As on on-ramp to a review of William Romanowski’s important, new book Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Faith and Film I reflected in our last BookNotes a bit about our observations as a bookseller at church conferences and clergy events, and things we sometimes hear people say at these events. And things we hear here at the shop.
Oh no, I’m not spilling the beans on any of the personal, poignant stories and struggles good church leaders sometimes share with us – one pastor called me his confidential “bartender” – but just offering this broad realization: many folks (clergy and congregants alike) expect a Christian bookstore to carry mostly books about what we typically think of as religious — spirituality, faith formation, basic discipleship, theology, worship, congregational renewal, Bible study, ministry renewal; that is, churchy stuff.
And we do; when we go to pastor’s events or ministry conferences those kinds of books are obviously most germane. But people are surprised to know we carry books on faith and the arts, on science and work, on play and politics. God cares about all human endeavors and our books can help people – people like you! – develop a uniquely Christian perspective and a set of coherent practices as you engage the world around you. We sometimes call this “whole-life discipleship” showing that followers of Jesus should care about the Word and the world. So many of our favorite books are about nurturing a posture towards and perspective on all areas of life. We reject as unbiblical any principled division between the sacred and secular spheres of life — all of life is created good by God, marred by sin, at once beautiful and broken, and Christ is redeeming it all.
Why people don’t seem interested in books that explore how faith informs what we think about nursing or engineering or leisure or teaching or voting or shopping or town planning or hiking or banking is beyond me. These sorts of books are vital resources for faithful discipleship that you don’t usually hear about in your local church or public library. We know that people are struck by them, perplexed, even. Maybe glad; amused, curious. But such books just don’t sell very well.
Well, we’ve got ‘em and have been called by God to try to make our living trying to sell them. We’ve been thinking about this for nearly 40 years and our selection just keeps growing.
Who knows, maybe the new one coming in early July edited by our lit prof friend Karen Swallow Prior (along with Anglican theologian and director of New City Fellows in Raleigh, Joshua D. Chatraw) will help. It’s called Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan Academic; $29.99) and should at least inspire those with a broad worldview who are willing to have these (mostly, but not exclusively) moderate to conservative scholars stimulate their thinking. I’m glad for the relative diversity of authors and views. With dozens of topics (work, the arts, creation care, immigration and race, reproductive technologies, war, gender, and more) and very thoughtful contributors such as Katelyn Beaty, Vincent Bacote, Robert George, Ellen Painter Dollar, Joel Salatin, W. David O. Taylor, Michael Wear, Tish Harrison Warren, Mako Fujimura, this is going to be a very helpful handbook. Who puts Matthew Vines and Rosaria Butterfield together? Rod Dreher and Andy Crouch? This book is loaded with fascinating ideas, good stuff to struggle with. You can PRE-ORDER this now if you’d like at our BookNotes 20% OFF. Just use the secure order form page at our website by clicking on the link at the bottom of the column.
Or maybe we just need to remind folks of some of our recent favorites like Tish Warren’s amazing Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP; $16.00) that shows how our worship practices in church can equip us to find God in the sacredness of the ordinary, hour by hour throughout the day. This truly has been one of my favorite books in recent years and it wonderfully shows how we can practice the presence of God in the mundane moments of ordinary living. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should — we love it!
Or, somewhat similarly, we might re-recommend the excellently written and astute little book by Ashley Hales called Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP; $16.00) that explores the concrete (and sometimes tempting) social realities of suburban living in light of gospel values. That is, how do we embody faith in the day to day, finding God’s presence and living Christ-like lives in those sorts of settings of yards and cul-de-sacs and commutes and status and busy, fast-paced lives? Does God show up in your sub-division? Can we think Christianly and live faithfully in the development by the mall?
These books push us to incarnate, embody, live out, the gospel in ways that are not abstract or “spiritual” in some lofty sense. They help us do what Barbara Brown Taylor evokes in her beautifully written memoir An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne; $15.99) about finding holiness in the down to Earth. You know I’ve said often how much I value this good book.
All of which reminds me of a book I recently started, the remarkable, energetic, scholarly papers of a conference called Creation and Doxology: The Beginning and End of God’s Good World edited by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson (IVP Academic; $25.00.) Co-published by the Center for Pastoral Theologians, it includes gloriously stimulating pieces by Andy Crouch and Deborah Haarsma and John Walton and Kristen Johnston and many others on everything from medicine and technology to the insights of Wendell Berry to the role of a robust doctrine of creation in the history of science to the hope for restoration of a renewed cosmos to the significance of beauty in theology. This has much intellectual rigor and has much to do with providing a Biblical resource for scientists, it seems.
And that exceptionally important Biblical truth — This Is Our Father’s World — is the the first theological basis for any engagement with culture and for our interest in, just for instance, the creative arts.
SELLING BOOKS AT CIVA (CHRISTIANS IN THE VISUAL ARTS) – AN EVENT ABOUT CULTURAL RENEWAL, CREATIVITY, ART, AND THE COMMON GOOD
Last week we had the great privilege of sending some books to the remarkable bi-annual conference of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts.) We are grateful for their work and witness these last forty years — they have literally saved the faith of many young creatives and encouraged many to be faithfully allusive in their art work — and we have been honored to provide books for them on occasion over the years.
Special kudos to our friend and supporter Ned Bustard, manager of Square Halo Books, a niche indie publisher who does very fine books on faith and the arts, who staffed our CIVA book table there at Bethel University and told conferees about our passion for selling books. He did a bit of lugging and loading, too, so we are grateful.
Here are some of the sorts of books we took to CIVA, some that you may want, and some that you might want to buy to give to an artist friend you know. Surely you could be a lifeline to a painter or dancer or sculptor or writer or videographer you know. We have more books on this topic than this list, but this gives you a glimpse at some of the best. Spread the word if you can. Thanks.
All books mentioned are 20% off. As always, just click at the bottom of this Hearts & Minds newsletter and click on the link that will take you to our secure order form page. Just tell us what you want. Or, you can always call our Dallastown shop (717.246.3333) where we and our small staff are eager to serve you further.
MOST BASIC AND FOUNDATIONAL – BEAUTIFUL, INSPIRING BOOKS FOR ANYONE
Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity Michael Card (IVP) $18.00 This is a truly fantastic read, both as a Biblical study and a set of wise musings, a lovely look at creativity and the life of Jesus. Some of Mike Card’s own story as a thoughtful songwriter is included, so those who like his good music will especially enjoy this. There is a great appendix, too, offering several short “Letters to a Young Artist” (by the likes of Mako Fujimura, Calvin Seerveld and others) that are themselves worth the price of the book. Very nicely done. In fact, it is much more than “nice” — Publisher’s Weekly called it “stunning” and writer Larry Crabb says, “This book touched my heart as few others.” Yes!
Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts Philip Ryken (Presbyterian & Reformed) $6.99 One of the most brief but potent little arguments for the idea of Christian art rooted in a Christian world-and-life-vision. As Hans Rookmaaker used to say, “art needs no justification” and this makes that clear for anyone with doubts, or how God is pleased by our interested in the arts. We don’t want to fall into an idolatrous and unhelpful “art for art’s sake” approach, but we surely don’t want an “art for the sake of a message” approach, either. This is a nice way to begin and the argument is concise and lovely. Give this to any seriously Christian high school or young college student who loves the arts or anyone wanting a succinct starting point.
Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts Steve Turner (IVP) $18.00 Turner is one of the best rock critics in the world; he was the authorized biographer of Johnny Cash, and has done other serious rock bios (Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, and several important works on the Beatles.) His new (and lots of fun) Turn, Turn, Turn: Popular Songs Inspired by the Bible (Worthy; $24.99) shows how the Bible has influenced popular music (from the 50s through nearly contemporary times) and is so very, very interesting. Imagine (now out in a recently updated, 2nd edition) is an accessible, insightful book making a case an “in the world but not of” engagement with culture and the arts, offering a fine foundation for anyone doing creative work out of a Christian orientation. Imagine is especially good for those involved in the world of popular culture, film or the contemporary music scene, since that’s his specialty, but it’s a good book about being faithfully open to common grace in the art world for nearly anyone. Great reading, especially for those who perhaps feel like maybe this isn’t that important or right.
Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture Makoto Fujimura (NavPress) $24.99 Mako Fujimura was just becoming known as an evangelical thought leader, doing impressive abstract art in lower Manhattan when he started writing these ruminations on art and culture. Some of these essays and prayers emerged from his important work post-9-11 when he helped show how the arts can help citizens and neighbors lament and grief and recover from the awful attack. Handsomely designed on good paper, this is a humane, beautiful book to cherish. Makes a great gift and is a great example of a handsome and thoughtful Christian book for those who may not be inclined to read something more directly religious. We often recommend this as one of the first to read in this topic, and you will not be disappointed. Very nicely done.
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life Makoto Fujimura (IVP) $18.00 This potent little volume, a more recent one by Mako, is about the common good, our responsibilities for caring for our culture, and the particular ways in which we can be cultural stewards by feeding our culture’s soul with “beauty, creativity, and generosity.” Good for “creative catalysts” who desire a renewal of culture that yields human flourishing. Why not join with some others in your church or fellowship and read this together and see what comes of it. Excellent. By the way, don’t miss his reflection of beauty and cultural healing as it comes up against sorrow, suffering, and injustice in his splendid, thoughtful study of a transforming book in his life, the famous Silence by Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. Mako’s study, in a very handsome hardback, is called Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (IVP; $26.00.) There’s an excellent, extensive introduction by Philip Yancey.
For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts edited by W. David O. Taylor (Baker) $18.00 This is another one of those books that nearly anyone should read and from which nearly everyone would benefit. What a great collection, interesting and upbeat with a variety of contemporary scholars, pastors, critics, patrons, and artists, from Luci Shaw, Andy Crouch, Eugene Peterson, Barbara Nicolosi, Lauren Winner, Jeremy Begbie and Joshua Banner. This really is an excellent collection, particularly useful for local church study. These chapters emerged from a conference at a church, so isn’t only for artists, but for anyone who cares about how the church can affirm and appreciate the arts and artists.
By the way, editor and organizer David O. Taylor has a book coming out in September called Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts(Eerdmans; $22.00) and we are already taking PRE-ORDERS at our discounted price. Jeremy Begbie is writing the foreword.
Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts Jerram Barrs (Crossway) $18.99 We have an extensive selection of books – at various scholarly levels – of books mostly about literature, so wanted to name at least one. That this also is good for any sorts of creative workers or anyone interested in a faithfully Christian insight about the arts makes this one great for nearly anyone. Barrs is a beloved professor at Covenant Theological Seminary and we stock all of his books, from Being Human (which properly frets about Gnostic influences in some contemplative spirituality) to excellent books on prayer and evangelism, Barrs is really solid. Our dear and trusted friend Denis Haack of Ransom Fellowship has a very nice blurb on the back of this, as does the always-discerning William Edgar. Timothy Keller says it is “the most accessible, readably, and yet theologically robust work on Christianity and the arts that you will be able to find.”
It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99 I love this book and very, very highly recommend it. When a very handsome revision of this classic was released a decade ago, I wrote this:
This one of the few books that I can say with confidence is one of the best we have had the privilege of carrying in our 25 or more years here at Hearts & Minds. It is a collection of great essays illustrated with beautiful artwork (both ancient and modern) and seems to be the perfect book for anyone who needs an introduction to thinking faithfully about the arts from a Christian perspective, or that needs more maturity after having read a bit of the classic stuff for starters (Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer, say, or Art for God’s Sake by Philip Ryken or Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle.) With pieces from working artists like Mary McCleary, Ed Knippers, Karen Mulder, Ted Prescott, and others, it is the best collection of its kind in print.
You can enter the title into the search engine of our archived BookNotes at our Hearts & Minds website to see a few times I’ve commented on it, or see my older review, here. but please know that, I still believe this to be true. It Was Good: Making Art… is just a marvelous book to behold, packed full of wondrous essays and good, good writing that is Biblically faithful and very aware about the issues faced by faith-based artists of all kinds. Highly recommended.
It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99 Okay, this was the sequel to the wonderful It Was Good: Making Art… and I invite you to check out my long review of all thirty glorious chapters, here. If I loved the first, I adored this second one and have revisited many of the chapters multiple times and they always are rewarding. If you know anyone who is at all interested in music, they simply must have this exceptional book, the best book on faith and music of which we know. There are chapters on jazz and classical and blues and children’s music and rehearsal and choir and songwriting and lament. Even a very well written chapter by Calvin College SAO folks on hosting a live concert. So much. Very highly recommended.
It Was Good: Performing Arts to the Glory of God edited by Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $19.99 Ahhh, this is the third in this splendid set of thoughtful books that explore the cutting edge of that line between theory and practice, between significant (but not dense) aesthetics and good ideas and the practical matters that artists face. This one is exceptional in part because it is just about the only book like it that offers good guidance and inspiring reflections about the craft of being a performing artist. For dancers, actors, folks on the road, people managing theaters and doing choreography or filmmaking and the like. What a book! See my longer review, here.
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art Madeline L’Engle (Convergent) $15.00 Recently released with a new cover design and compelling forward (by YA novelist Sara Zarr), this little classic is one of the most-often mentioned and certainly cherished books among those who care about this topic since its release in 1980. Sublime. Interesting. A must-have book for anyone involved in writing or the arts. It may be surprising to some how deeply knowledgeable she is about the contemplative tradition, about the Orthodox, about others upon whose shoulders we stand in our understanding of faith, life, the arts, and the creative process. Certainly of interest to arts, but a good, provocative read for nearly anyone.
Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life Thomas J. Terry & J. Ryan Lister, with foreword by Jackie Hill Perry (Moody Press) $14.99 Just the look and feel of this hardback volume sets it apart – it is sturdy, black and white, textured, sans dust jacket. The authors are leaders of humble beast, an underground hip hop music label out of Portland that does important, gospel-centered rap and other hip hop records and concerts. They are not only way cool and authentically down with that scene, but they are wanting to forge a community of artists who are rooted in the gospel and thoughtful about aesthetics, the arts, cultural engagement, social renewal, and the like. For those who have followed the deepening worldview of performing artists like Lecrae or Prop or Sho Baraka or others in those circles, Humble Beast is highly, highly regarded. And so, this first volume in what may become a series of studies is insisting, “God is reclaiming creativity for His glory and our good.” Yep, it’s hip hop meets Jonathan Edwards, or so it nearly seems with Terry & Lister dropping names like Dorothy Sayers and Dostoevsky, Abraham Kuyper and Flannery O’Connor, this study is foundational and wonderfully realized. There are some pretty cool touches to the book too, with some light notations and illustrative graphics and reverse printing on full color pages. Kudos!!
Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery(Revised and Expanded, 2nd edition) Gregory Wolfe (Square Halo Books) $22.99 I adored the first small volume of this that had the minimalist markings of the great Barry Moser illustrating the essays by famous Image Journals editor Greg Wolfe. In this second edition there are many more essays and much more artwork illuminating this wonderful anthology of some of Greg’s best short form essays that appeared in Image from the days it was so masterfully developed under his watchful eye. I love these short pieces on all manner of artful observations, about poetry and paints and movies and rock critics and dance and visual artists. Greg, an evangelical who became Roman Catholic years ago, has this wide vision and learned view and a winsome ability to tell a good story in a short essay. Intruding Upon the Timeless is a great introduction to a major voice in the faith and art movement in the last decades and will appeal to many sorts of readers.
Create vs. Copy: Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination. Ken Wytsma (Moody Press) $14.99 We have a lot of books like this, about creativity and the process of being inspired. I respect Ken Wytsma so much and this is great on the power of imagination. Bob Goff says he is “one of the most creative guys I know” which surely makes it well worth considering. This is good for leaders, for artists, for anyone wanting to develop their God-giving creativity. Highly recommended.
Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff Justin McRoberts (Justin McRoberts) $9.99 I love this little book by our good friend Justin, a singer-songwriter, consultant, coach, speaker, and author with lots of social media savvy. He has worked with visual artists and collaborated in all sorts of church and mission project and know much about being a maker. This offers an outline of sorts, with lots of stories, good teaching, and upbeat prose, for exploring your own drive to create. After an opening thought on “who needs another book on creativity?” he invites us to the journey. There are sections called “Get Your Bearings”, “Map Your Territory”, “Pay Attention to the Weather”, “Course Corrections”, and “Enjoy the Journey.” Lots of ideas for good practices and some hard stuff and some fun stuff. We’re glad to stock this rare little guidebook and know it’s going to inspire somebody out there.
When Poets Pray Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $19.99 Granted, this is not about the visual arts, but, as a matter of fact, Marilyn McEntyre was at the CIVA event and although she was not doing a plenary session, we sold out of several of her great books – her Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is a favorite – and this marvelous thin hardback is nearly sublime. It offers deeply spiritual ruminations on poems (many which you may know, others which you may not) and asks if these well-worded lines and phrases could actually be used as prayers. There are two dozen select “prayer-poems” to learn from and live with. As the publisher puts it,
“Poetry and prayer are closely related. We often look to poets to give language to our deepest hopes, fears, losses–and prayers. Poets slow us down. They teach us to stop and go in before we go on. They play at the edges of mystery, holding a tension between line and sentence, between sense and reason, between the transcendent and the deeply, comfortingly familiar.”
Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life Carol Berry (IVP) $22.00 This brand new book is the long-awaited reflection on the course Nouwen taught (just once) at Yale on compassion, learned by and from Vincent Van Gogh. Ms. Berry audited that class and took copious notes; she was approached by the Nouwen literary estate to write this spiritual formation book that shares what she learned by spending time with Van Gogh under the guidance of Henri Nouwen (who, as we know, loved his Dutch painters, especially Van Gogh.) What a great book, wonderful for nearly anyone who appreciates the arts. Thanks to IVP for doing this fine work and including some nice full color reproductions, too.
Shades of Light: A Novel Sharon Garlough Brown (VP) $18.00 Speaking of Van Gogh, keep an eye out for a forthcoming novel by Sharon Garlough Brown coming this August called Shades of Light. This nicely told story (by the author of the popular Sensible Shoes novels about spiritual direction) while mostly about a young woman recovering from depression and anxiety (and her anguished loved ones and aunt, Kit, who is a spiritual director) includes a whole lot about Van Gogh, who the main character (named Wren) is inspired by. I was actually very deeply moved by how Wren took comfort in the pain and paintings of Van Gogh and how beautifully she could describe the famous correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo. I also enjoyed the vivid description of this novice painter setting out to paint… uh, I can’t spoil it. You’ll have to read it yourself! You might enjoy it too, and be moved by the sorrow and regret and beauty and hope found as someone ponders great art. PRE-ORDER it at our 20% off discounted price today.
THOUGHTFUL, IMPORTANT, NEXT-LEVEL BOOKS ON THE ARTS
Rainbows for the Fallen World Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press) $35.00 Rainbows is certainly one of the most esteemed and often-cited books in the last generation of Christians thinking deeply about faith and art and culture, and certainly a very significant book (from a very significant leader) in the history of CIVA. (Its first edition was published in the 1976, and I treasure my first edition as much as any book I own. For a variety of reasons, it is a personal favorite.) In Seerveld’s many books that we stock, this flamboyant writer colorfully studies Scripture, art history, aesthetics, and cultural renewal, always reveling in the sturdy goodness of God’s creation and the call for an allusive and imaginative human response. Rainbows has a few chapters about what we might call obedient aesthetic life — that is, not stuff just for artists but for all of us. And some wonderfully rich and deeply thoughtful calls to cultural renewal, inspired by his astute reading of various paintings and arts movements. He has a heady chapter about philosophical aesthetics and some inspiring talks about why we need a robustly Biblical framework for imagining the gifts artists bring to our lives. You should know his next book that was released as a follow up to Rainbows was Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art(Piquant Press; $35.00) which I also adore. And then, we are proud to stock his large collection of miscellaneous and sundry works (such as Normative Aesthetics, Redemptive Art in Society or Art History Revised) which I explained in enthusiastic detail here.Some of this is heavy, but it’s so important, we commend it to one and all.
Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts Hilary Brand & Adrienne Chaplin (IVP Academic) $34.00 This is also surely one of the best books in recent decades exploring a uniquely Christian involvement in the world of the arts. Lots of interesting side journeys cover all manner of scholarly and practical stuff. Chaplin, by the way, took up Seerveld’s chair in aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto when he retired. Mature, thoughtful, important. I sometimes tell the story that I once knew a young art student at a state university who was being told by her advisor in the art department that she simply had to give up her faith, that her efforts to integrate her faith into her creative work was inappropriate and doomed. She bought this book from us, gave it to her teacher who later apologized, saying, “I didn’t realize that this is what you mean by developing a Christian perspective on the arts…” It’s that good.
Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life Jennifer Allen Craft (IVP Academic) $30.00 This fantastic book is the latest in the excellent “Studies in Theology and the Arts” series and the author was a CIVA 2019 speaker. We are thrilled to suggest it to you. For starters, it breaks new ground, showing how Wendell Berry-esque localism is enhanced by art that attends to local space and, conversely, how local artists can enhance awareness, flourishing, and redemptive justice in their local places. There is nothing like this in print, making it a must-read, even urgent book. We reviewed Placemaking and the Arts a bit more extensively when it first came out and we continue to think it is brilliant. It’s good not only for those interested in the arts but for anyone interested in a sense of place, caring about their local region, those doing missional work for the common good. Very highly recommended.
The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature and Aesthetics Clyde Kilby, edited by William Dyrness & Keith Call (Paraclete Press) $28.99 What a beautiful book this is, a great volume for your own personal library or to give as a very special gift. Kilby, you may know, is legendary for being an early friend of C.S. Lewis and one of the primary people who influenced American evangelicals to adopt Lewis and his lucid apologetics and his astute literary criticism and, of course, his colorful, creative fiction. He founded the marvelous Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College (where he taught literature for decades.) This collection has been called a “landmark book” with “breathtaking scope” by an author who has been “profoundly influential.” Luci Shaw says that Kilby “set the course of my life.” The significance of this author and this collection is hard to understate.
There is, in fact, a lovely, handsome, companion volume to this entitled A Well of Wonder: Essays on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings also by Clyde Kilby, edited by Loren Wilkinson & Keith Call (Paraclete Press; $28.99) which explores the seven key British authors who make up the writer’s group known as the Inklings.) In both volumes, the editors have carefully and thoughtfully selected and compiled the best of Kilby’s many essays, articles, lectures, chapters of other books to create two great readers: one on Kilby’s work on the Inklings and the other, more general in nature, on Kilby’s own writing on the arts. These are extraordinary, important, nearly historic, I’d say. Kudos to Paraclete for these two very nice matching volumes.
Arts Ministry: Nurturing the Creative Life of God’s People Michael J. Bauer (Eerdmans) $29.00 There may be some chintzy books on this, some guides that are somewhat self-evident, but this is mature, wise, complex, and well worth having around any congregation that cares even a little about this vital (but often not adequately considered) aspect of local church ministry. Published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in their Liturgical Studies series (edited by John Witvliet) this volume is clearly “the best available guidebook to the emerging field of Christian arts ministry.” There are 18 different illustrative case studies that make this an inspiring and energizing read. The pioneering Catherine Kapikian (of the Henry Luce Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary” calls it “an unprecedented expose on arts ministry – what it is, how it works, and why it succeeds…” written with “unblinking, erudite analysis.”
EXCEPTIONAL BOOKS FOR ADVANCED STUDY
Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God Jeremy Begbie (Eerdmans) $18.00 Of the new books in this field that came out this year, this may be the most important, and certainly one which carries the most amazing endorsements. A musician and a classical composer by training, Professor Begbie is one of the best scholarly voices in this movement, and you should read whatever he writes. This recent book explores, as only Begbie can, the questions of awe and wonder and mystery in the arts. Of course, he “employs a biblical, Trinitarian imagination to show how Christian involvement in the arts can be shaped by the distinctive vision of God’s transcendence opened up in and through Jesus Christ.” Very highly recommended.
See also his recent book about theology called A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts (Baker Academic; $32.00) which advances similar themes. As I said in an earlier BookNotes review, Redeeming Transcendence is about the arts, considered in light of theology and A Peculiar Orthodoxy is about theology, in light of the arts. What an amazing scholar and author he is!
He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art Christian Wiman (FSG) $23.00 Certainly one of the nation’s most esteemed contemporary poets, Mr. Wiman movingly wrote about his return to Christian faith in his 2013 best-seller My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; $14.00.) That was reviewed positively in prominent venues, with Kathleen Norris writing the extraordinary review in The New York Times Book Review. Now at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, this is his recent work exploring theology and art in what Marilynn Robinson calls “scholarship that has a purifying urgency.” It’s a bit dense, has significant interaction with poetry and poems, but for those studying this field, it is one of the most important books published this year. If you are a fan of Wiman’s poetry, or care to read his moving studies of contemporary writers, you will love this.
The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts Cameron J. Anderson (IVP Academic) $28.00 Special kudos to the previous director of CIVA for offering this mature and sophisticated appeal for how contemporary evangelicalism can come to appreciate the arts and how a deeply rooted faith can inspire artists today. This should be on the shelf of any person of faith who is an artist, and anyone who does ministry with and for artists. Many who are in this movement find their editions dog-eared and well used. This is a must-read that is meaty and scholarly enough, without being tedious or obtuse, thoughtfully written with a vast knowledge of the best literature in the conversation, and thoroughly engaging. The Faithful Artist is a great overview, but more than an overview, it is nearly a manifesto. Whether you identify with the evangelical tradition or not, this is a fabulous book. By the way, I’m not fond of the cover and if you are like me, please don’t be dissuaded. This book is beautiful, thoughtful, rigorous, and important.
Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worldsedited W. David O. Taylor & Taylor Worley (IVP Academic) $30.00 An exceptional release in the important “Studies in Theology and the Arts” series sponsored by CIVA, this is perhaps the definitive volume (and will be for quite some time, I suspect) pushing a deeper conversation about exceptionally contemporary art work and its reception within the Christian community. This includes expertly edited versions of talks and panels from the extraordinary 2015 biennial CIVA conference and includes inspiring and provocative transcripts of the wonderful presentations from that gathering. Nearly all the great thinkers and critics and patrons who have forged the foundation of CIVA these last decades are in here. This splendid book is nothing short of spectacular and a great tribute to the profound state of the discussion about this topic. I’m in awe. Order it today!
God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art Daniel A. Siedell (Baker Academic) $26.00 Dan Siedell is a deep thinker and curator who has been a pioneer in writing about modern art from a Christian perspective. The concern of this book is to think faithfully in ways that are germane to the real world of contemporary art moving the conversation about faith, culture, and the arts into the 21st century. Not at all limited to a faith-based cul-de-sac or echo chamber, Siedell is embedded in the real modern art world and is a trusted thinker; this was groundbreaking when it came out in 2008 and remains a must-read standard. He is also the author of, among other works, Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? (Cascade Books; $24.00.)
Putting Art (Back) In Its Place John E. Skillen(Hendrickson) $24.95 Many professors and students have admired the wonderful arts-oriented semester abroad program in Orvieto, Italy, founded by Dr. Skillen, a medievalist from Gordon College. This thoughtful book “takes readers on a fascinating journey through the world of Christian art in medieval and Renaissance Italy to rediscover the sacred role artwork can play once again in our churches.” Part historical survey, part manifesto about art commissions and collaboration and a vibrant call for church folks to realize the value of art and insist upon its flourishing. Skillen knows the cultural context of medieval and Renaissance Italian art (and storytelling) and its impact on art history and Western culture. This is a grand and unique book; highly recommended.
Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art edited by James Romaine & Phoebe Wolfskill (Penn State University Press) $34.95 We were particularly glad to hear that at the bi-annual CIVA event in June of 2019 they intended to focus somewhat on the relationships and interfaces of art, social change, cultural transformation, and the unending project of seeking ethnic justice and racial reconciliation. Respected evangelical art historian James Romaine here joined up with Dr. Phoebe Wolfskill, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, to offer a collection of essays that explore prominent African American art. Sometimes these artists engage overtly religious themes; often this work is transformatively Christian. As the publisher explains, these essays “examine the ways in which an artists engagement with religious symbols can be an expression of concerns related to racial, political, and socio-economic identity. We were glad to sell a few of this hefty book at CIVA and are happy to tell you about it now.
