It isn’t every day that we get to announce a handsome twentieth anniversary edition of a book that we think is among the most important and beautiful and influential of our lifetimes. I am thrilled to announce (again) a new, expanded edition of The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purpose for Your Life by Os Guinness (Thomas Nelson; $16.99.) It is a book we esteem greatly and is in the handful of “must reads” that I often cite as central to our own story here. We hope you know it, and sincerely hope you enjoy my brief rumination.
We are offering this at 20% off, making our price $13.59. You can order by visiting our secure order form page at the website, shown below, by emailing, or calling.
Dr. Guinness, by the way, has another brand new book entitled Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat (IVP; $27.00) which details an urgent challenge for us to be clear about the importance of freedom in our fraying civic culture, but I will tell you more about that later. For now, I want to express my deep appreciation for Guinness and his large body of work and remind you about why I so value this new edition of his most-read, classic book, The Call.
As I have written elsewhere (and often explain in doing talks about uniquely Christian approaches to cultural engagement and the significance of reading for spiritual formation) my own faith and posture towards culture, even my very worldview and understanding of faith was significantly shaped by Guinness’s first book, the now out-of-print classic The Dust of Death. It was the first thoughtful Christian book of social criticism that I read and it set me on a journey that included, eventually, Beth and I starting the bookstore in the early 1980s.
Dust was a study of the social crisis of the 1960s and early 1970s and it offered an astute Christian evaluation and called us to be Biblically-shaped salt and light, in but not of, agents of God’s reconciliation. From the efficient, gray-suited businessmen in the materialistic, Cold War 50s to the bohemian beatniks and early 60s folksters on the road with Jack Kerouac to the flower-power hippies of the counter-cultural late 60s to the political activists of the early 70s during the tail-end of the Viet Nam war, the draft, and Watergate (which included the rise of groups like the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army not to mention the Jesus movement) Guinness told the big picture story of the spirits of the times and the idols of the age. He used his incisive mind and eloquent prose and wide world background (he was born in China, son of Irish missionaries, although later spent time in an ashram in Nepal and studied with brilliant atheists at Oxford) to channel Francis Schaeffer’s good heart for disenfranchised youth and troubled or morally serious seekers. He offered which was at least for me the first coherent Christian social theory that promoted a Kingdom vision, a third way between the left and the right, critiquing the unhelpful idols of both the conservative and the liberal streams of the secularizing Enlightenment.
Os became known within evangelical circles as an eloquent and elegant speaker and a hefty thinker who was reliable and inspiring as a cultural critic and as a deeply spiritual leader; in all this, he was trusted, and his passions are uncompromising as he proclaims an historic orthodox faith. He has been used by God to stimulate hearts and minds for deeper considerations of the issues of the day and shows how a solid Biblical theology would inform us as we reject both the liberal stream of watered-down faith and the conservative steam of anti-intellectual, legalistic fundamentalism. That he tutored with students and friends of C.S Lewis, served alongside Francis and Edith Schaeffer, earned a PhD from Oxford, worked for the BBC, spent considerable time learning from sociologist Peter Berger while a senior fellow researching for the Brookings Institution, gave him a distinguished intellectual orientation and considerable gravitas. That he studied well and taught us about the deeper, subterranean roots of ideas and the practical forces and trends and practices of the culture but also cared deeply about injustices like race and poverty made him a particular asset to those trying to be, as we often said, “radical Christians.”
I was honored to hear Dr. Guinness in the 1970s when he did a series of keynote addresses at our Pittsburgh Jubilee conference. We interacted with him at other events where we sold books – an old event called Ivy Jungle and programs sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Institute in DC and the Christian Legal Society. He was gracious enough to visit York several times as we hosted him here. For those that have read his books and enjoyed the company of him and his wife, you will know I’m bragging a bit here as it has been an true honor to have him encourage us in our bookstore work.
Having said all that, I want to remind you that The Call was one of the first contemporary, popular level books that developed the implications of this most important (but routinely misunderstood) theological doctrine, that of “calling” (and its related theme, “vocation.”) There is a huge renaissance of books on faith, calling, discernment, vocation, work, and serving God in varying spheres of society these days, and nearly all owe their moment to a series of talks Guinness did in the 1990s (including at York First Presbyterian Church) and the celebrated release of this seminal book in 1998. I do not think I am alone and I do not think I am wrong to suggest that the faith and work movement, the rise of marketplace ministry courses, the popular spread of conferences and workshops using the language of vocation and Christian views of work-a-day routines owe their existence in our time to how God was pleased to use this book as it was embraced by key leaders within the thoughtful end of the evangelical world.
That is, much of what we do here at Hearts & Minds – selling books at large and influential events from Jubilee in Pittsburgh to the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer in New York City to my wonderful experience this past weekend at the Colorado Christian Business Alliance conference in Denver – comes back to evangelicals who want to connect Sunday and Monday, worship and work, and to live out (as Os’s long-time friend, Steve Garber puts it eloquently) Visions of Vocation. Indeed, Garber’s sub-title, “Common Grace for the Common Good”, shows how this wholistic vision of relevant discipleship, robustly rooted in the doctrine of God’s call upon us, has vast, public consequences.
(And, I might say, for those who have gotten on this bandwagon these recent years, including some who have published on the topic and who earnestly want to help this movement, they really ought to read The Call to get their visions of vocation a bit more straight and solid.)
Not only do I want to announce that Guinness’s classic is now expanded and revised (and has great study questions in the back) I want to say it is as relevant as ever.
Who isn’t searching for purpose these days? Who doesn’t want work to be worthwhile, careers to be callings, to find a “why” to our existence? (“Start with Why” a current best-seller advises.) But, as Guinness says in a provocative, stimulating, new opening chapter, there is considerable apologetically power when we bear witness to a life of meaning by working with this material, but realizing its implications. It should be obvious, but isn’t, that there can be no calling without a Caller. We can’t really have purpose without One who offers a coherent life, in a creation created in such a way as we can fit into a plan. That is, the deepest Christian truths – not slogans or debatable doctrines – are universal, illuminating the really real, for everyone, everywhere. We can find a way of life that is rich and good and meaningful and even find our purpose and personal fulfillment when we see all of life as created good, if fallen, and the get that the meaning of life is found in participating in God’s reconciliation of the world, in our own ways, according to God’s call. Yet, even if that has compelling weight and “preaches well” we have to be aware of what Guinness calls “clichés and counterfeits.” His earliest chapters are exposes of unsustainable notions and more reliable foundations (even if what some might find the most dense.) It’s good stuff.
I love the core chapters where he explains how the Protestant reformation blew apart the sacred/secular dualism of the medieval world. Monks and nuns were the only ones, in those dark ages, who were allowed to say they were “called.” Indeed, Martin Luther said “the men making the beer barrels and the women milking the cows are as important to the Kingdom God as the priests and the nuns.” They wanted to arrest him for such talk! William Tyndale, years earlier, was burned at the stake and one of the reasons was because he dared to say ordinary folks could use the language of vocation, that their work mattered to God. Guinness’s chapter about a Dutch monk that locked the doors of the church so folks wouldn’t obsess with liturgy, but take faith into daily life, called “Locked Out and Staying Out”, is worth the price of the book.
His central chapters “Everyone, Everywhere, Everything” and the follow-up “By Him, To Him, For Him” and the often-cited “The Audience of One” chapter are all simply unforgettable.
For anyone guiding others in vocational discernment, this solid teaching about calling (both our primary calling to follow Christ and our secondary callings to various offices and tasks) is crucial. “Be What You Are” is the sort of eloquent wisdom that will clarify much – and there is much to be clarified these days, with everybody from MBA programs and edgy entrepreneurs and church preachers insisting everyone must make a difference and find zeal in doing all kinds of spiffy stuff, finding your bliss and whatnot. This is sturdy, level-headed ballast, and exceedingly helpful as we think through things like jobs and happiness and occupations and retirement and such. That is, he reminds us not to overly identify our callings with our jobs. In a world as fallen as ours, in a culture arranged as ours, we may not find that our callings and careers are the same. If we’re lucky, it might be somewhat so.
For those in mid-life or beyond there is much assistance here, too; there is even a chapter on “Fighting the Noonday Demon” which is profound for those struggling with depression or what the ancients called sloth, or despair.
His bit about time is excellent, and, for those with curiosity about such things, his reflections will make you wise about the pressures of the modern world.
A few years ago I edited a small volume of Christian college commencement speeches extolling folks to live into their callings, to take up their vocations in the world. We called it Serious Dreams: Big Ideas for the Rest of Your Lives (Square Halo Books; $13.99.) It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, although I still wish I could have found a talk of Guinness’s to put in there. Voices similar to Guinness are compiled – Steve Garber, Amy Sherman, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, Claudia Beversluis, Erica Young Reitz, and the always inspirational wonder, civil rights activist, Dr. John Perkins!) Each of us in Serious Dreams are saying stuff to encourage young adults in that little anthology that mirrors much of what Guinness is doing here; I suspect strongly that each contributor had read it. I advise any young adults wanting some inspiring talks, homilies to get you going, friends on the printed page to help you along to pick up Serious Dreams. But to be really clear about their future and to be instructed well, for life, they should dig in and study Guinness’s remarkably substantive and formative book. I would rather you buy his book than my book!
Calling is more than just a matter of being zealously positive about a career track or naming a desire to make a difference or slapping on the word vocation. A deeper appreciation for the lasting profundity of this stuff is both a great, liberating gift and comes with a deeply serious conviction to follow Jesus. As Guinness says, we are “people of the call” and “followers of the way.” This is key, central, life-changing, solid-as-a-rock Christian commitment.
In other words, this book is for nearly anyone, any educated adult wanting to understand their lives, their faith, their deepest source of meaning.
You should know three quick things about The Call. Guinness is a master of making good points, offering a few sub-points, showing the threats or dangers or counters to those points, and summarizing each. For those that like sort of logical teaching, detail upon detail, close expression, bit by bit, this will thrill you with the sheer weight of fine content. Some of his legendary talks and other vital books are nearly byzantine in their expertly designed structure, but it always works. And, of course, there are well-placed quotes from fabulously interesting figures from Winston Churchill to Dorothy Sayers, from John Calvin to John Wesley, from Kafka to Carnegie.
Secondly, he always illuminates each chapter with a grand story or pithy illustration. The Call is, in fact, more story-driven than any of his always- impressive writings. He tells stories of jazz players and politicians, painters and farmers, explorers and executives. I will never forget the story telling of how a poor Irish farmer plowed his fields with a learned craft and God-glorifying stewardship and the life-saving impact that had. His chapter “Dreamer of the Day” is about T.E. Lawrence, the larger than life leaders known as “Lawrence of Arabia” and it is thrilling. Most readers don’t know much about the lives of old Puritans or modern existentialists or explorers or business titans or painters, and Guinness uses history and his own biography and tons of stories as key illustrations. What a literary feast this is, learned and inspiring.
Thirdly, this is written almost like a daily devotional; the chapters are dense, but relatively brief. There is a thought-provoking question at the end of each chapter and a closing prayer. It would be a transforming practice to read a chapter a day for 30 days, or once a week, even, for half a year.
I love how they put the description of the book on the back cover. Enjoy this:
Why are we here? What is God’s call in our lives? How do I fit God’s call with my own individuality? How should God’s calling affect my career, my plans for the future, and my concepts of success?
For centuries, finding purpose in life has been at the heart of the human quest. Yet, for many, the path to purpose remains urgent but unclear.
In this bestselling modern classic, Os Guinness invites you to explore the ultimate answer to identity, meaning, and purpose. The Call speaks to the longing in every human heart and provides an answer – You were created for a purpose.
In this new edition, The Call further enriches your search for purpose with multiple new chapters from the author, along with a practical study guide to accompany you through your own journey or to facilitate group exploration.
This book is for all, seekers and believers, who long to find and fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. Have you found “the ultimate why” for your life? Will you respond to the call?
I’m very glad for this concise endorsement from Tim Keller, Pastor Emeritus of Redeemer Presbyterian Churches:
In modern Christian literature there is nothing quite like Os Guinness’s classic The Call, now made more valuable with additional material. Highly recommended.
To introduce these four new books by one particular publisher I wanted to explain – in case ya hadn’t noticed – that we carry all manner of publishers, large and small, faith-based and otherwise, like any full service bookstore. We’ve got some general market best sellers, most of the popular religious best-sellers, but, better, a strong backlist of all kinds of good stuff, from across the faith-based publishing universe and beyond. We’re a little quirky and wanted to brag about our different publishers so I found myself describing a dozen houses, and some of their books. Man, talk about a tangent, before we even got out of the gate.
Sooooo, I deleted that so we can get right to it.
WM. B. EERDMANS
One of the great, storied publishers that we most enjoy is the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company whose offices have been in Grand Rapids, Michigan, since 1911. We are told that Eerdmans, in Dutch, means “Earth-man,” perhaps because their ancestors were farmers, or at least rural; the elder Bill was born in the 1800s and came to the US from Holland as an immigrant in 1902. Eerdmans may be the premier publisher for serious academic theological and Biblical studies work (although IVP Academic and Baker Academic have given them a great run for their money in recent years, doing more, and perhaps more valuable, academic theology books than anyone.) Hardly anyone who follows these things, though, would disagree that Eerdmans has been one of the stalwart publishing houses in the United States and their influence in the religious publishing world has been extraordinary. They are quirky the way a family-owned business can be, and that’s part of their charm, too. We could fill up pages of their enduring classics, recent award-winning books, and their delightful curiosities (like Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, a book about urban biking, or God, Improv, and the Art of Living by Maryann McKibben Dana.)
Eerdmans and their sales reps serve us well and we want to shout out to them alongside the other publishers whose books we carry. Without these publishing houses vetting and marketing thoughtful works, the religious publishing industry – wild and wooly and often infuriating as it is — would be a really hot mess. We are grateful for the considered and valuable books classy publishers like Eerdmans bring to the marketplace. Theirs are almost always books worth knowing about and often well worth owning.
FOUR BRAND NEW BOOKS FROM EERDMANS
Here are four brand new Eerdmans releases that came in this week. They are among the most important religious books of the fall. You can order any of them at our secure website order page by following the link below. Just type in what you want and we’ll follow up promptly.
All of these are 20% OFF.
The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in an Age of Trump Stephen R. Haynes (Eerdmans) $19.99 I haven’t read this yet but you may guess right from the start what it is about, and many Hearts & Minds friends are going to be interested. Yep, it is – among other things – about Eric Metaxas and his own work on and recent use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Lutheran who called us to “the cost of discipleship” and was executed for his resistance to the Nazi regime. You may know (I hope you do) Mr. Metaxas’ exceptionally readable, evangelically-minded, major biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Thomas Nelson; $19.99.) Like his previous Wilberforce bio (Amazing Grace) and his more recent book on Luther, Eric has brought the drama, historical background, arcane details and big picture vision of major historical characters to a popular level with his captivating prose and robust storytelling. (His smaller, but thrilling, 7 Great Men and 7 Great Women are coming out in a single volume later this fall!) Metaxas is a clear, colorful writer, a passionate thinker, and his Bonhoeffer book is massive; that’s a good thing, in this case, as there is so much to say, and he says it so well that many a reader wished it wasn’t over, even after 600 pages! There are a lot of books out there by and about Bonhoeffer and there is little doubt that Metaxas’s has sold more than any other.
Two things you must know, though, things we routinely chat about with those who are interested in buying Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy… what I sometimes call Metaxas’ BBB (Big Bonhoeffer Book.) You see, not everybody likes it.
First, not just a few historians and Bonhoeffer scholars have insisted that Metaxas is a sloppy historian. He’s got a line or two mistaken about a historical episode in a book he wrote about the Founding Fathers. Maybe there is another Wilberforce book that is more tediously correct about everything in 18th century England. I suppose some disapproved of something in the Luther book but it was by far the most engaging one I’ve ever read about the great monk with a mallet. Some think he sacrifices facts for writerly color and eloquence in an attempt to be inspirational. Such claims don’t worry me much, to be honest, as he isn’t vying for best academic study of his topic: he’s a popularizer, I suspect he knows that, and, at that, he’s a good one. Of course if he were exceptionally inaccurate with the facts or out and out ridiculous (think of the likes of David Barton) we’d be concerned. But I’m not too interested in nit-picking a books like these that gets thousands of people interested in somebody like Wilberforce or Bonhoeffer or Luther.
But the second thing to know isn’t just whether Metaxas is fully accurate and impeccable as a popular biographer and history-writer. The second thing to know is that many think that Metaxas is fundamentally wrong about his understanding of Bonhoeffer’s faith and how to learn from him in our current socio-political climate. In other words, there is a concern about Metaxas’s reading of Bonhoeffer and his use of Bonhoeffer. The Battle for Bonhoeffer is not only about Metaxas, but telling about this part of it is a way into Hayne’s overall project in what seems to be a very impressive and important work.
The criticisms of Metaxas have been very strong, especially in his telling of the heart of the Bonhoeffer story. Those in the Bonhoeffer study guild – and it is a club, literally, believe me – denounced Metaxas as soon as his tome came out and then continued their attacks when it became as popular as it did. Mean-spirited critiques of the book – one which I found to be grossly unkind in The Christian Century – appeared almost overnight, many seeming to nearly drip with crass jealously. Who is this charismatic Christian with a preppy blazer and funny background who wrote for Veggie Tales and now dares to write about our post-religious, uber-liberal icon? He’s not in the club! How dare he make Bonhoeffer sound like a born-again American evangelical? Our guild has determined that Bonhoeffer’s no evangelical! (Interestingly, many evangelicals took their word for it and ignored or mistrusted Bonhoeffer for years; I was warned against him in college by people I trusted.)
Ends up, Metaxas – who is, did I say, one hell of a writer – with a degree from Yale, makes a pretty good case that Bonhoeffer did have something akin to a born-again experience while in exile from Hitler’s Germany. Strangely warmed, Bonhoeffer himself wrote specifically about it during his stay in New York where he studied, seemingly unhappily, at Union Theological Seminary but worshipped with black Christians in Harlem, about which he wrote piously. He took black gospel records back to Germany and they inspired him and his underground seminary movement until he was executed by the Fuhrer in 1945.
Those that read BookNotes (heck those that read my opening paragraph) know we’re pretty ecumenical and open-minded here, so I do not care as much as some if Metaxas is right or not. Bonhoeffer can be read and understood in the context of German liberal theology, mainline Lutheran Protestantism, or as more in keeping with historic orthodox Christianity as represented by evangelical thinkers. I think it is an open and good debate and I love getting liberals and conservatives, mainline folks and non-denominational ones, together to talk, even if it is a debate about who has the right to claim Bonhoeffer as their own. In The Battle for Bonhoeffer Stephen Haynes – who thinks Metaxas radically misunderstands Bonhoeffer and “appropriates” him for his own (conservative and even pro-Trump) political agenda — gives us the context for this debate and gives us the first book-length assessment of how Bonhoeffer has been received and understood since the post-war years and up until 2018. Analyzing Metaxas and his book and Metaxas’ subsequent project of marshaling Bonhoeffer for conservative Protestantism and its social agenda is only part of Battle for Bonhoeffer, but, oh, man, is it an interesting journey. And Metaxas’s project does, it seems to me, go haywire, as Eric gets involved with Fox News, links pro-life activism and the courts’ antagonism regarding religious liberties to our “Bonhoeffer moment” starts a largely right-wing radio show and now is an outspoken acolyte for President Trump.
Haynes (and anyone who writes about this, and all of us readers) must differentiate, I think, between two things: we must ask firstly if the Bonhoeffer book is mostly right, on the face of it, and separate that from whatever we may think of Metaxas’s conservative politics, his outspoken pro-life views, and his oddly incongruous support for President Trump. Like him or not, an evaluation of his 2010 Bonhoeffer is not the same as a referendum on Eric’s 2018 politics. It’s simple: we should review the book on its own terms, and not skewer our views of the book by ad hominem attacks about other stuff the author has said or done. Metaxas’ BBB (big Bonhoeffer Book) should mostly stand or fall on its own merits, not on whether you now like Metaxas or not.
And similarly, if folks with whom you disagree can marshal a strong case against the historical and theological substance of Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer) then we should listen to them, even if we don’t like their other political or theological views. We dare not disregard sound academic or theological critique of Brother Eric (even if you like him) because the critic is from a camp you don’t like.
I like Eric a lot, although I don’t know him well and have be disappointed my many of his public comments. I disagree profoundly with many of his current positions and am frustrated by some of his public demeanor. I think he knows this. Still, the question is important: is the big Bonhoeffer book of Metaxas, on the face of it, right and readable, more or less? Every book has small details that are in error, but, given a relatively generous reading, is he mostly right and is he readable? If he’s significantly wrong, of course, then its popularity and vivid readability isn’t good, as it captivates readers and pulls them into a wrong-headed story. (On the other hand, while I’m at it, we surely know that a book can be pristinely perfect and if it is tedious or arcane or haughty or boring – as most books about Bonhoeffer are, if you ask me – then its accuracy or bold insight isn’t that valuable, since nobody reads it anyway.) Accuracy, wisdom, and enjoyable readability must combine to make a truly great book and I want to know the opinions of scholars who really care about Bonhoeffer; it is my hope that this new paperback by Haynes will be a helpful guide to some of this. I am less interested in those who are spiteful or jealous or who are in principle in opposition to evangelical faith, ruling Eric’s book out a priori. I am told that Haynes helps us sort through all this.
For what it is worth, two very well-done books about Bonhoeffer that give a somewhat different reading to the man and his work than Metaxas does that I highly recommend are Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Vintage; $17.95) (who, by the way, wrote the foreword to Battle for Bonhoeffer) and Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie Williams (Baylor University Press; $39.95.) Williams, by the way, has a nice endorsing blurb on the back cover of Battle…A third fairly recent one that applies core teachings of Bonhoeffer to daily Christian living which I found very beneficial is Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross to the World by Stpehen J. Nichols (Crossway; $17.99.)
Haynes should be a helpful guide to all this; he has been writing about Bonhoeffer and his impact for years. Just a quick skimming and study of the footnotes and references makes me think he is excellent for this task. I’ve read his useful, little Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians (WJK; $18.00) and really look forward to his analysis of how brother Bonhoeffer is understood, taught, used, and promoted by different factions within the US (and elsewhere.)
As the back jacket puts it,
The figure of Bonhoeffer has become a clay puppet in modern American politics. Secular, radical, liberal, and evangelical interpreters variously shape and mold the martyr’s legacy to suit their own pet agendas.
That may be overstating it, as if differing views are crassly, intentionally, misinterpreting and misappropriating. I’d rather suggest that various theologies and even worldviews of various readers are influential in such a way as to facilitate differing interpretations, sincere misreadings, more-or-less internally coherent interpretations that are each based on fundamentally different presuppositions and hermeneutics. I don’t mean to say every reading or interpretation is equally valid, but it isn’t just that a few bad guys misuse a person like Bonhoeffer for their own “pet projects,” or not usually, anyway. I don’t think we should be cynical about this. Anyway, understanding how this appropriation thing works is itself a main theme of this book, and it’s so, so important – beyond this case study of Bonhoeffer and his fans.
Stanley Hauerwas writes about the book by saying:
Does it matter how Bonhoeffer is read in America? Anyone reading Hayne’s meticulously researched book will discover that it matters a great deal.
Of course, Eric Metaxas is not the only one to call us to a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Eric uses Bonhoeffer in support of a bold commitment to certain conservative stances in an increasingly secularized culture that is hostile, or so it seems, to traditional Christian views. But the cultural and religious left use Bonhoeffer, too, drawing on him for their own justice agenda. They think, of course, that Bonhoeffer titled left – willing to die as he bore witness against fascism, standing with the marginalized and oppressed.
Many (myself included) who have voiced strong criticisms of the way fundamentalist and some evangelical Christians have given so much unqualified support for President Trump – who just today announced cutting refugee resettlement numbers — have wondered if Bonhoeffer (and the blunt confession of the Lordship of Christ found in the Barman Declaration, written against the Fuhrer in Germany with input from Bonhoeffer) could help us repent of foolish support of this Administration’s bad leadership and bad policies.
So this new Eerdmans book is asking about all of that, how the great life of a great thinker and faithful pastor might motivate us to be faithful within the quandaries and challenges of our own civic life these days.
If this helps even a bit, pushing us to consider a coherent and faithful political theology it will be worth it, as we need all the help we can get. (Sadly, not nearly enough have grappled with the remarkable third volume in James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” series, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology.)
