twenty years in the making — and he has conducted hundreds of interviews with people about their faith, their work, what it means to be true to their craft, how to see work as a way to serve the common good, and more. This really is a very good resource to deepen your thinking about this topic.

Notice these rave reviews:

PRE-ORDER  forthcoming due September 2019  Church for Monday: Equipping Believers for Mission at Work Dr. Svetlana Papazov (Brookstone Publishing Group) $14.99 This is another book that is mostly aimed at church leaders to help them develop a passion and the skill sets necessary in order to equip congregants to see their workplace as a missional context. Svetlana is a dynamic pastor and connected with our friends at Made to Flourish, and she and her church are highly regarded. She is energetic and entrepreneurial. She is Spirit-led, evangelical, and innovative about the church’s impact in the public sphere; her small business startup background has made her particularly sensitive to and insightful about issues of marketplace ministry.

Church for Monday will be out soon and we’d be delighted to send you one. Just order at the link below.

Here is what the publisher says about this dynamic book:

Church for Monday is a call to action with a proven plan to unite worship on Sunday to mission on Monday. It offers the local church a practical re-tooling to equip believers for the workweek on Monday, regain relevance in the lives of the lapsed and non-Christians, and re-establish the Church’s witness in the public arena. Dr. Svetlana Papazov shows that churches equipping for Monday seek sustainable ways to grow spiritually, socially, and economically. This is the gospel for a new generation; it is the how-to churches have been looking for.

Papazov (along with her husband, and small, multi-ethnic team) planted their Assembly of God congregation several years ago. Real Life Church, as it is known, is “an entrepreneurial church with a heart for de-churched people and for bridging the sacred and secular divide.  The entrepreneurial church is not a “how” church, but a “why” church. It’s not about the methodology, but about the Christology.”

Now that’s a church, I bet, that celebrates Labor Day.

All books mentioned are 20% OFF.  The link below easily takes you to our secure order form page where you can enter credit card information (or ask us to send you a bill.) 


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12 New books on small, indie, boutique presses or that are self-published. Three cheers to these bold authors and 20% off.

Thanks to those who pre-ordered some of the great forthcoming books we highlighted in the last BookNotes. As I wrote to many of you, it really does give us hope when folks buy books; it’s a reminder that there are those who want to learn, to grow, to deepen their discipleship, to serve God more fruitfully. Who still care about the printed page and about bookstores. Who look to us to help them out. That you appreciate our curation and order from our small town, independent, bricks-and-mortar  family business is really appreciated. It matters to us a lot.

Those books were written by authors you most likely have heard of (and if you’ve read BookNotes before, I’m quite sure you have!) Some of the books are eagerly awaited; they’ve got that buzz going on. Sometimes, though, I want to give a quick shout-out to some authors you mostly haven’t heard of, or, in some cases, a well-known author who releases a new book that is published by a small or indie press that you may not know about.

We get unsolicited manuscripts and samples of self-published books all the time. I’m sorry to say that many are pretty poorly done. Even the covers and font and page design illustrate that they are sub-par. As they say down south, “Bless their hearts” for trying. Some are fine, but just very personal, or for a niche interest and not the sort of thing we can in good conscious recommend very widely.

Sometimes, though, there are small press or self-published titles that are really good, well crafted by thoughtful authors, books that we think we should amplify a bit. Here, then, are twelve new indie/self-published works we want to tell you about.

We show the regular retail price, but all are 20% OFF; we will deduct the discount for you.  You can easily order them by using our secure order form page by clicking the link at the end of the column.

Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart Karl Forehand (Quoir) $19.99 Karl is a new friend, a friend of some other friends, and a former pastor who now attends Brian Zahnd’s church in Missouri. Forehand’s story is gently told and it is, I think, a fairly common one, especially these days. He has shifted from a more legalistic and strict conservative faith to a more open and generous one. Memoirs of how folks have shifted in their faith journey are not uncommon and are often moving – think of Rachel Held Evans or Pete Enns, just for instance – and in a way, this is one of those sorts of stories of a traditionalist evangelical has refreshed his understanding of God.

Here’s what makes this different: Karl offers here less a diatribe against wrong-headed fundamentalism and rather tells a story of his life as a father. As a dad of adult children that I admire, I liked this a lot. In a quiet, non-nonsense way he wears his heart on his sleeve, telling how he raised his children (and how he and his wife are loving their grandchildren.) It may have been from Brian McLaren where I first heard this analogy, but Karl notes that surely God (who Jesus tells us to call Father and to relate to as a caring parents) is a better parent than we are. We forgive our kids when they screw up, we are patient, we try to understand their issues, we don’t make them grovel. Good parents are a signal of transcendence, as they say, a pointer, in some ways, to the goodness of God’s holy, royal, cosmic Parenthood. It is a commonplace that we form our view of God from our earthly parents. There are books that even explore that, how we think about our own parents and how (sometimes) that has given us bad views of God. I don’t think I know of any book like this, that explores a change in one’s view of God by pondering one’s own parenting.

Kudos to Karl Forehand for his own work as a leadership coach and faithful follower of Jesus. Thanks for sharing in plain prose how as a dad you see your family, your parenting, your faith. As Brian Zahnd says of the book “I call this the water to wine journey. Karl’s journey has not been without pain, but it has been beautiful.”  Indeed.

Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care edited by David Paul Warners & Matthew Kuperus Heun (Calvin College Press) $17.99 We stock everything of this small college press (including their marvelous, brief paperbacks in their “Calvin Shorts” series.) This is a major new work and might have been well-served by being shopped around to be released on a major, prestigious publisher because Beyond Stewardship is brilliant in its overall vision and wonderful in how it has offered so many interesting, astute, and vitally important contributions to the conversations about faith and what some call creation-care. This fascinating and generative book deserves a more careful review and I hope to do that, soon.

Here’s the basic gist: Beyond Stewardship is a collection of about 15 chapters offered by a wonderful crew of interdisciplinary scholars who invite us to think whether “stewardship” is the best way to describe humankind’s relationship with the other-than-human creation. For decades, theologians (especially those within the evangelical tradition who want to be intentionally shaped by the Bible) have drawn on the deep and rich notion of being house-holders, care-takers, managers and vice-regents of God’s good but fallen world. Stewardship, we often say, is more than giving money to church (as it has woefully been reduced to within the common church-goer’s imagination.) It is caring for resources and managing them well.

It doesn’t take too much thought or observation to realize the importance of asking if this is actually the best way to talk about what Genesis calls oikonomia, the home-making calling to tend and keep the economy of the garden. And it doesn’t take too much thought or consideration to see that it may not be fruitful to think of ourselves as “over” the other creatures, distant from, “using” them. This fine book from Calvin College Press is a tremendous and important conversation about that question.

Here are three quick things that might inspire you to order this from us. First, I’m happy to say that one of the authors in this book is one of our very best friends, Gail Gunst Heffner, who has for years, with other colleagues and students at Calvin College (now University) have been painstakingly and lovingly working to restore a deteriorating stream in their Grand Rapids area watershed. The “Plaster Creek Stewards” have gotten some national attention and their deep involvement helping the college use its resources to serve the community has helped many of them, Gail included, to increasingly doubt the ultimate usefulness of the “stewardship” model. (Gail, by the way, has a chapter in Beyond Stewardship on what is often called environmental racism and it is clear, succinct, tender, and prophetic.) Gail used to work for the Pittsburgh-based campus ministry organization. the CCO, and is truly beloved by so many. So – friends and alum of CCO and others who appreciate Gail’s friendship and work and witness – you should pick this up.