Normative Aesthetics: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 This collection of various pieces – ranging from exceedingly dense scholarly philosophy to delightful sermons and brief essays – is the best place to dig deeply into Seerveld’s famously unique (and Biblically sound) aesthetic theories. No one in the contemporary world has done what he has done, and anyone interested in the topic, if they are intellectually honest and at all curious, owes it to themselves to study this volume.
Redemptive Art in Society: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 One of my great joys in my bookselling and book reviewing “career” was being asked to provide a quip on the back of this volume as an endorsing blurb. I mentioned how important it is to see art as a gift that can stimulate and be a part of social change, bring shalom and voice to the oppressed. Better, though, are these sample lines from the good introduction by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, who wrote:
Art, for Seerveld, belongs to the very infrastructure of a good society, in the same way that a country’s economy, transportation system, or media network do: “With a vital artistic infrastructure priming its inhabitants’ imaginativity, a society can dress its wounds and be able to clothe and mitigate what otherwise might become naked technocratic deeds.”
Art History Revised: Sundry Writings and Occasional Lectures Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 As the publisher explains: “The essays in Art History Revisited follow a general course from the historiography of philosophy to the historiography of art and aesthetics to analyses of individual artists like Antoine Watteau and Gerald Folkerts and the theory and practice of artist/aestheticians like William Hogarth and Anton Raphael Mengs. As this selection of essays attests, Seerveld is both well-versed in the history of art and has made significant contributions to this field as well.” I know very little of any of this, and enjoyed learning, and was considerably blessed to see Seerveld in action, to imbibed from his integral worldview and his, deep, Godly passion.
Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of John E. Walford edited by James Romaine (Crossway) $40.00 This is a very handsome, hardback festschrift for a legendary art historian, known for his many good years of teaching at Wheaton College. Each chapter has a contemporary art historian exploring the deep insights of a certain work, or body of work, as they were taught by their teacher, or colleague, or friend, John Walford. A few of the pieces are very, very good, examining the process of Christian art historical discernment (including one I truly loved by Calvin Seerveld.) A rare, specialized collection for those interested in the methodologies of art history.
ReVisioning: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art edited by James Romaine & Linda Stratford (Cascade Books) $43.00 We were delighted to announce this book when it came out in 2014, now noting that it is somewhat like the Art as Spiritual Perception, above but more sprawling, diverse and intense. With over 20 chapters (and 350 pages, complete with color plates) it remains a seminal work in the field of nurturing a uniquely Christian art historical method. The publisher explains it like this: ReVisioning examines the application of art historical methods to the history of Christianity and art. As methods of art history have become more interdisciplinary, there has been a notable emergence of discussions of religion in art history as well as related fields such as visual culture and theology. This book represents the first critical examination of scholarly methodologies applied to the study of Christian subjects, themes, and contexts in art. ReVisioning contains original work from a range of scholars, each of whom has addressed the question, in regard to a well-known work of art or body of work, “How have particular methods of art history been applied, and with what effect?” The study moves from the third century to the present, providing extensive treatment and analysis of art historical methods applied to the history of Christianity and art.
In this week’s BookNotes I will review a new book that we think is very good, a lot of fun, and even, I would say, important. It’s important for ordinary folks as well as for those who study this particular field professionally. Its retro cover matches the topic: Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning by Calvin College film studies professor (and excitable film buff) William D. Romanowski (Baker Academic) $22.99. Our 20% OFF ON SALE discount makes it just $18.39.
There are a plenty of things I want to tell you about this interesting new book but I’d like you to indulge me a bit with a bunch of other comments first.
You can just jump right to it by scrolling down to the review itself if you’d rather. You can even just skip to the bottom and easily click on the “order here” tab at end of this column to be taken to our secure order form page if you just want to order it now. We’re ready to send ‘em out.
But first, this.
WE’VE BEEN ON THE ROAD AT SEVERAL CHURCH-RELATED EVENTS
We’ve been on the road a lot this season and we want to thank those who hosted us at big gigs across the mid-Atlantic. Our on-line/mail order business friends say they enjoy hearing about our escapades here and there, so I want to ruminate just a bit on selling books at church events.
I have a particular observation that might sting just a little, but I’m surely not intending to diss our good friends in Lutheran, UCC, Episcopal and Presbyterian (USA) circles; we love doing this off site gigs. My observation will be a segue to telling you more about Dr. Romanowski’s great new book about the movies.
We are tired but yet exhilarated by our work at this recent string of clergy and church events. We loudly thank all those who helped us lug and unload or lug and reload our vans in recent weeks. We couldn’t do this work without the help of friends with strong backs. Thanks to friends old and new.
Over just the last few weeks we’ve gotten to set up big book displays for several great church events. We’ve put miles on the vans and lugged boards and shelves and supplies and boxes and boxes (and more boxes) of books to an Episcopalian retreat with The Rev. Fleming Rutledge (a hero of ours – you should read her many books! Her most significant work is The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ although, The Battle for Middle Earth, her major work on Tolkien’s “divine design” is majestic) to a church education conference with PC(USA) Presbyterian congregational educators, to a UCC clergy convocation (with Sarah Griffith Lund leading as a vibrant speaker whose book Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church explores hard mental health issues in typical churches), to a small academic theology conference about Mercersburg Theology (where we launched a brand new and quite lovely introduction to that 19th century movement by Erskine professor William Evans called A Companion to the Mercersburg Theology in the “Cascade Companions series) to a large central Pennsylvania ELCA Synod Gathering where they re-elected their current very good Bishop.
We are glad to report that our biggest seller at that big gig was the most recent book by our friend Wes Granberg-Michaelson called Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Cenutury (Fortress; $18.99.) Thanks to Bishop James Dunlap from teaching from it.
We often smile about and enjoy the theological diversity in these groups; around the spacious book displays we discuss the theological wisdom of popular authors like Richard Rohr or Diana Butler Bass or Tom Wright or Barbara Brown Taylor and debate the usefulness of words like evangelical or progressive, liturgical or Reformed. I often (unsuccessfully, I might add) try to sell them books like Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three by Gordon Smith (IVP; $18.00) or Rich Mouw’s wonderful Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels (Brazos Press; $19.99.) I always takes books about ecumenicity and Christian unity such as Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus by John Armstrong (New City Press; $15.95.)
With these folks we celebrate their vibrant churches and share the anxiety about the numerical and financial decline of mainline congregations. We delight in the vision and energy of young, creative (and often quite theologically aware) clergy and mourn the loss of aging pastors that we’ve known for years who are no longer in ministry. We are glad when we hear about how the gospel is being proclaimed and people being served in and through congregations large and small, in cities and towns and rural areas. What a privilege!
We are told over and over that our books make a difference, that our presence matters at these denominational events. Historically, mom and pop Christian bookstores have been part often simplistic pietistic and fundamentalist traditions and have sometimes not been very serious-minded about theology; they have often eschewed working with mainline congregations. When large evangelical chains won’t even carry certain Bible translations or the work of certain publishers, there is good reason for animosity towards Christian booksellers among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. We have been graced by those in mainline circles who have welcomed us, knowing that we are a mom and pop, small town, Christian bookstore whose most core convictions remain orthodox. And we are grateful for those who have trusted us.
We do have good resources for local congregations seeking congregational revitalization, for those doing strategic planning, missional discernment, for those starting spiritual formation groups, revisiting mission statements, searching for a pastor and the like. Whether you want to explore more creative worship planning or are doing appreciative inquiry, or are hoping to move your congregation towards social justice advocacy, we have books to suggest. We have oodles of books on congregational stewardship, on church conflict, on pastoral integrity, on leadership development, youth ministry, and Christian education. Some rather evangelical books can be wisely used by mainline folks and we have tons of books from more liturgical, mainline traditions. We take books like The Art of Transformation: Three Things Churches Do That Change Everything by Paul Fromberg, one of the priests at St. Gregory of Nyssa (Church Publishing; $18.95) or Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom by Adam Gustine (IVP; $17.00.) or the new one by the remarkable Peter Steinke, Uproar:Calm Leadership in Anxious Times (Rowman & Littlefield; $19.95) and dozens and dozens more.
Many folks at these mainline denominational events, clergy and congregants alike, it seems are not very aware of the often very thoughtful resources that are out there. From Eerdmans to IVP, from the defunct Alban Institute (whose books are still available!) to broad-minded evangelical presses like Zondervan and Baker, there are tons of resources for congregational health. I wish more church leaders – elders, vestry members, council members, deacons, vicars, and the like – reached out to us and sought out resources to help them with their vows of service to the local church. There’s literally something for everyone. We can help.
A CURIOUS THING WE OFTEN HEAR FROM FOLKS AT THESE EVENTS
But here is what we often notice – and this is the long-in-coming segue to my book review this week: people especially love the books that we bring that are a bit surprising, books that are not about the church, but about the arts or science, creation-care or nurturing a sense of vocation that allows people to serve God in the work-world. One doesn’t need to read Abraham Kuyper who used that great phrase about Christ being Lord of “every square inch” of His creation to understand that God cares about more than our churches. (Although it wouldn’t hurt to get it from the proverbial horses mouth – the third Pro Rege: Living Under Christ’s Kingship volume in the massive Kuyper translation project was just released (Lexham Press; $49.99) offering remarkable insight about cultural engagement from the early 20th century Dutch theologian and statesman.)
People seemed surprised so see that we feature books that remind us that God cares about Monday as much as Sunday. That all of us who follow Jesus are called to obey God by helping serve the common good. That this somehow means being in but not of the world, in civil society, the arts, education, recreation, politics, and more.
(Do please read last week’s BookNotes reviewof Jake Meador’s new book In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World and note the great chapters about how simple practices of going to church can help equip us to become better civic-minded public servants and good neighbors. As I explained, his study of culture is astute and his call to be active in the local church is so helpful, even though it’s a book about repairing society, healing the world, and seeking the common good.)
(And then back up and read my big review Romans Disarmed and Walsh & Keesmaat’s radical call to be a subversive community that stands with the hurting, even in an age of imperial injustice. There’s so much to be found in their amazing book Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice and even my wordy review doesn’t tell it all. Both books show that a Biblically-grounded sort of socially engaged gospel depends upon a quality of congregational life that nurtures a lifestyle of stewardship, compassion, and activism.)
As much as mainline church seminary profs like to dabble in edgy and often eccentric theologies that are supposed to be empowering and relevant, most mainline churches are way behind the best evangelicals in fostering conversations around the intersection of faith and science, art, business, work, even racial reconciliation. Few mainline churches (judging from what we hear at these events, at least) are doing much in their churches about relating faith to stuff other than churchy or missionary things. When at mainline denominational events for church folk we display books about art or culture or work or science, there is almost always a bit of surprise. Folks are overjoyed to see Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art or The Language of God and Science by pioneering researcher of the human genome, Francis Collins or Josh Larsen’s excellent Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice our Deepest Longings but you can tell that many have never seen books like that before. People do a double take when they see books about the doctrine of vocation, or books like Os Guinness’s The Call next to books about work and the marketplace. They seem to think that sensing God’s call only means being called to church life or religious things.(Curiously, in many more traditionally evangelical events, it is almost expected that we’ll have books on work and race and art and technology and civic life.) In our recent string of events everybody was delighted when they saw that we had, say, Wendell Berry’s agrarian books or David Brooks’ social criticism or Makoto Fujimura’s artful study of Endo’s novel Silence (in Mako’s wonderful Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering) or Sherry Turkle’s critique of digital culture or Andy Crouch’s wonderful Tech-Wise Family or Robert Capon’s “culinary reflection” Supper of the Lamb or books about sports and recreation. But mainline denominational folks tend not to buy them. They notice — books about faith and food, faith and popular music, books about hiking? But it seems surprising to them. And the pastors, usually, skip right over those things as if faithful reflection about real life doesn’t interest them much.
I don’t know if the surprise is that evangelical booksellers like us are savvy about life in the real world (do they think I’m a little hobbit sitting in a cave reading theology all day?) or that there even is such a thing as a Christian perspective on seemingly secular things like advertising or sports or neuroscience or work or film. This observation vexes me a bit.
BEING ECUMENICAL, YES
Almost everywhere we go we like to display books that honor our deep commitment to ecumenicity. As a matter of principle we like to offer both evangelical and progressive stuff; we always have Roman Catholic authors mixed in with Protestant books. We carry Chesterton and Nouwen and Alexander Schmemmann; Joan Chittister, John Stott and Walter Brueggemann; we feature Bible books by the late Rachel Held Evans and conservatively Reformed Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie. We have books on sexuality by Wes Hill and Matthew Vine and Austen Hartke side by side. Mainline folks rarely buy C.S. Lewis, but we take his stuff and put him near Rowan Williams and Marcus Borg. Maybe it was only to amuse myself, but in a recent display I put John Piper’s little Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons next to our stack of Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice.
But being ecumenical is only one of our passions.
A BROAD VISION OF THE WIDE SCOPE OF REDEMPTION
As you can guess, we are passionate about this wholistic vision – learned mostly from the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Abraham Kuyper and in books like Creation Regained: Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview by Al Wolters and Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation by Paul Marshall and Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living by Cornelius Plantinga – about how we can find God in the ordinary stuff of life and how we are called by God to be faithfully attentive about how to think and live in all spheres of life; no arena of culture or aspect of society or corner of your life is off limits to the saving power of Christ and the renewing power of the Spirit. It hardly needs saying – but yet, in religious circles, it does – life in God’s creation is multi-dimensional. We think and feel, work and play, vote and shop. Theorists of all sorts get at this when they talk about two hemispheres of the brain or when educators talk about multiple intelligences or even when we hear about personality types (like with the recent interest in the Enneagram. As multi-faceted people made in God’s image, we are more than bodies and souls. Which is why the church must proclaim a big gospel of all sides of life and why faith-based booksellers must carry resources for living in every sector of life and culture.
We are not just “brains on a stick” to use Jamie Smith’s colorful phrase or disembodied souls, like some mystics imply. From sex to science, from law to leisure, God’s creation is the “theatre of God” (to quote John Calvin) so all human endeavor is irreducibly religious. That is, all of life is lived – like it or not – corem deo; before God. We are in God’s world, living before the gracious Holy One, 24/7. As one recent book title by an Anglican leader, Win Mott, puts it, The Earth Is the Lords: There Is No Secular. We may live in a cultural era which is called “the secular age” but that is about the ethos of our time. We can live as if there is no God and our our cultural landscape can be arranged without reference to Christ’s reign, but we our hearts are still committed to some story, something religion-like. What we really trust can be misguided and our religion can be an idolatrous one, making an idol of our sense of self or some other ideology, but worship we do.
From a Christian perspective, all of life is at once good and bad; blessed, cursed, damaged, and being redeemed and healed by the resurrection power of the Ascended King. We can serve that God of the Bible with all we’ve got or we can allow our hearts desires to move us in another direction with all we’ve got. It’s really pretty simple: as that old hymn puts it, “This Is Our Father’s World” and (as Richard Mouw unpacks in a book title taken from that same hymn) “He shines in all that’s fair.” God is pleased when we do what the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.”
So folks walk into the book room at a conference or, more so, into our Dallastown bricks and mortar store, and see books on Van Gogh and cooking and nursing and engineering – books written often by wise authors calling for reform in the profession or industry — and if they look carefully they will realize that the authors may be people of deep Biblical faith, writing some of these books, integrating, if you will, their Sunday beliefs and their Monday world. From school teaching to lawyering, from math to aesthetics, from farming to journalism, there are Christian authors offering up their workspaces as holy ground, as mission fields. There are people that get what my friend John Van Sloten says in his clever book title (and very excellent book) Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greet, Nurses and Astronauts Tell us About God. Such folks may not be church leaders but they are trying to be salt and light, leaven in the loaf, blooming right where they are planted in the factory floor or work cubicle or sculpting studio or kindergarten classroom.
It is why we often recommend the great collection of Christian graduation speeches about taking up our callings to serve God in professions and careers that I compiled, Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life (Square Halo Books; $13.99) and why I’m sad when people think that even young adults wouldn’t be interesting in such a thing. It is unfortunate, I think, of how few churches honor their college grads. Maybe if we all read Serious Dreams it might help.
One would think one would be delighted to see books about real life in the real world that might make you say, and mean it, “Thank God It’s Monday!” But, as I say, people smile and seem surprised, and maybe a tad confused.
I GIVE THIS SPIEL BECAUSE OFTEN PEOPLE ARE SURPRISED
I give this little spiel often at our book display at conferences. It seems that I have to explain these kinds of books to most church folks at a church conference when they see – often with delight – that we’ve got books like Watching TV Religiously or Game Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, & Wannabes or Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual or Social Lives or Robert Benson’s spiritual meditation on his backyard called Digging In or that great Square Halo Book release edited by Gregory Thornbury on Doctor Who, Bigger on the Inside: Christianity and Doctor Who. If they look at the table of contents, we are sure to have a little conversation about something in Steve Turner’s book Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment. Who knew there were Christian insights about fashion and video games and comedy?
I was dismayed that a book that is getting rave reviews in places like Christianity Today called Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It by Dave Zahl didn’t sell at our recent mainline gigs, even though Fleming Rutledge (an Episcopalian) had a great blurb on the back, and it is published by the ELCA-related Fortress Press. It is an interesting, playful, grace-filled, feisty study of our culture – the sort of things he does at his exceptional website and podcast Mockingbird.
Maybe people are surprised to see these kinds of books because their pastors don’t talk about all this; their adult ed forums during the education hour at church don’t tackle these sorts of things in principled ways. Or maybe it is because (at least the last time I formally investigated this, admittedly years ago) there simply weren’t many Christian bookstores that stocked faith-based books about helping us be whole-life disciples across the whole of life and culture. For a few years I’d call the new winner of the “Best Christian Bookstore” award and ask if they had books on, say, art, or if they had a political science department, or any books about urban planning. Or even books about racial reconciliation. Often the clerk was baffled. We’re a Christian bookstore one dear frontline staffer replied, as if that settled things. Of course God Almighty doesn’t care about art or science or public policy. And these are the best CBA stores!
EYES WIDE OPEN
One book we always take out with us to events is Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture(Brazos Press; $24.00.) It is a personal favorite written by an old college pal, author of the brand new Cinematic Faith, William D. Romanowski. Decades ago in those critical years, under the influence of older mentors in the CCO, we talked about this “all of life redeemed” vision, learned the deeper meaning of worldviews and social imaginaries as we read Dutch philosophers and colorful Christian thinkers like Bible scholar, art historian, and aesthetician, Calvin Seerveld. Bill nearly memorized most of Cal’s seminal Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence Press; $35.00) and to this day laughs about helping scholarly, artful Cal learn a bit about popular entertainments. Soon, Bill felt the call to do PhD work in the study of popular culture; these were the days when MTV was a new thing, when film was starting to use rock music in soundtracks (the topic, in fact, of his first co-authored book.) He prepared to make a contribution to the burgeoning field of pop culture studies by getting his PhD at Bowling Green (then the epicenter of much of this academic study, using a bit of critical theory and other new ways to discern what is really going on in popular entertainment and cultural proclivities and social practices. His Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life (Wipf & Stock; $45.00) remains a major work – critiquing, by the way, the very way we assume that there is a difference between high art (that we should study and learn from) and low art, or pop culture (which, well, is just amusement, after all, or so many assume.) That the original cover had a picture of Rocky Balboa and William Shakespeare and Bruce Cockburn made a nice point. Bill was a lit major in college, was a performing artist himself, had worked in campus ministry with emerging adults (through the CCO) and soon became perhaps the leading voice in the early 1990s discussions about evangelical faith and popular culture. He was speaking widely and doing research and meeting important voices in the entertainment industry. (The picture above, by the way, is with the legendary Jack Valenti, the late President of the Motion Picture Association — you know, the institution that runs the Academy Awards and gives out the Oscars.
As you may recall from our BookNotes review, in 2012 he released a major scholarly work, published by Oxford University Press entitled Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. It remains a standard study in the history of film, and especially Protestant engagement, about which little has been written. Romanowski had remarkable access to important archives and did interview with older Hollywood producers, including some ground breaking research into the role religion or didn’t play in the formation of the now famous MPAA rating system.
LOOKING FOR GOD IN POPULAR CULTURE
Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (in an expanded second edition) was his first popular level book and it became a perennial best seller. It is still one of the very best books to offer a broad and thoughtful Christian worldview as a lens to help us be faithful and discerning in engaging modern entertainment. From video games to televised sports, from advertising to rock shows, Eyes Wide Open helps us understand how pop culture works, how it both reflects the dominant culture’s values and shapes them. And how it can – from varying viewpoints and perspectives – help us criticize and even be motivated to reform society. (Erin Brockovich, anyone? The Big Short? Dallas Buyers Club? Selma?)
Anyway, Eyes Wide Open is a fine and thoughtful book, only a bit dated, now, and still my favorite resource for thinking in foundational ways about the joys and challenges of watching movies and listening to music and such. If you don’t have it, you should. If you were with us at any of the aforementioned church conferences you probably saw it. Maybe you were intrigued. I know we didn’t sell any.
(By the way, another vital favorite, which we also take everywhere we go – with a more allusive writing style, and a bit more punchy evaluation of important popular culture works – is David Dark’s amazing Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos Press; $20.00.) Don’t you love the cool, old-school juke box on the cover design?
David is the one who wrote The Possibility ofAmerica: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land that I reviewed at length at BookNotes a month or so ago. Why are some folks surprised that a Christian bookstore stocks and promotes these kinds of books?
And can you help us fix this problem by promoting in your circles books about culture, the arts, society, science, work, citizenship, play, education, health care technology, food, farming and more?
Maybe, at least, you could invite them to subscribe to our free BookNotes so they learn about these kinds of books… we’d appreciate it and it would serve to advance the cause of thoughtful Christian literature.
ANNOUNCING: CINEMATIC FAITH A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON MOVIES AND MEANING
Years in the making, we are very, very glad to get to announce a brand new book by professor Romanowski. As we’ve said, it’s called Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning (Baker Academic; $22.99 – OUR SALE PRICE = $18.39) and I’m reading through it happily for the second time. For anyone who likes going to the movies or can’t wait for the next NetFlex DVD to show up (please don’t tell me you watch films on your little phone!) this big book will be an education and a joy. It isn’t preachy and it isn’t simplistic but it isn’t overly academic. If you love movies, you need this book.
READING DOESN’T HINDER OUR PLEASURE
Let me get this off my chest right away: reading books about various aspects of our Christian discipleship — work, play, voting, shopping, being a parent, being a choir member, considering schooling or health care or gardening, or vacationing, watching movies, whatever – isn’t going to dull our enjoyment of these good spaces where we live out our lives.
No! Unlike the beloved but confused chorus that says when we turn our eyes to Jesus “the things of earth will grow strangely dim,” the Bible says the opposite: Jesus is the Light of the world. In Him we are given light to see (the Bible is, after all, a light before our path!) So knowing God more deeply and deepening our faith and catching a vision of how it connects to various spheres of society and sides of life allows Christ to shine in all of life – we don’t want our marriages or work or our voting or our church life or our entertainment life to grow dim. We are to let our light shine! John 10:10 promises an abundant life, not a dim life.
READING ENHANCES OUR FAITHFUL ENJOYMENT
However, to really shine, to see God’s common grace in ordinary things, knowing something about those ordinary things is essential. Our enjoyment of making and eating good food is enhanced when we read a thoughtful cookbook! Our enjoyment of sports is better when we know some of the nuances of the game. We can even enjoy politics (Lord help us) when we know something about what we’re voting on and why we get passionate about it. Dare I say that some of us might enjoy sex a bit more if we read a book or two about Godly married life. Reading rock criticism or film studies or a book about the nature of digital culture and the like allows us do what the Bible says: attend to and listen to God’s will revealed in reality. (Psalm 19 says the heavens speak to us; Job says to “listen to the fish” and Isaiah 28 compliments a farmer for learning the science of soil and seed. This is basic to life: wisdom and joy come from knowing where we are and learning something about what we’re doing — whatever it may be. Systematic theology and inner spiritual formation and hearty worship cannot replace the need to pay attention to what Matthew Crawford calls “the world outside your head.” Biblical wisdom always is down-to-Earth, often quite literally. Reading and study is necessary and it can truly help us life in fidelity to God’s good ways. It’s as simple as that.
Books help us see and appreciate and develop the creation God has given us. To use the language of Andy Crouch’s essential text, we become Culture Makers who “recovery our creative calling” and can then, as Romanowski puts it, “find God in popular culture.” (By the way, we take Crouch’s Culture Making everywhere we go, too – it’s such a very, very helpful book to help us find meaning and purpose in our day to day lives.)
Who doesn’t want to understand what it means that we are made in God’s image and therefore called to be creative, involved in culture? Who doesn’t long for more God sightings in daily life? Who doesn’t want all of life to be worship – including, in this case, taking in goofball comedies, romance flicks, or action adventure films? Books like this will help you have more fun at the movies. And, trust me on this: Bill has very eclectic tastes and has a lot of fun at the movies.
(A fun little fact: Bill was led to Christian faith and discipled mostly by a guy who became not only a mentor but one of his life-long best friends. This guy, Dr. Terry Thomas of Geneva College, was himself raised working in a Pittsburgh-area movie theatre that his father managed. Nobody has more fun at the movies than Terry, who Bill mentions in his book. Terry’s love of film, including comedy, is infectious, and Bill learned well.)
One of the great delights of Cinematic Faith are a handful of (sometimes lengthy) “Movie Musing” sidebars where to illustrate his point in a given chapter, Romanowski explores some detail or theme in popular films.
From the “married life” sequence in Up to looking at “Dramatizing Drone Warfare in Eye in the Sky” to a brilliant analysis of history in the movie Lincoln to a fun interpretation of “time loop fiction” by way of a study of (what else?) Groundhog Day to one called “Boy Meets Girl in La La Land” these are all fascinating (even if you haven’t seen the film under consideration.)
Bill has spent considerable scholarly energy studying melodrama (and, for example, Titanic) and he loves Rocky (which, in a “Movie Musing” he calls “A Classical Hollywood Film.”) He offers musings on Blade Runner and The Imitation Game as metaphors, “art and ethics” in Rear Window, and a great piece called “Narrative, Character and Perspective in The Blind Side” – you’ve got to read that if you enjoyed this movie as much as we have. Through all of these excursions, you can tell that his tastes are not overly high-brow. (Remember his central thesis of Pop Culture Wars that all film and pop artifacts are religiously/philosophically laden and artfully serious, and his central thesis of Eyes Wide Open that we can find signs of life and Godly insight from even pagan popular culture.) Cinematic Faith is hoping to enhance your viewing experiences and help you get more out of your entertainment dollar, not bore you with academic discourse or shame you for enjoying the movies you enjoy. Please know, this isn’t highbrow scholarly theory for snooty cineastes but a thoughtful tool for all of us, whether you like The Kings Speech or the X-Men series or Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War.
READING WIDELY, VIEWING WIDELY
We loved, by the way, having literary scholar and teacher Karen Swallow Prior in our store last fall helping launch her marvelous book about virtue and literature On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. She started her talk, as she does in the book, with the advice of old John Milton, who advised that we “read promiscuously.” The word didn’t have quite the immoral overtones in his 1600s that it does nowadays, but even then, the advice struck some as dangerous. Like Prior and her love of a wide range of reading, Romanowski is convinced that watching a lot of movies of different sorts is a good thing. Unlike literature, where reading widely is mostly admired, though, we tend to dismiss a thoughtful, spiritually aware engagement with our popular amusements.
Some think we shouldn’t watch many movies at all and others think it’s all fine, but don’t want to think about it much — who wants to think much, after all, let alone about God’s Kingdom or our moral formation, when we’re vegging out? Anyway, what’s the point of entertainment, after all?