Battle for Bonhoeffer closes with what Professor Haynes entitles “Your Bonhoeffer Moment: An Open Letter to Those Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Trump.” It is going to generate discussion, I’m sure.
The Battle for Bonhoeffer: will inform you about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it will help you understand the different interpretations and schools of thought that have used (or rejected) or adopted him, and, in so doing, will press the question of how this sort of engaged, public theology might inform us for our own faithfulness in these times. The subtitle seems appropriate: Debating Discipleship in an Age of Trump.
Click herefor a great short piece “5 Questions with Stephen R Haynes.” Then come back and order the book from us!
Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons Rowan Williams (Eerdmans) $12.00 Many of our BookNotes readers will at least know who Rowan Williams is. For those that might not yet be familiar with him, he’s a very important British theologian, an Anglican priest and thinker who a few years ago was the worldwide Anglican communion’s closest equivalent to a figurehead, their Archbishop of Canterbury. After being the 104th leader to be elected to Archbishop of the Church of England (from 2002 – 2012) Williams has become the Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge. He has written widely, in varied themes from St. Augustine to contemporary politics, from linguist theory to contemplative spirituality to the study of history and why it matters. It is amazing the sorts of things he is able to write about and everyone who relates to him is impressed with his humility and congeniality and his deep knowledge of the broad, global, Christian tradition. He is a pastor/scholar and a globally recognized public intellectual.
A few years ago Eerdmans started a little series of books by Rowan Williams and Being Human is the third in the trilogy. The first two were quite popular and remain good sellers in the right circles, ideal for those who want a succinct, intellectually stimulating introduction to basic Christian truths as understood within the broadly mainline denominations. The first was Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans; $10.00) and the second was Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (Eerdmans; $10.00.) This brand new third volume – Being Human — continues this style of gracious, engaging prose about the things that matter most.
Alas, this one may not be quite as appealing, but we can sure hope that it is – after the knowledge of God and knowing what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what could be more important than knowing who we are? It is said by many great writers and thinkers – my friend Steve Garber comes to mind, immediately, but also black activist Lisa Sharon Harper and culture-maker Andy Crouch and “wounded heart” therapist Dan Allender – that most of the big questions (in philosophy, politics, ethics, science, and certainly in the arts and literature) emerge from our understanding of the human person and the human condition. Of Walsh & Middleton’s famous four worldview questions described in their classic Transforming Vision the second foundational question is “who are we?” Some use the technical phrase “anthropology” for this – the study of the human person — and theological anthropology is a hot scholarly topic these days.
With talk about trans-humanism and all the bioengineering advances and AI, even – not to mention questions about transgendered persons and medical ethics – anthropology is an urgent, practical concern. One of the great books that came out last year about this is Jeffrey Brauch’s Flawed Perfection: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters for Culture, Politics, and Law (Lexham; $15.99.) Even Wendell Berry has a collection of essays What Are People For? (Counterpoint; $15.95.)
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Rev. Dr. Williams jumps into this discussion because, again, he seems to be nearly an icon (wait, he has a book on icons!) for socially-relevant Christian thinking; ancient truths for contemporary living, public theology for the common good, etcetera. Offering coherent, thoughtful, Christian wisdom for thinking about things like contemporary science, human origins, medical ethics, the nature of bodies, and such, is so, so needed.
As it says on the back cover:
In this deeply engaging exploration of what it means to be human, Rowan Williams addresses such questions with lucid meditations that draw on insights from neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and literature. He then probes the relations of faith to human flourishing and shows how a traditional Christian practice – namely, silence – can help us realize our fullest human potential.
Well, I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? I didn’t. Here is a book by a public intellectual deeply rooted in faith and theology writing about the meaning of consciousness and raising questions about whether the mind is merely a machine. What makes us a person, after all? What does it mean to be embodied? What is the relationship between our bodies and our minds?
And he ends up talking about silence.
Well, like I said, Being Human by Rowan Williams is short and lucid and really, really stimulating. Happily, I notice he draws on the wonderfully big ideas of The Master and His Emissary by Ian McGilchrist. He quotes Kierkegaard and neuroscientists and practitioners of silence like Maggie Ross. I think some of these chapters were adapted from lectures (at places like St. Andrews and Durham and Westminster Abby) so they are necessarily meaty, but elegant. Like the others in the trilogy, it weighs in at not much more than 100 pages. This is a really nice book for anyone curious about this huge question, for readers who want sagacious ruminations on what it means to be a person by the beloved former Primate. Many loved Being Christian and Being Disciples and, now, will want to add Being Human to complete the set.
Religion & American Culture: A Brief History George M. Marsden (Eerdmans) $30.00 Yep, we shelled out a lot of dough to order these for our store, but I am convinced that any bookstore worth its salt should have cultural studies and history and anything written by George Mardsen, Christian historian par excellence. (Indeed, Professor John Fea calls him “one of our generation’s greatest American religious historians.”)
To learn that Dr. Marsden has been re-working an older textbook, updating and making it more popular, even calling is a “brief” history (I suppose the term is relative, with this being over 275 pages) it was just music to my ears. We are so thrilled that it is now released and we are counting on our astute Hearts & Minds fans and BookNotes readers to pick this up.
What a hugely important thing, this study of the relationship between history and cultures and cultures and religion… How did faith (and whose faiths?) shape US history? How do we understand and appreciate the flow of one era in American history (so to speak) to the next? What is at the core of American culture, and its relationship to religiosity? Why is America so religious and yet so oddly, well, not. You see, this is about the grand shifts and undercurrents, the flow of ideas and how they influenced cultural customs and trends and values.
This, I believe, is a book that will illuminate our own days and the trends of our times.
Here is some info about Religion & American Culture: A Brief History from the Eerdmans publishing promotion:
While Americans still profess to be one of the most religious people in the industrialized world, many aspects of American culture have long been secular and materialistic. That is just one of the many paradoxes, contradictions, and surprises in the relationship between Christianity and American culture. In this book George Marsden, a leading historian of American Christianity and award-winning author, tells the story of that relationship in a concise and thought-provoking way.
Surveying the history of religion and American culture from the days of the earliest European settlers right up through the elections of 2016, Marsden offers the kind of historically and religiously informed scholarship that has made him one of the nation’s most respected and decorated historians. Students in the classroom and history readers of all ages will benefit from engaging with the story Marsden tells.
Better, listen to Dr. Marsden talk about it:
As the title to my book suggests, this story focuses on the mutual interactions between the major religious forces in American history and the broader cultural forces. Though it provides the basic information necessary to understand the differences among the various religious dynamics, it is not a conventional religious history that focuses mostly on religious institutions, and on the details of their leadership, theologies, programs and developments. Rather it is my attempt, drawn from over a half century of reflection on the fascinating religious and cultural interactions, to put the story in a helpful interpretive framework.
The United States is an amazingly religious place. Yet it is simultaneously a remarkably profane and materialistic place. Trying to understand that paradox provides one of the central and most fascinating themes in this analysis. The culture reshapes the religion even as the religion helps shape the culture. So I include a good bit of material attempting to draw on the best insights into the cultural dynamics and intellectual trends and assumptions that have been most characteristic in various eras of American life.
Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $30.00 I wish I had more time to spend some time with this so I could tell you the glories of it. I’m afraid I am going to have to be very brief, because I just can’t imagine how to explain this other than the bare basics.
You know, I hope, that Fleming Rutledge is nothing short of a hero to many – thoughtful, intellectually stimulating, a rigorous scholar and, until recently a working pastor in her Episcopal parish in New York City.
We have long appreciated her (thanks to an Eerdmans sales rep years ago who pressed a copy of an early book into my hands.) Beth and I have met her more than once and she’s an extraordinary presence. Her theological rigor is seen in the remarkable work The Crucifixion, her fascinating (and very Biblical) preaching is seen in a large collection of sermons on Romans, while yet another draws on the old saying about preaching with the newspaper in the other hand; it is simply called The Bible and the New York Times and only a preacher as eloquent and elegant and as bold and cultured as Rutledge could pull it off
My favorite book of hers is a remarkable work to read during Lent called The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter.
Like that one, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ is largely a collection of sermons preached over a lifetime of Advents, a collection selected and well edited, making it a major contribution to Advent materials; this nearly is a publishing event! However, there are some extra delights in here as well – four solid chapters which were originally essays or articles, such as a five-part Advent series that appeared in the Christian Century (I had clipped some of those!) and there are several of what she calls “Pre-Advent.” There are a few on “God’s Apocalyptic War” which were preached on the Feast of Saint Michael. At the conclusion there is a Service of Lessons and Carols on the Great “O” Antiphons. I can’t wait until the right time of the year to read that, starting, I might add, on page 393. Whew, what a fabulous collection, a book that you will use for years to come.
I can’t list all the many, many sermons, even the groupings, but I can assure you they are vivid, meaty, and move us to be active in awaiting the coming of the King – the in-between times of “already but not yet.” These are surely striking, gutsy, Biblical and potent. I waver to suggest there is nothing like it in print.
Here are just a few of the many rave endorsements that grace the inside pages:
Richard B. Hays
— Duke University
“Fleming Rutledge’s Advent preaching bursts upon us with the same elemental force as the preaching of John the Baptist. Rutledge’s fine crafting of language may be subtler than John’s, but she carries forward his incisive, apocalyptic message of judgment and hope. This is essential preaching for a church wallowing in self-referential sentimentality and caught in captivity to the compromises of the present political order. This is preaching that tells the truth about the world’s suffering and proclaims that God acts to rescue us. Do not drift anesthetized through another season of Advent; read this book.”
— author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and What’s in a Phrase?
“Replete with rich, mature, vigorous theological reflections on Advent, this book is invigorating–edgy, intelligent, unflinching, and joyful in all it reclaims. A timely, lively prophetic word.”
— Baylor University
“Advent is the most complex of the church’s seasons, with its remembrance of God’s former mercies and its looking forward in trust in God’s promises. Fleming Rutledge’s wonderful sermons on Advent are more than individual gems (though they are that): collectively they provide a rich and full exploration of the season in all its manifold moods and themes. This book is the perfect companion to the beginning of any church year.”
James K. A. Smith
— Calvin College
“My not-so-secret hope is that Fleming Rutledge’s Advent would become required reading in our seminaries and the focus of vestry book clubs, elder retreats, and worship leader workshops. Because that would give me hope for an apocalyptic renewal in the church–that we would learn again how to live as an Advent people, hoping in a God who acts and is making all things new. Taking this book to heart would teach us how to live wisely, faithfully, and prophetically in the Time Between.”
— Trinity School for Ministry
“Many of us in the American church are addicted to preaching that makes us, the hearers, into the heroes. We listen to sermons to receive advice–about how we can do better or we can try harder or we can be stronger in this or that aspect of Christian life. For all of us suffering this theological addiction, Rutledge’s Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ is the rehab program we need. God is the saving agent here, and God’s coming in Jesus Christ to dismiss our efforts at self-justification is the recurring theme. Reading this book liberates us to enjoy a new theological sobriety.”
Jo Bailey Wells
— Bishop of Dorking
“Fleming Rutledge has to be one of the most daring preachers I know. With moral courage and intellectual rigor she tackles challenging texts and nagging questions. She is unafraid to proclaim the truth that may hurt–because that same truth sets us free. I have squirmed, yet I am stretched–to deeper faith, to higher hope, to broader love.”
Michael J. Gorman
— St. Mary’s Seminary & University, Baltimore
“Whatever you previously thought or said about Advent (and ‘pre-Advent’), this book will both challenge and deepen your understanding in ways never anticipated. For Fleming Rutledge, Advent is not merely preparation for Christmas, much less ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ It is, rather, the season of difficult yet hopeful watching, waiting, and participating–the season that encapsulates the Christian life between Christ’s first and second comings. Like Scripture itself, these are words to read and inwardly digest.”
We have already announced that we are glad to host Karen Swallow Prior here at the bookstore this coming Friday night, Friday, September 14th, 2018, at 7:00 PM when she will tell us about her brand new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. If you are anywhere near York County here in south-central Pennsylvania, please feel welcome to join us. We’ll hear her lecture and read from her books, have some conversation, and eager friends will get some books signed. (For more information, see our last BookNotes post, or visit the Facebook events page, here.)
Dr. Prior’s On Reading Well is not the only brand new book on the charms and challenges of the reading life. We are so eager to tell you about two other new releases that help us realize the importance and joy of reading widely. Or promiscuously, as John Milton put it in the 17th century. Well get to that. So let’s hear it for three great new books about books.
I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life Anne Bogel (Baker Books) $14.99 Oh my, a small gift-type book, compact sized and slim, that is jam-packed full of advice about reading, making a winsome (but not weak) case for reading widely. Bogel admits to being a “certified book nerd” and I’m sure you will love to spend some time with her by looking over her shoulder in this brand new book of bookish ruminations. What a great, great little book this is!
Book nerds — this is for you. But, interestingly, I think it could be very appealing and even inspiring for those who aren’t fully out-of-their-gourds-crazy about the call the books.
I am notorious — I think that’s the word, although I wish I could say legendary – for answering customers’ questions about the best book on a topic with lists that sometimes verge on being, shall we say, too much. Ask me about my favorite books on prayer or the arts or race or evangelism or worship or sex and I will name 10; 20 if you let me answer via email. I’m really not trying to show off when I do this but wanting to connect, to serve customers well, because there is in this diverse book brain of mine, surely something for everyone. But that’s the tricky part—determining what is the best book for a particular reader at a particular time in his or her life. Best book for whom I usually ask when somebody insists I declare the best in this or that field. Tell me more isn’t evasive, but a little front-end sleuthing to discern what might work best for a particular reader or group.
And so I was delighted when I heard about the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcast “What To Read Next” by book loving tastemaker Anne Bogel. A podcast offering advice on what to read next? Bookish guidance from a woman who extols the Emily Dickinson line, “I dwell in possibility” – wow.
Her tremendously lovely and smart new book, I’d Rather Be Reading:The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life starts off with an enjoyable short chapter called “Confess Your Literary Sins” but she assures us that one really needn’t confess not liking certain classics or the award-winning books, not appreciating the great books or the cool books or the popular books. Sure we can all stand to grow, and the best readers are insatiably curious, trying new authors and genres, but, really: there are different kinds of books for different kinds of people. Ain’t it so! It’s funny, even, to learn how diverse this whole reading thing is – she chuckles about a lit prof with a PhD who hasn’t read Hamlet or a religion scholar who hasn’t read C.S. Lewis. But we can be honest about what we don’t know and be glad we like what we like. That is, we don’t really need to confess that we are passionate about what we like.
Which leads to other sorts of confessions she receives these days, as a public voice for reading, especially among people of faith. She goes on for a few quick pages with a wonderful, entertaining list of obsessions. She tells of people who write to her, to confess:
They teach ninth-grade English by day and currently binge on the Twilight series by night, for the sixth time in as many years. (“Please don’t tell my students.”)
They don’t understand how anyone could not love The Catcher in the Rye. They are obsessed with Holden Caulfield. They wonder what this says about them. They are not adolescent males, so they’re pretty sure it’s not good.
They’re obsessed with the Harry Potter books.
They’ve read the Outlander series eight times….
They own forty-two cozy mysteries, with covers all featuring a skein of yarn, a pie, or both.
They tried to read the latest thought-provoking National Book Award winner on the beach but couldn’t get into it. So they made an emergency vacation bookstore run for a stack of baby-blue books whose covers all bore sandy beach scenes, all of which were inhaled that week…
They haven’t read much of anything lately, unless their iPad counts. Or In Style magazine. Or the tabloid covers in the grocery store checkout line.
They’ve had the same book sitting on their nightstand for three years and haven’t opened it once.
She continues, telling us of a person who confessed to ordering pizza for dinner so they could finish their book. There’s the person who checked out a book from a library but still hasn’t returned it and now is afraid to show her face there. There are people she describes who have “book hangover” after finishing a compelling novel, moms and dads who have locked themselves in the bathroom so they could finish a book.
They think they love books too much. And they think they are alone.
Anne Bogel’s new book will assure any such book addicts that they are not alone. And that we don’t have to be ashamed of our tastes and interests. In fact, after this faux-confessions bit, the second chapter is called “The Books That Find You.” Indeed – another reason I am wont to name more than just one or two books when somebody asks – after nearly 40 years of promoting books and reading, I still usually don’t quite know what exact book matches which exact reader. There’s mystery and magic to all this, and I do trust that God, perhaps disguised as a muse, working through a sales pitch or book review or BookNotes column, or a well designed book cover, helps the right book get to the person that needs it most. As midwives to this glorious process, we booksellers, reviewers, and literary cheerleaders, can’t take credit for the goodness that is birthed when a book finally finds its reader.
Bogel says nicely,
There are few one-size-fits all prescriptions for the reading life. This spurs all sorts of readerly dilemmas, but it also brings readers endless delight.
Ms. Bogel loves books and she understands book lovers, which is why so many will take joy and maybe solace in her reflections. She has great insight about being a better reader, reflects on what we bring to the page; she tells us nifty stories from how she chooses books and how she finds time to read. She offers sage input (for instance, she tells us to read an author’s acknowledgments first) and even has advice about bookshelves and organizing our volumes. Some of you know you need this.
The third chapter is called “I’m Begging You To Break My Heart” and is, like many of the short chapters, worth the price of the whole book. In a serious and telling rumination on grief and reading, and why we get all verklempt while reading, she writes,
I don’t relish crying over a book, but I’ll say this: it’s not easy to earn a reader’s tears – and if an author writes well enough to earn mine, I’m in.
We have touted a lot of books about books over the years here at BookNotes, and in the shop we have a shelf of books about books. These provide such joyful reinforcement for book lovers and, I think, help give an apologetic for reading for those who need such justification or encouragement. A few of these are just wonders and I revisit them often. For pastors (although it’s so wonderfully done, we suggest it to anyone) there’s Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga (Eerdmans; $14.00) and it is a must. I think if I were writing a book about all this, the nearest thing would be the fantastic, insightful, one-of-a-kind Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith (IVP; $16.00), which, again, is one you have to put on your list. I sometimes start talks I give with breathtaking excerpts of The Word: Black Writers Talk about the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing edited by Marita Golden (Broadway Books; $14.99.) The Pleasures of Reading in a Distracted Age by the erudite Alan Jacobs (Oxford University Press; $19.95) is a tad heady but a true pleasure for those who like sophisticated writing. If you haven’t, and if you care about our common culture and the question about digital reading and on-line stuff, you really should read the beautifully approached and well-done The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by book reviewer and public intellectual Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton; $15.95.) Although it is out of print, Terry Glaspey has a great book called Book Lover’s Guide to Great Reading: A Guided Tour of Classic & Contemporary Literature which is worth tracking down. He’s the smart, smart guy behind the wonderful 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories Behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books; $29.99.)
And now, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel must be added to that short list – I could list more if you really wanted – of must-read books about books and the reading life. I’d Rather Be Reading is short, light-hearted at times, even clever, but very smart. A friend of mine suggested to Ms Bogel that she request the publisher put a picture of her own favorite reading chair on the cover, and it has a soft, living room feel that is inviting. But yet, I suspect that Bogel isn’t all that highbrow or bourgeois; I bet she reads so widely that she has a book with her wherever she goes and will plunk herself down whenever and wherever she can. She invites us to read widely and well, even if we don’t have a library in our home or a big comfy chair. She even addresses this a bit in a chapter called “Bookworm Problems.” I bet many of our best Hearts & Minds friends and customers will relate.
This would make a great book just to indulge yourself a bit if you like reading and owning books and it certainly will pay back the price of purchase by bringing you plenty of reassurance that your love for books isn’t weird and that you are not alone. But more, it provides good insight, lots of guidance, and stimulating recommendations. She’s got good taste. And, after all, in this wide, wild world of books, there’s truly, something for everyone.
Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life Sarah Clarkson (Tyndale) $15.99 I am both thrilled and a tad frustrated that this spectacular book just came last week – it is one of three brand new books on reading that came out from Christian publishers this month and any one of them would be worthy of an excited announcement and a big push. With the understandably big buzz of Karen Swallow Prior’s weighty work on virtue formation by reading (you know we’re bringing her to Hearts & Minds this Friday night to discuss On Reading Well) and the charming I’d Rather Be Reading by podcast queen Anne Bogel, I certainly don’t want Sarah Clarkson’s amazing new book to get lost in the shuffle. It is so, so good, and you need to know about it. In a way, this book is close to what I often do when I give presentations on the value of reading and the role of reading in Christian discipleship and the joys of the reading life so I can say that I think (ahem!) that it is very, very important and stuff that needs to be said. It has a distinctively female take – it’s called Book Girl after all – but this book boy loved it and wants to recommend it with gusto. Male or female, you should get Book Girl right away, and an extra one to give away as a gift.
I remember reading the books of the mother of Sarah, Sally Clarkson, published what seems to be years ago and I thought they were absolutely better written and more interesting than many of the strict and formulaic parenting books that helped us focus on the family in those years. (And I wonder if she is related to the 1970s era Eerdmans author Margaret Clarkson?) I recall her writing about family and marriage and pain and suffering in a voice that was thoughtful and wise, deep without being arcane. I think some linked her (or at least I do in my own mind) to C.S. Lewis and Francis & Edith Schaeffer, maybe to the likes of Luci Shaw and Madeline L’Engle. That is, she was theologically interesting and intelligent and artful. And now, she has a handful of books written with Sarah (such as The Life Giving Parent and The Life Giving Home.)
It is no wonder Sarah has grown up to be a writer of good books about home life, about parenting, about education, and, now, about the reading life. Her mom and dad valued reading and she was read to as a child. So, parents, let’s do this! Honey for a Child’s Heart by one of our patron saints, Gladys Hunt, remains a valuable aid to finding wholesome books by age group. The Read Aloud Handbook by American hero Jim Trelease is updated and should be a staple – borrow it from your local library and you’ll most likely need to buy one to keep. Recently, Zondervan published two winners that we’ve highlighted before but deserve a shout out here: The Read Aloud Family by Sarah MacKenzie and Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time by Jamie Martin.) These are all resources to help us all make books and reading a more central part of our children’s formation. Such habits have born fruit as we can now see in the good prose and profound thoughtfulness coming from the pen of Sarah Clarkson.
Here is what you should know about the structure of Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life. It is not a memoir, as such – there are those, stories about reading (like, say, Will Schwalbe’s wonderful The End of Your Life Book Club or Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi or A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz. One of my favorite memoirs is more a collection of elegant essays about reading and is called The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by the remarkable Sven Birkerts. And truly one of my all time favorite memoirs, Reading the Mountains of Home by nature writer and professor John Elder is built around a set of hikes he took while reading a lesser-known Robert Frost poem. And, of course, there is the quintessential book memoir, the best — Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior. Who else talks soberly about the regrets of losing her virginity in high school in a season she was reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles? But I digress.)
Rather, Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson is a series of theses: glorious assertions, essentially, of what books can do for you. You’ll have to buy the book to get the full and charming teaching about each of these benefits. Here are most of the chapter titles to whet your appetite and give you a sense of what you’ll learn (or be reminded of.)
Books Can Broaden Your World
Books Can Shape Your Story
Books Can Stir You To Action
Books Can Foster Community
Books Can Open Your Eyes to Wonder
Books Can Deepen Your Soul
Books Can Impart Hope
Oh my, it seems like she’s been listening in on some of my stock lectures on this stuff – ha! But she says it better; I loved Book Girl. Now, we can learn how much more there is to say about these benefits of books and the value of the reading life. There is so much good wisdom in here that I think anyone who likes to read and learn and grow will be underlining phrases and highlighting whole pages. Those of us who are confident this is important for the advancement of God’s Kingdom will want to share this with others. I think you could adapt the points and use them to teach others about the value of cultivating serious reading habits.
Do you have a library or bookstore in your church? Do they promote the sorts of books she recommends – from George MacDonald to Willa Cather to Frederick Buechner to Wendell Berry to Marilyn Robinson to Kathleen Norris? On her great website I recently saw a picture of her holding Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Still my beating heart.
(Her book lists in Book Girl about theological works are very, very substantive, by the way, and many of our customers will be delighted by her descriptions of important books to read more directly for faith formation.)