Secondly, Gail isn’t the only person in this book we admire. Steven Bouma-Prediger (who teaches at Hope College and has a forthcoming book, releasing in January 2020 called Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic) has a lovely piece I adored, making the overt case why we should “move from stewardship to earthkeeping.” James R. Skillen (son of the political scientist and neo-Calvinist author) uses his expertise in geology to get at the topic in light of the Biblical teaching of the Kingdom of God. There are other Calvin profs who have made vital contributions – English professor and wondrous writer Debra Rienstra has a chapter called “What’s That? Naming, Knowing, Delighting, Caring, Suffering” that is a great essay helping us to reorient our imagination and find hopeful ways forward. The piece “From Stewardship to Place-making and Place-Keeping” resonated with me a lot. Editor David Paul Warner’s has a beautiful chapter called “Walking Through a World of Gifts.”

There’s so much in here. There is an art piece, a delightful student contribution, excellent discussion questions and other creative touches. Contributors include the likes of Aminah Al-Attas Bradford, an ordained CRC minister and a PhD candidate at Duke; she is theologian who knows her way around the sciences, a Barth and microbial scholar. Matthew Halteman has written on our relationship with animals and co-editor Matthew Kuperus Heun is a professor of engineering. One author is a city and regional planner, another teaches economics. One is climate change activist, another tells of outdoor educational experiences. All of these involved scholars are deeply committed to notions of sustainability and asking big questions about a faithful worldview and how to live into God’s ways in God’s world.

I will explain more in a future review, but there is a great afterword by the great Loren Wilkinson whose book Earthkeeping was the first book (in the late 70s) produced through the Calvin Center on Christian Scholarship. They grappled with the word stewardship in those years and his story (shared briefly, co-authored by Cal DeWitt and Eugene Dykema) offers a very nice historical touch. For those who have followed this movement over the years, is nearly worth the price of the book.

Prophetic Whirlwind: Uncovering the Black Biblical Destiny Onleilove Chika Alston (Voices Publishing) $24.99  Again, every now and then we are just delighted to find a vibrant writer and spokesperson who is doing extraordinary work but whose book is not widely known outside of their own niche circles.

We have heard of Onleilove (who holds both an M.Div and MSW degrees) since she was an active student leader at Penn State, a scholar in New York City, an activist in Baltimore, and a contributed editor to Sojourners. (In fact, she had a much-cited cover story on “King Coal” and other Appalachian struggles. Kudos to Leroy and Donna Barber for re-issuing her Prophetic Whirlwind book through their recent Voices Project.

Prophetic Whirlwind is a whirlwind tour through a lot of content, deftly combining historical research and Bible study, African American studies scholarship and African stories. She has traveled all around the world (Scotland! Switzerland!) lecturing on her topic about the African roots of the Bible (and the Hebraic culture preserved in Africa!) Is the Bible an African book? Are some of the indigenous cultures of black people really the social context of some of the Bible? Why have many missed the allusions to many African and black-skinned people and cultures in the Scriptures? Who and where are the “lost tribes” of Israel? Why do many African tribes seem to have Hebraic connections?

She was asked to come to West Africa by the African Hebrew leaders there and has done research in Ghana, Togo, Nigeria. This is mind-blowing and fascinating stuff, and while not the first book exploring this “white washing” of the Bible, it is certainly one of the best.

It is a unique book, even within Afro-centric Biblical studies and you should know about it. The author worships with Beth-El The House of Yahweh, a 65-year old Messianic Hebrew congregation in the South Bronx.

A Restless Age: How Saint Augustine Helps You Make Sense of Your Twenties Austin Gohn (with a foreword by Wesley Hill) (GCD Books) $12.99  As many are waiting on the forthcoming work by Jamie Smith (On the Road with Saint Augustine) might I suggest this as an excellent companion volume. In fact, whether you are attracted to Smith’s heady study or not, A Restless Age is the best introduction to Augustine’s Confessions I have yet seen. Everybody knows that Confessions (for any number of reasons) is an important classic in the Western canon and a must-read for anyone wanting to be fluent in the standards of ancient Christian books.

We met this young pastor, Austin Gohn, at the Pittsburgh Jubilee conference a few years ago when he was in the research stage for this book; he was fired up and confident and a year later, the book was in production.  What a delight to have seen it develop, to come to know Austin just a bit, to realize that he is a rare leader – a lively evangelical working with teens and young adults who has read deeply and widely. And he gets exactly how Augustine’s own restlessness is similar to the postmodern angst and restlessness of emerging adults in these days. This book is a great introduction to the great third century frat boy turned seeker turned disciple of Jesus who became a Bishop from Northern African.

Here is what I want to be clear about: A Restless Age is a book for anyone even though Gohn wisely guides young adults through this relevant text, showing how Confessions can be useful for such young-ish readers. But I think it is equally helpful for any of us who need some help realizing why Augustine is important. It is more than a “Cliff Notes” summary, although it might serve that useful function for someone who has no idea what to expect from reading Confessions. Gohn even has a fabulous appendix which is a playful and candid reader’s guide, inviting beginners to even skip certain parts of the tome (the first time through, at least) telling us what to look for and what to watch out for. Gohn recommends, by the way, the lovely, lively translation by Sarah Ruden who has a great endorsing blurb on the back. Nice!

So, if you are new to Augustine no matter your age, you will enjoy A Restless Age. If you are in your late teens or a twenty-something, by all means, realize this book is for you. And if you care about young adults, are a youth leader or college minister or campus pastor/chaplain, or parent of a millennial, you really should read this book. It’s from a small, classy publisher you may not have heard of. We’re thrilled to be able to let folks know about it.

As Wes Hill writes in his generous introduction,

Although it’s been almost a decade since I exited my twenties, I still recall with mingled happiness and grief my trip through those trying, stretching, enlivening years. I started to question the certainties of my childhood faith. I fell in love for the first time and lost my best friend. I moved away from home and tried to forge a new identity. Through it all, I never lost my hunger to fine God – or to be found by Him. I wish I had had A Restless Age to read during those years, not only for its witty diagnoses of twentysomething angst and its “Oh that’s so true!” insights into what makes young adults tick but also for its generous, compelling introduction to a saint who could have helped me hold on to faith and maybe even thrive.

Listen to our friend Erica Young Reitz, who wrote the fabulous After College:

One of life’s biggest struggles for twentysomethings – for most of us – is making time for self-reflection in the midst of our hurried, on-to-the-next-thing lives. We’re running on the outside and restless on the inside == just like Saint Augustine. With witty metaphors and a deep understanding of our cultural moment, Austin Gohn brings this ancient saint into our present struggles. A Restless Age normalizes our angst, but — most importantly – offers a way out of it.

The Just and Loving Gaze of God With Us: Paul’s Apocalyptic Political Theology Henry Walter Spaulding III (Wipf & Stock) $36.00  Hank has become a good friend and a great customer of ours, even stopping by the store (on his way to and fro from, oh, say, stuff like a Princeton Barth conference where he was presenting.) Young, casual, widely read, a passionate teacher and principled supporter of indie booksellers like us – what’s not to like? Well, I have to admit, I’m inclined to promote books by authors who support us (it’s a bit annoying when folks expect us to sell their book, even if they’ve never darkened our door or sent us as much as a an email and push people to Amazon regularly on their own social media. Really?) But Hank showed up here seeking books perhaps not even knowing we had his book in our cluttered and jam-packed New Testament section. With blurbs on the back from the likes of William Cavanaugh and citing many other “ethical” readings of Pauline politics I realized quickly that The Just and Loving Gaze is a serious and important contribution to New Testament studies and contemporary discipleship. Now that we’ve met him, we’re even more thrilled to tell you about it and to commend it to you.