TO ENTERTAIN OR ENLIGHTEN?
Romanowski addresses this a bit in a section called “To Entertain or Enlighten: That Is the Question.” You’ll have to read his answer, but, again: nothing is secular, so we are always being formed, one way or the other, and all moments in life can be avenues for construing meaning and growing as a person made in God’s likeness. Of course, we don’t have to have a steady diet of Schindler’s List and socially conscious documentaries. Remember, the first “Movie Musing” in this book is on Groundhog Day. And did I mention he likes Rocky?
So. What makes Cinematic Faith an important book, besides being a bit of a sequel to the important and popular Eyes Wide Open? We have literally a dozen recent books on faith and film that have come out in recent years. A genre that was once rather provocative and cutting edge has, it seems to me, become almost commonplace. And we don’t sell them as much as we used to.
Movies and digital entertainment (here in a new golden age of TV) are more popular than ever, taking up more of our time than ever before. (Indeed, we just got a new book by Dan Strange called Plugged In:Connecting Your Faith with Everything You Watch, Read, and Play that carries rave reviews by the likes of Bill Edgar and Tim Keller.)
Still, most Christian people, I’d guess, have never read anything about the relationship of faith and entertainment, have never studied any of the many books we stock on this. We really should, you know; like work or relationships or eating or voting, God wants us to take pleasure in this part of our discipleship, but in a fallen world, things can be distorted and depressing. We have to study up, learn more, deeper our curiosity so we can grow in to maturity in these aspects of life.
But what makes this book on film that urgent? Besides my personal loyalty to my old friend and the reputation of his well-respected work at Calvin College, why Cinematic Faith?
SEVERAL GOOD THINGS
I will name several good things that make this a very important contribution, not only for anyone serious about developing a uniquely and inherently Christian way of approaching film, but for ordinary folks who enjoy a good movie night from time to time.
First, as I’ve already suggested, the good professor is, in fact, a good professor. He is clear and teacherly about critical approaches — theories or ways of thinking about film. He explains how different schools of thought about film can enhance our own viewing. However, again, this isn’t abstract scholarship for insiders; he specifically says that a good approach should be practical and can “provide reliable insights, and sharpen our judgments.”
He is clear and informative and this will be helpful for you. As he puts it, “appreciating what makes movies artistically interesting and effective can make us better viewers and more creative storytellers.”
So: it is practical and helpful. Who couldn’t use a bit of help in knowing better what makes a film good? With this small investment of twenty bucks and time – okay, a bit longer than it takes to watch a movie – you’ll benefit by enjoying movies more. You can even eat popcorn as you turn the pages and nobody will shush your crunching.
Secondly, Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning is valuable because of the author’s main assumptions; that are potent and wise. Again, the primary framework for Romanowski’s work, as we’ve noted, is that there is an insightful, Biblically-informed way to think about film as a cultural artifact, as art. I mentioned (significantly) that he has been informed by the aesthetic theories of Calvin Seerveld (Rainbows for a Fallen World, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, Normative Aesthetics, Redemptive Art in Society) and more, including study and conversations with other philosophers of the arts such as philosophers such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Lambert Zuidervaart as well as pop journalists like the great Steve Turner whose Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts is a great book for anyone wanting to dip into an integrated Christian perspective on art and culture and whose Popcultured I already mentioned.) This means that Bill has worked very hard at a deep level to wonder what it means to take up theories and mindsets that inform dispositions and practices that are not only coherent and consistent from a Christian perspective but that are deeply integral. In this, he doesn’t get all preachy nor does he particularly wear his faith on his sleeve, but he is a reliable, faithful guide. Faith, in his scholarship, is not an afterthought nor is his sense of quality and value in a film based on cheap inspiration. I suppose we don’t have to say it here, but a novel or movie can tell a profoundly immoral story and be brilliantly made and wise; similarly an overtly Christian movie may have a lively religious message but be poorly made. Such films and books can even be dishonest about the way faith works in real life. Some of the most theologically sane movies have be made by deeply troubled filmmakers and some of our worst films are made by otherwise Godly people trying to use the art form for evangelistic purposes.
Art – visual art, multi-media art, literature or pop music – must not be propaganda. In fact, if a piece traffics in cheap clichés and/or pushy messages, it most likely isn’t very good art, which, by definition, must be allusive and imaginative. I’ve already counseled young Christian rock musicians to lay down their guitars and find a pulpit since they seem to think their calling is not to be an artist but to be a preacher. Preaching is a noble (and, at its best, also an artful) calling. But art – and in this case, movies – aren’t mere vehicles of didactic content. Art must, to cite Emily Dickinson, “tell it slant.” For a film, to work well, it must firstly be a good film; that is, good art, imaginatively telling a story.
We all know when a movie or TV show has been ham-fisted, and we feel like we’ve been manipulated or pummeled with a message. Marxists and progressives tend to do this a lot; evangelical Christians too often, too. Even if we tend to agree with the message, it hasn’t been a particularly edifying few hours of entertainment, has it? A good message is usually diluted by bad form or a propagandistic ethos. Conversely, an artistically nuanced and allusively subtle vision can be quietly powerful.
This insight – which is pretty basic, I suppose – has formed in Bill a professional passion (and, after watching a zillion films over a lifetime, a finely tuned craft) for understanding film not merely in its content, but it its style. And this is what makes Cinematic Faith a major contribution to and somewhat unique within contemporary Christian film studies.
It seems to me that most of our best Christian thinkers in film studies (many published by the same good publishing house as Cinematic Faith who over the last 15 years or so have served up a bounty of faith-based scholarship about culture and review of modern movies) have fallen somewhat for this inadequate perspective of how to evaluate film. That is, they spend a whole lot of time and effort to discern the worldviews of the filmmakers, or doing narrative criticism, exploring the story and the content and the message as if every movie has a moral. As Bill himself notes, this is natural—when telling a friend about a movie you’ve enjoyed or when considering with a date what film to see, we ask, “What’s it about?” Nobody first asks what stylistic vision the cinematographer has and to what effect their film-editor worked, as she spliced scenes with the soundtrack? But you know what? Maybe we should ask that sort of question about form and function, about aesthetics and craft. Because, after all, for a film to work it not only needs a good story but that story is told by artists with a point of view that is embodied in their craft, their form, their filmic skills.
“The critical approach presented in this book,” Romanowski writes, “is anchored in the film itself and its unique capabilities as an audiovisual medium.”
Even professional film reviewers tend to rely on, “a heavy dose of plot synopsis,” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concedes. They pay very little if any attention to the specifics of the medium, to how film makes meaning with images – with framing, editing, mise en scene, with the way an actor moves his body in front of the camera.”
He sets up our expectations for the book reminding us that:
This book does not propose to replace an emphasis on content with an emphasis on form but rather to treat film as both an aesthetic object and an experience – one that can be exciting, pleasurable, boring, disagreeable, or mind blowing.
This is really important stuff that I don’t see enough about in other such books.
ANOTHER GOOD THING: UNDERSTANDING INTERPRETATION
Further, Romanowski also writes about the interplay of production and reception; that is, our response to a movie is a dance with the filmmakers and her skills and perspective. Our “interpretive stance” comes into interaction with the worldviewish perspective of the filmmaker and the way in which they tell their story, which, I’d suppose, is itself embedded with all kinds of cultural baggage; the same story can be told from a variety of viewpoints from varying ideologies and perspectives, and different viewers will find meaning in different ways in this whole arty mess. No wonder the evaluations at Rotten Tomatoes sometimes vary so very vividly that conversations about favorite (or hated) films can be explosive.
Again, in Romanowski’s clear-headed prose, he reviews a major point:
The main concern is with the essential relationship between form (the patterns and techniques used to tell stories), content (the film’s subject), style (the filmmakers distinctive use of patterns and techniques), and perspective (the film or filmmaker’s point of view.)
And, oh my, how he later peels layer after layer of different sorts of interpretation – the surface meaning, and the directors deeper meaning and our own interpretive meanings. In this modern entertainment that blends art and outlook, through film-making style and vision, we somehow come out either enlightened in ways that are consistent with God’s Kingdom or we are recruited to other stories, conscripted (to use James K.A. Smith’s word) into false ways of being in the world. That Bill cites his colleague Jamie will be a touchstone to many who have read Smith’s extraordinary three volume cultural liturgies project (or the one-volume summary version, You Are What You Love.) Interpretation matters as we thereby can be more intentional about what movies shape us and in what way.
FOUR BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES
In the second chapter Romanowski offers in a no-nonsense manner four basic Biblical principles to serve as a guide for a productive engagement with cinema. In a few pages he packs extraordinary insight; for some, they might be new insight, or intuitions articulated in sensible ways.
The first of these ruminations is on the role of the arts (which “enriches by subtle disclosure rather than instant clarity.”) These few paragraphs are not to be missed.
Secondly, he offers a rare insight about the sense of the divine that Christian Scripture tells us everyone has, making, therefore, everyone somehow religious, and every film some sort of tribute to the filmmakers or directors “ultimate concerns.” No one is neutral or somehow not making meaning or framing life by some lights; all movies have this avoidable religious/ideological commitment to something.
Thirdly, Romo writes about how faith encompasses all of life and therefore “we should expect movies to deal with our full humanity.” Faith, in this approach, is the context for thinking about all films, not a topic that is only treated in some “religious” films. Our Christian convictions are like a lens through which we see all of life and can help us evaluate all films – that is, we aren’t just interested in overtly religious messages.
Lastly in this short section he explains what the Reformed tradition, at least, calls “common grace” – which carries the reminder that even if we always have a critical, aware, posture, we must never “lose sight of the fact that all people have the capacity for creativity and truthfulness.” Oh was a generous and important insight, especially in these days of deep polarization.
THE GOLDEN RULE FOR FILM CRITICISM
And then, Mr. Romanowski gives us The Golden Rule for Film Critique:
Together these four principles lay the groundwork for a two pronged approach that is both discerning and exploratory, characterized by encounter and dialogue. With this approach comes a certain attitude. This way of doing film analysis recognizes and values diverse perspectives, while also maintaining the importance of one’s own perspective in thinking critically about cinema.
The next few pages are, again, worth the price of the book, reminding us of the ups and downs of this process and posture. We must understand the value system of the film. Yet, we must be open to how other people (made in God’s image) experience and interpret life. Movies change us, and this isn’t altogether a bad thing.
Read this great little excerpt:
How can we critically engage film in imaginative ways that are mindful of and consistent with a faith perspective while also respecting the filmmakers vision and artistic expression? Or, to give it a slightly different twist, how are we to engage movies that are artistically praiseworthy and culturally significant but contain ideals and assumptions that might run against the grain of our own? Becoming impartial critics — fair and just in our judgments, and rising above our own prejudices – is easier said than done. Who would deny adhering to one’s own agenda when thinking about a film? The risk, of course, is that we might fail to refuse to give a filmmakers viewpoint a fair appraisal, or we might find it difficult to even appreciate an honest artistic effort.
Cinematic Faith advises us to engage a film on its own terms, “to resist the temptation to unfairly impose your own point of view, which adhering to your own vantage point as a place of reference to understand and think critically about the film. This calls for,” the author continues, “an approach that plays itself out along the border between conviction and humility.”
And with this, we’re really off to the movies!
Chapter three is called “Moviemaking Magic” and here Romanowski unpacks“poetic portals and the power of perspective.” He starts with a splendid reminder of the Scorsese film Hugo, which is adapted from the great children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret – a spectacular YA story about a turn of the twentieth century French filmmaker. This is a great chapter reminding us about how stories really work, how filmmakers interpret reality and how we viewers then bring our own deeply felt value judgments to the experience of the film. He cites some other film scholars who talk about “imaginative orderings of experience” and a few other heady notions but this is really important and very interesting.
FORM AND CONTENT
He moves then into a chapter that might be considered a key one for Cinematic Faith, working more on what makes this book particularly special – the matters of style and craft and film-making (and not only content or message.) This part is called “Creating an Illusion of Reality: Film Form and Content.” Here we get into the weeds a bit, but it’s really fascinating. His first discussion as he teaches us about this is of 1995’s witty coming-of-age film set in Beverly Hills high school, Clueless. (Did you know it is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma and critics said it had a “razor sharp script”?) Professor R names a dozen other movies in as many pages exploring this dual emphasis of style and content, of medium and message, if you will. I am no expert on this, so I learned a lot and I am convinced it is important.
I recall decades ago Francis Schaeffer saying that, just for instance, a movie about nihilism, say, couldn’t be well told if it was lighthearted; form somehow is related to function, right? Bill used to give talks about this stuff when we worked in campus ministry and I recall him speaking about how a beautiful/joyous concept can’t be captured in ugly forms; different styles of songs are suited for different settings – from a wedding night, say, or to a tragic funeral. One can’t express the heart-wrenching sadness of a tragic death in a peppy little disco tune, right? Good cheer and gravitas have their places, and aesthetic form carries much of the weight of these human emotions, in music and TV and dance and other art forms. And so it is in film, perhaps even with style trumping content, sometimes. Ideally, Romanowski says, “form and content are essential and mutually dependent aspects of a film — two sides of the same coin, so to speak.”
So, naturally, we should know a bit about cinematic tools such as narrative, cinematography, production design, sound, acting, and editing. Under his helpful tutelage we learn not just what happens in a film, but the way it happens.
And – bam! pow! — he sure gives us lots of examples of just what he’s talking about. From the special effects team in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince showing the Death Eaters flying to some sexy opening shots in Top Gun that places gender in the center of the story, to great, if brief, comments about the much-awarded cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who, Romanowski reminds us, won an Oscar three years in a row for Gravity (2013), Birdman(2014), and in 2015 for The Revenant) this section is chock full of quick examples and fun illustrations and even movie stills.
On and on we go through this book, covering all sorts of things that are fun to learn, helpful to realize, wise reminders and fresh formulations. This book could serve as a good read for a film-going group or a college class or a book club. Again, you’ll enjoy movies more and be more faithful (Christian) viewers if you learn a bit. It shows how filmmakers connect the dots by exploring further the relationship between “style and meaning.”
Romanowski opens this good chapter by highlighting a debate in Commonweal about a Catholic film critic who appreciated a fundamental moral center to movies like Pulp Fiction. In answering the popular critics who thought he went too far in affirming the goodness of a violent film, reviewer Richard Alleva replies, “I will persist in recognizing the morality in art by exploring the art in art.” What an interesting line; Romanowski jumps from there into the insights we can get when we have enough awareness of these things to relate a film’s form and content and style – especially when the film itself is artful enough to harmonize these features.
EVALUATION & CRITICISM
This notion that we can be redemptively Christian in our interpretations (by being savvy about film style and enjoying a movie as an artfully constructed story) has long been part of Bill’s strong repertoire. But his scholarship over the years (in academic film studies journals and papers presented at mainstream academic conferences) has been on the “American style” redemption that movies often present us (and how those often violent myths are a different sort of redemption than that offered by Christ and the Christian gospel.)
Others have written about this as well, but I appreciate Romanowski’s take – in one chapter he looks at Titanic “a consummate Hollywood blockbuster film” (which explores melodrama) and in another chapter (“The Yellow Brick Road to Self Realization”) he looks at classical Hollywood cinema and the tropes and values inherent in this sort of storytelling. You’ll be surprised to see how he weaves together comments about Oz and Casablanca,The Big Short and (get this) Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Even those not interested in action adventure movies will appreciate the chapter called “A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do” in which he offers his seriously Christian worldview and faith-based guidelines to explore a whole host of important issues in this popular genre. From stuff about gender and violence and heroism he brings new insights to films that he sees connect to this particularly American mythology. He has a “Movie Musing” here on 2014’s Noah – “a big-budget Hollywood epic drama conceived as a variation of sorts on the American mono-myth.” That was a surprising (and compelling) take on what I supposed was just a nod to the religious market by doing a Bible story.
And then he goes from he assessment of the conventional American myths to a full-on study of gender in mainstream Hollywood. As a guy with long-standing sensitivity to the critiques of machismo, a critique he has himself been making for decades, this chapter, called “Stop Taking My Hand!” (which is a line from Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), looks at “gendered cultural patterns” about the ideal man or woman. Do these images reflect our values and assumptions or shape them? What might the recent interest in strong female characters bode for film and storytelling? With explorations of Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) to Hilary Swank’s awarded winning Maggie Fitzgerald being trained in boxing by Clint Eastwood’s character in Million Dollar Baby, Romanowski brings fascinating and I think wise insight to questions of gender and sexuality and relationships.
He does not particularly address films about LGBTQ characters, by the way, but his framework about being critical of American mythologies of traditional gender assumptions (he reads the Bible as offering a trajectory towards egalitarian justice) could provide tools for a positive Christian engagement with all sorts of films around those themes, as well. There are a host of other topics and issues in contemporary culture that his film studies approach will prove generative for us as we seek to “find God in popular culture.” His gift to us, besides lots of musings on lots of specific movies, is a deeper framework and wise orientation to film interpretation, appreciation, and evaluation.
There’s plenty more in Cinematic Faith, from a strong reminder that the routine vision of American individualistic self salvation in many films is a far cry from the core tenant of being save by God’s grace, to a unique study of The Blind Side, to a wonderful epilogue that draws on Shrek. For those with eyes to see, all films can and do express meaning and “communicate life perspectives.” They can help us see and they can help us care.
Can knowing a bit about how they are made and how they work on us and how to critically engage them help us discern those that “resonate with a biblical outlook and so deepen our awareness of the ways that humans bear God’s image and flourish through acts of love, forgiveness, and generosity?” This book insists yes. We can truly enjoy movies and be challenged and grow through their artful style – especially if we know something about it all.
Cinematic Faith:A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning stands out as a large gift to anyone that who enjoys movies and film and certainly anyone who is attempt to be intentionally faithful in “finding God in popular culture.”
FILM AND THEOLOGY?
A final comment about why on some occasions, it seems, church folk (almost all of whom surely watch TV and movies) seem surprised when we have books displayed at their events like Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective…
I think it is because some religionists and many common people in the pew seem to think that all God cares about is church and maybe the study of theology.
And, you see, technically speaking, Romanowski’s book is not about theology (proper) or even “in dialogue with” theology or church leaders. It is deeply Christian, particularly standing in this reformational tradition, that doesn’t favor theology over other areas of study. He teaches at a Christian college, but he isn’t a theologian. He attends his church, but isn’t primarily a churchman. He’s a (Christian) film professor and a movie-watcher. He wants to offer us a faith-based, Christian perspective on film making and film viewing, for film makers and film viewers whether they do theology or church work, or not.
He wants to equip us to live our ordinary faith before God with intentionality in ways that are distinctive to this side of life – leisure, entertainment, the arts. That is, he isn’t pretending to do theology and he isn’t particularly asking theologians to chime in. And I think that is as it should be.
And yet, that is an approach that is so popular (also in the sciences, it seems) that it’s nearly a school of thought, with many books that invite us to listen in on a conversation between film buffs and theologians. Can you see how that is a bit different that what Romanowski’s project is? He doesn’t privilege theologians and the book isn’t about theology: it’s about movies and entertainment and those moments of allusion and imagination and nuance and artfulness we experience went we enter into a creatively told story. It is for artists and those of us eager to open up our aesthetic side of life, even in our entertainments, our play, our going to the movies. The recent movement of conversations between film-makers and theologians is fascinating, and many books with that approach have chapters that are nothing short of brilliant. But most are doing this rather arcane project – uniting Christian movie lovers with Christian theological scholars. Romanowski, in Cinematic Faith, as he has done throughout his career, has engaged mainstream film studies and taught us ordinary folks how it all works. Informed by good scholarship – from an integral Christian social imaginary and Biblically-grounded life perspective, to be sure – he helps us all be more attentive and faithful, even in our entertainments. In this regard, Cinematic Faith is for us all.
ONE MORE GREAT RECENT BOOK ABOUT FILM & FAITH
Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue Robert Johnston, Craig Detweiler and Kutter Callaway (Baker Academic) $26.99 As I’ve hinted above, I’m not inclined to be particularly interested in seeing what theologians, as such, have to say about film studies. A book about movies that has churchy stained glass on the cover strikes me as awkward. This sort of approach just seems somehow off to me, as if we have to somehow sanctify the ordinary act of watching movies not by thinking Christianly about movies (as Romanowski would argue) but that we need these professional thinkers about theology to make it so.
For what it is worth, I’d similarly say that that businesspeople need a Christian view of economics, not a “theology” of business and that, likewise, Christians in the sciences, say, need a faithful view of their research in God’s good world, a Christian approach to to the philosophy of science, less a “dialogue” with “theologians.” That these important authors of Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue (who have also done several other significant books that emerged out of their Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary) are all fine gents who served at a seminary probably makes this approach a natural in their world, I suppose. And, in this case, it sure is interesting, I’ll give that. Wow.
I just seem to discern – and I admit this may be a little unfair – a lurking dualism, rooted in the “sacred vs. secular” dichotomy that actually evolved in the church from pagan Plato, in this talk about a “secular” profession (business, science, art) needing to be “in conversation with” theology. Theology is an interesting, important, specialty, but why somebody with that specialty is privileged to be a necessary conversation partner conjures up for me an image of some some sacred/spiritual icing on the secular cake where faith is an ad-on, perfunctory. I’m sure they wouldn’t put it this way, but it nearly sounds as if secular movies can’t be discussed Christianly with Christianly-conceived aesthetic theories and coherent film studies approaches by movie makers and movie goers unless the religious guys from the theology department bless it all. It’s a caricature, I know, and a bit picky on my part, but it’s what this “theology of..” or “theology and…” lingo too often connotes.
Having said that, I was gobsmacked by how much I loved this Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue book.
Yes, I loved this book and found it hard to put down.
I can’t explain it all in detail now, but allow me to say I think this is the best volume yet to come out of this Reel Spirituality movement, and there have been some good ones (we we stock them all.) The authors really know their stuff, tell some personal stories about moments they’ve had at the Cineplex and I found it very enjoyable, quite stimulating, and even provocative. I’d highly recommend it as a follow-up or companion to Romanowski’s must-read Cinematic Faith.
Listen to Stefanie Knauss of Villanova University as she raves about Deep Focus:
Offering great movie choices, insightful analysis, wonderful prose, rich knowledge about film and theology – this book has it all. It’s a great read for all who are interested in the field of film and theology and offers the necessary tools to engage in this conversation in a knowledgeable, substantial way.
The publication of this new book this season – called “engaging, fluent and timely” – is curious. Romanowski, in his neat book, implies (but does not rail out loud) that too many Christian film studies volumes overestimate the role of content and underestimate the role of style, the art of the filmmaking craft. As we’ve seen above, Professor Romanowski suggests this isn’t adequate, that we must see how the aesthetics of the art of the filmmaking and directing and acting crafts influences how we then engage the movies themselves, as films. He suggests, as I’ve implied, that not enough of the Christian books on film do this that much.
And he’s on to something. Funny — I read one academic review in a scholarly journal once suggesting this same thing; a thoughtful Christian film prof was saying we simply have to get beyond a moralistic evaluation of a film’s content/message and pay equal attention to the art of the film and its production. And then that scholar continued on with the essay citing example after example of content, with hardly any word about angle of vision or editing or sound or even acting. That is, even those who say that we need a more aesthetically nuanced view of the art of movie-making, rarely get around to doing it.
Happily Deeply Focused: Film and Theology in Dialogue really does do a good measure of this, making it a very up-to-date, delightful, informative, and valuable contribution to those wanting a better Christian understanding of film. In this regard, at least, I’m sure Romanowski would applaud Deep Focus and how it helps us see the importance of the very stuff he is writing about. Kudos to Johnson, Detweiler, and Kutter for making this a central – and very enjoyable – part of Deep Focus.
There are three good chapters in Deep Focus that are entitled “Fade In: A Narrative Lens” and “Sights & Sounds: An Audiovisual Lens” and “Where Form Meets Feeling: A Critical Lens.” This is really, really good stuff, although I suspect I appreciated it all the more because I had just finished Cinematic Faith which alerted me to the need for such good material.
These authors do bring rather in-house theological terms to how they approach their topic – seeking an “ecclesial lens” and a “theological lens” and an “ethical lens” in other chapters.
In the chapter offering “an ecclesial lens” they are showing how God’s people in Christ’s church have been diverse in how we’ve engaged the culture and have held differing postures of appreciating or appropriating modern art, cinema, and popular movies. This is a bit obtuse at times, but they are trying to invite us to get beyond our historical debates within the church about film and the popular arts. They bring in lots of theologians (Tillich, Niehbur) and spirituality writers who will appeal to those who want this sort of churchy dialogue. It is interesting to me that the neo-Calvinist Romanowksi mostly quotes film critics and Christian philosophers and reviewers and rarely cites theologians as such.
The Deep Focus chapter exploring a theological lens is subtitled “Discerning Mystery” and, again, it is fascinating. I truly enjoyed it – like I loved Movies are Prayers by Josh Larson. The trio of Reel Spirituality authors tell very moving stories, actually, about their own film-going experiences and make a case for watching movies as a spiritual experience. Well, who doesn’t want that? I really appreciate this, and use this sort of “practicing the presence of God” sort of language to a contemplative approach to life fairly regularly. But, again –why must an experience of the arts before God’s face in God’s world be somehow a “spiritual” experience? Why can’t it just be a human experience, aesthetically charged as storytellers edify us with their search for meaning? What if we just have a good belly laugh or found ourselves strangely moved by touching romance? Sure these “common grace” gifts are a blessing from God but must they become mysterious encounters with the numinous in luminal space? You know what I mean?
Again, I almost sense a lurking dualism here, as if the “secular” art of movies has to be justified by bringing it into dialogue with theology and validated if it is a devotional experience. Sure some movies move us to tears and for Christians their tears are holy unto the Lord. But this move to make movies “spiritual” in search of an encounter with “mystery” somehow seems a bit fragmented. We don’t have to have a “dialogue” with theologians or have a “spiritual” experience to watch a movie faithfully.
I suspect that these scholars would all agree, actually, so perhaps I should just receive their deep focus approach as another helpful tool for all of us to sense God’s presence in all things. There is absolutely no doubt that Johnston and Detweiler and Callaway are real film buffs and it is clear they have friends, literally, in the film scene in Hollywood. (Fuller Theological Seminary is near Hollywood and they’ve been in extraordinary discussions with real filmmakers and producers and directors, with those who write screenplays and win awards for costuming and who are actors and actresses on the silver screen. They know their stuff and they’ve offered us important, inspiring stuff. In a back cover blurb, Terry Lindvall calls them “ophthalmologist of the cinema.” I love that!
As faith leaders who are obviously serious disciples of Jesus, we should listen to them and their good call to media literacy. Lindvall is correct in saying that:
This stellar work invites readers to join an ongoing conversation among some of the most cinematically literate companions one can find.
So, pass the popcorn and let’s get going, reading Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning andDeep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue. Let’s surprise our churchy folks and show that followers of Jesus do not keep their faith to themselves, cordoned off from real, ordinary life. Lets help get that surprising message out there — that God cares about all of life and that we can (we must!) find ways to relate Sunday faith to Monday work as well as to our entertainment habits. Learning to be intelligent and wise and faithful in our discussion of and appreciation for contemporary movies is a great way to work that out, learning to discern God’s power and presence even in popular culture.
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Last week’s BookNotes review was a long, complex overview of the breathtakingly vital, very important (and not a little controversial) Romans Remixed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press – regularly $26.99; our sale price = $21.59.) Reading this book will help you understand your Bible better and help you gain a better vision for dedicated Christian living in these trying times. In my review I insisted that it is one of the best books of the year, certainly one of the most stimulating, informative, and compelling Biblical studies books I’ve read in years. They use a variety of teacherly devices to help us understand what life was like under the debased and violent Roman Empire and how revolutionary Paul’s letter was in the ears of the first hearers. Far from an abstract theological document about atonement theory and predestination and personal salvation so we know who goes to heaven, it is a manifesto about unity and inclusion and justice and stewardship and God’s Kingdom coming as Christ is increasingly seen as Lord – a political phrase in those years. If Christ is King we can resist the false machinations of the current fake empires, live in ways more subversive to the idols of that age and, quite practically, filled with this humble goodness that comes from God’s grace, we can welcome others into the safe home that God’s people themselves are becoming. This is potent, missional stuff, directly inspired by a close reading of Romans.