But when I noticed (reading the acknowledgements first, of course) that she cited a Wendell Berry novel, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. There are certain writers (fiction and nonfiction) and certain novels and poems that if a person likes them, I immediately am inclined to trust them more, knowing that much, at least, about their judgments and tastes. Clarkson says so much here that I love that I want to just shout from the rooftop. Book Girl offers good, good content, intelligent but not daunting. It’s not only reassuring and so nice to hear her passion for good books and reading widely, but I think it is truly vital, giving us words and talking points to convince others about the value of books and the importance of study. I’m hoping you take me literally here – we all know folks who don’t read much and we also know people who wish they’d read more, but just can’t find the time, energy, or motivation. Book Girl will inspire them. You should give her book away and, at least, master her talking points about the value of the printed page.
Book Girl also contains tons of lists, suggestions, titles to check out at the library, or put on your Hearts & Minds wish list. In fact, there are over 20 full book lists interspersed though out with fabulous short reviews and annotations. I really liked Clarkson’s explanations about the books to read (whether I had read the book or not) and plan to use it as a guide for my own experience with good fiction, especially. I loved the inspiring, wise, visionary essays about the reading life, but these book lists make it that much more useful, too, to solve the problem of what to read. It will be a guide that book groups and curious readers can use for years to come.
On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books
On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press) $19.99 I have written about this before, announcing it before it came out and just last week sharing a short essay I wrote for our local newspaper on the significance of character formation as we discuss the important stuff of our times.
Perhaps trying to channel a bit of James K.A. Smith and his insights found in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press; $19.99) I simply explained in that op-ed piece and expanded BookNotes column that Karen Swallow Prior shows us in her new book how reading great literature can help us cultivate virtue; we re-imagine the story we find ourselves in by reading good books and that changes us, from the inside out, perhaps even making us people of better character. Reading matters. So much of the conflict in our current public lives is related to deformed character and the disregard for virtue. Reading well – with openness to being shaped by the form and content of truly good books – matters. We are so very glad Dr. Prior has agreed to come to our store (this Friday night – join us at 7:00 PM if you are able) reminding us, as I said in the last BookNotes, of why what we do what we do as booksellers. We think books can really help people in often profound, formative ways, and it’s nice to have someone remind us of this powerful truth.
Here’s a short, thoughtful essay she wrote on Jane Eyre and Our Age of Authenticity that might show you how perceptive she is and how she offers literary insight even about the nature of our cultural moment.
Maybe it will remind you, too, of what you do as a reader and a book lover (and friend of Hearts & Minds.) We all need to be reminded, sometimes, of the power and meaning of this delightful obsession of ours, buying books, reading reviews, reading widely and carefully. Maybe you just will enjoy learning about all this again, or maybe you need reminded. Or maybe you’ve never quite been captured by the book bug, so reading her book (or hearing her live in Dallastown, or in Lancaster the next night at the downtown Square Halo Gallery) will inspire you to take up this challenge of the reading life. Whether you are nicely reminded of a long-held conviction or challenged anew: books matter. As my friend Steve Garber has written in an extraordinary essay, “Good Books Matter.” This poignant, eloquent essay made its way more or less into Steve’s extraordinary book called The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (IVP; $19.00.) It is highly recommended for those pondering these very matters with Karen.
There is very much I could say about On Reading Well. As we’ve explained, Ms. Prior links a particular classic Christian virtue to one of a handful of novels, both old (Pilgrims Progress, Tale of Two Cities, even The History ofTom Jones which is one of the early Victorian novels that attempted to bring moral meaning to the contemporary novel) and fairly contemporary ones, from Gatsby, a few short stories by George Saunder’s to the vivid, dark stories of Cormac McCarthy. (Her piece on the virtue of hope in The Road is fantastic, by the way!) This is most of what you need to know to enjoy and learn from On Reading Well — she links a particular virtue such as temperance, prudence, faith, kindness, or, patience to a particular novel or short story. What’s not to like about learning courage from Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or chastity from Edith Wharton, humility from Flannery O’Connor, or faith from the hard story of persecuted monks in Endo’s profound work, Silence. And wait ‘til you see what she does with Persuasion by Jane Austen that, for full disclosure, I’ve never read. You?
Further, there are good reflection questions for your own pondering or for groups. I’m sure any lively book club would get a kick out of doing a few session on these good discussions.
As Karen herself says one of the goals of an attentive reading is not to find simple answers from the characters in the story but to learn to ask good questions, even questions about ourselves. Yes!
As we have said in our other mentions of the book — and as everyone notices when they pick up the volume — there are very interesting linocuts, hand done by artist and printmaker Ned Bustard, one for each chapter. In an almost uncanny way these artistic visions capture something essential about the novel under examination. A few are sheer genius. We hope to show a few of the prints during our Hearts & Minds event with Karen on Friday night but the Bustard’s are hosting her in Lancaster on Saturday evening at the Square Halo Gallery in the Lancaster Trust Building. The original artwork will be on expertly hung and on display there for a spell.
I suppose I should point out a few things that might be important to know. There are some carefully worded, serious sections about virtue theory that some might find slow going. It isn’t like reading Alistair McIntyre (whom she cites) or Aquinas (whom she also cites) but this includes some sophisticated (if basic) introduction to the field of character formation by way of reflecting on the virtues and it isn’t simple. It isn’t daunting and for some it will be delightfully informative, but it’s thoughtful work she’s doing here.
Dr. Prior works at a conservative evangelical university (one many might think it is more fundamentalist in reputation than evangelical, seemingly more akin to Bob Jones than Wheaton, except for the presence of remarkable staff like her.) She carries the banner for evangelicalism well and tells about it nicely in her excellent and enjoyable testimony of why she still identifies as evangelical in her chapter in Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (IVP; $17.00.) It’s a book I’ve been trying to get people both evangelical and not to read. Her piece therein is solid and inspiring.
So, for such an evangelical scholar one might have expected a little more Paul and a little less Plato, perhaps more Amos and less Aristotle. (Okay, I’m trying too hard with the alliterations.) The way in which virtue is discussed – cardinal virtues and theological ones and heavenly ones — offers a big nod to a big tradition, but unless one likes that sort of accommodation to that particular way of telling the story of virtues, it might be a little curious. I suppose this might be a criticism (although for me it is a more inchoate instinct of concern and not a developed critique) but I note it here mostly as a heads up; you will benefit greatly from reading the first chapter which nicely summarizes this sort of virtue theory work, but it does draw on Aristotle and that ancient, classical language and taxonomy of virtue. I wondered why she didn’t at least bring Stanley Hauerwas into the conversation.
This part, as important as it is, isn’t as fun as I’d Rather Be Reading or as inspiring as Book Girl. Both of those books will pull your little bookish heart-strings right away and you’ll be smiling with recognition from the first lovely pages to the last. Nonetheless, On Reading Well must start as it does, reflecting on the need for inner transformation and a teacherly overview of the discipline. It might make you smile just a bit to see a prof at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University sounding a bit like a scholastic in the tradition of the good Catholic Doctor Thomas Aquinas. I’m sure the Thomas Road Baptist Church near her campus isn’t named after that Thomas.
(An aside for maybe the four or five friends of BookNotes who care: it’s good to have Dr. Prior, at Liberty University, of all places, so conversant in the medieval scholastic tradition — the virtue theory of Aquinas is a whole lot better than the simplistic Biblicism and anti-intellectualism for which most of American fundamentalism is known. So my hat is truly off to her, there; she’s super smart and this book is a good indication of her scholarly diligence and it’s good to be rooted in such a respected, classical tradition. Still, as an erstwhile Presbyterian Reformer, I might ask how Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of “the anti-thesis” or Dooyeweerd’s assessment of scholasticism’s unhealthy reliance on a nature vs grace ground motive, or even Francis Schaeffer’s call to reject accommodation to Greek epistemologies might help us get a more deeply Biblical accent in talking about virtue, rooted in insight about wisdom and our call to discern creation’s speaking, moment-by-moment, rather than borrowing willy-nilly from Catholic sources that depend upon pagan Aristotle. Just asking for a friend.)
So, just know: there’s some teacherly stuff about virtue and character formation that may seem a little less warm and inspiring as one might expect from a book about literary goodness. And that teacherly stuff is rooted in a tradition about the story of virtue that itself might need to itself be studied just a bit. It might not hurt to wonder what Calvin Seerveld, for instance, just as one important scholar, might say in his books like A Christian Critique of Art and Literature about reading literature for virtue. I suspect there are other theological and philosophical traditions that want to open up human responsibility and wisdom but use other sorts of language and have other understandings of a mature and faithful person and the way art and imagination works in our personal and communal lives. Karen herself realizes that and in a lovely rumination in the end of the introduction speaks about the aesthetics of stories, the experiential nature of entering a plot of a novel. In other words, one can hardly read the introduction to Karen’s thoughtful book without entering a larger conversation about the role of literature, the calling to cultivate our character, the nature of whole-life discipleship and our interior lives, and ideas we have about the role of the arts in helping us along that journey, age old questions about reason and imagination. One might even wonder – even if we buy the whole Aquinas-based view of virtue that Prior draws upon – if this is the task of art, to stimulate our virtue? I’m not saying it is not, I’m just saying it is a live question, even though the iconic evangelical lit scholar Leland Ryken in his beautifully economical and very positive introduction insists that Prior gets it just right.
A second heads-up, less obscure and perhaps more immediately urgent: there are necessarily spoilers in a book that explains the plot and personality and ethics and vision of a dozen or so novels. There’s no way to be coy about this: there are spoilers. I do not think this ruins the stories for those who have not read all of these novels (or short stories) and it may even help. For me, at least, that is the case – knowing what to look for and what to be attentive to doesn’t diminish the pleasure of entering the story any more than a travel guide hurts your journey into a strange, new city. No need to be grumpy about this – you’ll thank her later, I’m sure.
Thirdly: I don’t know if this is a warning or just an observation, but I suspect a few folks may think that reading up on the power of great books to shape our interior lives and seeing example after example of how virtue can be gleaned by imbibing in classic literature will, in fact, somehow make them more virtuous. I’m afraid it isn’t quite that easy.
I actually think there is something to this, though. For instance, I believe that reading a book about prayer is obviously not the same kind of activity as praying. But it is a close second. That is, I learn prayerful attitudes and take in spiritual insight about praying from slowing down and focusing and reading carefully a book on prayer. It is no substitute for praying, but it helps.
Similarly, reading about great novels isn’t the same as reading those novels, but it helps. And learning about the virtues found in those stories doesn’t easily impart those benefits to you, but it helps. On Reading Well doesn’t offer magic bullets of great goodness if you read, say, Tolstoy or Twain, let alone Prior’s reflections on them. But watching Prior in action, exegeting those passages, drawing insight from them, explaining stuff about them, may just give you a hunger for doing that kind of thing yourself. That is, she is a teacher of literature, not a guru; she is a professor, not a spiritual director. Having said that, go at it with earnest eagerness and see what happens. She doesn’t say nearly enough about the “how” of all this – in their more casual way I’d Rather Be Reading and Book Girl help show how it works – but Prior just invites us into the stories, reminding us of these cardinal, theological, and heavenly virtues as we read and ponder the tales. It isn’t all we need to do to become virtuous, but it sure can’t hurt, eh?
Ms Prior says this herself in her own memoir, Booked. In her beautiful reflections there she says:
Although I know that what is true in fiction isn’t always true in real life, I still somehow – as a teacher of literature and as a student of literature – want all of the lessons that can be learned from books to make an immediate transfer from the pages to the minds and lives of those who read them.
But they don’t. The pages of books can change lives – as they have done mine – but its not always so simple a transaction as merely reading the book and walking away, life transformed. It takes time for this to happen. If it happens at all.
“Life,” she continues, “like a great book, is complicated.”
One thing that should be clear in On Reading Well is how well-suited the author is for this exact book. Allow me two big claims about this that I hope convince you that this is a great match-up of author and topic, and therefore is a book with a natural and vital sort of integrity. It’s a book that you really should get.
Firstly, Prior just loves these stories. I know this from other writing that she has done (more on that in a minute) and I wish it came through even more clearly in the book, although it does come through nicely. My hunch is she’s being a bit professorial and wanting to guide readers to discover the joys of reading the story – and the process, the art, of allowing the stores to shape them for the better – for themselves. She doesn’t gush, much, but Dr. Prior is a lover of literature, par excellence, and she trusts the stories are artful and powerful enough to do their thing on open-hearted readers. She is a bit nerdy (especially about Victorian stuff) and this passion for the printed page should inspire us all. She ends her introduction with the lines of Puritan Richard Baxter who says,“Good books are a very great mercy to the world.” It is good to be in conversation with someone who knows this so deeply in her bones.
Secondly, besides her great love for the literature that shines through (if even restrained a bit, virtuously prudent and temperate and humble as she is) Karen Prior knows that serious Christians must engage their world, serving God in all of life, bearing witness to Christ’s Kingdom in, but not of, the surrounding culture. She uses her significant intellect and great knowledge of history to marshal not only desire for literature, and not only desire for virtue from great literature, but for the sort of Christian character formation that propels one to action in the fallen world. This comes up over and over in her reflections on these great novels, insights about the very real sadness of this sinful world, but also the very real possibility of redemption, of hope and goodness. Virtue – Biblically understood – is not only a personal matter of being, say, honest or kind, privately moral. Rather, true virtue spills out into all of life, compelling us to be involved in the issues of the day, standing for justice and being courageous in efforts to make a difference.
Prior herself bears witness to these truths; we need not go into it much here, but there are those within her own Southern Baptist culture that think she is a heretic. She is beloved by many, yes, but is also hated, with terrible, awful stuff poured out at her. Why? Oh, perhaps because she is a representative of evangelical faith communities for the Humane Society and has written stuff about treating animals with dignity. (She has a chapter in Every Living Thing, an anthology attempting to bring a variety of religious voices into the conversation about animal well-being.) Being green seems to be a red flag for some. Or because she has arranged conversations to bring together in civil discourse those who are pro-life and those that are pro-choice. That she is a thoughtful, moderate, socially-engaged evangelical woman — she works with guys like Russell Moore and Daniel Darling, recent author of The Dignity Revolution, in the public policy division of her denomination – has made her a lightning rod for much spiteful opposition.
Which sort of makes sense because she wrote a major biography of another woman who in the late 1700s faced extraordinary backlash against her her literature, her polemics, and her activism, namely the Christian abolitionist, Hannah More. Anyone who has read anything about the heroic William Wilberforce (or seen the thrilling movie, Amazing Grace) knows that the fight to end slavery in England, led famously by Wilberforce, would not have been successful without the art and gumption of the writer/activist Hannah More.
Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More
Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More Karen Swallow Prior (Thomas Nelson) $24.99 I so enjoyed Eric Metaxas’s fabulous, energetic foreword to Fierce Convictions, Karen Swallow Prior’s marvelous and important biography of 18thcentury British abolitionist Hannah More, where Metaxas writes about almost wanting to stop his research on Wilberforce (that gave us the book Amazing Grace) to focus on Hannah More. As he tells it, he only could pray that somebody else would soon take on this gargantuan job, writing the first major biography of this amazing pre-Victorian writer and public voice for social justice. It speaks volumes that Karen Swallow Prior – who loves books so much, but also has this desire to see evangelical faith as an agent for good in the world – took up the task. Her Fierce Convictions isn’t precisely about virtue, but, oh my, what a virtuous woman Hannah More was. And how influential. In Prior’s hands, this More biography makes history come to life and shows us what the “end game” of all this talk about “the good life” is all about.
Do you want to know why Prior pours herself into writing a book like On Reading Well and goes on about virtue and character and inner transformation by reading good novels? It is, I gather, because she is hoping that her students, and those of us who read her on reading well, will maybe end up something like Hannah More. Now more than ever we need kind and good and merciful Christians who are prudent and humble and committed to social righteousness and public justice. We need woman and men like Hannah More and William Wilberforce, and Prior seems to think, or so it seems to me, that reading well is not only an avenue to personal virtue but to the formation of whole-life disciples of Jesus who will live out their faith in the marketplace and public square and work for renewal and goodness in all corners of our common life. Like Hannah More, Ms. Prior herself is a literary teacher, an artist, an activist. Three big cheers for that, eh? I so admire her.
Won’t you join us in supporting this kind of work by ordering a couple of her books? As I sometimes say, Read for the Kingdom! Or as Chris Smith’s book title puts it, Read for the Common Good.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked: Literature in the Soul of MeKaren Swallow Prior (T.S. Poetry Press) $17.99 I mentioned Karen Swallow Prior’s true love of books. Like her page-turning sisters mentioned above, Anne Bogel (I’d Rather Be Reading) and Sarah Clarkson (Book Girl), she’s smitten. Is the Pope Catholic? Wowza, this is so true, and it is abundantly, beautifully, clear in her creative memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. I have told you about that before, over the years, celebrating that she came up with this delicious idea of doing a memoir – her own memories of her growing up and into young adulthood – by way of describing a book that meant the most to her in that era of her life. What a grand idea, an autobiographical survey of the books that she loved or that had influenced her, season by season, through her (shall we say?) ups and downs. Many of us could draw up such a table of contents, at least – that would be a fun experiment, no? (for me it would also be the record albums that were playing year by year) — but few could pull off such a project as gracefully and with such solid, wise, insight as Prior.
ABook for Hearts & Minds: What You Should Read & Why
This becomes even clearer in a gorgeous, unforgettable essay she wrote that I am reluctant to even tell you about, for fear of boasting, but I so want to say it. I’m reluctant because we figure into it a bit.
Do you recall that our friends at Square Halo Books – the beloved Bauers and Bustards — created, without us knowing about it, something like a festchrift (which is most often a collection of essays for a retiring professor, compiled as a gift from his or her students, in tribute.) Well, Beth and I aren’t professors and we’re not retiring, but a big handful of great authors each weighed in with a chapter about their own favorite books in their respective fields (offering chapters similar to what I sometimes do at BookNotes: listing a batch of must-reads in a given topic.)
The book is called ABook for Hearts & Minds: What You Should Read & Why – A Festchrift Honoring The Work of Hearts & Minds Bookstore (Square Halo Books; $18.99) and I suppose it’s fair to say we are one of the only places that stocks this anthology of great chapters about great books. What other book has Calvin Seerveld and Ned Bustard, N.T. Wright and David Gushee, Matthew Dickerson and Steve Garber, chapters on the best books about the Bible and cookbooks and poetry and urban planning and history and fantasy and creation-care and film more?
Karen Swallow Prior’s great chapter in A Book for Hearts & Minds is simply called “Literature” but that doesn’t do it justice – it is drawn mostly from Booked and has a bit of memoir-ish telling of her own story (starting a lending library in her girlhood basement) and name dropping all manner of childhood book favs.
And lists her several “must read” literary classics and why she so recommends them.
As broad as my tastes run and as interested as I am in all this stuff – new chapters from N.T. Wright and Calvin Seerveld and Steve Garber and Gregory Wolfe – I must admit I took up Prior’s right away. A whole chapter of a renowned Christian literary critic writing about her love for books! And her most urgently recommended classic novels! Beth and I were honored by the whole festchrift honoring our 35 years in bookselling, but having Dr. Prior included meant so much.
And so, we love our books here at at the family-owned, indie-spirited Hearts & Minds. Sure, we carry gift items, CDs, church supplies, cards, kids’ books aplenty and most of the stuff you’d find in most religious bookstores. But we have more books than most and are happy to say that our shelves are jam-packed with quality fiction and nonfiction. We are grateful for publishers who publish great books about books, like those by Anne Bogel, Sarah Clarkson, and Karen Swallow Prior. We are honored to carry these treasures by these three women, fellow book nerds, and we are confident that their volumes are gifts from God, able to transform your life and brighten our world. Read for the Kingdom.
For more than 35 years we have run this little bookstore here in south central Pennsylvania. Some of our business is – as most readers of BookNotes know – on-line and mail order. We appeal to those who hate the porno dealing and union busting and market-skewing and facelessness of Amazon and other big box retailers that spew out data but not necessarily wisdom, who are driven by algorithms and greed and growth. Anyway, we are grateful for our on-line conversations and the opportunity to hand-wrap and mail books to real customers who sometimes become real friends. Shout out to Hillary who sent us a Rosh Hashana cake the other day.
Much of our business, though, is centered in our real bricks and mortar store here in Dallastown. We like our small town and we love our central PA roots. We are grateful that customers drive here from Philly, from Harrisburg, from Baltimore, from Chambersburg (and, sometimes, from New York and central Virginia and Pittsburgh.) Kudos to the great Washington area gang and all our friends from various CCO campuses who sometimes bring students here. But, most days, it’s just us local (but rarely ordinary) folks from York County. We are glad to serve our friends here in the geography of home.
This coming Friday evening, September 14th, will be, we hope, a lovely convergence of some out of town fans and some local friends who are all showing up to hear Karen Swallow Prior share about her brand new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos Press; $19.99.) She’ll start her talk here at 7:00 PM and be with us for a few hours. I can hardly contain myself telling you why hosting Karen is so very great for us. We pray she has a good time, but we know we sure will! Beth and I and our staff here are thrilled to have her help us understand better what we do. That is, she is going to remind us about the life-changing, culture-reforming, God-honoring, faith-building, power of books and literature. As you can tell from the title and subtitle of her book, Dr. Prior’s thesis is simple but profound: reading good books can help us live well. Great novels, particularly, can help cultivate our character. On Reading Well is as much about character formation, virtue theory, and the nurturing of our interior lives as it is about literature.
I will review On Reading Well (and a few other books about books that have released this week) in the next BookNotes in a day or so. For now, I want to do two or three quick things and get this newsletter sent into your inboxes.
SPREAD THE WORD – COME IF YOU CAN
Firstly, please consider sharing this with anybody you may know in the mid-Atlantic region who wants to spend a couple of hours in an intimate setting with Dr. Karen Prior. You may know she is much in demand, writes often for publications as diverse as the Atlantic and First Things, Christianity Today, and Vox. Not too many literature profs get to write for The Washington Post and the Gospel Coalition, but that’s Karen. She is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (did you see that review I did in the last BookNotes of The Dignity Revolution by Daniel Darling? She is a colleague of his (and his boss Russell Moore) in that thoughtful, evangelical movement which offers faithful public theology for the common good.) She is known for her own memoir Booked and the one-of-a-kind biography of the Victorian-era British abolitionist, great moral activist and novelist Hannah More, Fierce Convictions. She has brought together pro-choice and pro-life folks to talk about common ground and she serves as an evangelical voice within the Humane Society which works (as did Wilberforce and Hannah More) for animal welfare. She teaches lit at Liberty University which makes her that much more interesting to some. That the ecumenical Brazos Press published this book (in hardback, no less) illustrates how important it is and Prior’s own reputation as a significant voice within the broader faith community.The da
So, she’s a live-wire, rock-solid, scholar and important leader within the evangelical world and beyond. If you want to attend, you might be advised to come a bit early; it could be crowded. It’s going to be a great night of conversation (and refreshments) about faith, culture, books, and, well, more books. There are hotels about 4 miles away near the South Queen Street exit of Route 83 and it might be fun to visit our area here if you can.
The day after our event, Dr. Prior will be doing another event in Lancaster (less than an hour away) on Saturday evening. Learn about the “book launch party” with Prior and see the artwork in On Reading Well done by Square Halo Gallery curator and Lancaster printmaker Ned Bustard HERE. Ned and his wife Leslie are dear friends and big supporters of our work here on this side of the Susquehanna River and we are happy they are hosting Karen (and showing off the original pieces for the book) on Saturday at the downtown Lancaster Gallery. Spread the word!
SIGNED BOOKS MAKE GREAT GIFTS
Secondly, we wanted to announce to you (as we sometimes do) that even if you can’t be with us here in the shop on Friday night, we can get Karen to autograph books for you. If you’d like a signed copy, just let us know and we can get one (or more) signed and send it out on Monday.
If you want to give one as a gift to someone (thinking ahead for Christmas, maybe?) she can inscribe On Reading Well to someone special. Again, just give us the details and we’ll have her do that for you. We can send the signed books to you or we can gift-wrap and send them out to your recipient. Just let us know how we can help.
On Reading Well is a fairly serious book and (as we’ve described before and will explore more in the next BookNotes) she links a classic virtue with a certain novel — temperance can be learned from Gatsby, justice is seen in Tale of Two Cities, humility emerges from two pieces by Flannery O’Connor. One doesn’t have to have read the books in this collection to appreciate it. She explains the stories and highlights the characters in ways that makes us hunger for a more morally consistent life, for cardinal virtues, Christian virtues, heavenly virtues. This is meaty, important stuff, for sure.