I can’t say for sure who should buy a book like this; it is serious, academic (most likely a PhD dissertation made more user-friendly for a wider audience) but yet would appeal to those who have read, say, Roman’s Disarmed or even the good work of Michael Gorman, who he esteems. In this work, Spaulding quotes womanist ethicist Emily Townes and, naturally, political exegetes like Neil Elliott. He does the critique of modernity a la Foucault and Walter Benjamin. This maybe leads him to Oliver O’Donovan. From his time at Duke he became friends with race scholars Willie Jennings and J. Kameron Carter and knows Amy Laura Hall. He draws on Yoder a bit, which I suspect he got from Hauerwas, and thanks Richard Hays. He loves Barth’s epistle to the Romans and is a Wesleyan. So there ya go.

And he is a clear writer; a good teacher who cares about the gospel and its implications for the hyper-modern world.

As Philip Ziegler (of the University of Aberdeen) says:

Provoked by recent philosophical interest in the Apostle Paul, Spaulding here pushes back into Paul’s inalienably theological politics in pursuit of an understanding of Christian political responsibility today. The resulting theological, biblical, and philosophical conversation that ensues is rich and engaging, drawing together a range of voices (when did Wesley, Kasemann, Arendt, and Iris Murdoch last meet one another on the pages of a book!) It offers a compelling vision of an inhabitable Pauline politics of both the already and the not yet.

The Dream: A Novel  Deborah Arlene (Christian Faith Publishing) $16.95  If you visit our Hearts & Minds Facebook group you might find a handful of folks offering suggestions and reviews. I invited Deborah to tell us there just a bit about her new novel in part because – whether it’s high quality, literary literature or just an inspiring, earnest story nicely told – some books deserve to be known. And there’s a bit of backstory about The Dream, and it is so frustrating. Let me explain. First, you should know that it is a story that has an anti-abortion message, or, I should say, a truly pro-life one, as the tender story embraces the controversial and painful topic of abortion by imagining the tale of a woman who is helped by good folks at a Christian crisis pregnancy center. As one who has been involved with a couple such centers, I am happy to know there is a novel that captures the life-changing stories that the care-givers in those places hear and help facilitate day in and day out. Carrying a pregnancy to term when the situation is complicated is emotionally hard, and the support these sorts of places give is often extraordinary. The hardships of an unexpected (and, at first, perhaps unwanted) pregnancy can be made less so with a little bit of lovin’ care. This shouldn’t be controversial, and all sides of the policy and legal debates should affirm that helping women with her choice to carry a crisis pregnancy is a good thing.

Alas, Deborah told me that for some odd reason, Twitter cancelled all her followers. They somehow though her simple story was too controversial for even the wild digital West of social media. Are you kidding me? She rebuilt a bunch of followers and tried again to communicate with them about her new novel and – yep – got oddly banished again. I see this as an inexplicable affront to liberal values like freedom of speech and freedom of the arts, but can’t say much more since I don’t understand why Twitter would ban an innocuous, inspiring story about evangelical women helping promote their pro-life views by actually helping another woman. Maybe they realize that a simple story can be more subversive than we think: maybe various sides of this issue might see things a bit differently by engaging a tale like this that is honest about the twists and turns of those involved in these kinds of complex decisions. Even if the big guns try to silence her, we’re happy to stock this new novel by a central Pennsylvania writer.

A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith Bradley Jersak (CWR Press) $19.99 I’m really excited to tell you about this small press release even though I don’t even know what CWR Press is; its related to CWR Magazine, which is some Jesusy Canuck ‘zine that I also don’t know much about. But I love this author! We’ve stocked other books by this ambitious thinker and Dean of the Masters of Ministry program at St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, Canada. We stock his serious academic tomes like Her Gates Will Never Be Shut about “Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem” to the lovely, thoughtfully done children’s picture book with sophisticated text, Jesus Showed Us! This new one, A More Christlike Way is a sequel to his A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel. In each case, Jersak is doing what other thinkers are also helping us with (I think of Brian Zahnd and his Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God) in raising up a very high Christology and insisting that however we know God, think about the Old Testament, o define the gospel itself, it has to be done through the lens of Jesus the Christ, the second person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh. It is hard to argue with that, it seems to me, and his pressing Christ-like and Christ-commanded compassion to its logical implications (a non-violent understanding of the atonement, a Christ-like mercy in thinking about eternity, a Kingdom-centered gospel where Christ is lifted up and actually followed, and the like) is urgent, vital, important. Theologians will debate all of this, I’m sure, but Jersak here sets forth, as Zahnd puts it, “a vision for following Jesus that is in keeping with the kind of faith that first turned the world upside down two thousand years ago.”

The endorsements on the back of A More Christlike Way come from a wide variety of readers – Wendy Gritter, who wrote Generous Spaciousness, Jim Forest, the Orthodox peacemaker (and old friend of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day) and Father Kenneth Tanner (an evangelically-minded Anglican) who says that “Jersak is here your reliable Sherpa, a guide and fellow pilgrim…”

By the way, we have his other small-sized, brand new, independently published release, In: Incarnation & Inclusion, Abba & Lamb (St. Macrina Press; $18.95.) Yes!

Calling Mother: Out of Darkness into Light Cathleen Cody Lauer (self published) $19.95 This wondrous book is a small, quiet gem, wonderfully crafted and creatively written. It is nearly a small art book – more than a poet’s chapbook – but glorious in that same, artful way; the paper quality is good and there are touches of color throughout. To have it in your hand is to realize you are experiencing something very special, owning a book that but for serendipity you may not otherwise even know about, and you will be glad. Perhaps offering an outright “thanks be to God” or a Nunc Dimittis. How did we even learn of this?

Cathleen has long been a supporter of our store and her husband, Jonathan, is a dear pal – he spent most of his professional career laboring as a librarian at Messiah College near us in central Pennsylvania. (And on occasion, teaching legendary courses on Bob Dylan.) Cathleen took up writing a decade or more ago and started to experiment with her craft – journals, memories, essays, poems, prayers, and more. About the same time she was learning to be a spiritual director, increasingly entering that world of ecumenical spirituality and contemplative reflections. And she wanted to write.

As she tells us in the beginning of Calling Mother she started using her phone calls with her colorful, elderly mother as a catalyst, a holy nudge, to pick up her pen. This new powerful collection of short essays and ruminations is the result.

I like very much that she utilized the extraordinary gifts of small bookmaker and graphic designer Kathy Hettinga to do the artful design work for Calling Mother. Hettinga has a brief afterward explaining some of the historically inspired doo-dads (okay, that’s not the word for these shapes that adorn the pages – they are actually Bodoni Ornaments from 1798 and the more modern (1997) Hypnopaedia. These touches – along with some exceptionally well-selected handwriting pages reproduced from Cathleen’s grandmother! – make this a delight to behold.

With the passing of my own mother a few weeks ago, I am sadder than I think I expected to be. I’m not sure why I need to write this to you other than to say that his poignant book is, as I’ve noted, a set of memories and creative writing pieces inspired by real conversation the author had with her aging mother and it has come to mean a lot to me, now. A few of the essays capture, in fact, good talks they had not long before Cecelia died. There is stuff here about calling home, about calling mom and it moves me just thinking about this holy ritual. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Although the lovely prose (and a few poems and prayers) about these calls will surely be appreciated and pondered by many readers – especially those of us with aging parents, or those of us interested in our parent’s own younger lives – it really is a mother/daughter book. It is about their relationship, more so, their conversations and, as one reviewer put it, the holy silences in the spaces.