As I explained, Romans Disarmed book fits well within the decades of work and witness and writing Brian and Sylvia have done. They are a bit rare — academics who publish in the finest scholarly journals who work an organic farm, stewarding it well with old ways and some innovative permaculture approaches. (And they have animals and heirloom tomatoes and do workshops on all kinds of homesteading skills.) Plus, they have served among the homeless in Toronto, done campus ministry with college students, have mentored young adults in starting social service ministries and justice-seeking businesses. (Check out this video about 541 Eatery for instance; the house manager was an intern at Russett House Farm and Brian supervised his Masters thesis in theology at Wycliffe College.)
In case you missed it, I noted that Brian and Sylvia did a previous book in this same creative genre – an amazing, potent, radical, application-oriented (conversational) creative commentary called Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP Academic; $28.00; our sale price at 20% off = $22.40.) In that column I named some of their other books as well.
Which is all just a way of saying that their broad intellectual and life influences, their years of research and writing and their fruitful leadership has made them into the sorts of authors we want our customers and friends to know about. Agree fully or not with this robust new (or is it ancient?) reading of Romans from the margins, it is one you should read.
We hope you are glad for this advice from us here at the shop (even if it is a hard adventure further up and further in.) You most likely aren’t going to hear about this book in the evangelical bookstore chains or the secular mega-stores. We would be honored if you ordered it from us.
It pleases us greatly that we have had the pleasure of shipping a bunch of these out this past week. Romans Disarmed, we think, might now be our best seller of 2019 (which, given our small scale, isn’t saying that much, I realize.) We don’t have the exact numbers but it is vying with Fleming Rutledge’s Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday (Eerdmans; $18.00; our sale price = $14.40) as a bona fide Hearts & Minds bestseller!
Rev. Rutledge has an excellent book of sermons on Romans as well, called Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Roman (Eerdmans; $22.00; our sale price at 20% off would be $17.60.) It would make an ideal companion – more conventional, but powerful, eloquent, and inspiring. She has deepened her own positions on Pauline teaching in her more recent, award-winning, nothing-short-of-magisterial The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans; $30.00; our 20% off sale price = $24.00.) I wasn’t kidding when I said in that BookNotes review that I’m hoping that some of our best Paul scholars – Fleming Rutledge, Tom Wright, obviously, and friends like Michael Gorman will weigh in on Romans Disarmed. I suspect that they would have much in common and a few significant differences, and a bunch of quibbles about exegesis text by text by text.
There have been a lot of books on St. Paul, lately. Those of us who don’t read a lot in this field may not know it, but it is stimulating to find the various scholars who are helping us solve our problems with Paul. Of course, we have raved about the novel-like biography of Paul colorfully written by N.T. Wright called Paul A Biography (HarperOne; $29.99; our 20% off sale price = $23.99) and we highly recommend it.
Here are a few others:
Four Views on the Apostle Paul edited by Michael Bird (Zondervan) $19.99
Reading Paul Michael Gorman (Cascade) $22.00
Paul: An Apostle’s Journey Douglas Campbell (Eerdmans) $22.00
The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica (Baker Academic) $26.00
Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives edited by Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica (Eerdmans) $20.00
Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel Jeremy Gabrielson (Pickwick) $26.00
Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons John Piper (Crossway) $14.99
The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking Craig Keener (Baker Academic) $29.99
Paul and His Recent Interpreters T. Wright (Fortress Press) $39.00
Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission Jackson (IVP Academic) $20.00
The Damascus Road: A Novel of Saint Paul Jay Parini (Doubleday) $27.95
For any of these, we’ll deduct 20% off the regular retail price, which we show above. Send us an order if you’re interested. Or email, asking for other suggestions…
We need serious evaluations of Romans Disarmed from the Biblical guilds and scholars and theologians and preachers but we also need reviews “from the margins” or at least those in the trenches. Does this book equip those who are doing front-line Kingdom ministry “kicking at the darkness”? If you are working to alleviate the injustices of our day – the crass militarism, the sexual abuse, the way the Trump administration is undoing environmental policies, the raging hostility against immigrants and the apathy towards refugees and such – I’d love to know if Romans Disarmed helps. I think it will.
If you are a campus minister or youth worker or one who hangs out with those who are on the fringes of faith; that is if you are an evangelist or friend of the un-churched, I wonder how this can help you share the gospel more faithfully? I think the way Brian and Sylvia interact and reply to the good questions their fictional interlocutor raises would be very helpful to model healthy conversations.
Or maybe you are feeling a bit stuck these days, maybe in a safe and solid suburban life, with a bit of privilege and a conventional understanding of God’s grace as explained in Romans, but you’re seeking something more, something to pull you out of the doldrums, the churchy routine, the too-often uninspiring devotions. Know anybody like that? Know someone who maybe needs a shift in perspective and some renewed energy to move deeper into Christian discipleship? If you need to have your world rocked a bit, Romans Disarmed will shake some truisms you thought you knew and push you into some wild waters. Hang on, and go for it. It could save your life!
One of the significant influences on Brian and Sylvia – starting years ago – has been the potent cultural criticism and refreshing agrarian worldview of farmer/poet/novelist/public intellectual Wendell Berry.
Rather than merely reminding us not to spend so much on consumer goods and pressing us to avoid plastics and toxic junk, they (channeling Berry) invite us to a stewardly vision of life, rooted in a sturdy view (and a quite Biblical view) of creation.
Practical books come to mind as helpful resources for more simple living like Nancy Sleeth’s delightful and very inspiring Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life (Tyndale; $14.99 – our sale price = $11.99) and wise, profound books like Norma Wirzba’s Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Brazos Press; $20.00; our sale price = $16.00) and A.J. Soboba’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop Road (Brazos Press; $19.99; our sale price = $15.99) which are exceptionally helpful to shore up the Christian lifestyle proclaimed as good news in Romans Disarmed.
All of these books – some of our favorites – have (at least) one big thing in common. They not only perfunctorily quote Berry (nearly a requirement in some hip circles these days) but they take his work seriously, they read him deeply, they actually commit themselves to “practice resurrection” taking cues from creation and new creation, law and prophets, wisdom and gospel, and the “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” poem.
If you want to deeply understand Walsh & Keesmaat you not only have to read uber-texts like Dooyeweerd and Goudzwaard, Wright’s New Testament and the People of God and Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and anything written by J. Richard Middleton (not to mention listening to the albums of Bruce Cockburn) but a whole lot of Wendell Berry. A whole lot of Wendell Berry.
Who doesn’t love his fiction, such as the popular Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter? What great stories they are, lovely, calm, mature, wise, and perfect for summer reading. We just received the re-issue edition of the previously out of print short story collection The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership (Counterpoint; $16.95; our sale price = $13.56.) We hope you have at least a few of his poetry collections. But to understand Wendell Berry’s impact on so many of us, and how his work has influenced Romans Disarmed, you have to study his serious non-fiction essays and his several long-form books.
BRAND NEW LIBRARY OF AMERICA EDITIONS OF WENDELL BERRY ESSAYS
It brings us great delight to announce the release this past week of the prestigious Library of America’s simultaneous publication of two handsome, sturdy cloth hardbacks (expertly bound with high quality, acid-free paper, Smyth-sewn binding, even ribbon markers) of some of Wendell Berry’s most significant essays.
As with a rock star’s boxed set compilation or “best of” double-album collection, fans will endlessly debate why this piece wasn’t included or why that work wasn’t honored. Let the arguments commence for those fans that are true Berry aficionados. For most of us, we need a reliable introduction, a good, well-chosen collection and these are almost perfect. There are other introductions – The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (Counterpoint; $16.95; our sale price = $13.56) just came out in paperback and isn’t bad, although it is missing some vital stuff, and the great Wirzba-edited Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint; $15.95; our sale price = $12.76) is very nice, but specifically oriented to (as the subtitle denotes) his farm-oriented, agrarian writings.
So these new, handsome Library of America editions are wonderful and fill a real need for those wanting such a good collection.
There are three ways to buy them. There is volume 1, offering work from his earlier years, there is volume 2 which includes more contemporary writing, and there is the boxed set of both, entitled Where I Stand that comes in a very nice slip-case box. What a treasure!
Wendell Berry: Essays 1969-1990 edited by Jack Shoemaker (Library of America) $37.50 OUR SALE PRICE = $30.00
Wendell Berry: Essays 1993-2017 edited by Jack Shoemaker (Library of America) $37.50 OUR SALE PRICE = $30.00
What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017 Boxed Set edited by Wendell Berry (Library of America)
$75.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $60.00
For those wanting to dip into Mr. Berry’s extraordinary fiction world – all of his novels and short stories are set within the membership of the same fictional Kentucky community, haphazardly scattered over more than a century — Library of America has published (and we have announced, previously) the first of a several volume set of his stories and novels, arranged, cleverly, in fictive, Port Williams historical order. That is, they are not chronological based on when Berry wrote or published them, but are ordered within the historical unfolding within Berry’s Port Williams world. We don’t know when the next volume is coming but this LoA is very, very nice.
Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II edited by Jack Shoemaker (Library of America) $40.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $32.00 This includes Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, A World Lost and A Place on Earth
In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador (IVP) $25.00 BookNotes 20% OFF = $20.00
Oh my, this is another one of those exceptional books that to describe well I simply have to use superlatives. In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World is a truly remarkable book and, yes, surely is in the running for one of the Hearts & Minds choices for the very best books of 2019. You can pre-order it easily by using our order form link shown below. We’ll deduct the 20% off BookNotes discount and send it out when it arrives the third week of June.
In Search of the Common Good travels some ground that other important authors have explored lately – which is a good thing, underscoring and adding to a often dense conversation about what ails our culture previously, as studied by the likes of James K.A. Smith, Alan Noble, Nancy Pearcey, and those who invite us to redemptive, human practices to counter the harsh pace of life and what Noble calls (in his Disruptive Witness) “our distracted age.” Several of these authors explain the heavy philosophy of Charles Taylor, who famously wrote the academic bestseller, The Secular Age (Harvard University Press; $22.95; our sale price= $18.36.) Although most church folks don’t think about it much, we need all the help we can get in discerning how this vital cultural criticism can help us navigate our days and be wise about what we do or don’t do as we lean into life here in the 21st century. In what ways have our imaginations been captured and in what ways do our ordinary assumptions and lifestyles pay homage to false gods and unhealthy attitudes and practices that don’t yield appropriate human and cultural flourishing? It’s a simple cliché, but what does it mean to “be the change” you want to see in the world.
It is surprising to me how – like fish that don’t even know they are in water – few of us study our culture, or think about it very seriously. We breathe in the toxic air, take up habits and values and ways of being in the secularizing, modernist world without too much self-awareness that it could be otherwise. We don’t (to harken back to the power of Walsh’s books) have much of a subversive faith that nurtures a truly Biblically-shaped social imaginary that enables us to say no to much. (“Be ye not conformed…” and all that from Romans 12:2, ya know.) Which is why books like this are so very important. And this one is happily not only insightful and important, but interesting and enjoyable and practical. Kudos!
Jake isn’t just piling on guilt about living at ease in the modernist world. And he isn’t just bemoaning the alienation and fracturing of our politics and neighborhoods and families; he helps us understand our cultural context and its damaging ways. He helpfully explains the thesis of Bowling Alone, for instance, and sounds maybe a bit like David Brooks at times, but shows that the complications of our times didn’t happen over night — he helpfully cites the brilliant Alan Jacobs’s book The Year of Our Lord: 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford University Press; $29.95; our BookNotes sale price = $23.96.) Interestingly to me, he cites, as I often have, Jacob’s insights on Jacque Ellul. In other words, this is a deep level critique – he’s not merely saying we should just use our cell phones less or be nicer in public. He is looking not only at symptoms of our discontent but the ethos of the age.
And, yes, he explains Charles Taylor. He does this in the clearest way I’ve read yet, I think. (Tim Keller’s one short chapter in Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism [Penguin; $16.00 – our sale price = $12.80] about Taylor is succinct and clear.) This isn’t just an academic critique from ten thousand feet; Meador roots all of his insightful social analysis in real-world settings, with lots of entertaining stories about his parents, his home-town, and its social problems – okay, it’s no Hillbilly Elegy but he names all kinds of ways our modern society is deepening our divides, including domestic poverty and family hardships, in small towns and big cities.
He’s concerned about polarization, of course, and he’s hoping to bring a case for hopefulness to those who are anxious about the future of the church.
Jake brings brilliant learning and fine writing (he is vice president of the brainy Davenant Institute and the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy) but he’s a real Wendell Berry buff, so he’s always down to Earth. His sense of place – and his invitation to us to deepen our own loyalties to our own places – is palpable. It may be because he’s a Husker from Nebraska and has seemingly fierce loyalties there. As Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition says of Meador’s writing, “You’ll see his characteristic combination of deep learning with an earthy touch.” That’s putting it mildly. There’s real dirt under this guy’s fingernails.
And. man, he can tell a good story about how to smoke barbecue.
Lately, many Christian folks have shifted in how we talk about our work in the world (and I think it is a good thing.) Many are now talking about their efforts to love their neighbors well by describing commitments to the common good. We hear talk about civic virtue. There is even a fantastic group called “Made to Flourish.” Churches talk about being missional, not just sending missionaries, and we are learning to evaluate our North American culture, asking how its spirit and structures create systematic injustices and bad habits among us. These are all pretty nascent and it is encouraging to hear this kind of talk about social architecture and civil society and the common good. Jake is on the cutting edge of all this and his book will help us all.
The best of these efforts sound refreshingly neither old school left or right but something new, offering a counter-cultural witness, a city on a hill. We are wanting to live into that call from Jeremiah 29 to “seek the peace of the city where God has sent you.” This is all exciting and important and In Search of the Common Good helps us get a firm diagnosis and a vision for moving forward. It is indispensable for anyone wanting to think well about our time and place and what God is calling us to.
And, yes, he uses Wendell Berry a lot. He also cites Steve Garber (another Hearts & Minds favorite, as you surely know; if an author is reading Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good it is a very good sign.) Timothy Keller has an excellent forward saying why this robust cultural analysis and this helpful guidance into being “in but not of” is so very good. I don’t say this lightly, but Keller’s foreword is nearly worth the price of the book.
Keller notes, by the way, that when he entered evangelical and Reformed pastoral ministry nearly forty-five years ago the lines of debate in conservative churches were largely theological in nature. He outlines in a sentence or two some of the issues that many argued about (and I felt the knot in my stomach as I read) but he observes that increasingly the fault lines between churches and the most vehement debates nowadays are about culture. “As I look around,” Keller says, “I see this same division roiling Christian denominations and organizations everywhere.”
And as our culture is weakening and fragmenting and the dissatisfaction with political leaders (and churches and other formerly respected institutions) wanes, we are increasingly moving towards very hard times. I assume you know this. Keller reminds us what Francis Schaeffer predicted decades ago: when a Christian consensus and fidelity to principles of justice and beauty and goodness erode we will be left with “personal peace and affluence.” And those who hold those values will be tempted to vote for leaders who will merely protect their privilege. This has long been a classic conservative argument, that as society is unmoored from deeper roots by (even well intended) revolutionary goals, we lose tradition and values and end up with just atomistic individuals doing whatever pleases them. And voting for those who will help them keep their stuff.
(An aside: Jake knows, I’m sure, but does not cite Abraham Kuyper’s political strategist, Groen Van Prinsterer, and his book exposing the terrible cultural consequences of the spirit of the French Revolution entitled Unbelief and Revolution, now out in a newly translated edition by Harry Van Dyke (Lexham Press; $15.99 – our sale price = $12.79.)
So, as Jake illustrates (without pressing this exact point) we need something more profound than a left wing critique or a historic conservative critique; both have true insights but neither are adequate. We need some (Berry-esque, neo-agrarian?) vision that can point out problems with “both sides” of our cultural ideologies. On some pages of In Search of the Common Good Meador sounds pretty darn conservative (and he is pretty traditionalist on matters of family and sexuality) and on other pages he rails against unjust income disparities and institutional racism. He’s clearly no socialist, but he’s hard on right-wing, free market capitalism that isn’t moderated by values of the common good. In this, he might offend older conservative types, but he seems to have the church fathers and the best Christian scholars over his shoulder, so this is no facile jive.
Indeed, he bolsters his critique of the economic gods of progress and growth by citing the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. These and other church fathers and doctors are bold in applying God’s concern for justice in our economic practices. He isn’t bombastic at all – his calm and gracious tone is a plus in this book – but he shows how if one is standing in the traditions and values the great church tradition, not the secularized world of modernism, it is not uncommon to question unfettered capitalism, unjust interest rates, and talk of unqualified private property. He quotes the classic, conservative, Catholic, Acton Institute’s journal Morality & Markets but not Sojourners. (He does love Oscar Romero, and quotes him from time to time. Presente!)
Yep, he exposes the weaknesses of the foundations of the modern world’s worldview – John Lock does not fare well, for instance. Jake invites us through careful and helpful historical teaching, to be aware that our modern world and the social visions and values that emerge from it, are not neutral, but may be rooted in bad thinking about God and about God’s creation.
He tells us, in other words, how we got ourselves into this mess. Like a serious doctor giving a diagnosis, nothing cheap will do. So he goes deep and gives us the bad news.
One senses a lot of hopefulness, though and joy, even, because once we are clear how urgent the stakes are and how radical the treatment must be, we can get going, moving in what the old liturgies call “the newness of life.” This book will help you live that way.
Jake is young and idealistic and has a healthy small church and good friends who, together, are forging a new way of being faithful to God in their daily lives. They are deeply involved in church, in each other’s lives, and they serve others beautifully. I have rarely read a book that has such a delightful survey of deep philosophical currents and which is also so lovely in being down to earth.
And this exact thing is a key insight for In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, being down to Earth, I mean. He offers good practices to restore our sense of wonder, inviting us to regain a child-like appreciation of the joy of small things.
Get this: in a way, our culture, especially since the Enlightenment and the start of the so-called modern age, has moved towards increasing fragmentation. You know that Yeats poem warning that “the center will not hold.” Things are falling apart, and our lives seem not to cohere. We wear so many hats and can hardly imagine being whole, seamless. We feel like different people at work and church and home; some days it feels like we should just drop out and watch Netflix. Many of us hardly even know our neighbors. Our suburban ennui is felt even in small towns and rural spaces and it is palpable. Our very streets and housing designs and habits of commuting and such preclude a holy life of simple service to neighbors. What in the world does the common good look like in a cul de sac?
(Ahh, that’s a good part of the splendid book Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales [IVP; $16.00] a lovely, well-written book that would make a nice companion to Meador’s search for “fidelity in a fractured world.”)
Some of all this exhausting trouble is caused by the (over) specialization that leads to abstraction, living in our heads, failing to engage the real world around us, as Matthew Crawford writes. You should know the motorcycle repairman Crawford’s splendid works on manual work, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin; $17.00) and The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (FSG; $16.00) both of which Jake Meador effective cites.
To wit: Jake points us in new ways to get, literally, more down to Earth. We can fight incoherence and alienation and abstraction by slowing down. He doesn’t cite the aforementioned Alan Noble but Alan’s brilliant study of how our phones and tablets these days add to this is essential, here. His Disruptive Image is a kissing cousin to In Search of the Common Good. Alan probes our fast-pace habits through the lens of Taylor, but Jake takes us back a bit further, looking at how our utter individualism, enshrined in some of our American civic documents and our revivalist religions, drove capitalism and disruption and abstraction.
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
The first half of In Search of the Common Good is a vital and compelling few chapters – about 30 pages – on “The Breakdown of Community.” He explores what he calls “the passing of the American church” and then explains, brilliantly, “the unwinding of common life in America.” You know this stuff in your bones, but we need words to say it, and we need some sense of why we’re experiencing this unprecedented unwinding. It is very good writing; I was engaged from the beginning. And it offers a view that isn’t alarmist, but is urgent.
Part two looks seriously at three problems that emerge when we live in “a secular age” and these are all at a crisis point, it seems. They emerge from our age, but they become problems, or obstacles, then, that keep us from experiencing authentic community. So this stuff isn’t just armchair theorizing about Descartes and Locke and secularization, these are keys to why we don’t have abundant life. The chapters are on the loss of meaning, the loss of wonder and the loss of good work. I have to say I cried through some of this — in part because I was so glad to hear these words so plainly put, translating my own decades of reading about the roots of Western culture and the idols of our age. I was strongly moved by this, being reminding of very important concerns.
Reading, as he does, old theology and Wendell Berry, citing Oscar Romero next to Oliver O’Donovan, studying the Word and the world in this way allows you to become a wise voice like Meador. He names these losses in the modern age and it is good to hear, painful and tragic as it may be.
So that’s the first half of the book — two big parts of diagnosis, as succinct and clear as nearly any such social critic I’ve read. He’s drawing on Jamie Smith and David Brooks and Steve Garber and Stanley Hauerwas, leavening it all with spot-on reminders of poignant scenes from Mad Men or Camus novels. I love how he cites an indie-rock singer songwriter on one page and John Keats on another. And I love that he quotes Matthew Dickerson’s Narnia and the Fields of Arbol (University Press of Kentucky; $70.00 – our sale price = $56.00) exploring the ecological vision of C.S. Lewis. And he nicely retells a scene or two from a Wendell Berry novel. What fun!
This is a short book, so the second half is not even 100 pages, but in it he invites us to quite a lot. In Part Three Meador explains the why and how of Sabbath, church involvement, “the membership” and good work. These chapters are under the heading of “the practice of community” and it is – contra the neo-monastic movement or the Rod Dreher Benedict Option proposal – a broad and generous vision of church and neighborhood and workplace. We are called into community – membership is Berry’s potent word – in and for the world, so we dare not view community as merely our small group or intentional household or congregation.
I would like to write more about this (and I might) but his short chapter “Work” is nothing short of prophetic. It is one of the finest explorations of faith and work in the modern work-world that I have read. He shows how an increasing facelessness and inhumanity surrounds us – shades of Jacque Ellul, again, and his critique of how we overvalue and overdo technique and speed and efficiency. He calls the current faith/work movement to explore good and meaningful labor in humane and healthy workplaces that are socially just and serving the common good, which will mean seeking a human-scale sort of inefficiency. I have to say I felt rather validated with our down-home approach and older-school website, since it certainly forces us to correspond with our mail-order/on-line customers, honoring them with real chat and (yes) honest mistakes. That Meador says we should be thoughtful and intentional about what kind of businesses we support is precious. I take it he tends towards a “buy small” approach, supporting local economies and mail-order places whose values are consistent with Kingdom ways. (As you know, it is our opinion that this generally precludes working with Amazon, faceless and greedy as they are.) In any event, this chapter is provocative and wise and influenced by the right sorts of cares and concerns. It is what Steve Garber would call “morally serious.”
Part Four of this fine book is called “The Promise of Community” and there are two chapters. One is a bit heady called “Political Doctrine and Civil Virtue” and it is needed now more than ever. As he should, Meador cites David Koyzis and his new 2nd edition of Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP Academic; $33.00 – our sale price = $26.40.) He is asking hard questions about what a Christian commonwealth might be like and how Christian societies might emerge. This will, necessarily, involve repentance and sacrifice.
He’s got lots of spicy illustrations and good quotes – such as the fabulous piece by film critic Alissa Wilkinson “View and Worldviews” that was in Comment magazine some years ago. Some of this chapter is just sensible stuff – distinguishing between political doctrine and policy, for instance. For a short chapter it is very wise, the kind of thinking we’ve seen in the author’s Mere Orthodoxy blog.
Mr. Meador, as I’ve suggested, doesn’t fit the typical patterns for worldly American political culture and their ideological leaders (or the worldly churches that have lined up often unquestioningly right or left behind them.) I suppose this is partially because he is so rooted in a Christian democratic appeal that is in part-pre-modern, taking hints for contemporary citizenship through a lens of Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. I know he studies the likes of Abraham Kuyper. (And, for those who relish obscure stuff, his colleague at Davenant, Brad Littlejohn, is a Richard Hooker scholar and what we here in central Pennsylvania celebrate as “Mercersburg Theology.” Jake is well read and wide-ranging, for sure. And did I mention he likes Wendell Berry?)
So, he’s neither right nor left, although – for (admittedly inadequate) shorthand, we might say he sounds at times like those classic conservatives that are “Never Trumpers.”(It is a phrase coined specifically about anti-Trump conservatives, by the way, regardless of how often the President misuses it to include all of his opponents.) Meador cares about place and beauty and integrity and family and order and competency and joy and sacraments and grace and kindness and, well, who can support a leader who despises these deeply Christian values? Again, his vision of citizenship is not left-leaning or liberationist but is gracious and humane, maybe the sort of stuff one might catch at the Front Porch Republic. He tends to talk about covenants, not contracts; the common good, not individual rights; like the Bible, when talking about politics, he talks more about public justice than individual freedom. He is interested in nurturing among us a long-haul sort of discipleship that creates good neighbors and good citizens.
And so, in a very important section, he asks “Where Do Good Citizens Come From?” Of course, some of his answer comes from his loyalty to place, to the local church, to Word and Table, to the small practices that he highlighted earlier. Those who trust God by keeping Sabbath and who are in communion with local folk in church and neighborhood and workplaces, those who are full of wonder and joy will necessarily embrace their civic duties with a sort of wisdom that isn’t ideological. They will care about peacefulness and neighborliness and solidarity.
Yes (he reminds us) when considering politics we have to think of policy. But policy proposals are often ambiguous, proximate; good people can disagree. He reminds us, though, that policy isn’t everything – Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” and the Catholic notion of “subsidiary” call us to a more multi-dimensional view of civil society, of the value of other voluntary associations other than the state (the arts, businesses, non-profits, sports teams, neighborhood groups, churches, and such), and that civic membership includes much more than politics, proper. He does not use this to justify a right-wing absolutization of some idea of “small government” but he does help us evaluate what the government can and should do. It’s brief but a very helpful section.
THE ETERNAL CITY
The final chapter is a big picture look at the promises of “The Eternal City” and he starts with a lovely story of a child’s longing to be in Narnia. Indeed, it may be that heaven is very much like Narnia, a world restored, a garden healed, a renewed creation. I am so glad he does some direct exegesis (of the mistranslated and misinterpreted 2 Peter 3:10, for instance) insisting that God is not going to destroy the world. He quotes Robert Farrar Capon and Al Wolters and he could have easily cited the splendid When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem by Richard Mouw (Eerdmans; $15.00; our sale price = $12.00.) This is new creation theology and visionary hope that thrills me. I hope it thrills you.
I love how it ends with his own love of the stories of The Hobbit. He tells of a painting they own that reminds his family of the song Bilbo Baggins was so fond of singing, “The Road Goes Ever On and On.”
It reminds us that the road runs right to our very door, and that road might take us anywhere and toward anything. It reminds us that there are no boring places in God’s world – no boring people, for that matter. It reminds us that God stands over and above his creation calling us further up and further in. The road will lead to a cross. But only things that die can be resurrected. And so as sure as the road leads us to the cross, in leads us to the eternal city, to the home of a king, to the desire of all nations, to the joy of every longing heart.
That is the sort of Tolkien-esque, virtuous, costly, hopeful, adventure a deep Kingdom vision that serves the common good might evoke. This righteous concern for the rhythms of creation and common good is growing among us, and realizing the obstacles and challenges and Biblical guidance is urgent. Whether you are younger older, evangelical or more mainline, a quieter type or a missional activist, I think In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador will be a great companion on your journey. Order it today.