ENJOY THIS OP-ED PIECE WRITTEN FOR OUR LOCAL PAPER
Which brings me to our third reason for sending out this BookNotes today: I wanted you to see an op-ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper. It may or may not get published, but we wanted to share with you this little rumination on the need for character formation and how reading books can help (as Jamie Smith puts it in You Are What You Love) “conscript us into a better story.”
Reading novels are clearly not the only things that shapes us, but there is something potent about the slower, careful attention one must pay to a good book – in contrast to the speedy, visceral impact of film and music and advertising.) If you’ve read anything like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by the eloquent Marilyn McEntyre or Reading for the Common Good by Englewood Review’s C. Christopher Smith or The Pleasures of Reading in a Distracted Age by Alan Jacobs, you know how fascinating this whole topic of how books work and why they matter can be. Prior’s project is less sociological about the role of reading, generally, but offers up specific studies of Christian character formation by imbibing the virtues found in classic literature.
I hope you enjoy this little essay and hope it shows you how we promote this evangelical project within a public setting. Maybe it will inspire you to order her book or – who knows – venture to Dallastown or Lancaster this weekend. Happy reading.
CAN READING GOOD BOOKS CREATE GOOD CHARACTER?
Author Karen Swallow Prior to speak at Hearts & Minds this Friday, September 14, 2018 7:00 PM 234 East Main Street Dallastown, PA 17313
From the debates about Colin Kaepernick to the confirmation hearings of Brent Kavanaugh, from the routine accusations made against the President to the tragic failures of the Catholic church, this week has been a particularly vivid example of what is true of all weeks: from the most newsworthy leaders and celebrities to our favorite local heroes and normal neighbors, questions of character loom large. Our deepest values and virtues are embodied in a million choices people make day by day by day; we may talk in lofty language about what we claim we believe but our daily choices reveal what we most love and show off our truest selves. This is true of government officials, business leaders, and, of course, each and every one of us; you and me, every day.
This is seen in slogans we offer and truisms we live by. Whether it’s “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” or “blessed are the peacemakers”, “one day at a time” or “go big or go home”, so many of our cultural sayings capture our imaginations, conscripting us into stories about the meaning of what really matters, how we understand the good life, and what kind of people we want to be.
Although the shaping of our deepest loves and the imaginative constructs of how we live into what we think matters most is complicated, much of this meaning-making and way-finding comes from what classic thinkers have called character. That is, we reveal who we really are and what we most deeply believe when (especially under pressure) our choices become instinctual.
“I didn’t stop to think about it,” the heroic firefighter says as she tells of dashing into a burning building to save a child; it just came natural to her. That is, what she did flowed from who she is. Of course, she had been trained to do this. Naturally, she was trained in fire-fighting skills, but more, she developed character traits and dispositions to willingly put herself in harm’s way, to save lives. Her brave behavior didn’t happen just because of an idea or a skill-set; she was a person of character, of certain virtue. Wanting to do the right thing had become natural.
Few of us have consistently well-formed characters and it seems to be the human condition to walk around with values higher than we are able to live. Still, in one way or another, we are being formed to become people to live lives that are consistent with our deepest values, or not. We are trained in making choices and our interior lives inform those choices, revealing our deepest character.
We become courageous whistle-blowers or those who are complicit in injustice, we become people who cheat on our taxes, or those for whom such a thought wouldn’t cross their minds. We cheat on our spouses or we resist temptations. We talk endlessly about our achievements or we humbly listen to others. We get involved in civic life for the sake of the common good or we look out for number one. We complain about everything or we live with grace and gratitude.
Who nurtures our values? What institutions inform our deepest convictions? Where does one go in order to – as the Bible puts it – get “trained in righteousness”? Why do some people show forth consistent, coherent lives of virtue and others seem so morally shabby? And, importantly, how can we become more like the good people that we admire?
Literature professor Karen Swallow Prior maintains that one resource for the development of virtue, a school for character formation, if you will, is to be found in the reading of great books. She is not new in making this case but she is one of the most recent teachers to remind us of what the best thinkers in Western history – starting with the ancient Greeks – have long said. Stories allow us to inhabit a world of choices and we emerge from those worlds in one way or another shaped, influenced, formed. For better or worse our worldview and ethics, our virtue and character, are nurtured by the storytellers, the artists, the filmmakers, the poets. In her brand new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, Prior makes this case by offering a virtue-based reading of a dozen great classics. By looking at Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Shusaku Endo’s Silence and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, by reflecting on justice in A Tale of Two Cities and patience in Austen’s Persuasion (and so much more) Dr. Prior helps readers not only learn to understand and love great literature but to live life well.
With media pundits and Hollywood film makers and public school teachers and our preachers and social media friends all vying for our attention, it is no wonder many of us feel fragmented, restless, confused about what we believe, let alone how best to live well. Great books endure for a reason, and Ms. Prior helps us realize that profound reading can yield deeper, more thoughtful, and more virtuous lives.
Join us at the Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown this Friday, September 14th at 7:00 PM for a very special evening with Karen Swallow Prior discussing her new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. The program is free and open to the public.
You may not be called upon to save a life in a moment’s notice and your behaviors may not be examined in public by a Senate committee. More likely you live your days consumed by more mundane matters, but we all must, to borrow a phrase from author Steve Garber, weave together belief and behavior, creating a fabric of faithfulness. What do we really love? Who do we want to be? What virtues form our character? Great books can inspire us and help us grapple with such big questions. Karen Swallow Prior will be a delightful, helpful guide. Join us.
I hope you noticed in our last BookNotes (the one about creatively written, passionate, narrative nonfiction and the value of memoir) that we announced that we are hosting author, college professor, and activist Karen Swallow Prior on September 14th, 2018, to talk about her brand new book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. Join us here in Dallastown for what is sure to be a lovely, stimulating evening.
I’ll be doing an extended review of that book soon, so look for that shortly.
For this new early September BookNotes we offer an omnibus sort of piece — a collection of reviews and announcements of a dozen new books that are all well worth reading. We have oodles more new books in the shop, of course, but these are the best of the best that have arrived in the last month or so that we though you should know about.
ALL BOOKS MENTIONED ARE 20% OFF.
Our website order form page is secure and you can reach it at the link below, at the bottom of this column. As you’ll see, you can safely enter credit card digits there or you can just ask us to send you a bill. We’re happy to trust you, and will gladly fill your order promptly and enclose en invoice in the package. Thanks for caring about good books and supporting our family-owned, indie bookstore. Let’s stay in touch.
Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing Jay Stringer (NavPress) $15.99 We are really thrilled and deeply gratified to tell you about this brand new book. We are happy to celebrate its release in part because we knew the author when he was a young adult. His family lived nearby while his father did incredible work at a local church years ago. Many knew even then that Jay was destined for some kind of really thoughtful ministry. It’s nice when a former friend and Dallastown kid gets onto the national stage like this. Stringer has an MDiv. and an LMHC (which is to say he’s an ordained pastor and a licensed therapist) so he’s done some serious scholarship to back up his current private practice and consulting work. (More about that in a moment.)
More significantly, we are grateful to be able to recommend a book so unequivocally, so confidant that it is not only really, really good, but truly breaking new ground in a particular field. Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing is pioneering, offering new insights about men and women with unwanted sexual temptations and behaviors, from using porn to being involved in an affair. There are bunches of books about our porn epidemic and sexual addictions but here Jay Stringer offers something that seems to me to be new and quite profound. The important Dr. Mark Laaser wrote a good foreword.
As you may know, many of the books that offer help to those with unhealthy sexual desires or behaviors, in one way or another, with different levels of sophistication, recommend that we “just say no.” Or, as Stringer describes those “fighting lust” approaches, we must “put a tourniquet on it.” To their credit, many of the standard books designed to help porn-users offer gospel-based grace and the power that comes from surrendering to Christ. They don’t simply recommend we “say no” on our strength, but we allow God to give us fortitude to resist temptations. Although I believe Christian growth – what the theologians call sanctification – is more complicated than cheaply intoning that Luther line about “preaching the gospel to yourself” or insisting that Christ is sufficient, obviously gospel-based trust in Christ’s cross, God’s imputed righteousness, and the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit are essential resources. Of course, we don’t go it alone, and God is with us and promises to help us. True enough.
Still, in this fallen world, East of Eden as we are, things are harder than any simple answers or formulas our accountability programs can meaningful address. And Stringer – in part because he studied at the Allender Center at the Seattle School of Theology — knows this well. He knows we are living out our lives as part of a story, and knowing our past is an important part of re-directing our current path. One doesn’t need to read You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith (although it doesn’t hurt) to know about the central role of desire and imagination and story to shape the texture of our lives.
You may know how we’ve promoted Dr. Dan Allender’s body of work, especially his To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future. You may know that Allender (who has written compassionately and wisely about sexual abuse in books like The Wounded Heart and Healing the Wounded Heart) has a recent book (co-written by his pal, Bible scholar Tremper Longman) called God Loves Sex: An Honest Conversation about Sexual Desire and Holiness. So Allender knows a thing or two about joy and goodness and desires gone amuck and the holy re-ordering of passion, including sexual passion. Dan also wrote a lovely book called Leading With a Limp that notes that even leaders shouldn’t shy away from their wounds and failures, that being in touch with our brokenness reveals something vital about ourselves and about God’s great kindness in our lives. This restoration of hope is, as Allender puts it in yet another book, The Path of Healing.
I write all this because some of our readers will know Allender and his Center in Seattle. And because that one paragraph about Dan’s books give you a nice introduction to the tone and framework for Jay Stringer’s new book, Unwanted. Yep, Stringer has deep connections with friends at the Alllender Center, and makes the claim that our storied lives impact how we live now, and that to redirect how our lives unfold we must be in touch with past wounds and see what they tell us about ourselves, about God’s presence, and about the basis for solid hope moving forward. He has a remarkable hashtag slogan for his new book: listen to your lust.
Here is a fabulous endorsement (one among so very many) of the Stringer’s book, Unwanted, by Dan Allender himself:
Unwanted is, without rival, the best book on broken sexuality I have ever read. It is heartbreaking and hope-restoring, and with immense kindness, it proceeds to where most work stalls and refuses to enter. Jay’s research is groundbreaking. No one has pursued these dark waters with as much light-offering, data-bound research. Even more, Jay offers the heart of the gospel in a manner that doesn’t trivialize sin or addiction but lifts the battle up to the ambivalence we have about freedom. This book will be a classic that anchors us in brilliant research, soul honesty, and biblical reflection.
Stringer explains that we need to learn to name that deeper background stuff, to tell our stories well. His own honest telling of his own episodes of troubling fantasies in the first fantastic chapter (“A Theology of Unwanted Sexual Behavior”) offers a helpful framework and some unforgettable lines:
Lust-centered approaches are Ineffective
Fantasies are road maps
Sexual brokenness offers the geography of God’s arrival
Stringer ends that important chapter with a brief reflection on “God’s curious pursuit” which is a study of the abused Egyptian teenager in Genesis 15 named Hagar.
Like Hagar, Jay suggests, we are on the run. At least those of us with chronic sin (and, in this case, particularly sexual sin) sure are. If we ponder our restlessness, our running, if we learn to pay attention, our brokenness can itself disclose the way of our healing. As becomes clear, especially in the many stories Stringer shares, we can best pay attention when we let go of shame and adopt an earnest curiosity about our own lives.
“As we begin this journey,” Stringer invites, “ask yourself, Where is it that I come from? And where is it that I’m going?” I suspect he might also ask, What are you running from?
Here is yet another thing that makes this deep dive into self-awareness and a Christian approach to everything from dysfunctional family systems and issues of abandonment or triangulation and trauma and such. Unwanted offers, for the first time, the report about what the publisher suggests is the largest survey yet done of women and men who replied about their unwanted sexual behaviors.
Stringer has studied the survey responses of nearly 4,000 people, making this a hugely significant new body of data about sexual fantasies, eroticism, sexual compulsions and other unwanted sexual behaviors. There is an appendix about the research for any statistic geeks or those wanting info about the scientific methodology and content of the survey.
The data, Stringer insists, is not only intriguing, but also remarkably revealing about what is really going on among men and women who have sexual addictions, endure unwanted fantasies, act out in inappropriate ways, or are deeply involved in pornography and the like. As a clinician and therapist he has heard people talk about their sense of losing their very souls through experiences of trauma. Some have experienced sexual abuse, which has caused lasting pain and corrupted their desires in various ways. The first third of the book, under the unit “How Did I Get Here” draws on amazingly important research and assures us that understanding our unrelenting unwanted behaviors and our deepest stories is important.
The second part of Unwanted is called “Why Do I Stay?” and it looks at “six core experiences of unwanted sexual behavior” and “three hijackers of our souls.” He starts off this illuminating section noting that “Most people have a clear understanding of the behavior they wish to stop but have far less clarity regarding the key drivers that inform why they stay involved in unwanted sexual behavior.”
Stringer has a strong critique of male violence against women—knowing that about the porn industry is essential, for both women and men users. Few people really want to be involved in that cruelty, but something is driving us to these hard distortions of God’s good gifts.
The last seven chapters are too complex and important to summarize here; these are jam-packed with good stuff. They offer “a new sexual story” to get at “sexual healing.” Some of this uses language and practices from therapy (attunement and containment in relationships) and he explains them well show how to develop these habits. He holds up both strength and vulnerability in relationships and reminds us beautifully about the need to invest in community. The last few chapters, in fact, are about community being that place where we experience support and offer empathy for the stories of others. Does your faith community offer a place to discover purpose and “living for a bigger story”? I think any congregational leader or small group facilitator or anyone hungering for greater community could benefit from these last chapters as we learn to maximize the true transformative impact of authentic communities.
There are helpful reflection questions, too, making Unwanted that much more of a useful resource for individuals or counselors or groups.
Was the famously witty British novelist and lay theologian G.K. Chesterton correct in saying that “every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God”? Jay Stringer seems to think so. Importantly, he has this remarkable research to back him up. Unwanted is a powerful read, a useful book for anyone interested in the interface of orthodox Christian faith and psychology. More specifically it for anyone wanting to uncover the roots of shame and the bad decisions in their lives. It is for anyone who needs “to be told” about the deeper issues of our fallen world and, better, how to enter the story, the better story, of the good graces of a God of mercy and true intimacy who is making all things new.
Unleash: Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders Marv Nelson (Abingdon Press) $15.99 Speaking of books written by authors we know and love, this brand new book is by a former youth pastor friend from Pittsburgh. In fact, after a stint doing Middle School ministry and youth work, Marv Nelson worked with young adults and pastored a college and career age, campus church plant near the University of Pittsburgh. A few of my dear CCO friends worked intimately with him and everyone who knows him stands in awe at his genuine care, his kind spirit, his fun and effective approach and his keen ability to serve others even while leading them well. He is a pastor and leader that I greatly admire. We are happy to stock his previous book (good for anyone with doubts or in need of Christian basics, but especially for seekers and skeptics, called What Good is Jesus?)
I read this newly released book in earlier manuscript form and am so glad the real copy just arrived. It is part of the new imprint offering a series published by Abingdon called “Burlap” which is a growing book line about young adult ministry. This new one by Marv helps those who desire to understand and equip millennial and Generation Z leaders.
I think Unleash is a vital book for several reasons and a serious review would need to be much longer than I now have space for. But I can say at least this much: firstly, it is a book about leadership development. It seems to me that many who are in leadership positions don’t think enough about leadership, as such, and many don’t even view themselves as leaders. Pastors, youth workers, teachers, coaches, campus workers, teen outreach volunteers, and others who are in significant, influential roles should study up and be clearer about the complex calling and task of leadership. So this book at least reminds leaders to lead.
But here is what’s better: this is about leadership development not only within yourself but among others around you. Marv Nelson has a knack for, as they say, investing in others. For pouring into others. (Well, it seems like a knack, just a natural thing, but as this book shows, Marv has thought a lot about how this works and has worked hard to explore what is faithful and effective as he’s sharpened those ministry arts.) Still, he easily calls out the best in others, he invites folks along in his own leadership work, slowly passing the reigns to others; he creates teams and delegates stuff and sets folks up to succeed (or maybe not) always guiding them with care and intentionality. He mentors others and knows how to get the deep stuff said and the good stuff accomplished. This book shows you how it’s done.
It’s not every leadership book, you know, that cite the spiritual formation guide David Benner; I’m glad he’s attentive to the interior life of leaders, and quotes Reggie McNeals A Work of Heart: How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders
It is a bit of a cliché, but still too often true, that many leadership books within the church are too indebted to power principles that have emerged from the marketplace. That is, they presume that the church is something like a business and that church leadership is the same as corporate leadership. Of course, we can wisely plunder what we can from other schools of thought but, mostly, Christian leaders must be driven by a Biblical worldview and a distinctively Christ-like form of servant leadership. Marv Nelson gets that and his book is so obviously rooted in the ways of Jesus. It isn’t a thinly disguised book about corporate leadership aimed at recruiting and manipulating others for one’s agenda. It is a wise guide to nurturing faithful habits and character and skills and the ability to influence other for the sake of God’s work in the world. It is about leading others to realize their own capacities and unleashing them for ministry and work
But here is where it gets really valuable. Everybody knows there is great debate about the notion of generations – should we stereotype Baby Boomers or Gen Xers or Millenials or the new iGen? (Yep, just the other day I was talked to a group of older teens and realized they have no memory of 9-11 and are true digital natives; they don’t recall a time without smart phones. There were significant conversations within their own learning community about the role of phones and pads in their lives and the impact these high-tech mediums plays in their faith formation and discipleship.) Sure, some overstate the caricatures, but some awareness of broad cultural realities is very important. Marv draws on Barna research, of course – books like Unchristian,You Lost Me, The Next Christians, or Good Faith by David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyon – but uses his own insights and experiences to help remind us of the cultural context of young adult ministry and leadership formation today.
So, again, iGen or Generation Z is what some call the current emerging generation of young adults that tend to have certain shared experiences and dispositions and are shaping up differently than the previous millennial cohort. How do we understand these Gen Z older youth? How can we work with millennials, most who are in their late 20s, now. (We can read John Seel’s brilliant, provocative, well-written The New Copernicans: Millennial and the Survival of the Church for starters!) Marv Nelson has worked with college-age twenty somethings for years and is a good, experienced guide.
The book is brief, full of stories, informally written (so it isn’t dense or heady) and offers three big movements, three phases of leading others. He invites us to empower the next generation by knowing them, equipping them, and releasing them.
I like how Nelson’s friend, Bible scholar Warren Bird, describes the book:
Millennial pastor and friend Marv Nelson boils down empowering the next generation of leaders to knowing, equipping, and releasing. Within that insightful framework, he offers practical advice, pitfalls to avoid, personal stories, and rich insight from Scripture to help you accept the challenge to ‘unleash them to do even greater things than you have done.’
Listen to this, by a seasoned youth and young adult worker:
I am completely weary of dismissive and demeaning articles and books focused on the weak, lazy, entitled character of Millennials and Gen Z. This book is different — it’s helpful and hopeful. I’m glad to have a book to recommend to people leading younger generations into their full capacities – Mark Oestreicher, The Youth Cartel
Another small bonus of Unleash: Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders is a beautifully written afterword by my pal Joe Wimer who worked under Nelson for the CCO, doing campus ministry in Pittsburgh. In that epilogue, Joes tells some of his own story of working with collegiates and other young adults, and it is honest and inspiring. Well done.
The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis Alan Jacobs (Oxford University Press) $29.95 We get any number of new academic books from university and other scholarly presses into the store but none have excited me lately as much as this. It is on my short list of books to read very soon – I am guessing I will name it as one of the most significant books of 2018. Anything Alan Jacobs writes is well worth reading; he is a wise scholar and public intellectual esteemed by many within evangelicalism and beyond. (Dr. Jacobs is distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University.) His most recent previous book is the wonderful 2017 release How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds although we still tout his lovely The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. In some circles he is known for his “biography” of the Book of Common Prayer while in others he is most beloved for the great bio of C.S. Lewis called The Narnian.
In this new Oxford University Press volume, just released this summer, Professor Jacobs does a serious historical study of five key scholars standing clearly in the Christian tradition who wrote vital, much-discussed, major works right after World War II, offering prophetic imagination for what might be coming in the years ahead as the vast project of rebuilding and renewing the West would have to occur.
The five thinkers he examines are Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil. What we wouldn’t give for just one of these sorts of weighty, respected scholars, speaking into our time now; can you imagine a publishing year with major works by all five? Can you imagine Christian thinker talking seriously in ways the world would notice about the contours of Western civilization and the need for revitalization?
In 1943 we had extraordinary output of serious Christian cultural analysis by these writers, and Jacobs deftly walks us through what we need to know about these authors and their work. It starts a few years prior, aa other historic events and important voices set the stage. (Reinhold Niebuhr, for one; other intellectuals are named, such as, among others, Lewis Mumford, J.R.R. Tolkien, Eric Gill, Jacques Ellul. The good reflection on Ellul, by the way, is in a long afterword.)
The book is already starting to garner good reviews (including excellent ones in Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal.) Several key Christian intellectuals (think of James Davison Hunter) and period historians have endorsed it. This is an enduring, important work, no doubt.
Allow me to cite the dusk jacket and publishers explanation; it explains the project of the book so well:
By early 1943, it had become increasingly clear that the Allies would win the Second World War. Around the same time, it also became increasingly clear to many Christian intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic that the soon-to-be-victorious nations were not culturally or morally prepared for their success. A war won by technological superiority merely laid the groundwork for a post-war society governed by technocrats. These Christian intellectuals-Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil, among others-sought both to articulate a sober and reflective critique of their own culture and to outline a plan for the moral and spiritual regeneration of their countries in the post-war world.
In this book, Alan Jacobs explores the poems, novels, essays, reviews, and lectures of these five central figures, in which they presented, with great imaginative energy and force, pictures of the very different paths now set before the Western democracies. Working mostly separately and in ignorance of one another’s ideas, the five developed a strikingly consistent argument that the only means by which democratic societies could be prepared for their world-wide economic and political dominance was through a renewal of education that was grounded in a Christian understanding of the power and limitations of human beings. The Year of Our Lord 1943 is the first book to weave together the ideas of these five intellectuals and shows why, in a time of unprecedented total war, they all thought it vital to restore Christianity to a leading role in the renewal of the Western democracies.
Such a detailed study or such urgent, deep matters, naturally invites reflection on if this body of scholars and critics were wise or not, if they were heeded or not. Jacobs himself summarized saying:
Each of the writers I have studied here worked with astonishing energy to rescue their world for a deeply thoughtful, culturally rich Christianity, and to rescue that Christianity for their world. They put forth every effort to redeem the time…. Their diagnostic powers were great indeed: they saw uncanny clarity and exposed with incisive intelligence the means by which technocracy had arisen and the damage it had inflicted, and would continue to inflict on human persons.
Jacobs says on page 206 in what has to be a somber voice, that their mighty words were not taken to heart in part because they came too late, “after the reign of technocracy had become so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.”
I am curious to see if Jacob’s asks if, perhaps, none of the scholars he explored broke radically enough with the spirits of modernity that gave rise to the faith in science and technology that lead to such dehumanization and the rise of the evils of the atomic age. I wonder if they rejected the fabled Enlightenment project, but the very roots of Western culture, autonomy of thought, grounded as much was, in accommodation to Greco-Roman thought in the earliest days of the church. That’s the basic claim of philosophers like Herman Dooyeweerd, or more recent cultural critics like Dutch economist Bob Goudzwaard, or neo-Calvinist cultural prophet Calvin Seerveld, and it might be interesting so see if any of that intellectual critique makes it way around Dr. Jacob’s good work.
There is a serious final paragraph, asking if there are such sturdy Christian voices today, advising any rising voices to study these five former prophets. James D. Hunter suggests as much, saying that in this book, Jacobs has “opened a window for thinking about our own troubled times.” At the very least, we can benefit from Jacob’s keen study, hear these voices from the past, ponder how to makes sense of a word in chaos, as they once did.
As Charles Marsh writes of The Year of Our Lord 1943,
This is a major achievement, wonderfully readable, the crowning work of our own era’s most resourceful Christian intellectual.