Do you wonder what mindful conversations are really like? Would you like to deepen the habits of heart that allow you to ponder good talks with loved ones? Do you wish for deeper relationships with your own parents? This great little book documents an authentic relationship and is a beautiful artifact of those conversations. And the holy spaces. We are so pleased to commend it to you. Perhaps you might even give it to your own mother (or daughter.)

The Theopolitan Vision Peter J. Leithart (Theopolis Books/Athanasius Press) $12.95  Do you know Peter Leithart and his fascinating, Birmingham-based “Theopolis Institute”? He invites men and women into an intense, residential Fellows program relating, as they put it, “Bible, liturgy and culture.” Doc Leithart is colorful, undeniably brilliant, liturgically-minded, Reformed. You many know of his serious Bible commentaries, his little studies of Jane Austen, or his little book Shining Glory on the Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life which he relates to the book of Job. He’s done Between Babel and the Beast (on “America and Empires in Biblical Perspective”) and a curious study called Defending Constantine: The Twilight of Empire and the Dawn of Christendom that I suspect I don’t adequately understand. Leithart has written on Mercersburg theology and did a fabulous book called Solomon Among the Postmoderns. I liked this Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience. He did a big, scholarly book on the history and experience of gratitude published in hardback by Baylor University Press. And that’s not even all of it. Despite this prodigious, thoughtful output, he’s started this recent educational/formational ministry and this new little book is a bit of a manifesto.

Here is how his publisher describes the small book, the first in a handful of succinct tracts about the vision for the Institute. It’s a bit generic, I suppose, but if you know Dr. Leithart, you know the small The Theopolitan Vision is anything but generic and certainly spicy enough to stimulate even the hardest of hearts.

As the modern world crumbles, Christians scramble for answers. The solution is the Christian church, an outpost of the heavenly city among the cities of men. The author explains what the church is, and how the Spirit empowers the church’s world-transforming mission through Word and worship, and Scripture and liturgy. It shows how the church can be a city of light in a dark age.

Godly Character(s): Insights for Spiritual Passion from the Lives of 8 Women in the Bible Lisa Smith (Square Halo Books) $16.99  How can I offer a list of rare books by indie publishers and not mention our friends at the classy boutique publisher out of Lancaster, PA, called, curiously, Square Halo Books? We love this little outfit and appreciate their eager collaboration with us. (They are the ones who surprised us with a book on our bookstore’s 35th anniversary, created with chapters by friends and respected scholars, called A Book for Hearts & Minds: What to Read and Why.) You may know they do widely respected books on faith and the arts, on popular culture (like BIgger on the Inside, their book on Doctor Who) and books that teach us how to best “lean in” to and faithfully engage our contemporary world. (See, for instance, the fabulous, entertaining and deeply wise Good Posture: Engaging Current Culture with Ancient Faith by Square Halo booster and pal, Tom Becker of the Lancaster Row House Forums. And, okay, I’ll say it — my own little book, the quite handsome and meaty Serious Dreams: Big Ideas for the Rest of Your Life.) We stock all the books that Square Halo publishes and have reviewed all of their two dozen or so books here at BookNotes. They are top-shelf!

Their most recent release is Godly Character(s) and I did indeed give it a nice mention when it arrived several months back. Alas, it is so handsomely done, so winsome and smart, so engagingly written, that it surely deserves another shout-out here. Lisa Smith is a college literature professor so she is a good writer, creative and eloquent and colorful and vivid. She tells about Bible characters and relates them wonderful to our contemporary culture. She mixes references from acclaimed literature and pop culture, relating Word to world in a way that is gospel-clear and yet beautifully relevant. To be sure, it is about gaining a passion for habits of godliness and it is about how God’s grace can transform us from the inside out. This is the point – helping us all be shaped in Christ-likeness in these weird times. That she does it through a good study of women In the Bible is nice – and not just for women readers or ladies Bible studies.

The book is rich and engaging, so this blurb doesn’t quite capture it all, but here is how they explain their final hopes for it:

Igniting spiritual passion doesn’t have to be a mysterious process. By conforming our character to God’s design, we can awaken in our hearts a sincere love for him. That rekindled affection can drive us to deeper intimacy with God and lead to greater joy in our daily lives.

With Us: Everyday Evidence of God’s Presence Kelly Willie (XulonElite) $15.99  When this inspiring, delightful book first came out, I was eager to read it and happy to promote it. It is about a topic we think folks find helpful — the spirituality of the ordinary, so to speak — and also because it was nicely written, sensible, interesting, with some great stories and illustrations of her spiritual discoveries. One reviewer on the back cover said “With Us is a wakeup call for the soul that has been lulled to sleep by the inattentiveness to God’s presence every day.”

Ms Willie is a contemporary worship pastor at the large Grace Church just south of us in Shrewsbury PA and is a singer-songwriter with some Gospel Music Association connections Nashville. Maybe because she is an artist she has a particularly keen sense of what it means to see God’s creative hand as we “number our days” day by day.

We’ve made big lists of books about the spirituality of the mundane and how to practice the presence of God in ordinary stuff. From the best-selling, incredibly interesting and wise Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren to the beautiful A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr to the latest by popular woman’s writer Shannan Martin, The Ministry of Ordinary Places: Waking Up to God’s Goodness Around You there are lots of books that help us expect to sense God’s presence in the commonplaces of life.

Yet, although With Us is somewhat like those sorts of books, celebrating God’s sometimes quiet intrusion into our daily lives, this one has a certain upbeat verve to it that was captivating for me, making it a real encouragement. Other authors give you tools and techniques to move towards mindfulness or a centered attentiveness to the love and presence of God. This book tells you about how the author herself discovered that, coming to know and trust God more deeply, day by day. And what discoveries she has had!

Kelly Willie has survived near death experiences and (maybe surprisingly?) is still, obviously a fun and funny person who likes to laugh. She has seen some hard stuff, but still wants to follow Jesus. She trusts the Divine pointers she’s discerned and followed the glimpses of His glory in a way that she really, truly believes that God is pursuing us and that if we are open, we, too, can discern these “fingerprints that are evident everywhere.”

With Us has 30 chapters, each rooted around an episode that she brings to life through her splendid storytelling. Some of her exploits are hilarious, some quite serious, most really down-to-Earth. Given that she is a worship leader at an evangelical mega-church, I assumed With Us would be overly pious with lots of charismatic lingo. Of course, there is some of that. And the girl can preach!  But I was delighted at how down to earth and real she was. Kelly explores a theme in each chapter — but it isn’t too didactic or self-evident, as the insights unfold through the story. The stories are simply rendered and captivating, as she introduces us to a cast of characters, from a woman who wore pearls with her flannel and camo to the tender, awful story of the death of a child, to “cliff jumping” with her hubby. Or a chapter about our legendary friends at the local Brown’s Orchard where she plays the role of Norm from Cheers. There is plenty of Bible references here and there are reflection questions inviting us to go a bit deeper in our own faith journey. With Us is a nice book by a local evangelical leader and we are happy to tell you about it.

A Theology of the Ordinary Julie Canlis (Godspeed Press) $12.99 I mentioned above our fascination with books about ordinary life, about the spirituality of the mundane, about practicing God’s presence in the quotidian of daily life. There are remarkable books about this, and many are anecdotal or experiential or in the genre of spirituality, I suppose. But this, this is a bit different and nothing short of brilliant. Quiet, but brilliant. A Theology of the Ordinary is less a spiritually or reflection and more a theology; not academic, but still. It is written by a woman with a PhD in theology who has written a stunning, academic book on John Calvin (Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension) but the impetus for the writing of this is part of the story. And it’s a great story.