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) ON SALE – 20% OFF regular price = $26.99 / our sale price = $21.59
Okay, I’m just going to admit it. I’ve got writer’s block. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’ve got so much to say. I don’t know how to begin, and this is important. I want to make a case why this new book is one you should buy from us here at Hearts & Minds, right away. But it is admittedly complicated and I just don’t know how to get going.
Okay, I’m just going to say it: I want to honor my friends Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh by reviewing their new (long-awaited) book with care and some detail, but I’m afraid I’m not quite up to it; even though I’ve read Romans Disarmed twice, it is daunting to tell you about it in a review that would be short enough that you, dear reader, are likely to read it. I want to say a lot about it, but know some of you will tune out. I wish I could be more succinct, but this is one of those remarkable books that I truly want to honor (even if I don’t agree with all of it, and even knowing some of our customers will disapprove of some of it.)
This new book, bravely published by Brazos Press, is a very socially-potent, painfully relevant, righteous application of the social ethic of Paul’s long letter to the Romans, in which the authors call us to a counter-cultural politics of Jesus by way of studying the ways the marginalized and powerful alike would have heard Paul’s famous epistle situated, as it was, in the midst of truly awful Roman imperial idolatry. That is, they offer us a very creatively-written, super-engaging, and well-informed study of the socio-cultural-political habits of first century Rome and how that context helps us properly appreciate the revolutionary vision behind Paul’s anti-imperial social ethic. Romans Disarmed is very much like their much-discussed Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. On steroids.
LIFE IN FIRST CENTURY ROME. WHAT INSIGHT WE CAN GLEAN!
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice has a long chapter that could nearly be published as a short novel. It tells of two fictional characters that aren’t imagined out of thin air, but are drawn from what we know about first century social experience in Rome. In a chapter called “Kitchen Walls and Tenement Halls” we meet a slave, Iris, (who is named after a person who is actually described in a scholarly work by Peter Oakes called Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Zero) and we meet Nereus, a Judean who lived among the dock workers and leather makers in the lowlands by the Tiber, but who ventured into the heart of Rome to hear Paul’s letter. Where he meets the pagan slave woman, Iris. What a story, laden with scholarly footnotes and even Bible references (who knew the list of names in Romans 16 could be so informative and yield such an interesting story!)
I might add there are several fun books that do this sort of thing, but not many. Keesmaat and Walsh site the fabulous The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World by Bruce Longenecker (Baker Academic; $19.99), a book we championed it its early first edition. See also the clever books in a recent series by IVP such as A Week in the Life of Corinth and A Week During the Fall of Jerusalem (both by Ben Witherington) and A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge) and several others.
Besides this page-turning fictional device in Romans Disarmed (that is just one chapter in a book that weighs in at just under 400 pages), there are so many fascinating and important historical details, including first-century urban archeological, linguistic, political, and theological matters that are above my pay-grade to comment critically upon. Whenever I read a Biblical commentary and the writer asserts that a Greek word really means this or ought best to be translated like that, I have to choose to appreciate their scholarship and trust their instincts (or not.) In this case, I think their exceptionally interesting and very extensive footnotes illustrate their extraordinary research chops; they’ve read whole books and numerous scholarly journal articles about, say, the room designs in first century Roman houses (did you know slaves often slept in the kitchen, or sometimes in their master’s rooms?), what we can learn from the graffiti in Pompeii, the sexual relationships between Roman masters and their slaves, or the particular dining habits of Roman Judeans, Gentiles, and those in the palaces of the Emperor. The vividly described debauchery (sexual and culinary) of the Roman elite helps us understand Paul’s passionate pastoral reminders to the Roman Christians of why they must live in ways that are not morally stained by the ethos of the Empire. From the famous conflict between the Judeans and the Gentiles in the Roman house churches to the equally famous vile spectacles of the likes of the Nero and Caligula, Keesmaat and Walsh have done their scholarly work and brought it alive in astonishing, colorful, detail. If you like this sort of historical background stuff, you will be riveted by all they explain. If you don’t do much of this kind of reading about the social context of the New Testament, you will be astonished.
IT’S IMPORTANT. REALLY IMPORTANT.
I might as well just say it. I think Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice is the most important book of Biblical study I have read in years; perhaps ever. I promise you that you have never read anything like it, and it is one of those few books that the often-used (but rarely accurate) phrase “it could change your life” applies. It surely deserves a Best Book of the Year award, but, because it is so politically charged, don’t expect to see it on evangelical “Best of 2019” lists. I suspect most Christian bookstores won’t even carry it. I assume (but one never knows) that the respected New Testament commentators who are active – Douglas Moo, Tom Wright, Fleming Rutledge, Beverly Gavanta, Katherine Grieb, Michael Bird, Frank Matera, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight, Richard Longenecker, Michael Gorman, Stephen Westerholm, Thomas Schreiner, Richard Hays — will be weighing in on its merits. Will they appreciate how much social location matters? Will they know why they draw so much on Elsa Tamez and her book Amnesty of Grace exploring justification by faith through the lens of suffering and repression in Latin America? Romans Disarmed is a very important book and I can’t wait to hear what others think about it.
SOME WILL DISAGREE and SOME WILL EVEN BE OFFENDED.
Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it. This book will upset some people. It is relentless in bearing witness to what they themselves experience as they grapple, as a married couple, parents, homemakers, pastors, preachers, scholars, permaculture farmers, citizens, and leaders of faith communities (mostly among college students in Toronto although also in more conventional Anglican parishes) where they have ministered to and become friends with marginalized folks, those cast aside by other churches and the mainstream culture. From LGTBQ students and friends to urban homeless folks to First Nations people seeking reparations from stolen land and treaties broken, Brian and Sylvia care for their land, their place, and those whom God has given them; their taking Pauline mandates to welcome all, to serve the stranger, to be inclusive and caring to outsiders, has become a huge part of their lifestyle and is a lens through which they do life. They are able to see the subversive teaching in the Bible (and let it be said: they know and love their Bibles much better than most) and especially of the Apostle Paul, because they themselves spend time with the marginalized and oppressed. And, boy, do they ever see these themes in Pauline writings! Wow.
As they tell of these painful stories (some of us met their late friend Iggy in Brian’s powerful Habakkuk Before Breakfast; Books Before Breakfast; $14.00 which I reviewed here) about racism and injustice and ecological abuse, they mince no words. Like the Old Testament prophets so beloved by Paul, they are nearly crass in their punchy denunciation of idols old and new. Few contemporary political movements and leaders are left unscathed in this broadside, so my fear is that our customers (especially those on the political right) will be offended. I hope (as Brian and Sylvia do, I know) such readers hang in there with their arguments about how the epistle of Romans can help us live in a more Christ-like way. They are convinced, and their argument is compelling, that Paul’s letter is less a systematic theology treatise and more (like so many of Paul’s letters to house churches around the Mediterranean of the Greco-Roman world) a passionate, Holy-Spirit inspired manifesto of how to create a new community, resolve conflict, repent of complicity with the injustices of the social order, and live out the gospel-centered life of the Lordship of Christ in the face of the grinding oppression of the Roman imperial regime.
And, in case I’m being coy, I’m going to just say it: they insist that we, too, live under the boot heel (even if many of us benefit from it) of the Empire of our age and that if we are serious followers of Jesus, and are serious about being rooted in the Biblical narrative, we, too, will need to be attentive to how the Word and Spirit calls us to denounce and resist the 21st century Empire, by which they mostly mean the confluence of United States political and military power and its corporate allies. (Or is it the other way around?) They (rightly in my view) think our imaginations have largely been captured by the ethos of technology and progress and greed and hubris and that our own government and media are seducing us into acceptance and complicity in grave injustices.
NOT THEOLOGICAL ABSTRACTION, BUT EMBODIMENT IN COMMUNITY
Christian faith is never mostly about holding the right abstract theological truisms, but always about what we embody as we live out the deepest convictions of our hearts, “against the world, but for the world” as some put it. (By the way, as an aside: did you know that James K.A. Smith, who wrote the must-read “cultural formation” trilogy, summarized in his one-volume You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits (Brazos Press; $19.99), studied with Brian Walsh when he was a grad student at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto? One can see their common concerns about not weaponizing the language of worldview and realizing that our faith is embodied, not abstract, lived out in but not of the surrounding culture and its deformed and deforming ethos.)
You see, the idols we give ourselves to are nearly the same in our day as in first century Rome and, curiously, like then, are made into virtues not only by classic capitalist theory but by President Trump and his cheerleaders: hubris, greed, sexism, individualism, power, tribal nationalism, white supremacy, detached rationalism, sentimental piety, gross militarism, all rooted in a worldview driven by faith in technology to help us grow, grow, grow, economically. Bigger is better, don’t ya know?
That a religious-like trust in and love of material progress has become a demanding, devastating god has been a theme in Brian’s writing since the 80s; this critique rooted in the pathos of a prophetic imagination has only become more bold and blunt as he and Sylvia became students of simpatico Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann and localist farmer and activist poet Wendell Berry and anti-globalization prophet Naomi Klein. If you’ve read the latest from Brueggemann (like Tenacious Solidarity or Truth Speaks to Power or God, Neighbor, Empire) or Wendell Berry’s Sex,Economy, Freedom Community or Citizenship Papers, or any of Ms. Klein’s anti-climate change manifestos (or, for that matter, anything by their friend Norman Wirzba, who writes on faith and food, farming, Sabbath, and the like, and edited the Wendell Berry agrarian collection The Art of the Commonplace) you’ll have a sense of where they are coming from. Or, maybe, you could pick up the book I last spotlighted in BookNotes, The Possibility of America (WJK; $17.00) by David Dark, who, with a poet’s eye and patriot’s heart, gets so much of this.
Nobody, though, has put this stuff in conversation with so close a reading of the Apostle Paul. Romans Disarmed is a major, major contribution to a distinctively Christian social-political vision and a major, major contribution to Pauline scholarship. It is a must read for anybody who cares about the New Testament.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE TRANSFORMING VISION, SUBVERSIVE CHRISTIANITY, and BEYOND HOMELESSNESS
That they learned much of this analysis about ideology and idols from Dutch Kuyperian economist and socio-political observer Bob Goudzwaard is no secret, and Brian’s 1980s classic (co-authored with Richard Middleton) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic; $25.00) remains a succinct and powerful study of the development of the idols of our time that they named as scientism, technicism, and economism. (Idols, you know, are good things that become ultimate things; things we trust for communal salvation and that we start to serve and even become like.) That their imagination of seeing and saying this stuff has been deepened by Canadian folk-rock-pop singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is no surprise, either, and Brian has explored how a Christian social imaginary can be enhanced by a close reading of Cockburn lyrics in his brilliant Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos Press; $19.00.) Believe me, it’s illuminating about the arts, about music, and about the idols of our time, helping us “see” things anew, whether you happen to like Cockburn’s songs or not.
We have often promoted Brian’s small but potent collection of essays/sermons (with a foreword by N.T. Wright and a blurb on the back by yours truly) called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (Wipf & Stock; $17.00.) Even for those old friends who have the first edition, the second edition released in 2014 has a very important, long, new chapter that anticipates the work being done here analyzing the American empire, globalization, economic injustice, the violence of the state, and how the Bible itself can deconstruct – subvert – the harsh ideologies that, in Cockburn’s lyric (in a song about the International Monetary Fund’s dubious work in the developing world) offer “deification of tyranny – idolatry of ideology.”
Almost a decade ago, Brian teamed up with beloved environmental studies professor and creation-care advocate at Hope College, Stephen Bouma-Prediger to write a book that, again, forms a nearly essential backdrop to the work he and Sylvia have done in Romans Disarmed. It is called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmans; $29.00) in which they play with the classic shorthand for the Biblical narrative, “creation-fall-redemption”, by talking about “homemaking-exile-homecoming.”(For those who get the inside joke, I have called that book Al Wolters meets Wendell Berry meets James Howard Kunstler.)
Listen — if you’ll go with this short digression — to what their friend Marva Dawn said about it:
This astutely timely book deserves an extensive audience — environmentalists, pastors, low-income housing advocates, students, those who forecast doom, good citizens eager to make changes, allChristians! Just to whet your appetite, you’ll learn such things as nine kinds of homelessness, eight characteristics of ‘home,’ many imaginative ways to ponder Scripture, ten drivers of environmental deterioration, and one colossal hope. Broadly researched and splendidly written, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants truly to comprehend and mend our culture!
Or, what the great environmental writer and anti-climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote:
This book brought me back to my years running a small homeless shelter in the basement of my church — and it brought me forward to the madly globalizing world we live in now. A brilliant use of metaphor that makes clear why the world leaves us feeling so uneasy!
Beyond Homelessness is admitted a big and sprawling book, but it is a wonderful and significant companion to Romans Disarmed.
Christian faithfulness, in that amazing, generative, ground-breaking, truth-telling, critiques the way our upwardly mobile culture causes a sort of homelessness; many of our most “established” middle-class (not to mention upper class) Westerners (and, increasingly, rich Asians) are nomads, metaphorically displaced from home, alienated from a sense of place. (This theme of longing for a safe home was conjured up beautifully in Brian’s book on Cockburn in which he preached the gospel of homecoming in tandem with Bruce’s song “The Candy Man’s Gone” and previously in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP Academic; $26.00) which made the case that a longing for home was behind much of the and ennui and restlessness of postmodernity.It remains the best book on the subject, and the one the engages the Bible the most!)
This theme of the call to home-making comes out not just in Brian’s earlier writing but — get this! – it’s all over the book of Romans! They show it over and over, and it gives a new insight into what is going on in this part of God’s Holy written Word. You don’t have to read those previous books to fully appreciate Romans Disarmed, but after reading it, you just may want to.
HOME-MAKING IN ROMANS? REALLY?
Home-breaking, Homelessness, and Home-making in Romans? You have got to read it to believe it! Chapter 4 of Romans Disarmed is called “Homeless in Rome” and Chapter 5 is called “Creation and the Defilement of Home.” In fact, the second to last chapter (“Imperial Sexuality and Covenantal Faithfulness”) uses these themes of fidelity to the project of creating a safe home and how the gospel grafts us into God’s true home to explore what Paul was and wasn’t saying at the end of Romans 1. (Their explanation of what Paul is saying about human sexuality in the end of Romans 1 and into Romans 2 is too complex to be described here, but I will say it isn’t utterly new, but it brings forth an argument that I have long found compelling and that they press home with vivid, passionate exegesis. It really should be pondered.)
I am familiar with Brian’s writings because he’s written (and co-written) a lot of books. But Sylvia (who got her PhD from Oxford under N.T. Wright and whose work is sometimes cited by him as influential in his own thinking) is, within the more scholarly world, a major conversation partner and professional colleague with many other renowned scholars. She has chapters in many books, including one in the British festschrift for N.T. Wright called One God, One People (Fortress Press; $89.00.) Sigh — I know. Why, Fortress, why? Brian has one in that collection as well. Her preaching is often imaginative and poetic and she laces her Biblical exegesis with stories of planting environmentally helpful shrubs around their watershed and their solar panels and their eating habits, but she has earned the right to be taken very seriously by the guild of Biblical scholars. Her most substantial volume is called Paul and His Story: (Re) Interpreting the Exodus Tradition (Sheffield Academic Press) and it is generative and important.
She is remarkably gifted and has studied long and hard to be able to see the inter-connections between different parts of the Biblical story, how New Testament writers draw on the Hebrew Bible. There’s lots of rich Bible study in Romans Disarmed and, just to remind us of what their friend Richard Hays calls “echoes” of the Old Testament in the New listen to this excerpt of Romans Disarmed drawn from a portion called “Redemptive Homecoming the Spirit (Romans 8:1-38):
Here’s the good news. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! This is not a house of condemnation! Slavery is never the last word in this story. Liberation is always at hand. Homecoming remains available. The promise is not nullified and cannot be nullified even by our home-breaking ways.
After a rumination on sin dwelling in us (“yes, it has become at home in you”) they use dwelling and home-building images about the role of the Spirit to contrast the sin that “dwells” in us (Romans 7.) And then a paragraph about being called out of slavery (8:14) and being crowned in glory, etc.
And then, this beautiful homily of echoes, one of many throughout the book:
Of course, this language echoes the exodus from Egypt. When a Judean talks about being set free from slavery, the exodus is the memory being evoked. When a Judean says that we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, the story of fearful Israel in the wilderness longing to return to Egypt resonates through these words. When a Judean talks about being led by the Spirit, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night is the unmistakable reference. When a Judean speaks of receiving a spirit of adoption, wherein their slave status is overturned through covenant promise, then the nation-constituting exodus is undoubtedly ringing in the background. When a Judean refers to the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God, their language of inheritance reaches back to Moses leading the children of God toward their inheritance. And when a Judean places all this in the context of our crying out, “Abba! Father!” then it is impossible not to hear the Israelites “crying out” to God in the midst of the Egyptian bondage, groaning under the weight of Egyptian brick quotas.
Oh my, this line of thought goes on for a page more, and it is wonderfully inspiring. I think I’ve only ever heard such good inter-textual story-telling/truth telling from fiery black preachers! It brings a lot of insight about how these texts might have been heard and, in doing so, help us get their import and impact for our own faith communities.
WHAT WE MISS…
They remind us, helpfully, that each generation has certain sayings or (in our culture, especially) clichés we know from advertising; at least sayings and slogans that were popular in our own era. In some circles, just for instance, Christian people have played on those sayings – the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would say, referring to Jesus, “He’s the Real Thing” which was (some of you may know, and others may not) a riff off a very popular Coke commercial. Leaving aside the question of whether it is wise to appropriate secular ad campaigns for evangelistic purposes, the point Brian and Sylvia are making is helpful. We don’t catch allusions in the Pauline letters that their first hearers or readers would have easily picked up, just like Millennial Christians would be unaware of the ’70s Coke marketing slogan, “It’s the Real Thing” and therefore would be clueless about the meaning of a “He’s the Real Thing” tee shirt. Brian and Sylvia help us by introducing us and unpacking what might have been assumed and understood on the streets of first century Rome. It’s pretty eye-opening when they tell us that first century Jews or first century tenement dwellers in Rome would have heard or understood something in Paul that maybe we’d not fully get.
So, this is a really useful book, functioning as a socio-cultural Biblical study with a good eye for the original social context. And it insists – as most Bible commentators would, but few really do much with — that this pastoral letter from the great apostle to the Christ-followers of Rome has great application for our discipleship, congregational life, and spirituality today. Where they really are fresh and provocative is how they insist Paul was knowingly (and the hearers were knowingly aware) of a subversive rhetoric against the powers and values of the Empire, and how that may be a key for understanding the power of the gospel for us today. Like them, we must be “non conformed” to the ways of the world, and form communities of resistance to structural evil and forge new habits anticipating the ways of Christ’s eschaton. We are welcoming and non-violent as Christ was and as the Kingdom should and will be.
A few specific observations to help you see what’s going on in Romans Disarmed so you can see if it is book you should purchase and study:
WE SHOULD READ FROM THE MARGINS, THROUGH TEARS
First, Brian and Sylvia teach us (although they are not the first, but they are among the most vivid and clear and compelling about it) that our social location matters if we are going to see and interpret the Bible well. C.S. Lewis’s narrator says in The Magician’s Nephew that what we see and hear “depends a great deal on where you are standing, and on what sort of person you are.” Let that bit of critical theory sink it from good old Clive!
After energetically describing a joyful moment one night on the dance floor at Sanctuary in downtown Toronto, they tell how the mood changes as they needed to embrace some hurting brothers as some harsh songs brought prophetic denunciation of injustice perpetrated against First Nations peoples. Their empathy is palpable and they remind us of how this is, if you will, a hermeneutical key:
Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are going to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans. We will need to find ourselves both on the dance floor in liberating joy and on the sidelines holding Frenchy, keeping vigil at Iggy’s bedside, bearing witness to one more death, one more betrayal, one more deep, deep hurt, with tears running down our cheeks. Without standing in such places, we will miss the power of this epistle both in its ancient context and in a contemporary setting.
I think they are right. If one is heart-broken by gay youth taking their own lives because of being shamed by their God-fearing churches, if one know and hears the story of the rural poor or the urban evicted, if one has ever met anyone jailed for their expressions of faith, if one sees the toxic pollution in one’s own water supply, one just might notice stuff in the Bible that others may miss and one may even wonder “why didn’t I ever see that before? It is right there in the text!”
And so, our own effort to “weep with those who weep” (even as we rejoice with those who rejoice) and hear the stories of the poor and oppressed and marginalized and misunderstood will allow us to become the kind of people who see things in the Bible that we might not otherwise have been sensitive to. They say this specifically and directly and their own personal stories have illuminated their work as Biblical scholars. This becomes evident in the first two pages that had me wiping tears away from my cheeks as they told us about the joys and sorrows of the ragamuffin folk that make up the Sanctuary Community in downtown Toronto to whom the book is dedicated.
WE’VE GOT TO KNOW OUR BIBLES BETTER
Secondly, our knowledge of the Bible itself in its narrative flow, its major themes, its socio-political setting and the interconnection of texts and themes is immensely important. Too few of us really understand the key moments of the Biblical history of redemption. It is curious to me that some who most loudly espouse a conservative theological perspective don’t engage the Biblical texts as seriously as they do the logic of this or that theological idea or thinker. Serious Bible scholars may agree on the importance of background and context, but my sense is that so much of the way Keesmaat and Walsh connect various themes, Older and Newer Testaments and the socio-economic stuff is exceptionally illuminating, bringing fresh and solid insight into what was going on in that context. N.T Wright has done this for us a bit; our old friend the late, great Kenneth Bailey did so in remarkable ways.
Some scholars I trust have expressed concern that some have overstated the anti-Empire themes in the New Testament. For instance, see Scot McKnight & Joe Modica’s Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic; $22.00.) Reading Romans Disarmed has rekindled in me a conviction that this is a very helpful interpretive lens to help us understand the first century Greco-Roman books of the Bible as they would have been understood in that setting and to apply the truths of God’s Word in our own urgent context of the fraudulent and often objectively hurtful Pax Americana.
For many of my generation, by the way, it was Ron Sider’s exquisitely important Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Thomas Nelson; $15.99) that showed, over and over and over (and over) that the Bible is crystal clear about denouncing social injustice, economic abuse, and structures that cause or deepen poverty, even while wealth is relativized and often seen as a threat to one’s spiritual vitality. There’s so much in the Bible that we had previously just missed! Similarly, my Dutch Calvinist mentor Peter J. Steen gave me Walter Brueggemann’s groundbreaking book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Fortress; $25.00) in the late1970s and, again, it opened up vistas of Biblical knowledge which are still reverberating for me decades later. Who knew then that stewardship was more than giving money to the church, but the primal call of humans to care for creation? That salvation in the Bible often include inheritance of land, and that land reform and social justice are often talking about in the Bible. It’s just right there, plain as day for those who care and have ears to hear. There are so many texts and stories in the Bible that directly call us to a counter-cultural social ethic and many of us just miss them; we glaze over, we don’t connect the dots, we fail to catch the allusions. Perhaps it is because of our “ease in Zion” [that’s Amos 6, by the way] or the kind of people we are, but authors like this can truly help us. For some, spending a month with Romans under the tutelage of Walsh & Keesmaat could be considered “doctor’s orders.” You may never recover from it, or “un-see” that which you learn and see in this revolutionary text and I suspect you’ll read the Bible (any part of the Bible) with fresh eyes and desire to live it out with more willing hands. Thanks be to God.
Shane Claiborne is mostly right, then, when he says that Brian and Sylvia are two of his favorite Bible scholars. “Whether your over-churched or under-churched, they stir in you a fresh curiosity for the Bible. This new book is perfect for scholars and new Bible readers alike, and for everyone in between.” I’d only add that the book is dense with detail and is broadly thematic, which might take some getting use to for some conventional Bible students. That is, they don’t just wade through the Romans epistle paragraph by paragraph, but mix it up a bit. And they constantly shift between way back then and today, talking about what it must have been like for Christ-followers in Rome to welcome those of different eating habits and positions of power in the city and those with different degrees of loyalty or disdain for the Empire itself to break bread together and then they reflect on what it is like for most of us in our own congregations as we try to be friendly to guests or talk well among ourselves over matters of importance. The shift from the era of Paul and Caesar to your church and Trump moves quickly and it is stimulating and provoking, to say the least.
It’s a fun read, I’d say, but it even could be disorienting, maybe, for those who expect a linear, line-by-line commentary. On the other hand, it could be a godsend of Biblical insight to stimulate those who are put off by the sometimes abstract and nearly pointless detail of some Bible commentaries. Romans Disarmed is, as the subtitle shouts, both a serious bit of Biblical scholarship and a charter for a counter-imperial Christian community. Like I said, other than their Colossians Remixed I bet you’ve never read anything like it.
HAS ROMANS BEEN WEAPONIZED?
A third point to underscore: from very contemporary debates about climate change or sexuality or race and ethnicity or theological doctrine, the letter of Paul has been weaponized (used to bolster a strident view, to exclude others, or, as in Boy Erased, where a Bible was literally used to pummel a teen, making a point that God’s Word can pound out same-sex attraction.) From a Trump official saying last summer that we have to obey them because of Romans 13 (oh, what a misreading!) to insistence on certain views about Jews or predestination, this weaponizing is prevalent. Drs. Keesmaat & Walsh insist we have to read it in a more generous and disarming way so it can function for us today as it surely did in the first century in Rome.
Just to clarify: they are not trying to soften hard theological truths or eliminate all classic doctrines or only emphasis the lovey-justicey social gospel pieces that today’s cool kids want to hear. Not at all. I just want to be clear that this is not that kind of a book. Those who assume it is primarily a magisterial theological outpouring will be challenged to think about Romans in this new perspective, but it is quite compelling, I think. (And why do some assume that it is the zenith of Paul’s doctrinal systematics, anyway? Just because it is long? 1 Corinthians is longer, and nobody thinks that is Paul’s systematic masterpiece just because it’s long and complicated.)
By taking the letter and its anti-Imperial tone and its socio-political and economic context seriously, it allows us to de-escalate some of the peculiar debates about it, and how it tends to be used these days to close down conversation or flog people with.
HAVE THEY DONE THE SAME THING. WEAPONIZED IT ANEW?
Is this merely a new kind of weaponizing of Romans, using it for a far left, counter-Imperial, anti-American narrative, beating up Republicans and those living for the American Dream? Perhaps. Because they are pushing back on behalf of those who have been hurt, badly hurt, by toxic religion often based on what they believe are mis-readings (and certainly mishandling) of Romans, they can be strident. In some ways, they are trying to help those who are leaving the evangelical world because of the way the Christian right has been so ugly, helping them see a new way to be Christian and a new way to read (and love) the Bible again. I get that. So they do come across as insistent, prophetic, even, sometimes, in speaking (Paul’s) truth to power. But, happily, they are often quite clear about inviting authentic diversity and being welcoming to all (regardless of politics or point of view.)
Hard as it may be, they believe the gospel of God’s grace creates a safe place for everybody. Since they are allies and advocates for the dispossessed and marginalized, it is a live question about how – in a communal conversation or small group Bible study, say – we keep it safe for LGBTQ brothers and sisters, for instance, if someone in the group is bombastic and unkind? (They tell of one such encounter and how they handled it might surprise you.) They talk more than once about this sort of “generous spaciousness” – something more spiritually mature and theologically robust than being PC, by the way, and it is helpful.
UNITY IN CHRIST?
And – of course! – this is a major part of what is going on in Rome. What in the world might it have been like for slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, sexually abused women and children and their perpetrators to hear the great apostle tell people they are one, to welcome all? This is explosive, painful, hard, breathtaking stuff. That few commentaries on this book of the Bible explore with much depth or passion this extraordinary re-making of social relationships then and there (not to mention here and now) is almost professional malpractice among the theologians and Bible teachers. I heard NT Wright talk about how many classes on Romans just peter out before they get to the upshot of it all in the last few chapters, just skipping that as not particularly urgent. In his newer perspective, and in Romans Disarmed, it surely is the point, how the gospel of grace forms a new egalitarian community that can serve as a count-weighted witness to the violence of the powers that be. At any rate, this volume helps us see the need for and helps us become equipped to form this kind of inclusive and just community (despite our huge differences.) This is part of the agenda of Romans Disarmed and what allows the well-informed authors to unpack this so fruitfully for us.