The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us From Drowning Aaron Niequist (Waterbrook) $19.99 That evangelicals have been in the forefront of writing great books and advocating for deeper, even classic spiritual practices is nothing new, nowadays. For decades, I’ve said that this confluence – perhaps starting with Richard Foster – of previously skeptical evangelicals and monastic and mystical literature is one of the most significant religious trends of our lifetime. One only need to think of the beautiful body of literature in the last decades written by those in the evangelical tradition – Ruth Haley Barton, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Gary Moon, John Ortberg, Jan Johnson, Donald Whitney, Dallas Willard, Marlena Graves, to name only a few. Or, one only has to think of the broader tradition of spirituality that these evangelicals are in conversation with, popular authors from Richard Rohr to Joan Chittister, Elizabeth Liebert, Marjorie Thompson, Martin Laird, Joyce Rupp, Ronald Rolheiser, Thomas Keating; obviously, writers like Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton are on everybody’s lists. And nearly everybody in this field is now interested in Saint Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola and Practicing the Presence of God and works by medievals like Julian of Norwich and St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. Evangelicals used to protest our store because we carried those kinds of books; now folks don’t find it that surprising (even though most big-box chain evangelical bookstores still don’t carry them.)
I explain all this to say that as a part of this trend there is a shift in language from disciplines to practices, so this new book by Aaron Niequist is spot on in that regard. And, there is also a new interest in liturgy, or “neo-liturgy” as the flyleaf of Aaron Niequist’s new book puts it. (Just think of James K.A. Smith’s magnificent cultural liturgies project, the rise among young evangelicals within liturgical traditions like the renewed Anglican church plants, the popularity of Taize, Tish Harrison Warren’s book The Liturgy of the Ordinary, or the popularity of the prayer-book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Everyday Radicals by Shane Claiborne and his pals, or the beautiful, boutique book of daily liturgies published by the Rabbit Room.)
I am glad that Aaron has served in some of the larger and notable big churches in America – Rob Bell’s former Grand Rapids church, Mars Hill, and Chicagoland’s Willow Creek – where he’s learned about innovation and music and deeper worship. Out of these innovative spaces Aaron, who is himself a musician and worship leader, has recorded contemporary music to be used in modern neo-liturgical settings. (His wife, Shauna Niequist, you should know, is a moving memoirist and is widely known for her artfully stylized books about finding God in the ordinary.) You can expect that The Eternal Current taps into this spiritual formation movement, draws on the Niequist’s experiences within innovative church settings, and is at least somewhat interested in ecumenical conversations around the renewal of liturgical practices. He seems the perfect person to bring a book like this to us, and it seems, truly, like a fresh contribution, unlike many on the market.
You can see the energy and joy and passion for this stuff as Aaron explains the book in 3 minutes in this little video, here:
Ruth Haley Barton says this is “winsome” and “refreshing, honest, and true.” She says it is a “compelling invitation” and if she finds it compelling, that means a lot. Here is her full endorsement about it, well worth reading:
I value this book because of Aaron’s winsome way of inviting us to swim in the Eternal Current of God’s kingdom by engaging in the life-giving practices spiritual seekers have used through the ages to open themselves to God. And what a clear and compelling invitation it is, emerging from his own life and witness! I share Aaron’s vision for practice-based communities that learn together how to swim in the deep end of the pool for the sake of others, and I am glad we have taken the deep dive together.
For those that like Father Richard Rohr, his name is on the front cover, saying that The Eternal Current is “an impassioned call to move beyond spiritual observation into divine participation.”
If you have eyes to see you can already pick up some of the beauty and importance of this. There is this image of a river in the title and subtitle. He works it throughout the book. For instance:
A mighty River flows throughout history, ushering in healing and restoration of all things. If you’ve read the Bible, you know how the story ends: love conquers death, a new heaven and earth are established, and the Creator finally makes everything right.
But if Jesus called this River “the Kingdom of God” then we know it is more than an idea to which we must intellectual subscribe. It’s a movement, an experience, an adventure, a flow into which we can get swept. God’s redemptive work in our lives and in God’s world is like that. “We can move from the dry riverbed of a static faith into the gushing Current of a practice-based faith. We can let go of the heavy burden of tribal certainty and get swept into the wise and wise River of rich, historical, body-of-Christ belonging.”
So, as it says on the back cover, this is “an invitation to participate. It is about this Eternal Current and how to swim in it. The Eternal Current promises a vision and set of practices for a deeper, more vibrant, beatitude-like faith rooted in sacred memory and holy imagination.”
There is so much here, good stuff about liturgy and imagination and memory and ecumenism and mission and community and life. For a book which at first glance seems to be about inner spirituality and spiritual formation and a bit about new forms of liturgical expression, I think this is surprisingly robust and visionary and fresh.
Episcopal priest, storyteller, and fun Enneagram guru, Ian Morgan Cron writes,
You hold in your hand a brilliant exploration of those ancient but evergreen practices the church must recover to remain vital and prophetic in the world. This field-tested and practical guide will equip and empower you to live I n and lead other into the life-giving waters of a practice-based faith.
Are you ready to enter sacred waters? This book could be for you.
The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity Daniel Darling (The Good Book Company) $16.99 It’s not every day that serious theology is discussed on national TV, but Daniel Darling was set up nicely by “Morning Joe” on MSNBC as they talked about the Bible, God having made human’s in God’s image, and why that means we have certain Christian obligations to stand for those whose dignity is assaulted. (Check out that interview here.) This new book is published by, and in the tradition of, conventional, historic evangelical faith and is fully gospel-centered and Biblically informed. Southern Baptist conservative thinker Albert Mohler says it is “a welcome resource for the church” because it is “a compelling and careful articulation of human dignity.”
David Darling is Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptists (and therefore works with Russell Moore who, by the way, has a new book coming out soon, too.) As a public figure with ERLC Darling is very interested in the public implications of Christian faith. Here, he invites us – no, he rigorously calls us to a new movement, a new cause for our times — The Dignity Revolution. I suspect everyone here will be mostly glad for this visionary reminder but also pushed just a bit to reconsider his or her own views and biases. He’s wanting to be consistently committed to the inherent dignity and worth of all, from the disabled to the unborn, from the aged to the vulnerable immigrant. He looks at healthcare and the prison system; he looks at the work-world and at issues such as race and poverty. The Dignity Revolution is far less partisan than other books like this and for that we should be very grateful. Highly recommended.
All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way Patrice Gopo (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 Beth and I have been eager for this book to arrive as we are reading even more than ever on books by people of color, memoirs and reflections to help us understand our culture these days and learn to be more effective agents navigating various subcultures and to somehow be able to do the work of being agents of God’s reconciliation. As we noted in the last big BookNotes column, we love memoirs and are most eager to promote books when they are well written and nicely packaged. Well, All the Colors We Will See is a simply lovely volume, and the author is remarkable, as a gifted writer and as one with a curious, interesting story. A great blurb on the back by award-winning writer Bret Lott is pretty darn special, too. He notes Gopo’s “calm voice and winsome demeanor” which allows her to speak hard truths… including “what it takes to continue in Christ’s love despite the fallen and falling world around us.”
This is truly one of the great books of the year.
Another reviewer said it was written with “eloquence born of pain and longing.”
Patrice Gopo grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the child of Jamaican immigrants who had little experience being black in America. How’s that for an opening salvo, an intriguing invitation to lean in and say, “tell me more!”
Later, we learn that she studied chemical engineering in Pittsburgh, at CMU, was married in South Africa, and then moved to a new home in the American Southland (with a husband who wasn’t American.) She has learned to be an evocative and luminous essayist, as a quick dip into nearly any page will show. As it says on the back cover, “Patrice’s life is a testament to the challenges and beauty of the world we live in, a world in which cultures overlap every day.”
We haven’t spent much time in this yet, but surely will as soon as we are able. For now, this back cover copy is just exquisite, convincing me this is a book that should be on the top of the stack for many of us.
Listen to this – just this description is itself so beautiful:
Patrice Gopo grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the child of Jamaican immigrants who had little experience being black in America. From her white Sunday school classes as a child, to her early days of marriage in South Africa, to a new home in the American South with a husband from another land, Patrice’s life is a testament to the challenges and beauty of the world we each live in, a world in which cultures overlap every day.
In All the Colors We Will See, Patrice seamlessly moves across borders of space and time to create vivid portraits of how the reality of being different affects her quest to belong. In this poetic and often courageous collection of essays, Patrice examines the complexities of identity in our turbulent yet hopeful time of intersecting heritages. As she digs beneath the layers of immigration questions and race relations, Patrice also turns her voice to themes such as marriage and divorce, the societal beauty standards we hold, and the intricacies of living out our faith.
With an eloquence born of pain and longing, Patrice’s reflections guide us as we consider our own journeys toward belonging, challenging us to wonder if the very differences dividing us might bring us together after all.
On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old Parker J. Palmer (Berrett-Koehler) $19.95 Parker Palmer is one of those important and gracious writers whose books you should read; you should just read ‘em all. We find his book about vocation, Let Your Life Speak, is one of our all time most beloved books among customers almost everywhere. His thoughtful study of education (To Know As We Are Known) is a must-read for anyone serious about learning. His book for teachers, The Courage to Teach, is nearly legendary. I wrote in these BookNotes pages how important I thought the righteously civil Healing the Heart of Democracy is. It’s needed now more than ever. We could go on, from his early Company of Strangers on the renewal of America’s public life to his Promise of Paradox, from Hidden Wholeness: The Journey to an Undivided Life (the title is drawn from a phrase of Thomas Merton’s) to his also Merton-esque The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring. He even has a book on renewing the values and spirit of higher education called The Heart of Higher Education that I wish was better known.
And so, after years of loving people, mentoring many, serving God in his poetic, quiet way, trying to lead others into circles of conversation and respect, working for the renewal education and civic life, Parker Palmer continues on. At age 80 he remains a thoughtful Quaker, shaped by both a profound interior life and a deep commitment to peace and justice in the world, living out that “hidden wholeness” that can be called wise and integrated. Maybe you’ve heard him on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” interview show on Public Radio. He’s got that sort of reputation as a deeply spiritual public intellectual.
In this book Palmer talks about what it is like being an elder. As his friend Richard Rohr writes on the back,
Our entire culture I in need of true elders, and you can’t be one until you have arrived there – chronologically, spiritually, and intellectually. Here’s a man who has arrived and with another book that’s a generous gift to all of us.
Even Better than Eden: Nine Ways the Bible’s Story Changes Everything About Your Story Nancy Guthrie (Crossway) $16.99 We really respect this thoughtfully conservative, Reformed Bible teacher. She has a podcast through the Gospel Coalition on learning how to teach the Bible that I hear is very good. (Michael Horton, the tough-minded, serious theologian, has said that Ms. Guthrie is “one of the best Scripture teachers I have ever heard or read.” Guthrie is obviously a good exegete, a fine teacher, and a colorful, if careful, wordsmith. Her books are valuable for many purposes and we commend them often. (That she has several books on grief and the ministry of walking with those in grief is itself significant, too.) Perhaps you know her several-volume study set called “Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament.” I like that she has that historical-redemptive hermeneutic, seeing the unfolding drama of the coherent Bible study, all of it pointing to Christ and his redemptive work.
Well, in this brand new one she lets loose and offers us nine creative themes that flow through the Bible story and how they can effect us. In a handsomely done paperback she tells about
The Story of the Wilderness
The Story of the Tree
The Story of His Image
The Story of Clothing
The Story of the Bridegroom
The Story of Sabbath
The Story of Offspring
The Story of a Dwelling Place
The Story of the City
This book is about 200 pages (with serious footnotes) which also includes a very useful study guide. Highly recommended.
Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught About Salvation, Eternity and Getting to the Good Place John Ortberg (Tyndale) $17.99 I love this, even though it just came yesterday and I’ve only glanced at it. Just holding it in my hand feels right – it’s a tiny bit differently shaped and the textured cover is cool. The title just shouts “N.T. Wright” but he’s not cited at all in the footnotes. (I checked.) I doubt he says “realized eschatology” because it just isn’t’ that kind of book. It is thoughtful and solid and lucid and passionate and very, very useful, I’m sure. And it does quote Dallas Willard, as all of John’s books do.
So, this is the hardback book that I’m sure will be non-controversial to most Hearts & Minds friends, but may be new material, or a new emphasis for some. It’s obvious right – just read John 10:10 or any number of Jesus’s teachings about the present reality of the Kingdom. To use Amy Sherman’s colorful image (in her book about work, Kingdom Callings) we can snatch a bit of future heavenly joy and goodness and yank it back into the present; that is, we can live and experience now, in a not fully consummated way, something of what the new creation will be like. At the very least, we can enjoy a foretaste and live as a witness now of what we anticipate life will be like, then.
Always be ready to give an account of that hope, Peter tells us.
I think Ortberg – truly one of our favorite writers as he is so solid and so easy to read and so inviting and so inspiring — is one to something here, helping us figure out why and how we can bear witness to that hope.
I am sure this book will help us figure out how better to live in what some call (in describing the paradox of Christ saying the Kingdom is here, yet telling us to pray for it to come) the “already and not yet.”
Of course, a book that is asking about how eternity breaks into our lives now must ask, what, really, then, is salvation? Perhaps the age old question “Are we there yet” is an opening to a big, big answer… maybe heaven isn’t just someplace we go after we die? Maybe we should stop thinking about eternal life as a place that we go after we die.
Eternity is Now in Session is a great 7 chapter hardback (part one has three chapters exploring “Rethinking Salvation” and part two are chapters called “Walking with Jesus.”)
DVD Eternity Is Now in Session Video Experience John Ortberg (Tyndale Momentum) $36.99 There is also a DVD curriculum that is based on the content of the book. The DVD is creatively done, showing Ortberg teaching this material in five sessions. Perfect for an adult Sunday school class or a small home group. The package comes with a DVD and one workbook. You can buy extra participants guides singularly for $10.99.
Made for These Times: A Start-Up Guide to Calling, Character, and Work that Matters Justin Zoradi (Zondervan) $16.99 Oh my, how I wish I could explain the energy and vision of this author and our enthusiasm for telling you about it. I can brag a little, saying that the author tells more than once about his experienced of being mentored by dear, dear friends of ours at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan. There, in his college years, Justin met Katelyn Beaty who wrote a very good forward (also giving a shout out to the influences of her college years and her engagement with pop culture, issues of the day, and learning the art of cultural discernment through our friends there in GR.) When an early reader wrote to me a week ago and said Zoradi sounds like he’d make a great speaker for our big Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh, I knew exactly why that is so. This guy was influenced by folks who helped shape that impressive annual gathering of young adults when they themselves were involved with the conference some 45 years ago. Zoradi is our kind of guy!
And now, Justin Zoradi tells it like it is. He gives a theological vision for calling and invites us to consider deeply the kind of character we need if we are going to be faithful witnesses and effective change agents in these complicated times. As one who has lived in and experienced “the troubles” in Northern Ireland and has lived in Africa, he knows well how hard it is to make a difference. He not only speaks dreamily about finding our own spark, discerning what we were made for, but he talks about the character and grit we need to rise to the challenges and endure. He gets the vision of “all of life redeemed” and the storied nature of our own life narratives. He gets the big picture about the forces of injustice. He is a perfect example of an upbeat social entrepreneur who wants to use his gifts and considerable talent for the sake of others, for the sake of joining God’s restoration project of repairing the planet. And he thinks others can learn from his own journey, helping others with a “conspiracy of goodness” that lasts a lifetime. (Ha – one of the many small chapters is called “Peak When Your Sixty.”)
Justin Zoradi is the founder of These Numbers Have Faces, a social enterprise investing in the next generation of African leaders. He also serves as the president of GivingFuel, a fundraising platform empowering thousands of organizations worldwide. Justin lives with his family in Portland, Oregon and Made for These Times is his first book. Highly recommended.
Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $22.00 Once again, InterVarsity Press and its “formatio” line of books has given us a gift, a beautiful even if challenging one. Many books about spirituality are lovely and warm, inviting us to disciplines or practices, but they are often mostly a reminder of God’s presence and of the gift of God’s daily guidance. Sweet. Ruth Haley Barton is one of the truly gifted teachers of our time and she has this sweet way in her books and DVD (Sacred Rhythms) that is exceptional; extraordinary. She is gentle, winsome, inviting, welcoming, encouraging, but also very clear about the sort of things that the classic tradition (and her hard-earned wisdom) has taught her, things that are asked of us, things we must do if we are going to be in a place where God’s transforming work can be fruitful. She doesn’t offer a new legalism or expect us to all become monastics. But yet, she knows the freedom and health that comes from submitted to some sort of rule of life. And, naturally, this comes to the question of finding space for God.
In fact, one of her early books, Invitation to Silence and Solitude now given a beautiful new dust jacket to match this brand new Invitation to Retreat) was very dear to her. Many loved it. On the speaking tour that ensued, and her teaching based on the book, so many folks replied that they’d just love to spend time away with God, they’d truly value solitude and scheduled silence – but they just don’t have the time. I’m not saying I was one of those people, but I might have been.
And so, she wrote a string of other books, including Sacred Rhythm: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation about how to arrange our days in ways that do indeed reflect the things that matter most to us. Monks and nuns have long used a “rule of life” to order their time in the monastery or mission field and many contemporary spiritual directors advise some contemporary adaptation of those classic monastic rules. (Ruth’s own Sacred Rhythms has a penultimate chapter all about that; IVP later published Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way by Stephen Macchia, which is a workbook to apply St Benedict’s Rule that is very useful.) That there are so many books about Sabbath and about monastic rules and about Benedict reminds us that there is a hunger for better life patterns and a desire to figure out how to create space to know God deeply even in our hectic lives.
To wit, we come to this long-awaited book by Ruth Haley Barton, emerging from this long appreciation she has had about how difficult it is for many of us to do this kind of thing. She has taught (through her Transforming Center) spiritual practices for years, in many settings, and it often comes up: how in the world does one do a spiritual retreat, anyway?
As it says on the back cover,
There has never been a time when the invitation to retreat is so radical and so relevant, so needed and so welcome. It is not a luxury, but a necessity of the spiritual life.
Remember what I said about her being gentle and inviting? And clear about what needs saying?
I think this is one of those times when she is going to shake us up just a bit – maybe I’m projecting my own fear of realizing I need this kind of thing – and insist that this isn’t a luxury, but a necessity, for a healthy interior life. With great grace she is going to stretch us to new depths and new commitments to create ways to do what we so deeply need.
In this new Retreat… book, Ruth is looking at the “significant why” (as Emilie Griffin puts it) as well as bunches of very practical matters. It is said to be honest and clever and very, very real. Even if you know in your heart of hearts that you need a “strategic withdrawal” and have great spiritual wisdom about the historic disciplines and practices, there still is that moment of truth when you have to plan and ask – what do I do? Where? When? How?
And can I bring snacks?
Beth and I have a mantra here at the bookstore that way too many books are essentially Readers Digest stories, hefty, good blog posts, maybe even long Atlantic articles. But publishers are foolish to take a magazine or Internet article and stretch it into a book. Some concepts and some writings are best for the shorter form. I will be honest, I wondered if this book was perhaps one of those – a great article for a spirituality journal, perhaps, but not a full book.
And, how wrong I was! Invitation to Retreat is majestic, covering all sorts of stuff about the sources of our exhaustion, what is meant by relinquishment, and Sabbath and fear and trust and what she calls recalibration. It is about our use of time and our schedules and the need for the spiritual practice of retreat. I didn’t know so much could be said about this (even though I thought I knew the old song “Sweet Hour of Prayer”) and am so glad Ruth is the one saying this.
I am going to treasure this book, carrying it carefully throughout this next busy season of our year. Who knows where it will lead. My hunch is – even if she wouldn’t put it this way, I’m sure — at the very least, reading Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God will serve as a retreat. A few hours or intentionally planned reflection on this latest resource from The Transforming Center — that’s a start, eh? Maybe it can be for you, too. We invite you to order this, or her other good books, today.
The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World Jack Alexander (Baker) $14.99 Almost anyone with some Biblical knowledge and a couple of good stories can write a book about showing God’s love, about the power of mercy. With a bit more savvy, one can analyze the culture a bit and show how very unmerciful we are. This isn’t rocket science, but not too many have done it very well.
Here, in Jack Alexander’s much anticipated follow up to The God Guarantee – a largely overlooked book on resisting anxiety and economic fears by relying on the utter fidelity of God — we have a truly exceptional study of the ways in which God’s great grace can influence us, the way we can perhaps alter how folks see the church and understand God – not as a demanding or even scary taskmaster, but as a loving, caring, father – and thereby shift how we bear witness to God’s love but also how we build that love more deeply into the patterns and ways of our culture. Whew. Yep, this is remarkable stuff.
This is a tall order if it is going to be done well. A book that covers such familiar ground but that is truly going to be helpful to refresh our vision for hope and healing in the world is going to have to be savvy and smart and honest and creative. And written by someone who has the integrity to write from his own experiences.
Jack Alexander is the chairman of The Reimagine Group and a senior fellow at the extraordinary, balanced and fruitful public policy think tank, The Sagamore Institute. (In fact, much of their work, although laden with policy implications, is also about civic life, public faith, social interactions, mediating structures, and such, not exactly about politics, per se. It’s a grand, Indianapolis project and he does good work there.) Out of his work with the Sagamore Institute he has come to realize that God’s love and the showing of real acts of mercy is a hugely needed virtue in our lives, our churches, and in our society. In fact, he commissioned The Barna Group to research the topic of mercy in our churches and some of the surprising results are shared in the book – most will follow in a major release in 2019. We simply have to deepen our commitments to this virtue. The God Impulse helps us get at that.
Here is another reason I think that many readers of Hearts & Minds BookNotes will find this book better than most, a “basic Christian living” book that is somehow more than just spiritual guidance or the expected same stuff. It has a very powerful forward by Walter Brueggemann, the brilliant and controversial Old Testament scholar.
(By the way, Walt’s most important book, The Prophetic Imagination, is just out from Fortress Press in a 40th anniversary edition, complete with a new foreword explaining the sturdy endurance of the book and what things have changed a bit in his understanding these days.)
In his meaty, compelling foreword to The God Impulse Brueggemann speaks forthrightly about his own more liberal/mainline orientation in contrast to Jack Alexander’s more conservative/evangelical theology. That he so respects this cultural leader and his Biblical reflections is no small thing. (That Tim Keller has a big blurb on the back, too, is notable; Keller wrote the foreword to Alexander’s previous book.)
Much of Alexander’s new book is drawn from the Good Samaritan story, and he outlines four steps or stages of embodying human mercy, four steps about which Brueggemann weighs in. Get this:
The book will be of immense interest to conservative Christian who tend, by a reductionistic packaging of the gospel, not to see or go to human need because the gospel story is made much too vertical. But the book will be equally of immense interest to liberal Christians. The latter, of which I am one, readily embrace the first step of seeing and pondering human need. It may be what we do best. But where liberal Christians often fail is in the readiness to actually go to human need. Liberal Christians love to talk about and analyze human issues of need. Or they act, but do not follow through, Thus Alexander’s third and fourth steps of God’s impulse – to do and to endure – matter enormously. The third step – do – requires displacement, being drawn out of one’s comfort zone to be fully present to the person in need and on that persons terms…. And the fourth step, endurance, or disciplined durability, is difficult because our self-indulgent consumerism is elementally resistant to the discipline of mercy that entails staying with people in need for a low time.
Alexander talks about God’s “strange arithmetic” which, of course, as Brueggemann reminds us, “completely contradicts our society of greed and anxiety. Our usual calculation is with a sharp pencil in the service of our own advantage.”
God’s impulse, of course, is different.
One does not have to read The God Guarantee but this does feel a bit like a sequel or spin off of that previous work. If God is so reliable that we can trust the gospel above all things, then we can be free with our assets, we can be Good Samaritans, we can be liberated from self-concern and give ourselves away, we can forgive and show mercy. We can live as Kingdom people, as Sermon on the Mount people.
As Alexander says in his acknowledgements, years ago he sensed something in his evangelical faith was missing. He thanks God for becoming informed by such solid thinkers as Tim Keller and Gary Haugen and Crawford Lorritts and Bob Lupton about the Biblical theme of the Kingdom of God. This was his answer to his need for a “sturdier and thicker” gospel. (It sounds to me like he got that wording from Brueggemann, too.) So, again, this good book is rooted in the best Kingdom thinking of our best evangelical scholars, leavened a bit by other voices like Bruggemann and a line or two from Anne Lamott. The author is a serious leader, well read and an impressive visionary.