Maybe you have heard of Godspeed which is a set of short films about an energetic, world-changing, zealous, young (very American) pastor who went to Scotland and learned to settle down, move slow, care for his people and place, become known — he learned to take up such calm and focused ministry not (only) by reading Eugene Peterson or the novel Love Big Be Well or Wendell Berry, but by walking alongside a sane, caring, parish pastor. Together with his wife — the aforementioned Julie Canlis — Matt was transformed to a new identity and pace of life and different sorts of affections. We stock the seven-week study guide to Godspeed, by the way, and would love to talk more about it.

But here, now, I want you to know of this precious small press (they’ve just done the short films, the study guide, and, yep, A Theology of the Ordinary. The book is handsomely made, classy, even though it is a thin, mass market size. The book came from three lectures she gave (at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA) after returning to the States after their experience in the UK and in those lectures she explored a Trinitarian theology to undergird the notion that our ordinary lives in God’s real world is, truly, the only place we have to see God work. Our Christian growth is, literally, down to Earth and does not have to be extraordinary.

Here’s how they tell the story:

Upon returning home to America, Julie Canlis was struck by the emphasis within Christian circles on being ‘extraordinary’ or ‘radical’ or ‘passionate’ for God. But what about the goodness (and challenge) of living our ‘normal’ lives for God? The joys and challenges of living an ordinary life in the presence of God gave rise to this little book, and is the lived theology behind what Godspeed is about

With an easy, conversational style, she writes about the blessing of the Father on ordinary life and creation and the inhabitation of the Son in ordinary life as the rule, not exception, for redemption and the ways the Spirit works in our ordinary lives to bring us into the new creation.

With each section, she also examines a ‘cultural temptation’ that threatens to undermine our ability to offer God our ordinary lives. The questions at the end of each chapter make this a fabulous book for small groups and book clubs. What a shame most readers — on the lookout for substantial, classy, thoughtful, approachable books — don’t know about it. You’re welcome.

Again, we noted the regular retail price. We’ll gladly deduct a 20% off for you on any orders. Just use the link to our bookstore order form page and tell us what you want.  Thanks for shopping small, supporting indie presses, and giving lesser known authors a chance.


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SEVEN FORTHCOMING BOOKS YOU CAN PRE-ORDER NOW: books by Rachael Denhollander, David Kinnaman, Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson, Os Guinness, Mae Cannon, James K.A. Smith, and Diana Butler Bass

Thanks for your patience, friends, as we’ve been a bit uneven with the BookNotes schedule this past month. With Beth’s head injury and some serious aches and pains, the death of my mom, and some other heartbreaking stuff, we’re still reeling. Yet, we find great solace and hope every time we get an order for a good book or two or three.

That people still read, that people of faith want to think and understand our glorious, broken world, that our bookstore staff and good customers carry on with vigor in these peculiar times says a lot. We rejoice that authors and artists do that thing that legendary sports writer Red Smith mentioned — just open a vein and let it bleed — and that publishers release their good prose and that customers actually want to buy real books from real bookstores. We thank you, gentle readers.

Which brings me to this: here are some highly anticipated, eagerly awaited, forthcoming books that you can PRE-ORDER from us now. We won’t run your credit card until the day we ship them out, of course, but you can fill out the order form page and get a 20% discount.

This stuff gives me hope and keeps us going.

(Of course you can pre-order anything from just — just tell us what you want. There are so many other great titles coming that it was difficult to suggest just these seven. We think this handful deserves advanced attention and with which we have an affinity, so wanted to suggest you get them —  and get them from us. Again, you can order anything, any time. We’re eager to serve. Tell us how we can help.)

Did I mention these aren’t out yet? But that you can PRE-ORDER them now at the link below? Here’s a thing: for several of these, we will have them (as an independent, bricks and mortar store) before the famous faceless behemoth. Unless they have an official release date where we’re not allowed to sell them early, we suspect we’ll have these as early as almost anybody. And on sale.

Allow us to introduce you to a few forthcoming books. A few of these we’ve read already in advanced manuscript editions. What fun.

Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon David Kinnaman & Mark Matlock (Baker) $21.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $17.59. For some in our audience, this will be a very important book as they have already read what might be seen as the first two in a trilogy co-authored by David Kinnaman. Whether you’ve read them or not, you most likely have heard of the Barna research and the books that came out about young adults who are not Christians and their views of the church (unChristian) or who have left the church of their youth (You Lost Me.) Both of those important books showed that churches of all sorts have a major problem in that many older teens and 20-something think the church is unhelpful and the gospel is irrelevant (or worse.) Those two books explain, in some detail, what the data suggests about how we in the churches have failed our young adults. In a nutshell, one might say those books diagnose the problem and feature (as they should) what we’re doing wrong.

This long-awaited third one in this series, Faith for Exiles, however, offers some practical (if at times visionary) notions based on the latest Barna studies about churches and ministries that have retained their young adults or ministries; Faith for Exiles examines programs and practices that have been successful and fruitful in effective ministry with that age group. For those that want guidance, ideas, suggestions, best practices, and solid stuff that works in doing ministry with young adults, Faith for Exiles is a must-read.

Further, because it spends some time in fascinating descriptions of our “digital Babylon” culture and what it means to live as exiles, Faith for Exiles is not just how to offer a faith that resonates with and equips the rising generation of emerging adults to have lasting faith, it is, I’d say, a book for rising adults, younger folks, college age students, those in their twenties or thirties who may wonder how to keep on keeping on.

Kinnaman’s co-author for this forthcoming volume is Mark Matlock who is the former Executive Director for Youth Specialities; as such, he’s written bunches of books for and about youth ministry and it is good to see him with this passion for David’s work in following up our youth who are often active in church camps or youth fellowships or teen ministries and mission trips and such, only to drift away in their college years. Together, Kinnaman and Matlock are quite a pair and this research is something all of us should know. It’s packed with stories, is nicely written, and loaded with good ideas. I highly recommend this book.

For what it’s worth — no, I’m not going to spoil it by trying to summarize all of it — they’ve documented five things that any viable young adult ministry or college-age outreach should include. Frankly, these are things that interest me, too, and if a church or ministry doesn’t do this stuff, it isn’t going to capture the imaginations of many of us (regardless of our age or generational cohort.) They share the five insights as key practices. For instance, one great chapter talks about holding out a vision for work and vocation so the practice is offered as “To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.”  Another practice is spelled out like this: “When isolation and mistrust are the norm, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships.” Each practice counters a certain bit of data that they’ve come to realize is true for this generation, and each is accompanied by stores and examples. There is great hope here, for those who dare to have this God-sized dream of doing young adult ministry in a church that feels ill-equipped and is losing that cohort, and there is great hope for those who need to, as they put it, “develop muscles of cultural discernment” and who will “curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies.”

Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon by Kinnaman and Matlock is going to be a groundbreaking, clear-headed and helpful book. That it gives a shout-out to the CCOs legendary Jubilee Conference (and a nod to a bookstore from Dallastown that shows up every year to resource book-loving young Christians at that event!) makes it that much more fun for Hearts & Minds friends. It releases September 3, 2019. Pre-order it today!

What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics Rachael Denhollander (Tyndale) $26.99  OUR SALE PRCE = $21.59.  We are proud to be able to promote this and trust that many other bookstores will champion this riveting, troubling and inspiring memoir of a Christian leader who has become an international hero. That she and her husband have gotten disgusting letters and social media harassment makes us want to try even harder to show off this fine Christian book. I has gotten some national attention already, received a starred review at Publishers Weekly and is going to be widely discussed. Beth Moore (herself a sexual abuse survivor) has recently said, “This is one of the most important books you’ll ever read.”

Here is  what is on the back cover:

“Who is going to tell these little girls that what was done to them matters? That they are seen and valued, that they are not alone and they are not unprotected?”