THERE’S A PERSON, AGAIN.
One of the ways they enact this exact sort of hospitable discourse is by using a device they featured creatively in Colossians Remixed. Just when some of their teaching is getting heavy and their Bible interpretation seems a bit speculative, in comes another voice, in italics, an interlocutor. I was hoping the argumentative kid who gave them a hard time in Colossians Remixed, interrupting with skeptical questions that led to fascinating digressions would be back, but it isn’t that guy. This new conversation partner is skeptical enough, but seems to be on board more with their claims, asking wise and good questions, seeking clarification of their exegesis and theological views and telling stories from his own life about the difficulties of applying this kind of anti-imperial lifestyle. They can debate about what Keesmaat & Walsh mean when they say that Romans 1 exposes “the idolatry at the root of the depravity of life in the Empire” and how the Jerusalem Council re-imagined the nature of faithful discipleship and what stipulations are essential for fellow believers, but they also must talk about what difference all this makes for us and what we should be about now, in these times. I don’t recall that we ever learned this person’s name, but she (I thought it is a he, but we learn, eventually that it is a woman) is a great part of the story. This dialogue partner, even though pushing back against some of their statements, is sincere and eager to learn and grow into deeper more relevant fidelity to the gospel. She’s a good part of the story.
Kudos to them for bringing in this other voice from a friendly skeptic who isn’t taking all this “resisting empire-demanding justice” stuff lightly. In doing so they model the kind of robust conversations that are needed within our faith communities and they anticipate the kinds of questions many readers will have while reading Romans Disarmed. Granted, at time he seems like a mere foil, a chance for them to springboard into re-saying what they’ve already said, but it isn’t disingenuous. It makes the book more interesting and more useful for us all.
HOW THE BODY OF CHRIST TALKS
It is true, after all, that we all need to grapple with this matter of hearing each other, of hosting better conversations, which is why I’m sure Brian and Sylvia would love – as we do! – the new book (also published by Brazos) by our friend out at Englewood MO, C. Christopher Smith, who just released the must-read How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press; $16.99.) I suspect that as you are reading Romans Disarmed you are going to want to have some conversations about a lot of different things and How the Body of Christ Talks just might be tool that will save you a lot of grief, guiding you towards being communities of missional conversation and prophetic dialogue. Oh yes, this is rich, thoughtful, good stuff and would make a great companion volume to read alongside Romans Disarmed.
Smith assures us that practices of conversation – especially while eating together — can be transformational within local congregations, and this resonates with the sort of body life that is described in Romans Disarmed. Near the end, Sylvia and Brian note that even in New Testament times, given what we know about what Paul and other apostles said and didn’t say, there was “considerable diversity on discerning what fruitful discipleship looked like.” Learning to talk well together is itself a good and necessary practice; it is mentioned all over the New Testament and healthy churches today bring it on!
“Much, indeed depends on dinner,” they write on page 242. They continue:
Much depends on how you eat, with whom you eat, and what you eat. Eating is, of course, foundational to all of life. And where there is food, there are questions of justice, inclusion, and equality, and, most importantly, of identity.
And then they have a whole section (in a chapter called “Welcoming the Powerless”) in which they note:
It should be no surprise that Paul’s economic vision comes down to food…. if Paul’s gospel is to be embodied in the lives of Jesus followers in Rome, it will be proven at table fellowship. The whole anti-imperial agenda of this letter, together with its commitment to the formation of an alternative home at the heart of the empire, hangs on what happens when Jesus followers gather for the family dinner.
That is, they think Paul’s letter, read carefully and contextually, insists on an open and inclusive fellowship. But they also are clear that (following nearly every other major, well-informed Bible scholar) when Paul uses the word righteousness, he means very much something like what we today might call social justice; as N.T. Wright puts it in his oh-so-British way, a “putting things to rights.” Salvation is not a promise of an ethereal soul floating off to heaven because one got the ticket out of hell, but the breaking in of a new creation order, a regime change here on earth where God in Christ brings His shalom, social health, cultural renewal, a politics of peacemaking, a Jubilee vision of justice. This is not liberal social gospel rhetoric, but the best, most faithful rendering of what the Bible itself really says. We have Christ’s righteousness imputed and imparted to us, and that, properly understood, means we become gospel-infused agents of justice. Which maybe starts with hospitality, being welcoming and listening well, especially to the marginalized and hurting.
You can decide for yourself if chatting with Sylvia and Brian at church, or hanging around the rough-around-the edges ministry of Greg Paul and his Sanctuary Community that they tell us about, or visiting their farm and joining in the daily chores (yes, it’s a real farm with a lot of daily chores) would feel safe and good for you, if they are truly hospitable and welcoming of a variety of views. I have a hunch that even if you find them, as I do, a bit strident at times, you will like them a lot. They know a lot about philosophy, about church history, about contemporary political issues, about rock music, about urban architecture, and contemporary social science, and, yep, they grow food and love to bake bread and do many, essential home-making arts. They know their Bibles and they love Jesus. And you can trust that they’ll shoot straight, telling you what’s on their hearts. What’s not to like?
Their organic farm community that practices regenerative agriculture is called Russet House Farm. The story of their acquiring stewardship of it is itself nearly a miracle; they do educational events and offer hospitality and welcome. Check them out.
I think that the disagreements that this book itself will engender will, if faced in the proper spirit, in the context of the welcoming grace of the gospel itself, mirror some of the difficulties of this new Christian communities forming in and around the Roman Empire in the first century. Many of Paul’s letters, after all, were calling on followers of Jesus to reject identities from the Empire (or “the world”) and to live into the oneness they had in Christ. Just think of Galatians or 1 Corinthians or what are sometimes called pastoral letters. Romans, Keesmaat and Walsh insist, is one of these, writ large. It is not primarily or firstly (if at all) an abstract theological treatise and they explain well why they believe that. The history of assuming and privileging this kind of de-contextualized doctrinal reading is itself part of our problem in blunting the revolutionary socio-economics and political resistance which is nearly overt and surely implicit in this pastoral letter from the hand of Paul. The Paul who would eventually come to Rome and visit all those people he mentions by name in this letter – rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, Judean and Gentile – and end up in jail, killed for sedition against the Empire.
THEY AREN’T THE ONLY ONES SAYING SOME OF THIS…
By the way, even the editors who sounded an alarm [see above] about over-doing the anti-Empire theme in recent New Testament studies, Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica [who do not critique Keesmaat & Walsh directly, by the way] have also edited a valuable volume where some who adopt a “new perspective on Paul” get to explain the contemporary implications and consequences for ministry of some of their new ideas on how to read Paul. See their The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective (Baker Academic; $26.00.) There are some very interesting chapters in there from important Pauline scholars.
A must-read chapter that could have been included in that volume was Brian & Sylvia’s well-intended, painfully hard words to their dear friend Tom Wright in a chapter called “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” found in the great collection Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright edited by Nichols Perrin (IVP Academic; $24.00.) I suggest these titles for those few who want to dig deeper into this bigger conversation and name them just to note that Keesmaat & Walsh are clearly not the only ones insisting that Romans is more than a doctrinal treatise and necessarily has vast social and even political implications. They flesh it out more robustly and with more verve than any other book we know, but this isn’t altogether pioneering stuff. In fact, just a few months back a great book was released compiled and edited (again) by McKnight & Modica called Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives (Eerdmans; $20.00.) These essays and sample sermons illustrated generously how many different views there are about the heart of Romans, how to read it, and how sermons proclaim its grace and grit to us for our daily discipleship. From Fleming Rutledge to Will Willimon to Carl Trueman to Tara Beth Leach, there is good stuff in here. Friends who are sympathetic to Walsh and Keesmaat are included in voices such as Michael Gorman and Richard Hays.
Okay, I might as well just be honest and say it: that was all mostly prelude.
I’m trying to warm you up to the general thesis and style of Romans Disarmed and to warn those who might find it off-putting that there is so much politics and economics and ecological concern in this Bible study work, but that these topics are integral to understanding it properly and to reading it fruitfully. You are going to have to read this big book itself to see if I’m right that this is instructive, enjoyable, provocative, and helpful. I think you’re going to need a book club or study group or friend to talk with you about it, because it is that kind of book. I can’t stop thinking about it!
WHEW, THEY BRING IN A LOT (AND IT MAKES FOR ALMOST A NEW GENRE OF BIBLE COMMENTARY)
What other Biblical scholarship book has pages about permaculture and watersheds and describes ways to be involved in advocacy for Indigenous people’s land rights? What other book spends pages on exegeting Biblical texts (and offering footnotes about where this or that translation gets a word right or wrong and which captures the meaning surely heard by the first century hearers of this public letter) only to follow up with screeds against using cell phones too much or our expectations to eat too much out of season (which, by the way, they call, colorfully, a “culinary indiscretion.”) (It’s a reasonable ethical stance I’m not sure I fully agree with, and about which I know I’d be hypocritical to say I did, but it sure is punchy when they say, “Eating out of season is like having an affair. It is eating in a way that is unfaithful to your place.”) Like I said, there is no other book like this.
And, please know – I assume you get it – that this is not faddish or them trying to be clever, trying to make the Bible “relevant.” This is about our understanding of the huge and hard-wrought question, what is the gospel and the equally huge question how then shall we live? They are joyful and good folks but about this they are deadly serious.
They end the book with a beautiful sort of litany of how Paul called this community to ways that were counter to the values and practices and ways of living in the Rome Empire (and counter to our own culture as well.) Paul’s’ call to offer dignity and respect subverted a world where status and honor legitimated the shaming and denigration of the others (especially the poor and slaves.) Paul’s call to welcome others into community subverted the imperial divisions; “in a world where the enemy is vilified, Paul calls for generous blessing and hospitality for those who have wronged us…”
“In a world where the pain of the suffering was denied and ignored because it was considered collateral damage in the good ordering of society, Paul called this community to weep with those who weep and walk with the oppressed.”
You’ll have to read it in its entirety to catch the hope and inspiration and cadence and implications of this good proclamation.
But hear this, now:
Can we envision a world where the voices of the suffering allowed to subvert the ideology of militarism and consumption that dominates our imaginations? Can we imagine a world where those of us with privilege sacrifice that privilege in order to enter into the suffering of others, of creation, of God?
It is clear that Paul could envision such a world, and this is a world that we want to live in, too. That is the kind of hope that Paul calls us to. If we truly walk with the oppressed and allow ourselves to be led by those who mourn, perhaps we will find ourselves, with Iris and Nereus, not only imagining the new creation but living in such a way that others too will recognize it when it arrives.
This lovely ending names their fictional characters (Iris and Nereus) that we’ve learned so much about in the second big chapter. Not only does this illuminating device help us imagine the explosive social impact on Paul’s pastoral letter to the Christ-followers in Rome, but other devices in the book help us, too. (I’ve mentioned the conversation partner — that italicized interlocutor that interrupts from time to time, another helpful device.)
TARGUMS. YES, YOU HEARD THAT RIGHT: TARGUMS.
There is another teaching device used, an imaginative practice that was, in fact, used in first century rabbinic circles, a poetic and application-oriented modernized paraphrase of the Older Testament texts. First century Christ followers often didn’t know Hebrew (Hellenized Jews, they were called, that is, Israelites who had been pretty much accommodated to the Greek worldview and living within the Roman Empire, so they didn’t even know Hebrew, let alone the law and the prophets. Not to mention the non-Jewish Gentiles grafted into the story of Israel.) So church leaders would do these preaching performances called targums. Walsh excels at doing them for us.
Pages 297-320 of Romans Disarmed is one such imaginative, improvisational re-telling of Romans 12 and 13 that serves as an update of much of what they are saying Romans is saying to us today. It is worth the price of the book to read and re-read (aloud in your own community, perhaps) this modern, creative, re-telling. I mean that. Early on they have a great one re-telling the first part of Romans 1 and nearer the end, a vivid one about inspired by the end of Romans 1. These targums are brilliant.
Here is how they describe these (essential) occasional sidebars:
When rabbis would stand up to read the Torah to Diaspora synagogue congregations throughout the Roman Empire, they would have to translate because Hebrew had already been lost for so many Judeans. But they never translated straight. They did not understand meaning to be conveyed through exact and literal translation (that is a modern notion of translation.) No, that would have been too reductionistic for them. Rather, they believed that the Torah was a living word, still speaking into every new situation. So their translations were also interpretations of the ancient text, an updating of the text, an attempt to allow the Torah to speak anew and fresh to a covenant people from their homeland, living as strangers in a foreign land. Are we not in a decidedly analogous situation? We have an ancient text that we have been struggling to understand, sometimes trying to free if from the shackles of dogmatic interpretation, and we desperately want to hear this text speak a word of liberation into our own lives. Such a fresh hearing of this text requires an exercise in interpretive imagination. So we turn again to the genre of targum.
Remember that a targum is invariably longer than the original text. It has to be, because I need to explicate a lot of what would have been implicit in the original writing. What might have been easily grasped by the first hearers if often lost on a later audience. And a targum also needs to bring the ancient text into conversation and perhaps conflict with later historical, cultural, political, and economic realities. Moreover, this particular targum, coming three-quarters of the way through a sixteen-chapter epistle, also needs to spend some time hearing what Paul is saying in light of all that has come before. In other words, the targum needs to take the time to unpack something of what Paul means when he says “therefore” at the beginning of our passage.
Okay: Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice is a guide to new ways to read the Bible, a radical call to live more faithfully in our own socioeconomic times, to be so transformed by God’s grace in community that we become gospel-grounded and Kingdom dreaming people, making a difference against the forces of disruption and distortion in our own broken times. They reject the popular notion that Romans is somehow an abstract systematic theology, neither a simplistic Romans Road to soul salvation nor a treatise on Calvinistic (or other kinds of) intellectual dogma. As originally written and heard, it can be heard a manifesto for staying alive – both in the sense of not being deadened by the swirling seductions in our own fake Empires – and for keeping the true Biblical faith alive, becoming more authentic Christ followers of the sort that populated the counter-cultural, anti-imperial communities that transformed the Roman Empire. It isn’t a call to woodenly return to some golden era or early church purity (if anything, it shows us that the early church was itself pretty dysfunctional and confused.) But it does invite us into an adventure of hearing this letter as part of a story, a controversial, dangerous, adventuresome, almost revolutionary story.
I simply don’t know of any other Bible study book that puts application – improvisational and political, even – in the center of our interpretation of the text, and with such compelling and persuasive (and interesting) power. As I’ve noted, they tell about their own lives of being stewardly within their own watershed (they are part of a movement explored, in fact, in a book edited by Ched Meyers called Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice [Cascade; $30.00.]) Of course they draw on some of the great, clear writings of Wendell Berry, who they’ve been citing for years. They talk about race and racial injustice (which, for them, include a lot about First Nations people in Canada, among whom they have good friends and with whom they have been working for decades, long before the uprising at Standing Rock brought Native people’s contemporary issues to most of our awareness.) They talk about food and music and politics and violence and home-making and sexuality and worship and lament and joy and grace and worldviews. All in a commentary on a book of the Bible that some people think is metaphysical, theological, and beyond their ken. Again I say, wow. Romans Disarmed is one of the most curiously interesting, life-changing books I have read in a very long time.
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A FINAL POSTSCRIPT: A NEW BOOK BY JAMES W. SKILLEN
God’s Sabbath With Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory UnveiledJames W. Skillen (Wipf & Stock) $35.00 Well, if Sylvia Keesmaat & Brain Walsh are feisty farmers and watershed activists, stewarding well their own land even while in conversation with First Nation’s peoples seeking justice, and this sense-of-place informs their study of Romans which they see as an anti-Empire manifesto, this new book – which picks up some (vaguely) similar themes, by political scientist and founder of the moderate Christian think-tank and faith-based, US citizen’s group, the Center for Public Justice – might be a good companion volume. (Here is an interesting interview with himabout the founding of CPJ decades ago and his views about the relationship of faith and citizenship.) Although written with a very different tone and style, it, too explores Romans a bit, if in a more conventional exegetical style with lots of theological language, albeit of a “creation regained” / all of life redeemed, worldview perspective. There are no poetic targums, but there are some citations of Abraham Kuyper…
I know that some who have benefitted from the early, influential worldview studies of Brian Walsh – he was the first to hold a professorship and chair of worldview studies (at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies) – would know that in his early years at ICS he drew much of his foundational critique of the secular rationalism of much of the Western philosophical tradition (and the pietism and/or secular rationalism of the Western theological tradition, as well) from the famous Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. Dr. Skillen has long been deeply grounded in that particular stream of neo-Calvinist (“reformational”) worldview philosophy and although he has been a political scientist most of his life (his most recent previous book is one I’ve raved about in a long BookNotes review; it is called The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction [Baker Academic; $25.00]) he has been a serious student of Holy Scripture and knows the very best Biblical scholarship. This is a book he told me years ago that he wanted to write and we are thrilled to announce that it just came out.
A new book by Skillen is always a good thing. A book about reading the Bible is great.
Like Walsh & Keesmaat, Skillen is convinced of the Biblical truth that God’s faithfulness to the good but fallen creation means that, in Christ, this world is being re-made; healed and restored. He so disapproves of “other-worldly” piety and anti-creational dualism that he has a chapter in this book – a collection of essays about the drama of the Biblical promise and fulfillment of God’s Sabbath for creation itself — about political philosopher Eric Voegelin who, in Skillen’s learned estimation, gets Paul wrong, but has a lot to teach us against the debilitating heresy of Gnosticism. Amen!
Skillen – in a way that is more foundational and less vivid about social issues than Brian and Sylvia – is, nonetheless, a public intellectual doing some sort of public theology, if you will. Or, perhaps I should say, he’s doing Biblical study with an eye to the creation-wide, daily-life, public implications of a solid and creative view of what the Bible says about life and times. He knows how the Bible works and the trajectory of the story from creation to new creation; from garden to city; he sees creation and its historical opening up as “disclosing” God’s will; he writes about “hospitality and honor” and how covenantal views are not the same as social contracts. All of this matters as we proclaim that Christ is reconciling all things. As royal priests, we all are called to do work which anticipates the future completion and rest God is bringing to His world. What we do now matters, and it is important to find ourselves immersed in the covenantal promises of God to cause human shalom and flourishing throughout His own beloved creation.
God’s Sabbath with Creation is not a lefty manifesto (as some might see Keesmaat and Walsh’s Romans Disarmed) but it does have within it a socially potent view of the Scriptures as they shine a light revealing the circumference and scope of Christ’s reign and can point us towards a counter-cultural witness in but not of the world. That is, this solid, even dense, set of Biblical reflections has public implications.
As Skillen puts it:
Christ Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one through whom all things are created and all things are fulfilled. We are creatures made in God’s image, called to develop and govern the earth in service to God. The exercise of human responsibility in this age plays a major part in the revelation of God’s glory. Every vocation matters for creation’s seventh-day fulfillment: family, friendships, worship, civic responsibility, and our work in every sphere of life.
This is serious, even if at times a tad tedious; it is edifying and helpful to work through Skillen’s God’s Sabbath with Creation and we recommend it. His quibbles about, say, N.T. Wright’s less than fully adequate exposition of the relationship between this creation and the re(new)ed creation is quite interesting. (Some it is found in a footnote, so don’t miss it!)
Here are the main units of this hefty book that bridges the worlds of contemporary socio-political analysis and his previous books about pluralism and citizenship and our human longing for cultural renewal with careful exegesis of Biblical words and themes. There are several short but meaty chapters in each major section. Believe me, he pulls more implications from these Biblical themes than most, and bases his understanding of our contemporary lives within this hopeful trajectory that God is at work bringing plans to fruition, bringing healing and hope to the cosmos.
The Covenantal Disclosure of Reality
First Adam Last
Already and Not Yet
Israel and the new Covenant
The Way, the Truth, the Life
Jim has a remarkable gift of discernment and can unpack more from a passage than most. He is widely read, almost playfully, so, and here draws on scholars as unique as Alexander Schmemann and Jorgen Moltmann, Christine Pohl and Oliver O’Donovan, Richard Middleton and N.T. Wright, Richard Hays and Abraham Kuyper, Sallie McFague and Herman Ridderbos, Miroslov Volf and Gerhard Von Rad. His own Reformed leanings are evident when he draws on Gordon Spykman, John Stek, Ray Van Leeuwen, Calvin Seerveld, Alvin Plantinga, RIdderbos, and Al Wolters.
Here is a very good endorsement from two scholars and teachers we admire:
Jim Skillen is one of our best Christian thinkers today, a scholar we have long admired. He is, moreover, a top Christian political theorist who takes the Bible seriously in his academic work. And so it is a delight to read the fruit of his many years of wrestling with the scriptural text. He challenges an individualistic narrative of sin and salvation, and articulates a rich view of creation in fresh and surprising ways. Following Jesus means redirecting the whole of our creaturely lives to serve God, others, and the non-human creation in joyful anticipation of God’s coming Sabbath with creation. Highly recommended! –Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen co-authors of The Drama of Scripture, At the Crossroads, and Christian Philosophy
YOU CAN ORDER EITHER OF THESE (OR ANY OTHER BOOK MENTIONED) AT 20% OFF BY CLICKING THE ORDER LINK BELOW.
All of these books are on sale and can be ordered through our secure website. Just click on the order link at the end of this column. We will be sure to confirm everthing with a personal reply.
After a hard look at hard stuff during Holy Week, we are lead through the hell of Holy Saturday and, abruptly, into the joy and hope of Easter. I think the apostle Paul and countless apologists are right in saying everything hinges on the truth of the empty tomb. We must believe deeply in the resurrection of Jesus and, then, to use Wendell Berry’s famous poetic line, in the call to “practice resurrection.”
But what does it look like to be a practicing resurrectionary? And how do we bring light and goodness, victory and life, gospel grace and Kingdom power to the still broken world in which we live?
What does it mean to live well in a complicated Monday after a joyous Sunday?
A.J. Swoboda, who has written well in AGlorious Dark about the three days of Christ’s death, what is sometimes called The Triduum, gives us a hint in his major 2018 book, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World; there he reminds us that keeping Sabbath, habits of rest and celebration epitomized in holidays like Easter, ends up subverting the dysfunctional ways of the world. Can holidays, and Christian practices connected to the resurrection really be subversive? Does faithful resurrectionary living present an alternative to the reigning status quo?
Our church (and maybe yours) gladly proclaimed the joy of new life in Christ, celebrating Jesus’ victory over the grave, the forgiveness of sin, but also teased out some of the implications of this newness that breaks in to human history. We confessed our sins, admitted our fears, came to grips with the foibles and failures of life East of Eden. And we were called to be transformed, through faith, by grace, to become people of the Kingdom, missional agents of God’s love in the world. I’m not sure our preacher used the word, but it was deeply subversive, if we realize what it means to “practice resurrection.” We proclaim “all things new,” after all.
Which necessarily leads us back into what is sometimes called “the real world.” To that popular verse in 1 Chronicles 12:32 about “sons of Issachar” who “understood the times and knew what God’s people should do.” After Easter, can we become sons and daughters of Issachar?
That is just what our books are designed to help you with.
Which, like it or not, necessarily leads back to big stories such as the release of the Mueller Report*, our President’s tweets, our local economies, our foreign affairs, the brokenness in which we are implicated, the “groaning of creation” itself (Romans 8: 19-22), and all the rest that might be considered current affairs.
*yes, you can pre-order it from us.
We are sent into the world and we simply cannot be “above the fray” of our contested politics.
I think it was Jim Wallis who I first heard say that Christian faith is “personal, but never private.” Like Abraham Kuyper said, Christ claims “every square inch” of the entire creation.
The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land David Dark (Westminster John Knox) $17.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $13.60
One of the most stimulating, thoughtful, remarkably-written, and provocative books I’ve read about the state of our times and the state of our union in these times is The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land written by my friend David Dark.
David is a lover of words, a lover of truth, a lover of what some call common grace – gladly thanking God for the signs of life that pop up in even a secularized culture, offered up even by those who seem not to be religious. (Ahh, there’s an interesting idea: is anybody really not religious? Don’t we all live by and for something? That’s the theme of Dark’s fabulous book called Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious [IVP; $18.00.] What a fascinating book!)
Discerning the signs of life or signals of transcendence in common grace gifts of popular culture is the theme of his only slightly dated first book Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos; $20.00.) He has for many years been helping us understand how to understand the culture, how to see the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane. (Or, should I say, the sacred in the profane. And vice versa.)
In a way, this new one about America is a continuation of that project, finding how deeply wise and transformative insights show up in the best of our American dream, from our politics to our classic landscapes, our shaping documents to our best literature and song. I joked to somebody in the shop that he should have called this Everyday American Apocalypse.
The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsake Land is actually a considerable re-working and expanded edition of his 2005 book, The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a Christ-haunted, God-blessed Idea. It is, for those who are familiar with that stimulating, much-discussed book, different enough that it demanded a new title; it is not just a “revised” edition. There’s so much new content in The Possibility of America that it earned a new title; not only is there considerable re-working and new content, the overall tone is a bit different. Understandably.
It seems to me that the very title indicates a change in the panic level of professor Dark, mirroring the anxiety many of us feel in these contested, Trumpian times. It was a bit easier (not that much, really, for those paying attention, but a bit) to see “the gospel” within America a decade ago. As the subtitle of that first book put it, we were in a “Christ-haunted” land. Now, with a vain sex offender known for his rude impetuousness and shameless dishonesty in our highest office, supported loudly by religious leaders who take pictures of themselves with him with photos of Playboy on the nearby wall, who say firmly, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. did, that he does not take his political cues from Jesus, who have actually affirmed inhumane treatment of immigrant families — tearing children from their parents – we are in, shall we say, a different position then we were before. These are awful times for the US of A, and it seems that anyone in touch with the Bible and the current political ethos simply has to wish things were otherwise.
Enter David Dark, who once was a bit less outraged and a bit less consumed by the dark antics of our leaders, and who has deepened his long standing passion for Biblical justice and relating prophetic truth to current realities.
Relating faith to popular culture and current events, by the way, is not new to him. In a weighty introduction called “Notes on the New Seriousness” he talks nicely about his father, a father for whom “the Bible was always in the back of his mind.” He tells us:
In his lifelong enthusiasm for candor, fair play, and the well-chosen word, freewheeling Bible study as a space in which everything could be talked about (war, celebrity, R-rated films, a living wage) was among my father’s favorite jams. Karl Barth’s dictum concerning life lived with a Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other was an imperative he took up with glee.
He continues on about lessons learn from his father in this regard; I’m sure many of us envy being raised by a parent who, “as a conversation partner, treated words with an amused affection and reverence… “ Who offered a vibe of “conscience and candor.”
Dark describes his father, a lawyer, as one who understood how we fool ourselves, how we can use our virtue signaling for power, how we “can create or undo the impression of order and control through our use of language.” (Did his father read Derrida, or maybe just Amos and Jeremiah?) Dark talks about “disturbing the fixed scripts of the powerful.” And that “reverence and obsession are to one another near allied.” “For better or worse,” David says, “I am a child of his obsessions.”
No wonder he wrote a fascinating, stimulating book a few years ago called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan; $15.99.) (I might add, although it doesn’t add much, that I am honored to have a back-cover blurb on that one, sharing endorsement space with the late Eugene Peterson, who notes that Dark finds Jesus in surprising places and “he is also a reliable lie detector. And there isn’t a dull sentence in the book.”)
Dark is not only obsessed with lie detecting, with principles and words and “of who said what and how generalizing statements hide specific atrocities.” He is also obsessed – although it seems to come naturally to him – to say things in creative ways, putting side by side words that are not often combined, phrases that raise the eyebrow, that sometimes are jarring, sometimes amusing. (His sneaky little dropping of pop culture allusions, lines from rap songs or phrases from criticism or novels may go unnoticed by most – how many such “Easter eggs” did I miss, I wonder?) Which is just to say he’s a good, colorful, playful, if at times intense writer.