The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World is a book about God’s instinct to love, about the mercy God shows, and how our own disposition towards mercy may cost us. But as he explained in the previous book, God is faithful and will provide. We can resist the spirit of the times and even risk being displaced in our acts of compassion, service, and radical commitment.
The endorsements for this book are voluminous. You’ve got recommendations from Cheryl Bachelder, author of Dare to Serve; Eric Mason, the black, inner city gospel preacher from Epiphany Fellowship in Philly; Bob Lupton (of Toxic Charity among other must-read books about urban mission) who says it is “Powerful. Deep.” Ms. Shaunti Feldhahn says, “take out your highlighter, because you’re going to use it.” John Beckett – whose work-world/Christian business books Loving Monday and Mastering Monday are enduring – notes that although Jack Alexander is an esteemed CEO, there was something different about him. Beckett says the theme of God’s mercy “runs through his veins.” Visionary founder of Plywood People (and author of the challenging More or Less) Jeff Shinabarger says, “The idea of this book might be the most attractive shape of my faith I could ever aspire to live.” So many good thinkers, writers, pastors, activists have commend it. Here’s what Keller said:
Jack draws a straight line from the lack of teaching and underrepresentation of biblical mercy in the church to the lack of love so many feel from the church. He reminds us that true healing, justice, and reconciliation begin with the impulse of mercy toward our neighbors and enemies. I heartily recommend this book.”– Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor emeritus and founder, Redeemer Presbyterian Church; chairman, Redeemer City to City
I sometimes say that one of my favorite genres to read is memoir. I recommend that Christians (although the principle holds true for anyone) read memoirs as they give us a glimpse into how some people narrate their own lives; nearly every good memoir is about the search for meaning, after all, and the making of a life. When we become accustomed to learning how people tell their own life stories we are more adept at understanding people. We become more empathetic. Of course we don’t have to agree with their life choices or approve of how they construe their story. Still, we may learn to be less stubborn, realizing as we do when we enter other’s stories, that not everybody sees (let alone experiences) the world as we do. For those that care about sharing the gospel with others, reading memoir is an exercise in listening well and understanding what makes people tick.
In other words, entering the written stories of others just might make you a nicer person; at least it will make you more interesting conversationalist at the church potluck.
Just think of some of the hugely popular memoirs in recent years, from Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs to the comic pieces by David Sedaris, from the significant Angeles’s Ashes by Frank McCourt to the searing story of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls to the unforgettable book about snake-handling Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. We love the edgy tales of Anne Lamotte and Donald Miller and Lauren Winner, and the eloquent memoir of Sarah Miles who wrote Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, and for those that like that style, the great Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith by the irrepressible Lily Burana, not to mention the beautiful, understated set of four memoirs by Frederick Buechner, all religious narratives which stand in the linage, somehow, of the best-selling 1948 conversion autobiography of Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain. From Just Kids to Long Way Gone to Hillbilly Elegy to Reading Lolita in Tehran to the older, gorgeous, Out of Africa, the Time Quartet by Madeline L’Engle to the recent Lyme-disease/chronic-illness memoir called Sick by novelist Porochista Khakpour, or the much-discussed I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown, we will never, ever forget some of these well-loved stories. And I will read any further memoirs by Michael Perry, Catherine Gildiner, Mary Karr and Kim Barnes.
One could go deep into this conversation. Some say the sinner/Saint Augustine was the first to write what we might call a self-aware, true memoir, and we are still reading his Confessions nearly two millennia later. (Just today somebody ordered some of the colorful Sarah Ruden translation to offer at their church.) Why is that?
I’ll spare you the lit lecture and get to some recommendations — I’m itching to tell you about memoirs Beth and I have read this summer. (Although, as an aside, stay tuned as we tell you more, later, about one of our big events of the fall, hosting author Karen Swallow Prior here at the shop on September 14thas we celebrate her new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.While that book is about how we can be spiritually and ethically formed by novels, she herself has also written a straight biography (of the poet-abolitionist Hannah More) and a memoir arranged around the books she most loved growing up, wonderfully called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press; $17.95.) We are glad for that lovely work, Prior’s first book, a small, literary memoir.
Also, before the list, I have to say this, too; hang in there with me as I offer a slight curve ball, adding another genre of writing, a genre that can offer an incredibly entertaining joy ride of learning and can be a magnificent art form — namely, what is often called narrative non-fiction.
In the 1960s a new sort of journalism developed – it was called the “new journalism,” actually, shaped by the likes of the late Tom Wolfe which combined reporting with the stylings of fiction writers. One of the few books I recalling reading as a 60s youth (I didn’t read that much) was a great book by journalist/dare-devil George Plimpton who convinced a pro football team to take him on for a season as he wrote a thrilling expose of his time on the Detroit gridiron. Wow! It was immersive, hot writing, not the dry daily reporting of the Nasdaq and the straight-faced nightly news but it was reporting — live, vivid, dirty, right from the field. This was the stuff that wasn’t on the back of the football cards or on the sports section of the paper.
I later concluded there might be a personality type (who may be addicted to adrenaline, or more) who ends up doing embedded journalism, war correspondence, and other dangerous stories; they thrive on the thrill and the telling of it. Some of the writing in those years of the new journalism was so wild and drug-fueled and colorful that guys like Hunter Thompson were soon called “gonzo” journalists. His Fear and Loathing in 1972 was seminal. This isn’t the cheap tell-all of an Omarosa or the stiff autobiography of any number of famous people who write their bloodless books. Rather, the new journalism and the gonzo journalists take you there, help you see and feel the very texture of the story as you join them in the fray.
It made non-fiction writing a cool, cool thing.
And reading it a moving, even cathartic experience.
Nowadays one needn’t be gonzo to be good, but that free-spirited, risk-taking reportage is more common than it used to be and even scholars and staid historians are more free to put themselves into their books; nobody buys the myth of neutrality, now, anyways, so writers are free to get on with it, passions and biases and all. Ordinary coverage of a topic can become so engaging and written with such verve, with the author telling her own story as she covers the topic, that it feels almost like memoir. (Even knowing this, the publishing world was astonished when a book called Cod – yes, about the fish — became a beloved bestseller two decades ago.) Much non-fiction works that way these days so we call it narrative nonfiction.
Here is a review I did of a spectacularly written work of reporting, narrative non-fiction at its best, by the excellent writer Eliza Griswold. (You may know her name from her excellent The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam or perhaps because she is the daughter of Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whose book Tracking Down the Holy Ghost we have featured here.) I recently had this review of Amity and Prosperity published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and I wanted to share it here. I should have said more, but had space constraints; it really is an amazing piece of work and very highly recommended, no matter where you live, and especially if you are unaware of the dangerous consequences of industrial fracking.
After this review I’ll list a handful of other favorite memoirs and/or narrative non-fiction we’ve read this summer. ALL ARE ON SALE FOR 20% OFF. Use our secure order form (see link, below) or give us a call.
Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America Eliza Griswold (MacMillan) $27.00 Few readers outside of the greater Pittsburgh area will catch the reference of the title of the stunning new book, Amity and Prosperity, not realizing that they are names of two neighboring towns near Washington, PA. Locals know that these small towns are classic examples of the post-industrial geography of Western Pennsylvania. If Hillbilly Elegy famously portrayed the rustbelt ethos of Appalachian transplants into southern Ohio, Amity and Prosperity tells with vivid detail the contours of daily life in Washington and Green counties, the northern edge of Appalachia that is no longer sustained by coal fields or steel mills and that less than a decade ago faced an “energy gold rush” with an influx of workers and money and drugs, drilling for natural gas.
The subtitle: One Family and the Fracturing of America is a significant play on words as well as this riveting book is very much about the contested practice of industrial fracking and how its deadly side effects – poisoned air and water – disrupted these congenial small towns and the larger social fabric around Washington. From Cannonsburg to Eighty-four to Cecil Township, from Lower Ten Mile Presbyterian Church to the Subway restaurant at the Lone Pine truck stop, to Southpointe, the Range Resources headquarters near the corporate hub of the oil and gas boom, the specificity of the description is spot on, clearly recognizable for anyone who lives near or has visited south-central Washington County. Although the story is a page-turner exposing corporate injustices, dishonesty, and public malfeasance – one can hardly believe how bad it gets as one family fights back against the cover-ups of the poisoning of their water – it is still appealing to read about places one knows. (How I smiled when the author describes the strikingly odd anti-environmentalist billboards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.) The book is being talked about throughout the county, but it really is a book about Yinzer territory.
Eliza Griswold is a talented and award-winning non-fiction writer, a reporter known for The Tenth Parallel, a book about inter-religious conflict mostly in the Middle East. In Amity and Prosperity she nearly embeds herself with several families and walks with them through their years of illness, losing their home, and their desperate sleuthing, investigating the poisons in their air and water. (Their own testing done with the help of local doctors proved that Range, the fracking company, was fudging the data and not being forthcoming about the chemical spills and toxic leaks from several of their fracking wells and storage ponds.) The book opens at the beloved Washington County Fair and the young people who show pigs and goats, their friendships nurtured through years in 4-H. As one teen’s animals get sick and mysteriously die, as does her neighbors prize winning horse, the reader is drawn in, knowing this portends great trouble that may not end well.
Griswold is an energetic writer and the characters she about which she tells are themselves colorful and raw and dogged, making this a great read. Their suffering seems relentless, their fears and foibles understandable, and we learn about all sorts of chronic illness, family struggles, and the consequences that bad environmental health has on their lives and community. (The social stress of speaking out among neighbors who might disapprove of their anti-fracking concerns and the differences of opinion about the vast amount of money the frackers offer, is portrayed realistically; some scenes are painfully awkward as long-time friends try not to fall out over their differences about selling out to Range.)
The plot unfolds as we see the impact this has on the teen-aged children, their extended families, their church friends, the local Fire Hall and such. Their hopes for vindication (and money for safe water service) are dashed over and over as the state DEP and the national EPA drop the ball, even on fairly obvious matters. The complicity of the DEP with the fracking industries and their refusal to press charges when environmental safeguards are disregarded are breathtaking.
Eventually a heroic lawyer couple, John and Kendra Smith, take on lawsuits against Range Resources, starting in the Washington Court of Common Pleas and eventually suing the State of Pennsylvania contesting pro-fracking policies of the Corbett administration in a case that went to the State Supreme Court. With simultaneous legal battles from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg, Amity and Prosperity becomes not only a glimpse into post-industrial small towns and the environmental consequences of fracking but also a legal thriller, worthy of any novel by Grisham. One observer called the lawyers “Mr. and Mrs. Atticus Finch.” Do you know the movie Erin Brockovitch? This story makes that look like kid’s stuff.
Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America tells of small town life with richly textured tales of the Izaak Walton League and the county fair and the local Bible study. It also tells about earthy folk who try to stick together, sharing a community fabric that unravels when outsiders bring huge upheavals and loads of money, all in the name of progress. It also expertly shows the big picture of state and national policy, of how laws and various administrative agencies enhance or diminish the social architecture of small towns and rural areas, of the human consequences of the red and blue ideologies vying for influence. Mostly it tells of some Western Pennsylvania families, some sick kids, some corrupt businesses, and the drama of speaking truth to power, learning to be a whistle blower, and finding the faith and courage to move on, despite all.
Educated: A Memoir Tara Westover (Random House) $28.00 This is one of those books that I can’t stop thinking about, well written and moving, but very sad and painfully hard, at times. The story cannot be captured briefly as it is multi-layered and the plot takes turns and turns and more turns as the author grows up in a secluded, dangerously off-the-grid family, goes to college, and, eventually, against all odds, to Cambridge and eventually earning a PhD from Harvard. What is so breathtakingly stunning about this story is that the author was raised with hardly any formal education on a mountainside farm in rural Idaho where her parents were fundamentalist Mormon extremists. Although she later comes to believe her father may have been bi-polar, she and her many siblings grew up fearing the Illuminati, the brain-washing forces of the public schools, the medical establishment, all part of a vast, Satanic government conspiracy, all of which they militantly avoided. Her father passionately preaches against the government, expecting the ends times and a violent apocalyptic attack on their property. This is made all the more real when some of their nearby militia neighbors, the Weavers, were murdered by government officials at the Ruby Ridge stand-off in 1992; even with that story as part of their growing up, they never knew the full truth of it as their father was so skewed in his paranoia.)
Westover writes well, with just enough gusto to easily engage readers (I stayed up too late several nights running because I was so captivated by her story) but never too passionately; this is not as anguishing as, say, The Glass Castle nor as intensely focused on her interior life as, say, Kim Barnes’s luminous In the Wilderness or Hungry for the World, also set in cult-like families in the wilds of Idaho.
If anything, Westover is more than fair to her hurtful family, and gracious (as gracious as is plausible) in coming to terms with her unusual girlhood, a girlhood she routinely tried to cover up and lie about as she made her way into the broader world. (Indeed, coming to grips with her own identity and past are key parts of her emerging story and it is a breakthrough when she finally tells a boyfriend who she really is (or, more precisely, who her father and mother really are.)
There are some horrible episodes described in Educated, related to their refusal to take normal medical care (she and her brothers and father were often injured in their demanding scrap metal work which itself is well-described.) There were heart-breaking scenes of Tara not being allowed to be involved in normal stuff like a dance class in town (the leotards were, of course, too immodest) or church youth group (their local Mormon church was too liberal.) Naturally, they didn’t believe in registering their vehicles, let alone their guns. At every point, this family, for all its strengths and self-sufficiency, is dogmatic, harsh, paranoid, profoundly anti-modern and deeply troubled.
That Tara ended up getting her GED and passing the ACT was itself a miracle — she really had no schooling to speak of — and we are brought into her deep quandary as she bravely determines to leave her stern, bizarre, family and enter the devil’s territory in higher education. That she got to know some “normal” people and found ways to handle college is a large part of the story, and it is truly fascinating, at times funny, and at times exasperating as she makes wrong-headed choices, over and over. (How could she not – her mother is brain-damaged and yet a mogul making essential oils and homeopathic remedies and her father is a cruel, deluded, demanding patriarch.) The writing isn’t as witty as the extraordinary Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit by the spunky Mary Karr, but I kept thinking of those colorful stories as I was racing through Educated. Oh what some people go through, and how they find the means to cope and thrive.
[SPOILER ALERT] I hate to offer too much of a spoiler but there are episodes of family violence, at the hands of a vicious older brother. This is important to know, going in – it took me by surprise – and I wanted to alert you. This becomes a large part of the story as the extended family system, paranoid and perhaps delusion as it is, attempts to deny and cover-up, over and over, cult-like.
Oh my, how does one extract oneself from a bad family system, from a cult?
How does one trust her own truth about what is happening?
Educated is a great memoir, a well-told story of family dysfunction and family loyalty and family heartbreak; it is a tale of identity, of learning to learn when one has been secluded from so much, of discovery and re-discovery. It is about rural Idaho, the deep Mormon sub-culture, and fundamentalist fears of modernity, even as it is about the glories of humanist learning at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard. It is about a young woman’s abuse and her coming to terms with her dysfunctional family and it is about learning about the past, about the telling of history and the rigors of scholarship. It is a hard book and it is a hopeful book. and think it is one of the year’s best.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row Anthony Ray Hinton (St. Martin’s Press) $26.99 . When the extraordinary legal aid advocate and founder of Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson says that former death row prisoner Anthony Ray Hinton inspired him more than anyone he has ever met and when he notes that this new memoir will “inspire our nation and readers all over the world” it is not just typical back-cover hype. The Sun Does Shine will be remembered as a book that is both illuminating and emotionally powerful, simple and complex, and destined to be considered a classic in American prison literature.
As those who have read Stevenson’s much-acclaimed Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, one of our best sellers here at Hearts & Minds and captivating narrative nonfiction par excellence, Mr. Hinton’s story will be familiar; Stevenson became his attorney after Hinton spent decades on death row as court appointed attorneys and corrupt judges failed to re-hear an obviously botched adjudication. That by the end of Just Mercy Hinton remained on Death Row for a crime he obviously did not commit is a powerful indication of the racism, injustice, and fallibility at the heart of the American criminal justice system. A graduate of Harvard Law (after graduating from the American Baptist Eastern University in Philadelphia) Stevenson is one of the most esteemed advocates for prison reform, representing those unjustly accused, for incarcerated children, and for those, like Hinton, who spend their days in awful conditions in a cage literally next to an electric chair.
Mr. Hinton calls him “God’s best lawyer.”
There is much about The Sun Does Shine that will not be surprising to those who have followed conversations about mass incarceration, racial bias in sentencing, and the capriciousness of judges and courts. That the rights – not to mention the dignity – of prisoners are routinely violated is not new news. Still, Hinton’s voice is so plain and strong, his story so compelling, his humanity so earnestly shared (oh does that man love his mama and his home church and his best friend Lester) that even the horrible legal setbacks that we almost expect are jarring, like that punch to the solar plexus that James Baldwin famously describes. For those with tender hearts, this story is hard to read. The evidence against Ray is so very spurious and the courts are systematically incorrigible. One can hardly believe that such stuff passes for justice in this land of the free.
The exasperating horror show of racist prosecutors and incompetent lawyers and cruel judges is only part of the anguish of Hinton’s experience. He narrates in plainspoken prose other surprising details – the smell of burned bodies after an electrocution, the sorrow of missing an inmate after his execution, the weird, weird way in which prison guards try to be extra-friendly the week before they kill you. Life on death row includes obviously poignant moments of hard revelations and hard goodbyes. Anthony Ray’s gift of Southern storytelling, conjuring his mama’s cooking alongside the nearly inedible meals at the prison, for instance, makes The Sun Does Shine more than a screed or harsh journalistic report; it is deeply, deeply human and beautifully humane. What a story!
Attorney Stevenson’s legal persistence and personal care brings additional plot and texture to the story but it is Hinton’s good humor and faith (and a vivid imagination in which he conjures ways to pass the time by daydreaming that he plays professional sports, travels the world, marries Halle Barrie and then Sandra Bullock) that make Sun so readable. That Mr. Hinton shares his own inner life – vacillating between understandable hatred and bitterness to extraordinary forgiveness and Christian virtue – is instructive. This is not the simple story of Hinton’s rage nor the simple story of a saint’s serenity; it is not even the story of a clear trajectory from hatred to forgiveness. Rather, Mr. Hinton honestly shares the complexity of feeling hatred and faith-born grace sometimes within the same day. His emotional life is often surprisingly upbeat but is understandably messy. Hinton has much to teach us all about self-awareness and goodness and forgiveness and honesty and a proper righteous anger against injustice. And how to hold on to hope in the darkest of times.
There are chapters in The Sun Does Shine that are so unexpectedly beautiful that I could hardly choke back tears; if you love good books, you, too will be moved. There is the awful ritual of the death row inmates banging on their bars when a prisoner is taken to the death chamber – they want him to know he is not alone, they call out his name bringing some measure of care to the fearful about to be killed. And there are scenes of Ray talking about mundane stuff with guards and meaningful stuff with other prisoners and lovely remembrances of his childhood and youth. There is a breath-taking scene of racial reconciliation. There is (I don’t want to spoil too much) one of the most beautiful scenes you will ever read about a book club – oh, I wish I could say more, but I won’t. And there is the inspiring beauty of a life-long friend who visits weekly for 30 years, walking Ray through the eventual death of his mother who never sees her son exonerated.
There is much pain in this story of a man wrongly accused and there is much to inspire us to abolish the obviously unreliable and unjust procedures of capital punishment. But there is humor and joy and goodness aplenty. Desmond Tutu says that Hinton’s story restores our faith as it offers “inspiring proof of the inability to condemn a man’s capacity for hope, love, and joy.” As Barry Scheck, attorney and director of The Innocence Project observes, “The Sun Does Shine is the gripping and inspirational story that the public has been waiting for.”
This is not high literate memoir (although, again, there are deeply satisfying turns of phrases and beautiful, bookish episodes.) But it is a powerful, epic story, and combines the characteristics of autobiography, memoir, and narrative nonfiction. You’ve got to read The Sun Does Shine!
You Carried Me: A Daughter’s Memoir Melissa Ohden (Plough Publishing) $19.99 I may have mentioned this in a previous BookNotes but must name it again — it was a beautiful, captivating read, well told, but not exceptionally dense or heavy. The story is (on the surface, at least) a simple one, but it is rendered with such wise introspection and honesty that it became not only a great, entertaining read, but a gentle, good reminder about the meaning of love and redemption.
Here is what is says on the back cover:
Melissa Ohden is fourteen when she learned that she was a survivor of a botched abortion. In this intimate memoir, she details the search for her biological parents and her own journey from anger and shame to faith and forgiveness.
I had the privilege of being a judge in a religious book award panel earlier this year and had to read through a basketful of evangelical testimonials and memoirs. Most were fine stories, told adequately, but not memorable. Of all the books in that “nominated” list, this was one of the very best. That it received a high recommendation from the important Kirkus Reviews says much. I think.
You Carried Me is more than a story that illumines the powerful bond between mother and child, but it is at least that. It is also the journey (decades in the making) of a woman coming to terms with her past, coming to know God’s grace, and becoming the kind of person who can hear with empathy her birth mother’s hard story. That Ms Ohden is now a social worker makes sense; she has worked in the fields of substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence and child welfare. She is founder of the Abortion Survivors Network, an important but often overlooked voice in the polarized debates about choice and abortion. Kudos to our Anabaptist friends at the Bruderhof community, who do such fine books in their Plough Publishing line. You Carried Me deserves much credit as a well-told and moving story with a very needed message
Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South Courtney Hargrave (Convergent) $26.00 It isn’t every day a book comes along that was written in parallel at the same time an esteemed Hollywood film-maker was making a major motion picture of the same story. Andrew Heckler wrote the foreword to Hargrave’s book, telling how he was drafting the movie script even as she was writing the book; neither was based on the other. Still, the film will get a lot of attention as it is produced by Robbie Brenner of Dallas Buyers Club fame and stars Forest Whitaker, Usher, and other big names. It premiered briefly at Sundance, and will open nation-wide, soon.
While the movie may get mixed reviews there is no doubt that Ms. Hargrave’s telling of this extraordinary story will get nothing but raves. It is a moving story, well told, with lots of local feel and social background. From the first sentence describing the landscape, I knew this was going to be a book I’d greatly appreciate. As the unexpected story unfolds, I couldn’t stop gapping, mouth open, head shaking. That’s the kind of reaction one gets from a good book, even when one knows what to expect.
As the title and back cover copy explain, this is a true story set mostly in a formerly prosperous mill town, now in a downturn, named after a former slave plantation, Laurens South Carolina. It is about a hateful, racist guy who opens a KKK museum which brings to the town the national media – not to mention plenty of both protestors and white nationalist supporters. This guy and ends up falling in love with a woman who teaches him a better way to be, leading him out of the museum, the Klan and into – well, you have to read it yourself.
A black pastor named David Kennedy who grew up in the town and became a civil rights spokesperson develops a friendship with this main protagonist – his name is Michael Burden – and those are the bare-bone facts of this harrowing tale. Can an act of compassion shake a community in the deep South and help, even in a small way, undo centuries of racial violence? Can an African American pastor and washed up Klansman become friends? It is an inspiring story, but like all truly good stories, it is not as easy as it sounds.
Burden has been called a “spellbinding Southern epic.” The creative and caring journalist Courtney Hargrave beautifully uncovers events behind the story that is told in the upcoming film, which, by the way, won the 2018 Sundance Audience Award.
As it says on the back cover:
Hargrave explores the choices that led to Kennedy’s and Burden’s friendship, the social factors that drive young white men to join hate groups, the intersection of poverty and racism in the divided South, and the difference one person can make in confronting America’s oldest sin.
Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America Vegas Tenold (Nation Books) $27.00 I started this new book the weekend of the anniversary of the awful alt-right uprising in Charlottesville VA a few weeks ago. I guess I wanted a way to commemorate the weekend and understand this growing nationalist impulse in American culture; I wanted to learn more and somehow spend time pondering this cancer in the culture.
Alas, it was only a few weeks later when our area in York County had its own outburst of racist nonsense, with KKK and neo-Nazi propaganda showing up under the windshields of cars at a local mall.
The very night I was inviting local evangelical and mainline pastors to sign on to an inter-faith statement unequivocally condemning white supremacy of this sort (kudos to those courageous leaders who signed it; I’ll bit my tongue about those who did not) I realized that the group whose out of state address was on this evil propaganda is one of the several groups that this brave author tells us about. All of a sudden I realized anew just how very important and relevant this riveting story is.