Rachael Denhollander’s voice was heard around the world when she spoke out to end the most shocking scandal in US gymnastics history. The first victim to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of young athletes, Rachael now reveals her full story for the first time. How did Nassar get away with it for so long? How did Rachael and the other survivors finally stop him and bring him to justice? And how can we protect the vulnerable in our own families, churches, and communities?

What Is a Girl Worth? is the inspiring true story of Rachael’s journey from an idealistic young gymnast to a strong and determined woman who found the courage to raise her voice against evil, even when she thought the world might not listen.

This deeply personal and compelling narrative shines a spotlight on the physical and emotional impact of abuse, why so many survivors are reluctant to speak out, what it means to be believed, the extraordinary power of faith and forgiveness, and how we can learn to do what’s right in the moments that matter most.

Rachael Denhollander is a serious Christian, a mom of four, an attorney, and was named as one of Time magazines 100 Most Influential People, one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year and was a recipient of ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award. She has spoken within the faith community, too, in venues as prominent as Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and upon other significant platforms seeking to help us learn to be attentive to issues of abuse and how to be agents of justice in God’s broken world. It releases to the world on September 10, 2019.

By the way, we also have the soon to be released How Much Is a Little Girl Worth? a children’s book also written by Rachel Denhollander (and illustrated by Morgan Huff) released by Tyndale Kids! ($14.99; OUR SALE PRICE = $11.99.) It’s very nicely done. More on that later…

Listen to Karen Swallow Prior:

No two sexual abuse cases are exactly alike, yet Rachael Denhollander’s story reveals what they all have in common and the part we all can play in preventing abuse, defending the vulnerable, and pursuing justice. Sexual abuse does not take place only in dark alleys late at night. It occurs in brightly lit offices and in quiet church sanctuaries, in public spaces and in the privacy of homes. If you don’t understand how this can be, please read this book. If you know too well why this is, you have even more reason to read this book. Rachael writes with moral clarity grounded in biblical truth and love. What Is a Girl Worth? is a must-read for anyone who cares about protecting precious lives from predators and pursuing justice for those for whom we were too late. — Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books and co-editor of the recent Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues 

Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $20.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $16.00. Those that know me know that one of my favorite books — and one we promote tirelessly — is The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purpose for Your Life, which was released last year in an anniversary edition, a bit more trim in size but with some editing, expansion, and a few new chapters. This book almost single-handedly help create a hunger within certain parts of North American evangelicalism to explore the long-neglected doctrine of calling, especially as it applies to ordinary folks. For too long only priests and nuns, ministers and missionaries, got to use the language of discerning and receiving a call to a particular vocation and Guinness explores how that de-formation happened, how a revitalization of Western culture depends upon a renewed focus on faith and calling, and how a “purpose driven life” is more, much more, than many have realized. Erudite and gracious, literary and beautifully informed by great stories from history (from the Greeks and Romans through to Winston Church and many modern folks, from Picasso to the great filmmaker who created Lawrence of Arabia and the curious jazzman Coltrane.) Guinness is well read and Biblically wise and The Call is simply a contemporary masterpiece, a book nearly everyone should read at least once in their lives.

Os has been a friend to me and Beth and always has much nice to say about our efforts here at the store. He’s a bookman and life-long learner and it is frightening to think where modern/classic evangelicalism would be without his thoughtful influence over these past forty years since his life-changing Dust of Death appeared in the early1970s. He has studied at Oxford and worked with Peter Berger. He has been a journalist with the BBC and helped draft the important Williamsburg Charter on religious freedom. His books have explored the nature of Christian persuasion, the idols of our postmodern times, doubt, the nature of evil, the role of the mind in Christian discipleship, the cultural captivity of the church, the threats facing American democracy and more.

Carpe Diem Redeemed is due in mid-to-late September, and is being touted as a long-awaited sequel to The Call. As you can tell from the title, it takes that popular phrase about “seizing the day” and asks fundamental and important questions (that, oddly, many of fail to ask) about what that means, and what it should mean for those committed to the Lordship of Christ. If God’s glory, pursued faithfully out of a Biblical world and life vision, is what drives us, then what do we mean by seizing the day? Why and how and what for? And as we redemptively find purpose and meaning by seizing the day, does that not demand of us a critical analysis of (and perhaps countercultural witness to) the society around us? We must, as the subtitle says, “Discern the times.” Such questions about how to discern the times and the point of a determined life, interestingly, have been wrestled with by the best thinkers down through the ages.

Carpe Diem Redeemed opens, as many of Guinness’s books do, with a few pages of remarkable quote from writers, philosophers, artists, political leaders, and historians who are as diverse as Lao Tzu, Horace, and Dante; Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh, on to Susan Sontang and Kurt Vonnegut, a tweet from Richard Branson and a line from Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. From the ancients to the existentialists, they have written about seizing the day, using our time wisely. He reminds us that the most thoughtful and often the most successful leaders consider the nature of one of the biggest mysterious that shape cultures: their view of time.

Yes, in a way, this is a Christian reflection upon a perspective on time. Those familiar with Dr. Os’s body of work will know this has long intrigued him — the modern age, after all, evolved as clocks were invented and life was increasingly measured and scheduled and Os has regularly reminded us of the remarkable consequences of these sorts of things. Guinness even wrote a book called Prophetic Untimeliness about the idol of relevance, in which he explored with great insight some basic stuff about the nature of time, generations, history, and our daily experience of the passage of time and what it means to be up to date (or not.) A chapter of that book, in fact, is reprinted in this new one, giving it a helpful continuity to his previous cultural assessments, perhaps somewhat inspired by that famous poetry in the start of Ecclesiastes 3. One chapter hits hard, playing with an old social Darwinist phrase wondering if we live in a culture of “the survival of the fastest.”  What’s with the ubiquitous slogans like FOMO and YOLO?

So, yes, we must discern the nature of the fast-paced times, guarding against just going with the flow of history with too little sense of distinctiveness or holiness; trendy or thoughtless accommodation to the ethos of the times is rarely a healthy approach for God’s people. And, without getting into the thick weeds too much, to study our times, we have to study our era’s view of time. Yes, again, this is a book about time.

But more, it is about our own sense of calling, following up The Call and inviting readers to a 21st century sort of realization that we are — as people shaped by the vital notion of covenant — “singular, significant, and special.” An extraordinary chapter is called “The Way to Seize the Day” and that is followed up by this call to “prophetic untimeliness.” I’m telling you, this is good, good stuff — a bit deeper than The Call, perhaps, but just as inspiring. We would be pleased to have you sign up for one so we can send it out in a timely fashion. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Carpe Diem Redeemed releases officially on September 24th but we’ll have it early. A new book by os Guinness is always worth celebration, and this one will be much discussed, I’m sure.

As a man in midlife, I am often reminded that like a piece of fruit or a loaf of bread, I, too, have an expiration date. With this awareness comes searching questions such as, ‘What’s it all for? Is there meaning to anything that I do, since it will one day all be forgotten? What does it mean to live well in light of such realities?’ In characteristic fashion, Os Guinness not only explores these searching questions but offers satisfying, proven answers to them. If you are asking similar questions―or even if you’re not―I can’t recommend this book to you highly enough.   — Scott Sauls, author of Befriend

Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice edited by Mae Elise Cannon & Andrea Smith (IVP Academic) $36.00  OUR SALE PRICE = $28.80. I know there are just dozens of wonderful, beautiful, powerful books on a Christian view of justice; Biblically-informed, deeply spiritual books to inspire us to care more about what God most cares about. God moved me to tears not long ago as I read out loud a few passages which link deep knowledge of the God of the Bible with the doing of justice and I was strangely warmed again, gladly. There was a time when one had to insist these verses were really in the Bible, so meager were most church people’s familiarity with the themes of justice in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. (I still return to Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger for a good overview.) Happily, we have moved deeper into the Biblical story these days and many of our best customers are looking for more detailed or more profound studies to equip them as agents of God’s peace and justice in this distorted, unfair world.