For instance, in that same serious introduction he describes his role as a teacher as the common good of attempted truthfulness. The paragraph-long explication of that sacred space is nearly worth the price of the book. “It could be the most insanely presumptuous task undertaken by any member of our species,” he writes. “I actually attempt to help people with their own thinking.”
I sit in classrooms with women and men in prisons and college campuses, and, together, we make assertions, put questions to one another, tell stories, read poems aloud, and wonder of our own words. They write sentences, I write sentences next to their sentences. And we get a conversation going somehow. We attempt truthfulness together. For some students, I sometimes have the feeling that this might be the first time someone’s calmly and respectfully urged them to think twice.
And, teacher that he is, obsessed with weighing in, he writes, furiously at times, hoping to help us think twice. Perhaps we need to see more clearly the shape we’re in, in this “God-forsaken” land. Or, perhaps, perhaps, we need to see the “possibility.” This book is his love letter to us all, even if it is more troubled and troubling than his first go at it in The Gospel According to America more than a decade ago.
The Possibility of America, as you can tell from the title, is still not without hope. Dark believes in the resurrection of Jesus, after all, and he loves our land. He loves our land passionately, concretely, especially as many Southerners do. Although his writing is at times dense and loaded with metaphor and allusion, he is not, finally, an abstract writer. He’s a deep and colorful thinker, but his writing is full of specificity, of place and details, of vim and vigor, as we used to say, salt and vinegar, maybe even fire and brimstone. And empathy and love and the occasional dose of self-deprecation and honest humility. He speaks his mind, tells stories, explores American writers and singers and films, and helps us see what kind of deep patriotic wells we might draw from in order to become more Christ-like and more earnest in our civic lives. In this, he seems to be nearly a postmodern, 21st century Will Campbell. Campbell, you might know, was a wordsmithy himself, published a theological journal, was a bit cantankerous, a Southern Baptist preacher who was a civil rights activist (the only white person at the founding of the SCLC) and yet friends with several Klansman. (“Jesus died for bigots, too,” he famously said.) It comes as no surprise that Dark cites Campbell’s classic memoir Brother to a Dragonfly.
Did I mention he draws on great America literature? Oh my, he starts with James Baldwin, and June Jordon, a hefty sign of where this might be going. He quotes public intellectuals, from Lincoln to Thoreau, from Octavia Butler to Wendell Berry. He loves American lit, and explains Faulkner (a lot of Faulkner), Cormac McCarthy, Melville (and more Melville), Whitman, on to contemporaries Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and Toni Morrison, among others. Who else these days recalls the televised conversation about poetry (and the detached judgment of analysis) between howling Allen Ginsburg and mumbling straight-man William F. Buckley?
If you know David (or read his Everyday Apocalypse) you know he’s going to cite Bob Dylan, and he does. Alongside Patti Smith, Chance the Rapper, and the lovely young alt-folkie Julien Baker.
David is a very creative writer and some may find him an acquired taste. This is a grand compliment – I regularly say it about two authors I adore, Calvin Seerveld and Daniel Berrigan (and, I suppose, James Joyce, although I haven’t acquired a taste for that kind of weirdness, yet.) It is interesting that David is a student of (saying a “fan of” would trivialize the matter) the poet, priest, and prophet, the late Daniel Berrigan. He thinks like him, it seems to me; he sounds like him. Maybe soon, David will end up in jail, like Father Berrigan — who knows? Civil disobedience, after all, is a very American custom and Biblical thing to do.
Berrigan (for those who weren’t taught it in school) was until his death last year a radical Catholic priest known for speaking truth to power by way of symbolic gestures of civil disobedience, disrupting state events, exposing the ludicrous idolatry of nuclear weapons (among other shameful atrocities, from torture to abortion to our neglect of the ill.) His poetry and Biblical commentary were held in great esteem among a rag-tag group of followers, many who joined him in non-violent civil disobedience and symbolic actions to dramatize the Bible’s call to repent from social injustice, such as throwing their blood on the pillars of the Pentagon, or chaining the doors shut of multi-national corporations profiteering from cluster bombs which knowingly target little children. The Berrigan Brothers (as he and his brother Philip were sometimes called) stood in an old tradition informed by the likes of Martin of Tours and Saint Francis and Tolstoy and Menno Simons and Franz Jägerstätter and Gandhi.
Importantly, they knew Martin Luther King and American resistors such as Howard Thurman and AJ Muste, were mentored by Thomas Merton, befriended by Dorothy Day. These are American icons that Dark is attuned to and to bring their witness into conversations with Faulkner and Stanley Kubric and Americana folk music and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and rapper Kenrick Lamar is nearly genius; it’s a gumbo mix of high octane social theory, old school American literature, pop culture, and Biblical study yielding a prophetic public theology that could (please God!) lead us closer to Beloved Community.
I note that David is influenced by the Berrigans and writes in a verbose, eccentric style that is somewhat akin to poet Daniel. (Philip Berrigan was, by the way, stark and blunt, terse and no-nonsense. Of the two, who both wrote prodigiously, only Daniel would do a Bible commentary on the minor prophet called, with some sort of wink, Daniel.) It might be safer for David Dark of Nashville holding affiliations with an evangelical college to get at the foibles and possibilities of the deep American religious traditions by drawing on famously punchy and dark Flannery O’Connor (and he does, somewhat.) But it is brave, and even a bit unexpected, for him, in 2019, to release a book so deeply influenced in the witness of Dan Berrigan.
To wit: see also the great chapter by Mr. Dark on Father Berrigan in the wonderfully grand Eerdmans collection calledCan I Get a Witness: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith & Justice (Eerdmans) $26.99. OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59 I described this very sturdy and nicely bound hardback previously at BookNotes, exclaiming how profound this collection is, how needed. Edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, & Daniel Rhodes, there are a baker’s dozen chapters by 13 deeply caring authors. Each good author tells about a certain American saint who lived out faith in robust and often-controversial ways, who took a stand, spoke out, paid up. The research for the book came out of a several year project overseen by Charles Marsh at the Project for Lived Theology housed at the University of Virginia.
This Center has released other work exploring how theology and spirituality can be embodied and lived out and (more precisely) how lived experience (which includes social location) influences the doing of theology. They do oral histories, maintain various workgroups, and publish papers, reports, and a few scholarly books. Can I Get a Witness is their most important work yet, holding up major figures about which we simply ought to know more, all who can help nurture a “public conversation about civic responsibility and social progress.” There are chapters on famous thinkers and activists such as Cesar Chavez and Mahalia Jackson; they represent a variety of faith traditions such as Roman Catholic convert Dorothy Day, Native theologian, evangelical Richard Twiss, and ordained Baptist mystic and scholar Howard Thurman.
I have to admit I read David’s chapter on Daniel Berrigan first, even though there are other great chapters I couldn’t wait to explore. I knew he was re-working and re-issuing the expanded version of Gospel According to America, and thought it would be good to read David on Berrigan before taking in Possibility…
As I trust I’ve made clear, he has written about a variety of aspects of American culture and politics, if in a tone of “new seriousness.” The stern Berrigan-esque insight is prevalent but America is not just a nay-saying screed. He truly enjoys thinking about this stuff – one can tell, in part by the way his fertile mind jumps from this author to that, this episode of an old TV show to that, from a memory of being frustrated with a scene in Patch Adams to teaching us the importance of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or riffing on the message of folk singer John Prine’s song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get Your into Heaven Anymore,” or how one of his conversation partners (a student, perhaps?) put Wendell Berry in his pantheon of elders, “right up there with Tupac Shakur and Ursula K. Le Guin.”
Or, in another vital paragraph, how he shows a quick genealogy of civil rights ideas that lead us to Beloved Community – “beginning with Moses telling the leaders of his world, ‘Let me people go,’ moving through the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963, and eventually arriving (but not stopping) at the day Beyonce’s Lemonade dropped…” He cites, then, a bunch of books of the Bible, leading to a reflection on the “Magna Carta of Christian liberty,” Paul’s letter to the Galatians. What a blast!
I love what Ohio poet and rock critic Hanif Aburraquib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us says:
“It is an honor to watch his conflicts and curiosities bear themselves out on the page.”
You may need to think a bit more deeply about our current social situation, about our nation. You may not know where to start. I think this could help. Many others are raving about ThePossibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land, so consider these accolades:
“If I prayed, I would pray for all the David Darks—all the smart, funny, thoughtful, quirky, tough-minded, well-read, culturally-engaged Christians in America—to arise and speak up. Because I know that the crabbed, mean, unthinking forms of political Christianity that I see portrayed in the media are not the whole story.”
—Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland
“This revised edition of The Gospel according to America makes this prescient tome that much more salient. Dark regards America—real and imagined, secular and abidingly faithful, horrible and glorious—with a holistic gaze that holds these truths and contradictions together and examines the culture that comes from it in order to better understand just how we got here.”
—Jessica Hopper, author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
“This is a book built on the understanding that there is a civic imagination that imagines us into a better way of being human together. Taking Twitter, literature, poetry, music lyrics, film, television, cartoons and conversations as sacred texts, David Dark looks at the things that are held up by language: power, fear, and hatred. Dark’s work holds the hope that love is a muscle we can exercise in public—and he holds us to account for how we practice.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, Irish poet and theologian of reconciliation of the Corrymeela Community
FIVE OTHER BOOKS TO HELP US GLIMPSE THE POSSIBILITIES OF AMERICA
This Land: America, Lost and Found Dan Barry (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers) $29.99 OUR SALE PRCE = $23.99 I came to respect Dan Barry as a extraordinary writer and dogged investigator and great storyteller when I read one of the most gripping books of creative nonfiction I’ve ever read, Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland. (Enter it in quotations in our “search” box at the Hearts & Minds bookstore website and you can find my comments about it in December of 2016 or again when I awarded it Best Book award at the end of that year.) That award-winning expose moved me so that I explored his personal memoir, Pull Me Up, and then his great baseball book Bottom of the 33rd.
This beautiful and inspiring recent book is a collection of years worth of commissioned pieces that Barry was filing with The New York Times in his acclaimed “This Land” column. As he explains in the preface, they trusted him enough to send him wherever he wanted to go along with their finest photographers, to visit, to hang out, to snoop around, to catch the drift, and tell the stories of towns large and small, stories momentous and quiet. It is fabulously entertaining and, often, very deeply moving. We highly recommended it.
If David Dark is a literary and pop culture maven, if he’s an engaged theological thinker, if he has an agenda of learning from our God-haunted writers and critics and reformers so that we might be redemptive in stewarding the possibilities of a better nation, this book by journalist Dan Barry seems to have a more singular agenda: go places, meet people, tell their stories. Yet, this is not mere entertainment (a la Bill Bryson, say) but carries a goal of helping us to see and understand our fellow citizens, care about our country’s places, to be better neighbors and members of our commonwealth. It is truly top rate journalism written by a person of character and virtue, with the hopes of illuminating, too, the pains and the possibilities.
This handsome volume is illuminated with full color photographs from award-winning photojournalists, on thicker paper, making it nearly a keepsake volume. I agree with those who have said it is nearly a historic look at American life, from sea to shining sea. (There is even a chapter on Lancaster, PA.) This Land truly is a magnificent book and it would make a fabulous gift for anyone who cares about our place or enjoys reading short form creative nonfiction.
The compelling, enjoyable essays are grouped in categories; the dozen or so several-page pieces under each section have their own allusive and alluring titles, but room doesn’t not permit me to show them all. I’ll list the themed chapters, though, to give you a glimpse:
Part One: Change – After the Ball is Over, After the Break of Dawn
Part Two: Hope – Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland
Part Three: Misdeeds – Here You Have Your Morning Papers, All About the Crimes
Part Four: Intolerance – I’m Always Chasing Rainbows
Part Five: Hard Times – Hard Times, Hard Times, Come Again No More
Part Six: Nature – The Beautiful, the Beautiful River
Part Seven: Grace – Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life
Part Eight: The Ever-Present Past – Shine Little Glow Worm, Glimmer
Epilogue: In the Middle of Nowhere, A Nation’s Center
Check out these wonderful endorsing blurbs. They are so intelligent and thoughtful and, we think, spot on.
Dan Barry is an American treasure, and This Land is a beautifully conceived, essential book on American lives and places. His understanding and love of the American experience — small towns, fractured lives, beauty, suffering, and the physical landscape — is unparalleled. I’m grateful to him, and for him, for chronicling our lives, honoring our history and recognizing our connection to each other. Rosanne Cash
Dan Barry gives dignity even to the darkest corners of the American experience. He is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Steinbeck. Colum McCann
This Land reminds us that the greatest strength of the American character is America’s characters: men and women who are resilient, gracious, eccentric, world-weary, bright-eyed, funny, complex, tragic, surly and yes, even, kind. Dan Barry proves once again that in his intelligent company, attention paid is its own reward. He assures us, too, that eloquence, wit, and compassion — all the virtues we need now — have not been purged from American discourse and are alive and well in these pages. Alice McDermott
What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musicians Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities – One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time Dar Williams (Basic Books) $27.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.60 We’ve carried the great Dar Williams’ music for years – yes, we still stock CDs – and when we heard she had a book coming out, I was excited. She is articulate, has a good eye for that curious detail, and is known as an environmental spokesperson. She cares about things that matter and has sung beautiful about life in our hurting world. (The New York Times review said this book was more a report from the Green party than the green room. Nice!)
And then, when we heard she was hanging around with new urbanists, talking about small towns, buying local, channeling Jane Jacobs (more than one review said that) we were even more eager to stock it. She has, after all, made her living – as she puts it – “not in stadiums but touring America’s small towns.”
Alas, she oddly – I’d say hypocritically – has only one link to sell her book at her website, and that’s to faceless, anti-small towners at greed-driven Amazon. Not even the customary “wherever fine books are sold” or “at your favorite bookseller.” No IndieBound link, nothing. Sigh.
Still, it’s a book some of our customers might enjoy and it reports on local communities in way that would compliment David Dark’s righteous possibility project:
What I Found in a Thousand Towns is a thoughtful and passionately explored journey of how American towns can revitalize and come to life through their art, food, history, mom-and-pop business, and community bridge building. Dar Williams gives us hope and vision for the possibilities of human connection. Emily Saliers, Indigo Girls
Dar Williams channels the soul and spirit of Jane Jacobs. With a songwriter’s eye for detail and an urbanist’s nose for what makes cities and towns work, she provides stunning portraits of America’s great small towns. What I Found in a Thousand Towns will open your eyes to the key things that makes communities succeed and thrive even when the deck is stacked against them. I love this book: You will too. Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis
The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt David Giffels (Scribner Book Company) $16.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $12.80 Perhaps you recall that we named as one of my favorite books this past year the fabulously interesting, engaging memoir Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, a memoir about a guy in Akron, Ohio, who is a writer, community college teacher, and who is a bit of a wood-worker – he had written a previous memoir about fixing up his old house called All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House – who is making a casket with his engineer/ woodworking father. It is a book about small towns, about rock and roll, about father-son stuff, the lost arts of working with your hands, and a lot about the grief he experiences as he loses his best friend and beloved mother. It was a near prefect book for me – a memoir of a middle-aged guy with rock sensibilities, an irreverent streak, and a colorful, religious family. Building a coffin. What a great book!
And so, I find he’s written a previous collection of pieces about rustbelt troubles and it strikes me to say that he is the real deal. These essays – which he describes as “wry and irreverent” — are about basketball (he grew up near LaBron James) and the auto industry (Akron was, after all, the rubber capitol of the world; so many people there worked for Firestone), rock and roll (there’s a blurb by a guy from The Black Keys, another Akron icon, not to mention Devo) and what it means to stay in a town most people leave.
These “dispatches” are about identity and place, about Ohio and the great Midwest. His publisher describes the book like this:
…David Giffels was born in Akron in the 1960s, as the golden age was ending, and has lived there ever since. Now he plumbs the touchstones and idiosyncrasies of a region where industry has fallen, bowling is a legitimate profession, extreme weather is the norm, thrift store culture dominates, and sports is heartbreak in a rarely told story of a unique American generation whose deep regional pride was born of economic failure and hardship. The Hard Way on Purpose is the story from the inside, written by someone who never left, about the life that goes on there and what it means. Intelligent, humorous, and warm, Giffels’s collection of linked essays is about coming of age in the Midwest, and the stubborn, optimistic, proud, and resourceful people who thrive there.
I mention this because it is a fun read, because we’ve got friends in that part of Ohio, because the writing is good, and because, somehow, his evoking of hope among underdogs seems to capture something, in a different tone and style, close to what David Dark is exploring. Can we draw upon our better angles? I doubt if Giffels would put it that way, but if you want a book to help you ponder the state of our union, this is a good, fun, way in.
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life David Brooks (Random House) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40 We received a somewhat early edition of this and have been working through it bit by bit. I am a huge David Brooks fan, and appreciate his lucid and eloquent speaking and writing. I know those who are serious progressives distrust him since he is often pitched as the conservative voice on NPR or PBS. Conversely, some of my conservative friends roll their eyes when they think of David as a conservative, since they think he is way too liberal. In this regard he seems akin to another favorite pundit, The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson.
Too liberal for the right, too conservative for the left?
Too intellectual for the populists, too much a popularizer for the elite scholars?
And, recently, as word of his embrace of Christianity has gotten out – one could see it coming in his previous The Road to Character – and as he has been befriended over the last decade by smart evangelicals, I wonder if he is now too religious for the secular mainstream and yet too open-minded for the religionists?
Maybe, even give that The Second Mountain is somewhat about his own religious pilgrimage, is he too Jewish for the Christians and too Christian to be a Jew?
Is he too widely read and none-dogmatic for the rigid evangelicals and yet too obviously religious for those who prefer their questing to be general, philosophical, spiritual, maybe, but not churchy?
Can people embrace a serious, public intellectual who says he is “a wandering Jew and a confused Christian”?
This remarkable just-released book deserves pages and pages of careful review, and I cannot do that yet. I mentioned it now, though, here, as it is very much related to the fundamental project of David Dark and his book on the possibilities of America – it starts with the exploration of the theme that we are happiest when we are living for something beyond ourselves. Which connects us to cares and causes societal and communal. In a way, this is a thought example of (or at least a prelude to) public theology.
As Mr. Brooks began to explore in his previous book, The Road to Character (Random House; $18.00) there is this huge question of how to live for something other than one’s self when we live in a self-centered culture? Where does that virtue come from, and how does one possibly sustain it? The first two chapters are called “Moral Ecologies” and “The Instagram Life.” What social pressures must we resist and how can we trust something other than our own shallow and finally unreliable selves?
One can immediately see the fingerprints of cultural critic and philosopher Charles Taylor and the evangelical Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller. It may be surprising that Brooks – again, like David Dark – is fascinated with Dorothy Day. Day’s striking conversion from a secular worldview to historic, traditional Catholicism, and her subsequent piety linked to a passion for the poor (and her desire to overthrow what she called “this filthy, rotten system”) intrigues the conservative pundit. The Second Mountain is full of stories of people like Day whose lives were transformed by causes bigger than themselves and who found their way to religious faith as a key to their transforming vision.
I loved Brooks’ early books like the essential Bobos in Paradise and the fantastic one about suburban fascination with yards, On Paradise Drive. Of course we stock them both, not to mention The Social Animal and The Road to Character. But this new one is truly extraordinary, catapulting Brooks, I would think, into the major ranks of being a thoughtful, accessible, public intellectual rooted in the Christian tradition.
That he has spoken at Q, has been on stage conversing (at Trinity Forum) with James K.A. Smith, has appeared with Miroslov Volf, and has sequestered himself with scholars at Wheaton College, is nothing short of remarkable for a public figure of his caliber and social situation.
As with his other marvelous books, he is astute in his critique of the American upper and middle classes, even has he seems to have considerable heart for a just social order that values the underclass and helps shape the common good. He is searching for that deeply moral life, emerging from his interest in character, and is candid about his own longing for meaning, purpose, joy, and what we too often too glibly call “a life well lived.” What intellectual and religious commitments are viable? He is trying to ask what causes human flourishing, what sustains it, and what kind of society can help provide the social architecture where it is more likely to occur?
Indeed, in a very important chapter after what seems to me to be the penultimate one about conversion (“A Most Unexpected Turn of Events”), there are several impressive chapters offering a study of community. Again, I cannot now quote the many good lines in this rich section, but he appreciates that we cannot do this stuff alone, that relationships matter.)
Brooks presents, as you might guess, good data and analysis and stories about those who make serious, life-enhancing moral commitments. That’s the “second mountain” – fashioning behaviors that bolster one’s commitments, supremely to family and vocation and community.
That fact Brooks’s own marriage ended (and he has since married a younger woman) has caused many to say he is hypocritical; it is, I suppose, an ironic elephant in the room (although he does mention it in the book.) You will have to decide if a book of astute moral persuasion about keeping family commitments and finding faith from a person from an admittedly broken family is acceptable. That he has been spoken of harshly and the book dismissed because of his frailty is, I think, disappointing. Regardless of what you think of the man and his personal situation, the book is one well worth reading.
Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (2ND Edition) David Koyzis (foreword by Richard Mouw) (IVP Academic) $33.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $26.40 I have maintained since the first edition of this learned and exceptional book came out in 2003 that it is nothing short of essential for those wishing to think deeply and Christianly about faith and political life. In my first BookNotes review of it, I summoned Bible texts about the mind of Christ, about not being “taken captive” by worldy ideologies, about being “non-conformed” to the ways of this world through having a “renewed mind.” I hope you know those texts. The Bible is clear that we are to “take every thought captive” and as Al Wolters first taught me, the Greek word in Colossians 2:8 (similarly to 2 Corinthians 10:5) does not mean merely any bad thoughts – like take captive our propensity to lust or anger or envy, but theories. That is, we shouldn’t be taken captive by theories or ideas that are not themselves consistent with a Biblical view of reality.
Just a week or two ago I was having a pleasant conversation – a bit of a philosophical debate — with a man much more learned than myself; he has authored Christian books, in fact. He is esteemed in his field and I enjoyed our conversation very much. At one point, I said something about his particular field and areas of expertise and said I just didn’t think his view comported with what the Bible says. What does that have to do with it? he retorted.
I wish I had the time to remind him of 2 Corinthians 10:5 and Colossians 2:8 or Romans 12: 1-2 or other Biblical instructions about having a renewed mind, about not being accommodated to pagan notions, not even in our intellectual architecture. This is why we sell books, actually – to help cultivate a consensus among readers that we should, in fact, love God with all our minds, thinking in ways that are consistent with what God has revealed to be true. We all must be on guard against syncretism, an undiscerning mixing of Biblical views and ideas that have deep roots in non-Christan ways of seeing life. Both the left and the right have elements of this, and it won’t due to merely point fingers at the problems with the side we don’t like. We’ve all got work to do to be more faithful, wise, Biblical people in our views about our jobs, our politics, our economics, our public loyalties.
(This is not the time or place to write an essay about the dangers of wooden Biblicism. One doesn’t go to the Bible for scientific or economic or aesthetic or engineering theories or political policies as such. We study God’s world – reality! – but always in light of God’s Word. As the Bible says itself, it is a “light before our path” but not a direct manual for tax policy or law codes or art theories and whatnot.)
And so, we come to this new, considerably updated, seriously revised, important new edition of the best book that explores the implications of this call to not be taken captive by wrong-headed, unsound, theories and ideologies that are not consistent with God’s Word in the realm of political viewpoints.
Koyzis deserves a rigorous, rigorous review as he is an important scholar, a deep and widely-read thinker, and I don’t have the ability to do that, now (although I did discuss the first edition at length when it first came out; that old review can be found at our Booknotes archives.) But I will summarize it by saying that — to put it more simply than it deserves – critiques both the ideological left and right, liberals and conservatives, showing how their intellectual roots are deeply grounded in the soil of the French Revolution and, more broadly, the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment.
And in so doing, he shows us how, surprisingly, they have much more in common than we might first guess.
Dr. Koyzis, who has taught political theory at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario (and writes at his Byzantine-Rite Calvinist blog and in journals such as First Things and Comment) is, besides being an astute political theorist and good teacher, a student of the big picture, the genealogy of ideas, discerning not just the zeitgeist like a son of Issachar, but the DNA of the ancestors of the zeitgeist. Dylan maybe said you “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” but you sure need some schooling (and maybe Holy Spirit guidance) to know where it’s coming from. And why.
Those following King Jesus should be neither left nor right, I sometimes say, and, I will admit, it is a slogan verging on a cliché. Yet, for Dr. Koyzis, it is a very, very deep notion, rooted from his own immersion in the profoundly Biblical political science of the likes of Groen van Prinsterer, the brilliant and feisty anti-French Revolutionary social theorist who framed much of the Christian political party that eventually came to be led by Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper in early 20th century Holland. That is, van Prinsterer (we have the new edition of his classic Unbelief and Revolution newly translated by Harry Van Dyke and re-issued by Lexham Press; $15.99) was the main intellectual leader behind Kuyper’s movement.
So. Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies is just what it says. Although erudite and astute, it is a broad and big survey of modern visions and ideologies and the principle (religious-like) presuppositions behind them. Dig a bit under the surface of liberals and progressives and conservatives and nationalists and populists, we find certain constellations of ideas which, when held up to the light of God’s Word, are simply found wanting. Indeed, they serve as such controlling ideas they become for their adherents, idols.
Koyyzis is more philosophically minded and profound than this, but let me use an example (not from his book, exactly) but merely as a simple illustration of our quandary and why this book is so important if people of serious faith are going to be more faithful in their citizenship. Many on the religious right believe, as a matter of deep, religious-like certainty, that Jefferson was right that “the government that governs best, governs least.” Big government is considered anathema. Now as a matter of pretty obvious common sense, in many ways this is a wise, prudent concern. (Although, to save me, I don’t know how a small government can regulate international airports or sustain interstate highways or monitor the safety of food and medicines.) But I get that big bureaucracies can be inefficient and stupid.
However, the question on the table is if Jefferson and the Republican adage is correct: does the Bible teach that? Does a Biblically-inspired sort of social theory yield such an idea? Does a Scripturally-directed Christian political theorist believe such a thing? I am not going to try to summarize Koyzis’s complex and nuanced critique of the left and the right and their respective views of the role and task of the State, Christianly conceived. But I will say this: I do not think one can make a case (short of emphasizing maybe a single verse) for a negative view of government, or any assumption that government should be small. (Or, for that matter, that taxes should be low, but, I digress.) If we are trying to honor God by developing a uniquely and distinctively Christian approach to our civic lives and our party involvements, we have to ask this kind of a question: are truisms and slogans and assumptions about government Biblically faithful? Without crude proof-texting, what do we think about basic notions of political science, Koyzis is a help in this for those interested enough in working through a major book like this. Certainly anyone in public office or working for campaigns or interested in public affairs needs this sort of resource. It is less sprawling than Suicide of the West, the best seller by Jonah Goldberg (who makes no pretenses of trying to nurture a Christian perspective), but if one has interest in this sort of thing, Political Dreams and Illusions is your book.
Listen to James Skillen, one of my favorite mentors in this area. He wrote, among other things, a major book on how different faith leaders down through church history understood the task, role, and limits of the state, The Good of Government. Until his retirement, Jim ran the non-partisan Center for Public Justice. Skillen writes:
This second edition of David’s great book is a gem. The brighter light he now shines on his assessment of modern ideologies comes from an in-depth assessment of the story each tells and the idolatry exhibited in each one. This also pushes Christians to examine the extent to which we may be compromising our dedication to God by bowing (even unconsciously) to other gods for political guidance. In this day of heightening nationalism, racism, terrorism, and sheer ignorance, the message of this book could not be more urgent or important. Read and discuss it carefully even if it takes weeks to do so. The multiple forces at work in our homelands and around the world will not be thwarted or redirected by one election or one major event. Christian love of God and neighbor demands responsible civic service and that requires the kind of understanding provided by Political Visions and Illusions.