And, again, just how important quality narrative nonfiction can be.
I don’t need to tell you much about this other than saying it is new journalism, if you will; but not gonzo, even though there are some pretty wacky moments. Mr. Tenold is brave to embed himself in various neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and KKK chapters. It is remarkable how he earns their trust as a fair reporter; it seemed somehow even more courageous of him when we realize that many of the members of these (usually small) groups actually overlap and all are, naturally, suspicious of him.
He doesn’t say as much about it as I wish, but this kind of stuff can get you killed.
Some of these groups, like the viciously jack-booted Hammerskin Nation skinheads (whose propaganda has been seen in our fair town not too many years back) are not to be messed with. Sure they mostly listen to white power hard rock and drink a lot of bad beer and make a fetish out of their various tattoos and levels and badges, but they will stomp your face bloody if you don’t like their vile racial rants or their anti-LGTBQ shtick or their gross anti-Semitism. Think of the harrowing scenes in movies about the Mafia or books about the Hell’s Angels or the last seasons of Breaking Bad; Vegas was in with some of these sorts, it seems, even if they are motivated by grievance and fear and ideology rather than money and drugs, but the vibe is there. He’s in with ‘em all and the book had moments of pretty high drama.
It obviously wasn’t easy for Mr. Tenold to earn the trust (let alone cooperation) of these dangerous yahoos, but learning how tricky it was is almost at times humorous. Tenold develops trust with one guy in one group only to find that he is considered not radical enough, or maybe too radical, to be trusted by other far-right groups. This nationalist group doesn’t like that white supremacist crew and none like that small Nazi gang who are jealous of that Aryan club. Should they fly the Confederate flag or the KKK colors? Even within the alt-right nationalist network there is backbiting and competition. Who knew nationalist populism was so hard?
The in-house squabbles are sometimes just personality issues among larger-than-life characters — big, weird fish in small fascist ponds, but sometimes the differences range from how brutal and severe their evil attitudes are; that is how hard-core their hate may be. Other differences were about their nearly delusional views of what strategy they might develop to change American culture. (Most, frankly, are not that interested in politics, but nearly all agree that the Trump campaign was good for their cause and most told Tenold that Trump and his movement emboldened them.)
Much of this reminded me of the debates, both ideological and strategic, among the far left. (If I never hear another argument about Trotsky vs. Marx ever again I will be happy.) And (let’s be honest, here) among church folks, too. Yep, I guess it’s true that many who care deeply about their convictions – righteous or unrighteous — end up in partnerships with others, and there the sparks can fly. According to Tenold, when the sparks fly with these guys, it might include dynamite. Seriously.
Still, while a few of the alt-right white guys this intrepid reporter meets are truly unhinged, some are somewhat intelligent and seem, at times, almost reasonable and somewhat likable. Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Worker Party, is one of the major characters that Tenold comes to know. He is a person that a good friend of mine crossed paths with years ago (Episodes of him starting white pride student clubs at places like Towson State University are described. I recall talking with Christian groups on campus a few years ago about how to respond to this stuff and as I was reading Everything You Love Will Burn I got this sinking feeling in my gut – oh, God, it’s that guy that my friends used to debate, trying to call him to repentance and sanity. Little did we know how ideologically dangerous he’d become, how prominent…)
Matthew, (who was raised in a church, btw) was trying, oddly to unite skinheads and the KKK and other fiery racists (the “boots”) with the intellectual architectures of the alt-right like Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon (who they called “the suits.”) He goes from backwoods meetings with Aryan nationalists in the deep South and National Socialists (aka Nazis) in the rustbelt mid-West to speaking to Republican congresspeople in the esteemed GOP Capitol Club across from the Capitol. This stuff is riveting and nearly unbelievable.
Many of the folks in these far-right gangs are poor and pathetic, and I found myself feeling empathy, at least, for some of the sad sacks with their ragged KKK outfits and stupidly silly, secret traditions, costumes and half-baked rituals. There is a scene of a KKK funeral and another of a KKK wedding and both were so fascinatingly, humanly, told that I almost forgot my revulsion of such horrid stuff. That this left-wing, seemingly secular writer doing this brave expose could conjure any sympathy for these devious characters with their evil ideas is itself a good indication of the quality of this moving narrative; in fact, at one point he himself worries about his own “Stockholm Syndrome” as he learned to care for some of these damaged folks. I appreciate that, as it would be easier to merely demonize them in one-dimensional dismissal. Geesh, I almost felt bad for the one dude who got his huge swastika tattoo inked on himself backward.
And so, as I’m reading several chapters at a time, late one night I turn to a new chapter and it is called “Harrisburg.” Whoa! There isn’t that much local color in this chapter, actually, as it features mostly a story about a failed attempt at a unifying rally with several different groups with conflicting styles and views. They do go to the local Dicks Sporting Goods store, where I’ve been, to buy some pepper spray and have a funny debate about which kind works best. The organizer, who hoped for a more moderate, united front, was frustrated at the vile public speeches given – apparently some of the other leaders didn’t get the memo that they were to turn down the hateful rhetoric to soften their image and improve their public appeal. More likely, they were privy and just weren’t about to back-peddle their white supremacy spiel for the sake of some reasonable alt-right movement. The Harrisburg event, shall we say, didn’t go well.
In Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of… you not only get a glimpse of all kinds of far right hate groups but you learn about their history, their leaders, and some of their odd secrets. You follow Matthew as he becomes increasingly radicalized; month by month by month as the book itself unfolds. One can see where it is leading, now in retrospect, even as the author could not at the time. He almost didn’t attend the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville as he was drawing the book to a close. Matthew convinced him it might be bigger and more important than many of the other nearly silly rallies and marches to which Tenold followed him; little did either of them know how it would end.
There is some talk of religion in this book, but even more hate. There is some tenderness, but even more violence. There are some good words, but much more profanity. And there is some outrageous neo-Nazi street fighting and KKK cross burning and dramatic, evil high-jinx, but there’s much more that is more mundane— conversations over pancakes at the local diner, lectures at the local college campus, long car rides here and there, dumb conventions and meetings and endless white supremacy confabs with the same gang of poor white folks and delusional “leaders” who are often nearly comical in their lack of common sense and social skills. This book is high octane at times, obviously, but it isn’t all ball-of-fire drama; The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fightin’ Man” would be a soundtrack for only a small part of it.
But, again, despite Vegas Tenold’s admirable willingness to write honestly about the humanity of these marginalized white folk and his honest reporting of their antics, let us be clear. This movement is hateful, dangerous, and real. It is growing. Perhaps it is best to ignore them when they come to your town, but, at least, we should know about them. Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America by Vegas Tenold s a must-read for those who want an inside glimpse into this rising movement. It is also a good read for anyone that wants some nearly gonzo journalism, a daring reporter from the far left who has become friends with the guys in the far, far right. What a story! What a read!
The Hundred Story Home: A Memoir About Finding Faith in Ourselves and Something Bigger Kathy Izard (Nelson) $16.99 I hope that most Hearts & Minds readers know the moving story of the formerly homeless artist Denver Moore who co-authored, with Ron Hall, his story Same Kind of Different as Me, made into a very touching movie last year. The wonderful follow-up to that memoir was What Difference Do It Make? and, just released this season, the eagerly awaited new one by Hall, Working’ Our Way Home. Those books (whether you’ve read them or not) and that story is a key to Izard’s good book.
In a way, The Hundred Story Home is a standard Christian memoir; a story of being raised in a fine family, growing up with big questions about the meaning of things, an on-again, off-again faith journey. Izard is not simplistic or overly fundamentalist (she is a fairly mainline Presbyterian, it seems.) The book is replete with quotes from fascinating writers from Anne Lamotte to Anne Patchett, and lines from novels such as A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Little Prince. She is fond of theological writer Frederick Buechner but cites Joseph Campbell and Pico Iyer as well. It’s a thoughtful, interesting, somewhat literary faith journey, for sure.
And then she meets Denver Moore, the African American formerly homeless drifter guy known for his sardonic wit and candid insistence that we truly care for the poor and homeless. She brings him to a fancy luncheon – she’s the kind of competent professional woman that organizes fund-raising luncheons – and proudly shows him the very good, multi-faceted urban mission in Charlotte for which the fund-raiser is advocating. She is sure he’ll be impressed with the different sorts of services, the holistic and sophisticate nature of their social service. When Denver seems unimpressed and asks bluntly “Where are the beds?” She simply is astonished. They don’t do that kind of work; they serve the homeless but don’t want to go there. They just can’t. Why doesn’t he understand that and appreciate the good that they do.
And so in the middle of this charming narrative, her memoir of faith and doubt and insight and growth takes a quantum leap into the arms of a faithful God who calls us, sometimes, to do big, big stuff. How does one discern the voice of God? Is Denver’s chiding them to do this even legitimate? (Is it sensible?) When he goes public (in the too-long luncheon fundraising speech) with the word from God that she is called to build a homeless shelter alongside the already good work of the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, what is she to think? What are the public implications of our personal faith and what might any of us do to make the world more of what God might want? How does it feel to listen to God, to say yes, to take risks?
I won’t tell the rest of the story, but it’s an inspiring read, instructive in many ways, and full of surprises and joys and sorrows and good insights about her own – our own? —interior lives. As with most good memoirs, the author shows that much of our past story shapes our current lives, and being aware of our formative experiences in childhood and early adulthood may be more helpful than we realize. Izard says, “I wrote The Hundred Story Home not to convince you to solve homelessness in your community but to help you solve the homelessness in you.”
Now that’s a good story, a good reason to write a memoir; it’s about that classic, universal story of stories, finding our way home. Thank you Kathy Izard for allowing us to watch over your shoulder as you make your way there. And thanks for the book club discussion guide in the back, too – that makes it that much more useful. Memoirs are always good for book clubs and this one will be fodder for good conversation about our own search and our own service.
By the way, proceeds from the book go to the Charlotte Ministry Center and Moore Place. After Izard demonstrated that this Housing First program could succeed by leading a citywide effort to build Moore Place, she has worked on other civic projects, most recently the development campaign for HopeWay, Charlotte’s first nonprofit residential mental health treatment center.
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America Beth Macy (Little Brown) $28.00 I have not started this yet, but it is on my bedside table and I can’t wait. Beth Macy, you may recall, is the author of Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – And Helped Save an American Town a book we’ve touted often – it is such a thrilling read of narrative nonfiction, delving deep into small town intrigue and heroic, reformist sorts of business-world efforts as a furniture manufacturer tries to keep his plant open and his workers employed. Macy is a talented storyteller and excellent journalist, reporting well after doing months and months (if not years and years) of tenacious research. After Factory Man she released, in 2016, TrueVine, a brilliant true crime expose, laden with sorrow and racism and also delight and complexity and goodness. I suspect neither gets as much attention as they deserved.
Since then, she has embedded herself in the world of opiate addictions, although as one reviewer reminds us, Dopesick is “not about the drugs. It’s a book about kids and moms and neighbors and the people who try to save them. It’s about shame and stigma and desperation.” Yes, but also, it’s about bad policy, greed, and corruption.
Tony Horwitz (of Confederates in the Attic) calls it “a harrowing journey through the history and contemporary hellscape of drug addiction.” And in this, I suspect it will be compared to the most important book of this sort in recent years, Sam Quinones Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. (Dreamland, you should know, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.)
Still, Dopesick also allows us to see the biggest picture, including the knowing corporate greed, naming both big pharma companies and notable regulatory failure. She shows the evolution of the epidemic, starting largely, as she shows it did, in the Virginia coalfields in the westernmost corner of the state to three culturally distinct communities. The story moves “from OxyContin in 1996 to other painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet to heroin, the pills’ illicit twin, and, later, even stronger synthetic analogs.”
“Heroin landed in the suburbs and cookie-cutter subdivisions near my home,” she writes, “in Roanoke in the mid-2000s. But it wasn’t widely acknowledged until a prominent jeweler and civic leader drove her addicted son to the federal prison where he would spend the next five years, for his role in a former classmate’s overdose death.”
As she covered that story she saw the overdose deaths spread north along I-81 from Roanoke. It infected pristine farm pastures and small northern Shenandoah Valley towns, as more users, and increasingly vigilant medical and criminal justice systems, propelled the addicted onto the urban corridor from Baltimore to New York. If you live in a city, maybe you’ve seen the public restroom with a sharps container, or witnessed a librarian administer Narcan.”
The early reviews of this have been exceptionally positive and Macy has again performed a service, crafting true stories with compelling words and sentences, telling what she has seen without the gonzo goofiness; this is urgent narrative nonfiction, deadly serious, compellingly, humanely told. I hope you, too, want to read it. Get it from your library, at least, or maybe order some for your next reading group.
Elizabeth Catte, who wrote the provocative, brief, powerful What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, says,
Dopesick is both a tribute to those who lost and a fierce rebuke to those who took, and the new guidebook for understanding this quintessentially American crisis.
We hope you enjoyed the video I did a few weeks back for CCO college students called “Byron’s Summer Book Club.” (WATCH IT HERE if you want to see me enthusing for a few minutes about some great books or see my BookNotes description of the books, HERE.) Our campus ministry friends at the CCO wanted to send out into their world of social media my fast-paced summary of a handful of good titles that would serve to inspire young Christians to do some fun reading over the summer. We were glad that some of our Hearts & Minds regulars found this a bit helpful, too. Although at BookNotes we often reflect a bit more carefully on select titles, giving a bit of quick, live enthusiasm to a handful was a fun experiment. I hope the authors didn’t mind my quite and sincere spiel.
So, here’s another installment of Byron’s Summer Book Club. Six books in about nine minutes. You can watch the video (or just read my summaries) and order any for 20% off the regular retail price by using the order link shown below.
Our order form page is secure so you can safely enter your credit card digits. We’ll confirm everything and send the books out promptly. Whether you want these for yourself or want to send them as a gift to others, as that big box home improvement store says — let’s do this!
This is, for the record, the unedited version of my 9 minute ramble. CCO will tidy it up a bit and send it out to their social media followers soon. Consider this an authentic sneak peak. If you can’t see it, please visit my own facebook page where you can view it in all its book-loving glory.
Do Something Beautiful: The Story of Everything and A Guide to Finding Your Placein It R. York Moore (Moody Press) $13.99 York is a great, great communicator and author of several books on evangelism. His own story from despair to Christian faith is itself remarkable and he has become a legendary evangelist for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has partnered with CCO on occasion and is known for some innovative justice work (organizing against sexual trafficking) that is integrally related to sharing the gospel with non-believers. This brand new book is upbeat and exciting and very handsomely designed; in it York invites us to realize we live in a big, big story and that it is more than just this. Using notions of beauty and goodness, York helps us find our way to a colorful, good lifestyle that itself carries evangelistic overtones. Do Something Beautiful is a heartfelt invitation to a missional lifestyle, to make a difference, to spread the gospel with grace and abundance. It is easy to read, an engaging delight and I think offers a ton of much-needed inspiration. I really, really like this book, good for anyone but ideal for younger adults trying to discern their own vocations and role in God’s redemptive work in the world.
(Re)Union: The Good News of Jesus for Seekers, Saints, and Sinners Bruxy Cavey (Herald Press) $16.99 Bruxy is the author of The End of Religion and a pastor at The Meeting House in Ontario, Canada. He’s an upbeat speaker, a beloved pastor, and here offers a great invitation to the real deal, the authentic full gospel of reconciliation – reunification, if you will, the message that could be recaptured and once again impact the world. As he says, “the message of Jesus changed the world, until the world changed the message.” Think about that: how have we fragmented and distorted the good news? Is there a sense that the culturally-co-opted view of religion these days is merely a masquerade of the full, forceful and gracious gospel of Christ? Have we (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented in his years resisting Hitler) lost the “cost of discipleship”?
Debra and Alan Hirsch (who are known world-wide for their missional work and visionary approach to wholistic, risk-taking discipleship) say (Re)Union is “iconoclastic, irreligious, intriguing, and super insightful.” Contemplative writer and pastor Ken Shigematsu says it is “filled with wisdom, humor, and penetrating insights.” Our friend Shane Claiborne wrote the forward, which makes sense – both have a lot of fun and are witty and passionate. From chapters like “The Good News in a Tattoo” and “The Good News in Thirty Words” to “God’s Love Life” you are sure to learn much and be inspired to participate in Christ’s community and be launched into redemptive work in the world.
Know any seekers, saints, or sinners? Bruxy Cavey is an author you should know and (Re)Union is a fresh, solid way to easily invite them to a deeper awareness of God’s goodness and the transforming vision of Christ’s way.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for WhitenessAustin Channing Brown (Convergent) $25.00 There is little doubt that this is one of the most talked about books within certain circles this season. Austin Channing Brown has a huge following on the internets and there are several reasons why: as I’ve said before, she is an excellent writer and her story of being a young black woman in a largely white setting is helpful for everyone. I know that some of my own friends who are persons of color have had very similar experiences and have told us that this book really tells their story well. Obviously, many black folks have loved it but I am glad that many white readers have been open to really hearing her perspective, entering her world, realizing how it feels to be a minority in a culture that many have shown is still laden with institutional racism, white privilege, and sometimes overt racism.
Channing Brown has been called “a leading new voice on racial justice,” and I’m Still Here is described as “an eye opening account of growing up black, Christian, and female amid white America’s expressed loved affair with ‘diversity.’”
Christena Cleveland (professor at Duke University and author of Disunity in Christ) writes:
What a stunning debut from a seasoned racial-justice leader. Austin does double duty by fiercely affirming Blackness while simultaneously unveiling and demystifying the subtle effects of white supremacy among Christians. I trust Austin. I listen to Austin, and I learn from Austin.
The Sound of a Million Dreams: Awakening to Who You Are Becoming Suanne Camfield (IVP) $16.00 . This is one of the most intriguing and nicely written books I’ve read this season and I can’t recommend it enough. Although it is written almost as a memoir – a set of personal reflections – it isn’t a full-on autobiography, but a glimpse into the interior life of a woman trying to figure out her place in the world. It’s great for young adults, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and commend it to you.
She grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania and her stories of being a tomboy and athlete are fabulous. Camfield ends up married to a rising pastor who takes a call to a large, evangelical church in Chicago and even as she mothers her young children she longs to write, to be a writer, to author a book. Through a variety of experiences and friendships she starts a writer’s collective (for women authors) and watches as her friends all get books published. She doesn’t take it that well. The Sound of a Millions Dreams isn’t only a cheery story of self-discovery. There’s some hard stuff here.
What is her dream, she wonders – she loves helping others reflect on their deepest desires and how their own callings reflect who they are and who they are to become. What is the relationship of one’s call and one’s job? How can busy young adults discern what they want to do when they grow up? How does love and sex and marriage and parenting and church and Christian service and our hurts and failures shape us? How do we awaken to who we are becoming? What if we hear the sound of a millions dreams, but few are coming true?
Suanne Camfield is a poet and good writer but more, she gives voice to the longings and foibles and fears and hopes of many modern young adults. As Elisa Morgan (author of riveting memoir The Beauty of Broken) says, The Sound of a Million Dreams “embraces me right where I am while beautifully beckoning me one step further.” Jen Pollock Michel (the must read author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place) writes: “Suanne Camfield’s writing is vivid and lyrical…this book has enriched my life, daring me not just to dream but to become.”
The elegant writer and brilliant public intellectual Os Guinness doesn’t endorse that many books. Of Ms. Camfield he writes:
Part poet, part philosopher, part penitent, and always a keen-eyed observer and exquisite writer… The Sound of a Million Dreams is a book to read slowly and savor long.
Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith Gregory Spencer (Leafwood) $15.99 If you are a careful reader of BookNotes you might recall that I’ve raved about this beautiful book before. I held it up in this CCO video not only because I think it is a wise and helpful book but because it is an excellent follow-up to the popular book To Be Told by CCO friend Dan Allender. Many staff and students within the CCO have been reading Allender and learning how to pay attention to our own life stories, even the hard stuff that has plagued our past. To Be Told has been a very, very important book for this season of CCO ministry. Reframing the Soul could be equally as influential if only folks knew of it and spread the word.
Gregory Boyd is an eloquent and thoughtful writer (who is a professor of communication at Westmont College.) He has published novels, a book for college students, and a lovely, wise volume of interior formation called Awakening the Quieter Virtues. In his most recent, Reframing the Soul he helps us consider four words, offering several chapters on each. These are words that help us understand and articulate our life story and with them we will be better equipped to consider our lives and to talk with others. This is really good stuff, a book about words, about life, about our worldview, our story, how we lean into the past, present, and future.
Dr. Boyd offers us four words (verbs, I might note) with which we can choose to frame our life story — remembering, anticipating, dwelling and engaging. In Reframing he guides us to four other words that show us how to do these things well. We can:
remember the past with gratitude
anticipate the future with hope
dwell within ourselves in peace
engage with others in love.
As John Ortberg says in a great endorsement of Spencer and Reframing the Soul, “its framework for daily life is brilliant.”
King of the Campus Stephen Lutz (House Studio) $14.99 There are a few books we always, always tell college students about. You probably know about our friend Derek Melleby’s little primer for first year students, Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life and Learning. And I hope you know that one of the books I think is most important for any student is Learning for the Love of God: A Student’s Guide to Academic Faithfulness by Derek Melleby & Donald Opitz. I regularly and insistently recommend the fabulously interesting booklet called Your Minds Mission by campus worker Greg Jao. These are staples but I will have to remind you about them another day.
In the closing minutes of the video, I mentioned King of the Campus by Steve Lutz (of State College, PA, where Penn State University is located.) This is also a must-have resource for Christian college students and is, as I say on the back cover:
…a book unlike any you’ve read before. Steve Lutz knows students and understands your campus and your young adult life situation. Get it. Read it. Live it!
I stand by that – I simply don’t know of any other book that “gets” campus life as well as this does and invites students to serve God in all that they do in their college years.
Lutz is gracious and yet serious. He calls us away from idols and wrong-headed ideas about life on campus. His very title suggests that Jesus is Lord and therefore He is the true King. In fact, Steve shows that Christ is the Lord over five key areas of university life:
The church and Christian fellowship – Yes, collegiates should be involved in a local church and a college fellowship group. This is a great portion of the book and really helpful.
Relationships -From friendships to dating, from sexuality to relationships with other races, this is huge. Huge.
Academics and a calling into work – We simply know of no other general book about Christian discipleship on campus that covers this topic so well. That Steve used to work for CCO and has been influenced by the likes of Steve Garber is evident; that he draws on Learning for the Love of God is beautiful to see.)
Organizational leadership – Not too many students think of themselves as leaders but all should be stretching themselves to be involved in campus organizations and offer helpful leadership. This is really good stuff.
Partying and pleasure – I know, most religious books warn students not to get carried away. Sure. Obviously. But you might be surprised how Lutz unfolds a Christian view of the goodness of pleasure and fun and why followers of Jesus should go to parties.
For this week’s BookNotes I thought I would share this op-ed piece I had published recently in our local Sunday paper, The York Daily Record. It can be found on their online site as well. We’re grateful they published it.
For what it’s worth, I want to say this at the outset: I am aware that this is a bit controversial and I am sorry if I step on anyone’s toes expressing my concern that there seems to be little Biblical basis for many of the policies of the so-called Christian right. As I say in the column, I had my fair amount of conversations with representatives of the Moral Majority and other such groups decades ago and I was consistently disappointed by the lack of solid Bible stuff to justify their policy proposals, let alone their general view of law, order, the task of the State, the meaning of justice, and so forth. There are outstanding exceptions, of course. And — again, of course! — this concern about the theological and civic merits of the religious right does not therefore necessarily imply an endorsement of other camps or views (such as the so-called Christian left.) I’ve written a number of BookNotes columns about books that might help us pursuing a coherent view of public life that is not primarily beholden to the left or the right which I wish more fellow Christians (and others) would read. For instance, see HERE and HERE or HERE.
(To the trolls that have been pestering us lately, claiming I’m too sly and unwilling to say what I truly think, I ask: do you know anyone else who isn’t a full time activist or scholar who has written this much about faith and politics? I’m no expert but want to help us all be better followers of Jesus and thereby better citizens and think I’ve been pretty transparent with these several columns.)
We are glad Dr. Fea is coming to the shop on Friday night (August 10th at 7:00 pm) and we hope many will come to hear him talk about his new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Trump and chat together over refreshments as we ponder the nature of the intersection of faith and public life these days. Since he is such a passionate historian, I’m sure the conversation will be informative and interesting.