My friend Mae Cannon has done a few books that are staples in this aspect of discipleship, excellent and useful. See, for instance, her great collection of biographies in Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP; $17.00) or her very useful study resource Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (IVP; $25.00) or, reflecting her recent work, A Land Full of God: Christian Perspectives on the Holy Land (Cascade; $38.00.)

As much as we value these great books — write us if you need other suggestions, such as the soon to be released Bread for the Resistance: Forty Devotions for Justice People by Donna Barber (IVP; $15.00) — that guide us to be activists for the common good, to be just congregations, to be citizens for public justice, and such, we also think that some of us really ought to be studying how this recent development has actually occurred. What theologians, and what sort of theologies have funded this recent interest in social concerns amongst evangelicals? And in what ways have the late 20th century flurry of liberation theologies been adopted or refined by evangelicals (especially those on the margins, people of color, immigrants, people imprisoned, woman, and others.) Is there such a thing as an evangelical liberation theology? (If you are reading the book I raved so much about last month, Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Walsh & Keesmaat, you might be asking the same thing, more curious and open now than ever before.)

As it becomes increasingly clear that the Christian right has no theology at all anymore, and moderate evangelicals remain pietistic with a personalized faith with little public square commitments, what theological work needs to happen to serve a Bible-centered, Christ-honoring, historically orthodox foundation for liberation, reconciliation, peace, creation-care, freedom and justice? This is the big project that Mae Cannon and Andrea Smith has taken up, bringing together some older and newer voices and it is a major project. There are amazing pieces in this handbook/anthology called Evangelical Theologies of Liberation and Justice — serious chapters on body shame, on animal liberation, chapters by thinkers of various ethnicities and social locations on how their own status shapes their understand of the Biblical hope. Wow, this is a wild and generative compilation! Kudos to the women editors, of course, and to their evangelical publisher for doing this kind of serious work for the overturning of death-dealing idols and the flourishing of the common good. We hope to get this in very soon, but the official release day is September 10, 2019.

May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord’s Prayer Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson (Waterbrook) $16.99  OUR SALE PRICE = $13.59.  I mentioned above that Dave Kinnaman describes the big Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh in his forthcoming Faith for Exiles. (He will be speaking there this February, so make plans now to attend! No matter where you live — come to Pittsburgh!) Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson are two friends who have spent their share of time hanging out in the big book room at Jubilee and, in between speaking and painting and praying and playing music there (they are a talented duo) they cooked up a plan to collaborate on a book which would serve as a prompt to pray. Not exactly a book about praying nor exactly a book of prayers. The readings are nearly like Zen koans, I’ve said, Justin’s allusive and mystical and generous ruminations inspired by Scott the Painter’s very hip graphic designs. I suppose I’m not sure what came first, the pictures or the text, but somehow, they created our of that Jubilee vision an imaginative, remarkably useful, and very popular Prayer: Forty Days of Practice (Waterbrook; $16.99.) This book is one of those rare ones that they self-published — what they called their “Jubilee baby” (conceived as it was, right there in their conversations at the conference) — and it was so hugely well respected that a mainstream publisher picked it up, issuing it in an affordable hardback. This doesn’t happen often, folks, so it is an indication that it was a a very special book.

That first one, and now this forthcoming one, are not for everyone, I suppose. The art is cool, but a bit unusual, blunt yet allusive. The writing is evocative and poetic. As they say, this book is a work of art, it is a work of love. We know many of our customers will love it.

May It Be So follows the artful pattern of Prayer: Forty Days of Practice but unpacks the possibilities of focused, imaginative prayerfulness around the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

“Deep down in every human being is a fundamental awareness of God and a desire for divine help in turbulent times,” it says on the back. “We instinctively long for relationship with God. Yet, a flourishing prayer life sometimes feels just beyond our reach.”  This book, it says, is designed to “help you gain spiritual clarity and maintain a meaningful and ongoing conversation with God.”

Can you contemplate your own life? Those whom you love?  Is God around and in and present there? Justin & Scott think so, and this invites you to experience it. It releases September 23, 2019 and it’s one we are not permitted to sell earlier.

If you are in central Pennsylvania, keep your eyes peeled here as we are hoping for a in-store bookstore visit from Justin as we do an East Coast book launch in late September. More on that soon. Stay tuned.

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts James K.A. Smith (Brazos Press) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99. With no disrespect for any of the other great authors and marvelous books coming out this fall, I think many in our circles will agree that this truly is one of the most highly anticipated and certainly will be one of the most significant spirituality books of the year. Those who followed Smith’s tour de force “Cultural Liturgies Project” comprising of three volumes (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and Awaiting the Kingdom) or the one-volume, more accesible, You Are What You Love, you know of his affection for the great Saint Augustine from Northern Africa. Discipled by Ambrose on the mid-300s, Augustine became a Bishop, helping navigate the church’s role in a deteriorating Roman culture. How can those graciously swept up into the reign of God relate to the corrupt powers of this world?  What does it look like in a world falling apart to be “in but not of?” Despite huge foibles and flaws, Augustine’s City of God shaped much Christian public theology and cultural engagement for centuries.

Augustine, flawed and broken man that he was, didn’t get it all right. But what he is perhaps most known for — and why even the most secular universities sometimes assign his book Confessions — is because Confessions is considered the first memoir. Not a history book or even a biography, but a rumination on the shape and texture of a person’s interior life, it is penned with a self-awareness that was pioneering in its day. To consider one’s own deepest longings and desires and temptations and sins, to give voice to a quest for meaning and a reframing of one’s deepest sense of self — that’s all before the rise of a sense of the modern day self, before Freud, before evangelical testimonies, before all those modern day memoirs that I highlighted in a BookNotes column a month ago. Confessions was groundbreaking.

And so, Jamie Smith takes seriously the adage that is said to be Augustinian: if you want to know what somebody is really like, don’t ask so much what they believe, but what they love. That is the power of his best-selling You Are What You Love as it reminded both modern day evangelicals and classic mainline denominational folks that dogma and doctrine and even talk of the allusive worldview doesn’t change people’s lives. The center of gravity of the human person is the heart, not the brain, and we must re-oriented our loves, our passions, our affections, note merely try to change minds. And that, as he explains brilliantly in the “Cultural Liturgy” trio and in You Are What You Love, happens through stories. We are conscripted into stories of the good life (or what is said to be the good live), and that often happens through habits and rituals. I won’t re-iterate it now, but that’s why Smith thinks that our hopes to deepen our discipleship in ways that shape us into the sorts of Christians who can faithfully engage the issues of the day and reform the society must start in deep and thoughtful worship of the Triune God. We are what we love, after all.

Which brings us to this pretty obvious connection with that Saint from Northern Africa. Augustine’s Confessions (and other sermons and letters and books) help us get to this wholistic sort of faith, shaped by an interior life, a spirituality, if you will, that allows us to love our place, our world, and give our lives for the common good. Want a bigger picture, a better story? Do you agree with You Are What You Love that we are more than “brains on a stick” and therefore need a deeper, richer sort of life? Does your church maybe not offer that? Do you feel somehow alienated, even, from the culture and the church, maybe, as well? You need a road trip with Augustine.

As On the Road with Saint Augustine explains, this really is not a book about Saint Augustine. “In a way, it’s a book Augustine has written about each of us.” That is, Jamies suspects that Augustine knows far more about us than we might expect. Smith has spent time on the road with Augustine and invites us to join him on this journey.

This puts it nicely:

Augustine is the patron saint of restless hearts — a guide who has been there, asked our questions, and knows our frustrations and failed pursuits. Augustine spent a lifetime searching for his heart’s true home and he can help us find our way.

This soon-to-be released master-work is (as you might guess from Smith) both learned and fun; aware of ancient insights, contemporary realities, and the pop culture voices who remind us of our current age. It is rigorous, to be sure, but lively, moving from Augustine and his ancient contemporaries to Jack Kerouac to Jay Z to Heidegger to AA meetings to Camus to the films of Wes Anderson and back to Sal Paradise. It’s a philosophical road trip as he takes us throughout Italy and offer glimpses of his own life, from Canada to Philadelphia, from Milan to Seattle.

If you want to know more to determine if this one you want to purchase, read this great story, “Restless on the Road” about the book in the Calvin College student newspaper, the Chimes. 

Or, watch this moving, evocative video trailer for the book.

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts deserves to be taken seriously (and deserves a full review which I will attempt later.) For now, allow these remarkable early endorsements from such an array of thought and cultural leaders — Charles Taylor! A member of the Avett Brothers! Lauren Winner! — to illustrate how amazingly rich this forthcoming book truly is:

“This book is James K. A. Smith’s Born to Run. It’s the story of the journey we are all on. For Smith, Saint Augustine is the perfect navigator. He’s familiar with that ‘highway jammed with broken heroes’ because he knows what it feels like to be a heart on the run. If you lust for the highway and feel the engine idling deep inside, your ride is here. Augustine is in the passenger seat with the map of our heart unfolded on his lap, waiting to take us home.”
— Bob Crawford, member of The Avett Brothers and cohost of The Road to Now podcast

On the Road with Saint Augustine is a learned, large-hearted, and quite lively introduction to Augustine, or to life by way of Augustine, or to God by way of both. The variety of Smith’s references is astonishing, as is the seamless way he moves among them. I expect many modern readers will find themselves–and, crucially, much more than themselves–in this book.”
— Christian Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss and Every Riven Thing

“Augustine of Hippo is the patron saint of restless hearts. Now James K. A. Smith, long one of our most interesting theological thinkers, both orthodox and outlier, reintroduces this figure who is at once strange and familiar, ancient and contemporary. This book is a journey into the greatest journey of all, and a delight to read. Highly recommended.”      —Krista Tippett, founder and CEO, The On Being Project; host, On Being; curator, The Civil Conversations Project
“Fascinating, engrossing, insightful, beautifully written, and often brilliant, this new book will open up the story and spirituality of St. Augustine to a new generation of readers and seekers.”
— James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“Smith opens this book by placing the contemporary culture of seeking the real, authentic self alongside the works of Augustine; then he continues by placing our contemporary experience alongside Augustine’s biography; both moves yield a fund of interesting insights.”
— Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age
On the Road with Saint Augustine offers a fresh articulation of Christianity that speaks to our deepest hungers, fears, and hopes. Addressing believers and skeptics alike, this book shows how Augustine’s timeless wisdom speaks to the worries and struggles of contemporary life, covering such wide-ranging topics as ambition, sex, friendship, freedom, parenthood, and death. As the author well says, this is not a book about St. Augustine. But it certainly is a guide for reading Augustine as he wrote it and would probably prefer to be read, with a restless heart.”                                                         — Justo L. González, author of The Mestizo Augustine
“It is a fundamental Augustinian trope that we are not home. Here Jamie Smith riffs with unrivaled depth and texture on what it means to be in via–to be on the way–to be not at home. I am grateful, and I will keep this book with me as I pilgrim.”
— Lauren Winner, author of The Dangers of Christian Practice and Still
The official launch day for this is October 1, 2019, but look for it from us a few weeks early.
Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship (Second Edition) Diana Butler Bass (Church Publishing) $18.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.16.  Oh my, this will be a new, somewhat expanded edition of one of my all time favorite books by an author I deeply respect. It isn’t coming until mid-October but we are eager to alert folks that it is being re-issued. Kudos to our friends at the Epsiopalian publishing arm, Church Publishing, for giving this little volume a new life. And, boy, do we need it.
In the aftermath of the awful 9/11 attacks, a slogan appeared in some circles “United We Stand.” It was fair enough, I suppose, expressing a certain civic feeling about coming together after the brutality of the evil aggression against us. When Diana — working for an Episcopal Church near the Pentagon — started seeing this sort of sentiment in church, being used to support a war posture, celebrating in pompous bragging ways, America, not the gospel, making America great, not deepening reliance on Jesus’s ways, it caused her great sorrow. Conversations got no-where. Increasingly, she felt — as did many of us in those hard years — like she had to leave her faith community that seemed so accommodated to the nation state and its red-white-and-blue visions of power and might and revenge. Broken We Kneel tells that story and offers healthy reflections on citizenship.
I wrote a lot about this book when it first came out as it captured much of my own dissatisfaction with an unholy alliance between church and state. It wasn’t just the far-out religious right, either: everywhere we went we heard the drums of war. I admired that Diana — a historian and sociologist with theological training and a congregational, parish educator — was willing to risk her job, perhaps her reputation within her own denomination, to speak out against this warring madness (as the old hymn puts it.) “Broken We Kneel” seems a more faithful and honest and profound and Christ-like slogan, doesn’t it? Broken We Kneel explored her own experience within a church that didn’t quite agree and what it means to adopt this posture of peacemaking and Christian identity. It is a memoir of her season coming to grips with this civil religion stuff but it is also a guide for all of us. The new edition will have some updated chapters showing how this question is as lively and contemporary as ever.
Times have changed, pressures and political ideologies are even more brazen than before (even though we are not entering a major war as of this writing, at least.) And yet, and yet. We need this conversation about who we are (as Christians following Jesus and as a diverse and pluralistic country) now, perhaps more than we did even fifteen or so years ago.
Here is what the publisher is saying about the urgency of this forthcoming second edition:

Bass looks at Christian identity, patriotism, citizenship, and congregational life in an attempt to answer the central question that so many are struggling with today: “To whom do Christians owe deepest allegiance? God or country?”

America’s unique and often fractious relationship between church and state is, if anything, more relevant to who we are as a nation than when Diana Butler Bass’ examination of it in Broken We Kneel was first published 16 years ago. This second edition contains a new foreword and introduction, as well as a new conclusion outlining her vision for the future. Born in the tumultuous aftermath of 9/11 and now a spiritual classic, the book draws on both her personal experience and her knowledge of religious history. Bass looks at Christian identity, patriotism, citizenship, and congregational life in an attempt to answer the central question that so many are struggling with today: “To whom do Christians owe deepest allegiance? God or country?”

In writing both impassioned and historically informed, Bass reflects on current events, personal experiences, and political questions that have sharpened the tensions between serious faith and national imperatives. The book incorporates the author’s own experience of faith, as writer, teacher, wife, mother, and churchgoer into a larger conversation about Christian practice and contemporary political issues. Broken We Kneel is a call to remember that the core of Christian identity is not always compatible with national political policies.

We are delighted to be able to announce this forthcoming new, somewhat expanded edition. This new, expanded edition of Broken We Kneel releases October 17, 2019 and we will be eager to talk about it, again, once it releases. You may not agree with all of it or the nature of her conclusions (also about what congregations can do) but it will be a fabulous discussion resource. Why not plan to get a group reading it together later this fall?


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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.

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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.”

“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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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.
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Next week I’ll do a similar list of recent novels,
ideal for enjoyable summer fiction 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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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 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.


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.


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.


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 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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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?


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?


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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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