If you cant be here but you’d like his autograph on a book, we can get one signed for you and send it out on Monday. Just tell us if you want Dr. Fea to make it out “to” anyone particular. Autographed books make nice gifts, eh? Send us an order right away and note any instructions either at our website order form page (see below) or via email.
Hearts & Minds to host Dr. John Fea, author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump” — And It’s Déjà vu All Over Again
In the 1980s, Hearts & Minds, our independent bookstore in Dallastown, hosted several events to ask if Biblical Christians should support what was then a fairly new political movement known as the religious right. We had feisty conversations, sometimes with authors or other faith leaders, about a Biblical worldview and whether such a perspective should or shouldn’t endorse the conservative wing of the Republican party. We are doing something like that again at 7:00 PM on August 10, 2018, this time hosting historian Dr. John Fea, author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
Yogi Berra’s witty line about experiencing “déjà vu all over again” seems to describe recent debates about the new religious right and their support for a President who seems to violate most of the Biblical commandments and nearly all of the teachings of Jesus. We’ve been here before, but this time, it is weirder still.
To many church goers and non-Christians it seems incongruous.
In the 1980s Rev. Jerry Falwell expertly inspired politically disinterested fundamentalists to become a major civic force, aligning themselves with the the Republican Party. I was glad, in principle, to see people of faith living out their values in the public square, making a case for their views in the marketplace of ideas, and allowing their own deepest convictions to inform their civic engagement.
Religiously-motivated involvement in politics is good democracy and good religion.
From some of our nation’s earliest founders to many of the modern civil rights leaders, the Christian faith has motivated and informed ordinary citizens and public leaders to care about the common good, creating a political culture that took Christ-like love for neighbor into the public sphere. “Seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you” the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote centuries ago to a beleaguered group of exiled Jews living in Babylon. The righteous have always cared for their communities; thinking well about the task of the state and how social institutions can better the world has always been a vital theological task.
It was wrong (and un-American) when some insisted that because Falwell and his movement were religious they should be marginalized, that their fundamentalist views were unwelcome in a democracy. No: in America, all views are viable if they motivate people to be good citizens and all are welcome to make their case in the pluralistic public square.
Therefore, in theory, I cheered when Dr. Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others preached to their formerly apathetic followers and called them to be more politically engaged.
But, oh, how wrong the Reverend got it.
Supporting horrible dictators, pleading for more bombs, cutting off services to the poor, mocking those who were humble, supporting anti-American crooks like Ollie North, affirming racists in South Africa, fighting environmental protections — it was hard to find a wise position or healthy policy or a just principle behind many of his controversial Moral Majority efforts. I argued with Falwell personally about how unbiblical his views were and begged him to repent of his disregard for the vast, well thought-out Christian tradition of public theology, but to no avail. I chided him about his dishonesty when he criticized more balanced Christian thinkers saying on national TV that they were not truly Christian (as if true Christians supported war and injustice and racism.) His right-wing ground troops fighting against services to the poor, against good stewardship of the environment, against services for special needs children, against peacemaking-oriented diplomacy around the world, were all so new to politics; quickly the power-mongering went to their heads and many grew increasingly uncivil.
Sadly, most simply did not know the long-standing, nuanced tradition of both Protestant and Roman Catholic social ethics. They ignored the healthy political theology written in centuries past and the robust renaissance of evangelical political thinking that attempted to be overtly Christ-like and not beholden to any party. I recall weeping in those hard Reagan years as some religious leaders worked to cut aid to the world’s starving, shamed those on food stamps, and argued for more and more money to right-wing militants in places like Nicaragua and Guatemala and lauded the US-backed assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. It nearly seemed as if many of those aligned with the religious right hadn’t read those big, black Bibles they waved as they advocated for policies that the Bible itself opposed.
As much as the 1980s Christian right influenced public policies in ways that seemed to me to be inconsistent with Biblical shalom, it seems that most of the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who supported Falwell were at least motivated by good concerns: family values, as they were called in those days, a concern for the unborn, resistance to secularization, and a coarsening of public discourse.
And now we have some very unusual fundamentalists supporting a vile, exceedingly secular President who consorts with Playboy Bunnies and prostitutes and is legendary for his irreligious attitudes, his worldview of greed and power and might. If the religious right of the 1980s seemed unbiblical and un-Christ-like in supporting the affable but hawkish Ronald Reagan, how in the world can they possibly use the Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus to support the tawdry and volatile President Trump? How the theologically and politically compromised religious right of the 1980s evolved in our generation to the incoherent movement it is today is one of the great questions of our time.
That question will be pondered for years to come as theologians, cultural critics, and historians reflect on this odd season of American life and this peculiar alignment of conservative religion and a prideful President who said he has never asked for forgiveness and who stands for some policies that are against the grain of Christian tradition.
Dr. John Fea of the history department at Messiah College is one such historian who is himself an evangelical and interested in this perplexing re-run of the religious right. He has written a well-researched book called Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, released by Eerdmans Publishing to much acclaim a few weeks ago. Fea has been on national talk shows and his book is being reviewed all over the country. He writes about the history of religion in American public life. His specialty is the colonial period and his earlier book, Was America Founded as a Christian Country?, has earned significant awards. In this new book he is trying to discern how it is that so many white conservative Protestants (sometimes called “evangelicals”) voted for the current President.
Fea shows that some of the concerns and fears which animate this new iteration of the religious right have, in fact, been baked into American religiosity since our earliest years. Nationalism and anti-immigration animus is not new. Only such an astute historian of religion could help us see some of the spirits of the age and help us realize their centuries-old roots.
Yet, there is something new happening with the “court prophets” as Fea calls the leaders of the 2.0 version of the religious right. Believe Me is a fair and fascinating study of what’s going on in these contentious times and helps those who are not part of the conservative Christian movement understand their fellow citizens. And, hopefully, it will help some who have been too supportive of the current leadership ask if their faith might call them to be less cozy with any political party. Dr. Fea is a good man, a jovial speaker, a fine scholar, and his book is an important contribution to one of the most important phenomena of our time.
Author John Fea will be speaking at Hearts & Minds, 234 East Main Street in Dallastown, on August 10th at 7:00 pm. All are invited.
BOOKS BY DR. JOHN FEA
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Eerdmans) $24.99 This, of course, is the new release that Dr. Fea has been researching for the last year or so. We are thrilled to have recommended it early on and appreciate Fea’s concern that many of the religious leaders who support President Trump are theologically muddled and that too many citizens are driven by concerns (fear? nostalgia?) that are not healthy or faithful. Regardless of your view of the religious right or the current President, this is a fine work, offering an evangelical historian’s assessment of these peculiar days in which we live.
Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic) $20.00 This slim volume is worth its weight in gold, ideal not only for history majors or younger students but for any of us that need reminded of the importance and value of the study of history. And my, oh my, we all need that reminder in this postmodern era that seems to glory only in the “right now.” That professor Fea brings a particularly Christian slant to his fine essay makes it that much more useful for many. What a great, great little book. Very highly recommended for one and all.
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? An Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox) $30.00 This fabulous and important work was a finalist in the prestigious George Washington Book Prize and is considered by some to be the best (and most evenhanded, insightful) book on the question. It is one of Dr. Fea’s great accomplishments and is respected even by scholars who may have wished for a different emphasis here or there. It’s a live question, and an important matter, and is very highly recommended.
Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press) $40.00 This was co-edited by John with two other exceptional evangelical historians on the notion of the call to be a Christian scholar and professor and the nature of Christian historiography. In a way, Jay Green (of Covenant College) and Eric Miller (of Geneva College) and Fea (of Messiah College) and the others who contributed to this volume represent a newer generation of historians who were informed decisively by the groundbreaking work and reputation of the likes of Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden.
The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press) $24.99 In this first full biography of Philip Vickers Fithian, John Fea tells the story of how one young man sought to pursue the life of an eighteenth-century Presbyterian gentleman while continuing to yearn for the everyday passions that defined what it meant for him to be human. What a fascinating study in early American experiences. I rhink rhia
Listen to what the eminent historian Mark Noll says of it:
“Many historians of Revolutionary America have plundered the diaries of Philip Vickers Fithian, but until now no one has satisfactorily told the life story of this great diarist. John Fea’s insightful book does just that—and yet more. By showing how Fithian pursued the values of a cosmopolitan Enlightenment, in concert with the values of Presbyterian Christianity and American patriotism, his study reveals much about an enduring American tradition.”
I think this review of the robust journal Books & Culture captures Fea’s lively and pleasant style and the importance of the issues he raises in his work:
“In this absorbing and elegantly written biography, John Fea . . . shows how seismic philosophical upheavals profoundly shaped the life of an ordinary man far from the epicenter. Perhaps Fea’s signal contribution is his nuanced reading of the relationship between the Enlightenment and Christianity.”
Okay, friends, this is a bit unusual for our weekly BookNotes newsletter. I’ve got a video about to be posted but wanted to write about the books I describe in the video.
I’m on the road again, heading to a discipleship house in New Jersey where I’ll get to speak about reading as a Christian practice with a group of college students. Beth and I just returned from a full week at the fabulous New Wilmington Missions Conference that has been held annually for well over 100 years; there were almost 700 people, including children and teens and speakers from all over the world. Before that we were serving friends who are on staff at the CCO (Coalition for Christian Outreach), a wonderful inter-denominational campus ministry with which we are affiliated. One of their slogans is that every college student “needs the gospel, needs the church, and needs a vision for their lives.”
We think reading is a big part of that since we all need a coherentvision of a purposeful life lived missionally for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Understanding a bit about God’s redemptive plan for healing the cosmos, making all things new, surprising us with hope, as N.T. Wright puts it, helps us all clarify our own callings, discerning how our own story fits into God’s bigger story. CCO teaches students about Christ and his Kingdom, about the local church, and about living out faith in every area of life, even in their majors and future careers. Not a bad, eh?
Well, during their training time earlier this summer we cooked up this little plan to offer some titles on a video posted to social media. I don’t have the link here, yet, but for those that want to watch me in hyper mode, telling about five books for “summer reads” for college students you can check our Hearts & Minds facebook page or my own facebook or twitter feed soon. We’ll put up a link to my 7-minute infomercial, highlighting these five books. We’ll be doing another one in a couple of weeks, too, so stay tuned.
Here are the five books I selected for the video for CCO students or other young adults (or others!) who want to join us in this little reading plan for the next month.
These are all 20% off and you can enter your credit card digits at our website order form page; the link to it is shown below. Click on the ORDER link below which will take you to the secure order form at our Hearts & Minds website. Just type in the book you want, your digits and address. We’ll confirm everything, send it right out via US mail, and enclose your receipt in the package.
Here ya go, a little description of the titles I describe in the Byron’s Book Club video.
Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People Bob Goff (Thomas Nelson Publishing) regularly $16.99; BOOK CLUB PRICE $13.59
As I say on the little video, this is nearly a money-back deal — it is guaranteed to bring delight and inspiration as Bob is one of the most fascinating, whimsical, fun and funny and beautify people we know. You will love his moving stores of capers where he learns to love everybody, no matter what. A great read for anyone, even those who don’t read heavy theology or long, literary novels. This is a blast, great to give out to young or old. As I say on the video promotion it is certainly one of our favorite books of the year.
Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems J.D. Greear (Zondervan) regularly $16.99; BOOK CLUB PRICE $13.59
I know it isn’t the most important thing, but there is a die cut hole in the middle of this, and a bit of yellow showing through that just is so captivating. And somehow makes the point: our God is too small. And that’s not good. Greear is a youngish pastor of a growing contemporary church and his earlier books were insightful about church planting, missional living, and moving into service to advance God’s work in the world. This really is a good, basic Christian living book, grounded in this assumption that the heart of our faith is knowing God and the character and power of God is essential to grasp. God is worthy and he wants to take us “from boring to bold” in our faith. Good stuff.
To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future Dan Allender (Waterbrook) regularly $15.99; BOOK CLUB PRICE $12.79
If there is any one book this last year or two that has touched CCO staff and students it is this beautiful, intense guide to naming one’s own story (including hard stuff in one’s past) and learning how to move forward without shame into God’s vision. It is so true that our lives are lived as a story and that God’s redemptive work is storied. CCO staff and students heard Dan Allender at Jubilee 2018and were blown away by his story of God’s healing path out of brokenness and hardship. This is a great book to make sense of your life and times and important for us all.
Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in an Age of Distraction Alan Noble (IVP) regular price $16.00; BOOK CLUB PRICE $12.80
I hope you saw my description of this on the video as it really is an important book, an incisive critique of our secular age and how we can disrupt the distractions that erode our abilities to focus on things that matter most. Only then can we live well and serve God meaningfully in the real world of fast-paced pressures. What should we think of philosophers like Charles Taylor (or James K.A. Smith) who teach us about “our secular age”? How can daily rituals and liturgies and concentrated efforts to be attentive make a different in how we even think about truth? How can we share our faith and convictions when few people even believe much matters any more? This book is thoughtful, brilliant at times, and deserves a careful study for those who want to understand the times and be formed in a spirituality that allows us to embody the gospel in our times. I reviewed this at length a few weeks ago at BookNotes if you want a more careful survey. Why not disrupt your own tendencies and make a commitment to read this book this summer?
Homeland Insecurity: A Hip Hope Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights Context Daniel White Hodge (IVP Academic) regularly $27.00; BOOK CLUB PRICE $21.60
Not even a short list of recommended titles this summer would be complete without something on race and racism, and, since we sent out my little promo video mostly to young adults, it really should have something about hip hop culture. What interesting times we live in with masterful rap artists like Kendrick Lamar (just for instance) and the huge popularity of Jay Z and Beyonce, say. Daniel White Hodge is a powerful cultural critic — I’d say a prophet — who has studied this aspect of pop culture for years. In the video I mention one of his other books, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology (IVP; $22.00) that is an excellent introduction to thinking Christianly about hip hop culture. Anyway, Homeland Insecurity is a profound and heady study of how we can develop a missiology (that is, a philosophy of contextualized mission) in our post-soul music, post-civil rights political era. This is important, serious, and highly recommended although it is, necessarily, looking at some hard stuff with course language.
If you pay attention to the many sorts of Christian voices on social media you may know journalist and pundit Jonathan Merritt. He has won awards for writing for The Atlantic and has been one of our most prolific religion and culture writers. He shows up on serious TV shows on networks as diverse as CNN, Fox News, and NPR and has been published by The New York Times and The Washington Post. His recent podcast (co-hosted with Kristen Powers) is called The Faith Angle and has a huge, passionate following. Regardless of your own theological tradition or political bias, he is an author you should know. His new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them (Convergent) will release mid-August. It regularly sells for $15.99 but we have it at a BookNotes special sale price of $12.79. If you PRE-ORDER it now we will send it to you FREE SHIPPING. We will continue to sell this great new book at our 20% off deal, but will pay the shipping costs for you only if you order it before the release date on August 14, 2018.
We are eager to let our diverse Hearts & Minds tribe – what else to call us? “Customers” is too clinical; “Fan base” sounds cool but is a bit much; “demographic” (please no!) – about some of our favorite writers and trust that whether you’ll fully agree with them, you’ll appreciate hearing important voices and learning about significant authors.
Well, if I have a hard time finding words to describe our bookish community nowadays, sensing that words like customers or fans or readers mean different things to different people and may or may not fully capture all we’re trying to do among those who read our reviews and support our work, then Jonathan Merritt has an even bigger quandary on his hands.
As you can tell from the title and important sub-title of his soon-to-be-released Learning to Speak God from Scratch:Why Sacred Words are Vanishing and How We Can Revive Them is exactly about how the meanings of ancient religious expressions and previously understood sacred terms are up for grabs in much of post-modern America. Heck, forget the hip and diverse postmodern enclaves of Brooklyn, RINO in Denver, Portlandia, or keeping it weird Austin, even in fairly white-bread, middle-American small towns the older religious consensus is long gone. We don’t have to rehearse here the contours of our post-Christian age (and will only give a quick shout-out about our BookNotes review a few weeks ago of the very thoughtful cultural study Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.)
In this great new Speaking God book, Mr. Merritt tells a bit of his own story. His father has long been a major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention and Jonathan grew up devout, deep in the Bible belt. He went to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and although he has moved significantly to the more mainline Protestant tradition/ethos and in some ways to the political left, he still maintains great respect for his conservative theological roots and the broadly evangelical vision of a robust personal faith rooted in the Biblical story about the saving work of Jesus Christ. In the last few years his voice has been increasingly recognized as a fresher, more culturally engaged evangelical one, offering a younger, perhaps more open-minded perspective within emerging, new evangelicalism. But then he moved from the south to the secularized and diverse New York City and now seems to be the very embodiment of the truth from the Judy Garland movie line, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.)
Jonathan isn’t the first to try to translate historic Christian ideas and ideas into fresh language that even the spiritually-alienated might appreciate. Older writers have done this recently as well – just think of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by the contemplative Kathleen Norris, or the popular “dictionaries” Wishful Thinking and Whistling in the Dark by clever Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner, or Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Power by Marcus Borg. We still carry the under-utilized Talking the Walk: Letting Christian Language Live Again by our friend Marva Dawn. Even the elegant Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book called Speaking of Sin.
Jonathan Meritt’s guidebook is more groundbreaking, though, it seems to me, as he is both deeply evangelical in his background and is exceptionally aware of and a part of the younger post-Christian milieu that is shaped by a wild pluralism.That is, he has found from experience, in his Brooklyn neighborhood and in his working relationships with contemporary journalists, writers, and rising media stars, that we simply cannot assume people know what we mean when we use phrases from theology or church life. And he knows of scores of people who maybe have heard (or once believed) certain theological phrases or religious notions but have grown confused as those words are weaponized and used to exclude and marginalize. He really gets that and has earned the right to be heard on this re-thinking of the words we use to express faith’s dearest truths.
Just the other day I had a moving conversation with a campus ministry worker who had a young collegiate join her Bible study on the gospel of Luke; this lovely young student was shocked – shocked! – to find out that people wanted to hurt Jesus. Wait; what? she cried. When one fellow student said to her that they not only were angered by Jesus but, later in the story, actually killed him, my friend quipped: and just wait to you hear what happened next!
Despite the ubiquity of national civil religion, celebrities giving shout-outs to God during awards show, chatter about so-called faith leaders supporting the President, and popular Christmas and Easter celebrations (and TV specials) it is sobering to know that many don’t know a thing about the basic facts about the life of Jesus. What people pick up from the media is piecemeal and convoluted, as best. Forget talking about most Biblical stories or grace or sin or covenant or Reformed this or that, or Wesley or Ignatius, or the many in-house words we use to describe our church facilities or ministerial positions. (Do you really think people want to meet in the narthex to be introduced to the vestry or session? Or, conversely, do you think folks get that when you talk about your worship band on a stage that they have a clue that this means something more or other than what is experienced at a standard rock show?) If they are confused about the lingo we use in our churches, imagine what happens when we start talking about more important, deeper, words of sacred meaning and substance?
So, it’s complicated. Urgently so. And Jonathan uses his great gift as a storyteller (who has his fingers to the pulse of the generation John Seel calls “the New Copernicans”) to explore the conundrums of contemporary communication and guide us towards helpful ways to breathe new life into your spiritual conversations. Or to perhaps equip you with deeper confidence to have conversations about things that matter most.
One reviewer of an advanced copy of Learning to Speak God from Scratch writes that:
For too long, people have been left out of conversations that hold life-or-death weight, especially about who God is, because of a cultural language barrier. If the message you love is worth it, this book is for you.
Is the message of the gospel important enough to you to wish to be able to talk to unchurched friends and co-workers in ways that they understand?
Jonathan writes with uncommon eloquence, curiosity, and compassion about the ever-evolving role of religion and faith in our culture, with the hard-earned wisdom of one who’s been both scarred and healed.
That puts it well, which is what makes this book so good – not only the illustrations and stories but Merritt’s own character, forged by this very stuff. (A wonderful earlier book called A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars shows his early ruminations on this; more recently he wrote the lovely Jesus is Better Than You Imagined which, again, helps express good news to the unchurched skeptic who may still yet be curious about things of faith or those who reject the gospel because of the legalism and harshness of the Christian right.) His podcast colleague and friend Kirsten Powers, a USA Today columnist and CNN political analyst, assures us that the new book is engaging and “will appeal equally to the devout and the spiritually alienated.”
I couldn’t agree more.
That promise from Powers is important and says something about Merritt’s heart, his proclivities, his talents: he really does want to see the gospel proclaimed in relevant and contextualized ways here in the post-Christian West, especially among some who have developed allergies to our God-talk. He does want us to be able to get around those biases and barriers that keep people from caring about the plausibility of a real and rigorous faith. He knows that words like sin or lost have become so negative that they can end conversations. But he really does want to revive our sacred language and historic words, not scuttle them or redefine them beyond recognizable meaning.
In a way, this book is the result of Jonathan’s on-going project of exploring the American reluctance to talk about faith, good stuff that he’s discovered about what people do and don’t know about conventional Christian faith and what people do and don’t respond to in conversations about religion. There’s data, too (that he commissioned with questions he helped design with Barna Group’s Roxanne Stone and David Kinnamen.) Merritt explains and evaluates findings that “reveals a quiet crisis effecting millions.” I want to suggest this isn’t only a fun and interesting and useful book, but that it is urgent, important, necessary.
Jonathan is a good thinker and great writer. He draws on lots of sources, sharing personal episodes from his own life and faith journey but also on other scholars and thought leaders, ancient and modern. For instance, the book opens with two epigrams that invite us to his vital project.
The always astute David Brooks puts it succinctly:
Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.
And from American Public Radio, the beloved Krista Tippett gives the perfect precis of the book:
A lot of the words we need the most have been watered down by overuse and cliché in politics and culture, and this includes words that are very meaningful for many Christians: love, peace, faith, and justice, to name a few. I don’t think we can expect these words to necessarily convey what we mean when we say them, so we must surround them with an ecosystem of vocabulary – and both words and practices – to carry the richness of our meanings when the words themselves need reviving.
The first six short chapters are really, really, good, as Jonathan explores the nature of this crisis of our sacred words. There’s a chapter that is very important called “Why Speaking God Matters” and another (that I wish I had written) called “Our Divine Linguaphile.” (Yep, let that sink in!) He offers a chapter called “How (Not) to Speak God and another few on the possibility of a revival of our speech and a way forward. These first 60 some pages are fantastic, will be both entertaining and make you think. You don’t even have to agree with his assessment, of course, but I’m sure you will resonate with much of this.
The next 20 chapters are short reflections on key words, each coupled with a fabulously creative and pithy subtitle/by-line that is nearly alone worth the price of the book. For instance, in a chapter called “Pain” the sub-title is “Chronic Conditions and Other Metaphors” and in one called “God” the by-line is “Tattooed Jesus and a Full-Narrative Deity.” Who wouldn’t want to read a chapter called “Blessed – Hollow Hashtags and Marble Toilets.” You’ve got to read “Family – Changing Households from Munsters to Dunphys.” I really liked the one on “Brokenness” with the by-line “Reparative Therapy and Our Aversion to Responsibility.” His storytelling shines in “Confession – Internet Vulnerability and Grace the Doorman.”
In Merritt’s description of the theological word “fall” he describes “Scientific Quandaries and the Beauty of You.” In the chapter called “Lost” he writes of “Microaggressions and Our Common Condition.” From “Grace” to “Pride” to “Spirit” to “Creed” (subtitled “Heresy Hunters and Twitter Farewells”) and on through a lovely chapter on “Neighbor”( described as “Mister Rogers and the Global Refugee Crisis”) he does this marvelous, magical thing, talking about classic theological words, vulnerably sharing stories and anecdotes, and offering new ways to hint at solid truths and deep mysteries to those for whom these words do not have orthodox Christian meaning. He’s a theologian working from pop culture, political affairs, and the everyday “hopes and fears of all the years” that point us to the truths of Biblical faith. From “tiptoe terms” to “pronoun wars” to “necessary nos” he offers us wonderful, stimulating essays that are well worth reading and well worth sharing. Speaking God would make a great book club selection – I know there will be parts you simply will have to discuss with others.
There is a wonderful, wonderful and vitally important concluding chapter – more substantive than a conclusion, but with the emotional satisfaction of a beautiful afterword – called “In the Beginning Was the Conversation.” Jonathan follows that up with an appendix-like “How-To Guide for Seekers and Speakers.” This is just great stuff.
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