Here is another of many endorsing blurbs from many sharp thinkers, public theologians, citizen activists, church leaders, and others from across North America. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor emerita of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University. She has long been engaged in public affairs, and she brings a thoughtful social science approach to her (evangelical feminist) citizenship advocacy. She writes,
David Koyzis introduces readers to the range of political theories that have emerged and competed for dominance since classical times. He carefully and respectfully separates wheat from chaff in each of them in terms of a Christian worldview, and in a style that is clear, irenic, and persuasive. The second edition helpfully updates the first in terms of major political events of the past two decades. In an increasingly polarized world, this kind of book is essential reading for concerned citizens of all political and religious leanings.
As is our usual practice, we show the regular retail price of the items. If you order using our secure order form page (click on the “order” link at the end of this column) we will write back right away and acknowledge the order. We’ll put your credit card receipt in the package, of course, showing the 20% off discount and shipping charges. Or an invoice if you’d rather have us bill you so you can pay be check later. Whatever works for you.
We invite you to tell us if you’d like the slowest, cheapest “media mail” rate (that, for a small order, is something like $2.75) or the quicker Priority Mail (which is still cheaper, and yet often quicker, than UPS.) For a smallish order of a few books that is often $6.95. Since some of these may be needed within a week, you may want to opt for Priority Mail, but we’ll do whatever you request.
Holy Week: An Emotions Primer Danielle Hitchen art by Jessica Blanchard (Harvest House) $12.99 I have rarely been so glad, and frankly surprised, by a board book; this new one called Holy Week is part of a several book series called “Baby Believer.” Maybe that sounds a little corny to your liturgical ears, but these are wonderful books for infants (and maybe up to 4 or 5 years old or so.) Each one has Bible episode or verse, linked to something that is also being taught. For instance, Let There Be Light has the subtitle An Opposites Primer. First Bible Basics is called A Counting Primer; we love the one called From Eden to Bethlehem: An Animals Primer. There is even one called Psalms of Praise: A Movement Primer.
The one we are featuring now, of course, is the one designed to teach the episodes of Holy Week, and it does so brilliantly. Each chunky page tells of something that happened and lists and emotion. You’ve got to see it in it’s full color glory with excellent age-appropriate illustration, but here’s what it shows:
Palm Sunday – excited
Jesus cleansing the temple – angry
Jesus washing the feet of the disciples – loved
Last Supper – thankful
Jesus praying in the garden – overwhelmed
Pilate – frustrated
Soldiers who crucified Jesus – scared
When Jesus died – sad
When the women go to the tomb – surprised
When Jesus appeared to the disciples – joyful
We have shown this to several customers in the shop and everyone is very impressed; there is nothing cheesy or simplistic about this, and it doesn’t say to much, allowing the child to ponder the Bible text and the art and the emotion. Gladly, Jesus is not portrayed as as European white guy, either, a touch we appreciate.
Danielle Hitchens and Jessica Blanchard have started what they call Catechesis Books. The artist, by the way, is a graduate of James Madison University and also studied at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
Goodbye to Goodbyes: A True Story About Jesus, Lazarus, and an Empty Tomb Lauren Chandler, illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (The Good Book Company) $14.99 We have highlighted each of the books in this great series, too, and we rejoice that there is a new one, perfect as an Easter gift for young ones ages up to middle elementary ages. Goodbye to Goodbyes is part of a series called “Tales That Tell the Truth” and we love them all. I hope you recall A Christmas Promise or The One O’Clock Miracle or The Storm That Stopped. The recent The Friend Who Forgives is about grace, based on a parable from Jesus. We loved God’s Very Good Idea which shows God’s plan for ethnic and other kinds of diversity in creation, and how God’s plan of redemption includes restoring multi-ethnic reconciliation, never wavering from his “very good” plan. It’s a delight that share the whole gospel — what Lisa Sharon Harper on her adult book calls The Very Good Gospel.
Echeveri did a Good Friday-themed one in this “Tales That Tell the Truth” series called The Garden, The Curtain and the Cross. It’s very good and would make a great Easter gift.
The new one is also about death and resurrection and it interestingly gets at that by starting with the story of Lazarus, and what it means to lose friends. It is a great tool to help explain sickness and death to children. In a theologically robust way it is reminding us that in the resurrection of Jesus, we don’t have to say ultimate goodbyes any more. As Chandler has Jesus saying, “There is a day coming when we will say goodbye to saying goodbyes forever. Do you believe that?” I suspect she used this Biblical story in her own family teaching her children about the frightening news that her husband had a brain tumor. I am glad for this good, good resource.
As it says on the back cover, “This is happy, and sad, and (in the end) very happy story of what happened when Jesus visited his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and changed everything.” Kudos to the whimsical illustrations, the portrayal of people from many ethnicities, energetic illustration that captures the spicy flavor of Middle Eastern culture, and the glimpse to contemporary times.
The Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis (Harper) I suppose I don’t have to explain the remarkable stories here, their wonder and joy and sadness and adventure and triumph. Beth and I had the opportunity to sell Lewis books at a Lewis conference in an Episcopal church near Philly a few weeks back and we were enchanted again by being around people who knew so much about Lewis (and the other Inklings) and seeing rekindled enthusiasms for these good stories. It is terribly simplistic, but maybe it would be helpful to be reminded of some of the themes in the Narnia books; here is what Wikipedia says, at least:
The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after corruption.
The Horse and His Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” the spiritual life (specially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair the continuing war with the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement.
There are a few different covers and boxed sets available. It’s a little complicated.
We favor the ones that show the original artwork by Pauline Baynes, but that have been colorized with soft pastel color. The 1950s original illustrations were black and white sketches, and the editions that have those are on cheaper paper and not nearly as nice. The colorized paperback editions, however, have a heavier stock glossier paper and are bound nicely.
The cheaper paperback editions have nice covers by Chris Van Allsberg but the Pauline Barnes inside art is black and white; they sell for $8.99 each or $55.93 for a boxed set.
The nicer paperbacks with better paper and colorized Pauline Baynes art sell for $9.99 or $8.99 each (depending which book) or $64.99 for a boxed set.
The hardbacks sell for $17.99 each (or $120.00 for a boxed set.) The cover art is by 2-time Caldecott medalist David Wiesner and interior illustrations are Pauline Baynes originals.
As you may note from the list above, the order of the books, nowadays, as per the wishes of the muckety-mucks at Harper, starts with The Magician’s Nephew, now labeled as Book One. As most older readers know, The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe remains the one that should be read first. It makes a great Easter basket present!
Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) $16.99 You may recall my review of this at the start of Lent… it isn’t written as a daily Lenten devotional, so I was surprised how many people ordered it from us a month ago. I wanted to mention it again since its six chapters would make a great reading plan for Holy Week. It’s just 141 pages and a very good read!
Amy-Jill is a thoughtful and energetic New Testament scholar who also teaches Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt. (Professor Levine is herself not a Christian, by the way, but is a practicing Jew.) Her vivid insights about first century Judaism has made her an important voice in Jesus studies (in fact, she has an award-winning book called The Misunderstood Jew about the Jewishness of Jesus and another on Jesus’s parables called Short Stories Jesus Told.)
“In every good story,” she says, “there is history and there is risk.”
And that’s a good place to start a re-telling of the passion of Jesus, no? Entering the Passion… offers good scholarship, a bit of cultural and religious and political context, and a narrative that pushes us to wonder what all this matters for today. For those of us who do want to follow Jesus, who see ourselves as part of his Body, the church, this will be a blessing and a challenge. What does it mean to take risks to fulfill our calling, to be a loving servant of others? There are deeply spiritual and frankly ethical questions that Levine unearths from these classic gospel texts.
Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus as Record in MarkWalter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan) $14.99 Oh my, this is one of the best Lenten books we know, a careful and moving reflection on Mark’s telling of the passion week story. This offers 41 readings for the season but you could obviously just read the last few weeks as it moves towards Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
This is a hand-sized, compact hardcover and Wangerin is a great storyteller and accomplished wordsmith. Highly recommended.
The Undoing of Death Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $24.00 I have described this in better detail other years — almost every year since I was blown away by it in 2003, I believe. If you enjoyed her Advent sermons you will appreciate these as well. These are not Lenten sermons generally, but many year’s worth of Holy Week messages — Palm Sunday sermons, Maundy Thursday reflections, Good Friday words, good, good stuff on Holy Saturday, Easter sermons. This is mature, eloquent, moving, inspiring, collection of real sermons preached by this legendary Episcopal priest. For some chapters there are some art pieces shown on which she helpfully comments. I commend this book to you with all my heart.
Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $18.00 Last year, Reverend Rutledge preached seven sermons in a three hour Good Friday sermon. She has published several such sermons in The Undoing of Death and again in the nice little paperback, The Seven Last Words from the Cross but three are fresh and new and powerful and they cohere well. The book is a compact, thin hardback and is just lovely, a treasure to have and to hold and to share. I hate to sound pushy, but you will benefit from this, and it is a great little volume. Yes!
The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans) $30.00 I don’t need to explain this award winning book that (with indexes) weighs in at 665 pages. It is, doubtlessly, one of the major theological books of our time and, by some accounts, one of a handful of must-read books on the cross. It won the Academy of Parish Clergy Reference Book of the Year when it first came out, and the next year it was awarded the Christianity Today Book of the Year. We named it a Hearts & Minds Best Book the year it came out, adding our little voice to the choir of accolades. Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals alike have raved about it, using words like “extraordinary” and “monumental” and “supremely illuminating.”
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $18.99 You know we are fans of Tom Wright and we appreciate his careful and lively exegesis framed by a big Kingdom vision. This is Bible exploration for the sake of the churches mission, which itself is for the sake of the world — thanks be to God! As I explained when this came out in hardcover a year or so ago, we might describe this as a study of the cross in light of Wright’s essential book Surprised by Hope. That is, if God’s final agenda is not to whisk us away to some heavenly place beyond the clouds but is, in promissory fashion, restoring the good but fallen world into a (re)new(ed) creation then — with that big restoration/creation-regained project in mind –what is the point of the cross? Wright her looks through the lens of new creation and cosmic restoration at every key passage where the apostle Paul writes about the cross. What is going on in these passages? How might we more fully understand Paul’s insistence that Jesus puts to death, Death? Is it proper to refer to Good Friday as the start of the revolution? I dare you to read this book and not feel your mind stimulated, your heart inspired, and your feet and hands ready to get back to work on Monday morning.
The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology Richard Mouw and Douglas A. Sweeney, with an afterword by Willie James Jennings (Eerdmans) $19.99 In the last BookNotes blog newsletter I highlighted a fabulous, readable, conversational rumination on evangelical theology called Restless Faith by Richard J. Mouw. I noted how widely read and conversant he is in many faith traditions, how he is generous in taking seriously the proposals and insights of those outside of his own Reformed camp, and is a good conversation partner, learning and growing from others as he seeks theological (and social) common ground. I might have said that he is restless not in an itchy or cynical way, but in a generous sort of open way, always eager to reform, to mature, to give an account for stuff we learn as we live in God’s world.
And so, this little volume is a perfect example of that. It is a bit heady at times, but mostly is a moving bit of theological reflection on how the suffering of others helps us more fully understand God, the nature of Christ, and the work of the cross. He and Sweeney (a professor of the history of Christian thought and chair of the church history department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) here point us towards “divine empathy” where the incarnate Christ suffers with his fellow humans.
We began to think about writing this book after presenting papers together at a conference held at Tokyo Christian University…We joined with eight other scholars — from Japan, Korean, Britain, Australia, and the United States — to explore what we could learn from one another about pain and suffering, victory and hope, as they relate to the significance of Jesus Christ in our globalizing and pluralistic world. We wanted to play from our strengths and work with familiar resources, so we turned our our respective theological traditions for guidance toward amore global and compassionate Christology.
They continue noting that Asian Christians seemed to have a long standing tradition of theology that takes seriously the suffering of the Lord, even in novels. (Think of the work of Japanese writer Shusaku Endo.)
They realize, though, that in North America, there have been those that have given voice to these themes. They look at the Lutheran and Reformed traditions — including Lutheran Franz Pieper as well as John Williamson Nevin of (central Pennsylvania, German-Reformed, Mercersburg fame! And they look at the black church, especially, which has, as a church of enslaved and oppressed persons, had to do their theology in light of the pain and struggle of the people. Their articulation of victory and hope is deeply connected to wounds and trauma.
So here, a white Reformed and a white Lutheran scholar look to the likes of Sojourner Truth and other theologies of enslaved persons. After these reflections on incarnation and suffering and Christ’s empathy as a corrective to others sorts of images of Christ’s work, there is the chapter called “The Challenge of Application: Christus Dolor in the American South.” It is important reading here in the sad year of our Lord 2019 when (as we learned this week) iconic civil rights sites like the Highlander Center are defaced with white supremacy symbols and burned to the ground. There is a remarkable essay at the end of The Suffering and Victorious Christ by brilliant black scholar Willie James Jennings called “Christus Victor and Christus Dolor: An Afterword.” Mouw, Sweeney and Jennings? Wow. This may not be everybody’s sort of Holy Week reading, but for some of our customers, this book is a must.
The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK) $15.00 This little book, wonderfully printed on heavy paper and full color reproduction, at such a nice price, is, I’ve often said, the best bargain of any book published in recent years. What a great resource this is — so nicely done (if, granted, a bit small.) Okay, so you missed the wonderful opportunity to use this for the last 30 days. You can use it this next week or so, and I am sure you’ll draw on it over and over. We sold a lot of this one last year, and some have re-ordered. Some who loved the Advent one got the Lent on (a “no-brainer” somebody said.) We’re happy to remind you of it again. Get it now, on sale.
Here are some great new books that we highly recommend, each for their own reason. Naturally, we have lots of other new books — just send us an inquiry by clicking on the INQUIRY button at the bottom to ask if you want to know if we have whatever your looking for. As a full-service bookstore, we can’t begin to list all our inventory. but we love making time to chat with our on-line friends.
These, though, are some we’re fond of, and think they are the sorts of things many of our readers will be eager to know about. If you are as glad about these as we think you’ll be, use the ORDER FORM link below. Easy. We’ll deduct a 20% off the regular retail price I(which we show) and write back to personally acknowledge everything.
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Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson edited by Timothy Larson & Keith Johnson (IVP Academic) $28.00 Oh my, what a marvelous book, another in the extraordinary collections that are published by IVP from the annual Wheaton College theology conference. Last year the event was a discussion about and with novelists and essayist Marilynne Robinson and it brought together some of our finest thinkers about faith and literature and culture and church and included a response by the notable author herself. (There are contributions here by Rowan Williams and Joel Sheesley and Lauren Winner and Timothy George and others.) This book is the next best thing to being there at the event, and we are so, so happy to get to announce it here. I trust you get the allusion in the title to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Robinson’s second, Gilead.
Here is a bit more from the publisher about this rich, weighty volume. I assure you there is nothing like it in print. “Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson is one of the most eminent public intellectuals in America today. In addition to literary elegance, her trilogy of novels ( Gilead, Home, and Lila) and her collections of essays offer probing meditations on the Christian faith. Many of these reflections are grounded in her belief that the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin still deserves a hearing in the twenty-first century. This volume, based on the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, brings together the thoughts of leading theologians, historians, literary scholars, and church leaders who engaged in theological dialogue with Robinson’s published work–and with the author herself.”
Here’s the table of contents:
Introduction (Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson)
1. The Theological World of the Reverend John Ames (Timothy Larsen)
2. Heart Conditions: Gilead and Augustinian Theology (Han-luen Kantzer Komline)
3. Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin (Timothy George)
4. The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson (Keith L. Johnson)
5. Thinking About Preaching with Marilynne Robinson (Lauren F. Winner)
6. Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience (Patricia Andujo)
7. Space/Time/Doctrine: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels (Tiffany Eberle Kriner)
8. Heaven and Earth: Reading Gilead Through the Landscape of the Fox River (Joel Sheesley)
9. Beyond Goodness: Gilead and the Discovery of the Connections of Grace (Rowan Williams)
10. The Protestant Conscience (Marilynne Robinson)
11. A Conversation Between Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams (Moderated by Vincent Bacote and Christina Bieber Lake)
12. An Interview with Marilynne Robinson (Philip Ryken)
Marilynne Robinson’s work is saturated in theology–not only in that it is pervaded by engagement with Christian belief in general but in that it is shaped by years of deep engagement with the texts of the Protestant (especially Calvinist) tradition. We have waited a long time for a collection like this. It is certain to be a rich source of interest and delight.”–Jeremy Begbie, Distinguished Professor of Theology, Duke University
“Marilynne Robinson is perhaps the most vital of living American novelists. This collection contains essay after thoughtful essay exploring various facets of her complex and beautiful body of work. After reading them you feel that you have watched the assembling of a delightful portrait of this most theologically resonant of our writers.”–Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities, honors program, Baylor University
“The religious themes and insights in Marilynne Robinson’s novels and essays–especially her striking fondness for Calvin–have won her a devoted Christian following. Until now, however, there has been little explicit engagement with her work by theologians. In this volume, an impressive range of thinkers opens up a conversation with the novelist about the Christian life, the Reformed tradition, and the American experience.”–David Heim, executive editor, Christian Century
Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation Adele & Doug Calhoun and Clare & Scott Loughrige (IVP/formatio) $24.00 Holy smokes, just when you thought there were enough books on the enneagram and faith formation (well, unless your a 5, and then you can’t get enough) here comes a workbook-sized manual by remarkable folks gifted in creating great resources. (Adele Calhoun did the incredibly useful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook and the powerful, poetic Invitations to God.) Clare and Scott are cofounders of a church where they’ve served for twenty-six years and they are, like the Calhoun’s, are certified Enneagram instructors. In large print on the back it says “You are more than your type.” Hear, hear.
This book is over 230 pages and offers what they claim is new insight on the Enneagram and the Harmon Triads and it has an appendix called “Soul Resources.” This is for those who have learned a bit about the Enneagram and wonder “What’s next?”
Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living Thomas Lynch (WJK) $18.00 Those who have followed our work for a long time might recall the times, years ago, when I insisted that Lynch was our favorite new writer. His award-winning book The Undertaking: Notes from the Dismal Trade and it’s follow up Bodies at Motion and at Rest helped me when my dad was killed and I was unable to read about grief. But these literary, passionate, deeply moral reflections on being an undertaker blew me away and remain all time favs. His great reflection on his travels to Ireland — Booking Passage and the book he wrote with theologian Thomas Long (The Good Funeral) are stellar. We stock his poetry, too. Because of his groundbreaking work doing solid studies of the role of the “dismal trade” and his splendid writing style, Lynch remains the gold standard in this genre, but lately I’ve read a number of other such books. I loved the spunky Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Tales from the Crematorium and, last year, Caleb Wilde’s Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life. But a new collection from Mr. Lynch is nothing short of a publishing event.
This includes a variety of different kinds of pieces. Heidi Haverkamp calls it a “wistful but vivid collage of memoir, poems (his own and others), stories, and even a short play.” She continues, “He knits these myriad pieces together with candor, humor, and some grief, conjuring the mystery that is human living and dying…”
Lynch is serious but often funny. As Tom Long notes, he has “the discerning eye of the poet and essayist, the wisdom and gravitas of a funeral director, and, most of all, the empathetic imagination to be a shrew observer of the people, living and dead, with him he has shared this planet.”
This is one of those books that I am sure is so full of whimsy and care and goodness that I hardly dare open it. I have to wait for the right moment as reading this will be one of the great pleasures of this season. I without a doubt commend it to you. Kudos to WJK for producing a lovely, handsome, paperback volume.
Brave Souls: Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy Belinda Bauman (IVP) $23.00 Belinda Bauman is one of our favorite people, even though we’ve only met a few times. You know those rare folks who are confident and honest, who show such interest in you that you realize they have a gift — caring, thoughtful, brave, for real. After a few moments in her presence I was encouraged and blessed and glad. She and her husband, Stephen, have lived all over the world, doing relief and development work and caring for the poor and oppressed in the name of Jesus. As Steven tells it, Belinda was often the energizing force, the one who most readily heard God’s call to risk and serve. They are adventurous people who do excellent work and I’d read anything either of them wrote.
This brand new book is on the surface about brave women who are doing extraordinary work, leading the way, doing justice, bringing goodness and beauty and peace to the world. If these stories were all that were in Brave Souls the book would be a winner and you would love reading it. But there is more going on — finally, it is about empathy. She uses cutting edge neuroscience and Biblical parables and insights gleaned from the women she writes about to offer insights about how to be more empathetic. By nurturing this kind of deep care for others, this solidarity with the human condition, we can be transformed — practicing empathy can be a spiritual discipline which will create in us a character of virtue and inspire us to bravery.
Listen to Kathy Khang, who knows a thing or two about caring well and speaking up bravely. (She wrote a book about it, in fact, called Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up.) She says:
Belinda Bauman gives us a gift — inviting us away from merely hearing someone to embracing empathy and allowing another person’s story to move us into action. The journey isn’t pretty or easy, but Bauman’s belief in change left me more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.
Do you wish to counter apathy with empathy? Do you need to move beyond “compassion fatigue” and take up world-changing actions? By listening well to others, honoring their own stories (even, maybe especially, among those we distrust and disagree with) we can be the peacemakers God calls us to be. This is a book of great joy and great energy.
The cover is a bit busy, but if you look carefully you’ll see some thumb and fingerprints. These show up in the book. You’ll love it.
Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American DreamBrian Fikkert & Kelly Kapic (Moody Publishers) $15.99 Why don’t you order a few of these from us right away — it’s that important, and I’ll be mentioning it often this year. I’m sure I will name it as one of the Best Books of 2019. Let me explain.
Some of our customers (from a variety of religious traditions and from various social sectors) have greatly appreciated the important volume by Fikkert and his colleagues at the Chalmers Center at Covenant College called When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… There are a few spin off items (one for those going on short term mission trips and a good one called Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People.) These compassionate and savvy books offer a bigger picture than just critiquing toxic charity or affirming free market capitalism as the answer to poverty and offers proposals for faithful, lasting, initiatives.
Yet, Fikket worried that there needed to be a better foundation so that readers and those wanting to do good don’t misunderstand God’s call to wholistic development or read that call through the lens of a worldly sort of materialism. There are those who would use, it seems to me, When Helping Hurts to swipe at those doing their best to serve with the poor (locally and abroad) and there are those who have a presuppositional loyalty to free market capitalism, and read everything through that debatable ideology. Fikket, and his theological co-writer here, are Reformed and doctrinally conventional. Their worldview is such that they want to discern the spirit of the age and understand the times in ways that are faithful. We might say they offer a prophetic imagination.
And so, they have given us this big, fascinating, deeply spiritual, wonderfully inspiring call to reject the American dream of mere economic growth and materialism. While they may reject some big plans of the welfare state, they are no populists or nationalists. They are shaped by a Kingdom imagination and the Biblical story of God’s redemptive work through Christ. This is practical public theology that is readable and helpful.
Becoming Whole offers fabulous social science research and solid Biblical work; it exposes misunderstandings about the true sources of human brokenness and poverty and they invite us to a multi-dimensional and humane approach to true flourishing. As it says on the back, they “fundamentally reframe success and the path forward.”
Of course this is for anyone doing caring ministries, anti-poverty work, economic development, or service for the common good. But I believe it is for any of us — those who are broke and wishing for greater financial health and for those who are people of means wondering what makes for a truly fulfilling life.
Why are families and communities increasingly fragment? Why is loneliness skyrocketing? What is mental and even physical health deteriorating? Becoming Whole helps us make sure we aren’t spreading dis-ease and our own brokenness even as we are attempting to make the world a better place. It is a great, important book, nicely designed with two color ink and some nice graphic touches. Good job, Moody!
Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World Volume 2 Abraham Kuyper (Lexham Press) $54.99 This is the brand new, much-anticipated volume in the ongoing Kuyper publishing project releasing hefty tomes in the “Collected Works in Public Theology.” We stock them gladly as it was in many ways Kuyperians — the fancy word those who stand in the line of the early 20th century Dutch neo-Calvinist cultural leader and public intellectual who reminded us of God’s redemption of “every square inch” of culture and society — who inspired us with a world-and-life vision of faith that led to founding our bookstore the way that it is. That God has given good gifts that can be discerned by artists and scientists and wise ones who are attentive to the glories and structures of creation should be evident; that such wisdom leads to human flourishing by honoring God’s built-in intentions for His creation is a matter of life and death. The best books help us open up and disclose the meaning of history and the point of life in each and every aspect of society. Preacher, theologian, reporter, educator, Prime Minister Kuyper (1837-1920) had much to say about so much of this, positing a set of Christian principles from which might emerge a renewed, just culture (unlike the brutal French Revolution of the previous century) and his old words still speak today. Kudos to those translating his many newspaper essays and lectures and books (sometimes for the first time in English) and for putting them in these handsome, enduring volumes.
When a book bears on the back cover compelling endorsements by theologians and leaders like Rich Mouw and Jamie Smith, human rights and inter-faith activists like Matt Kaemingk, jazz players and apologetics profs like Bill Edgar, and Godly, winsome teachers like the legendary Davey Naugle, you should pay attention. I’m just saying.
“Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace is founded on a deep devotion to the notions of God’s sovereignty and our obligation to participate in the divine call to be obedient to the lordship of Jesus Christ in all areas of life. The release of this multi-volume series is timely because many Christians these days — Wesleyans, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and others beyond the boundaries of Reformed/Presbyterian life and thought — are looking for resources for equipping Christians to find alternatives to the various ‘world-flight’ spiritualities that have long afflicted the broader Christian community. This work gives us a much-needed opportunity to absorb Kuyper’s insights about God’s marvelous designs for human cultural life.”
—Richard J. Mouw, professor of faith and public life, Fuller Theological Seminary
“God’s redemption is as wide and high and deep as the expanse of his creation. This is the central message of Abraham Kuyper that has been heard anew by a generation of young evangelicals who have a new appreciation for the importance of Christian culture-making. This book is a wonderful way to meet Kuyper face to face and hear from him firsthand. I look forward to pointing friends and students to this wonderful anthology. It’s just what we need.”
—James K. A. Smith, The Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
“Abraham Kuyper navigates with a sure hand on the tiller, taking us through the waters of culture, church and state, calling, and collaboration, with theological wisdom. Kuyper knows of no separation between warm piety and cultural commitment, nor of biblical texts and issues in the contemporary world. This fresh translation of Common Grace is a most welcome addition to the growing body of Kuyper’s oeuvre available in English. No one wrestling with issues of church and society can afford to ignore it.”
—William Edgar, professor of apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia
“How do we make sense of the contributions of, say, a Steve Jobs to human culture? How do Christians account for the rather immeasurable amount of good achieved by those presumably uncovenanted with God? Common grace is the answer: God’s mercies are over all his works. This first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace hits the sweet spot for Christians seeking answers to questions about the breadth of the gospel, their own roles in public life, and the beneficial contributions of others, especially in science and art. Highly needed and recommended.”
—David K. Naugle, Distinguished University Professor and Chair of Philosophy, Dallas Baptist University
“Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace has enriched my own theological approach to cultural engagement for years. The release of these translations into the English-speaking world is sure to have lasting ripple effects throughout the fields of public theology, Christian ethics, and systematic theology. Kuyper’s robust theological portrait of a God whose dynamic, creative, and gracious work pervades the entire world will inflame the imagination and warm the heart.”
—Matthew Kaemingk, Associate Dean, Fuller Theological Seminary, Texas
Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church James E. Beitler III (IVP Academic) $25.00 Maybe you saw on social media that a week or two ago we sold books at a great C.S. Lewis conference hosted at an Episcopal Church near Philadelphia. With several expert Lewis scholars we had a blast, and a few talked about this seemingly arcane topic that so preoccupied Lewis and his Inklings: rhetoric. In many ways, this is a huge topic — how do we communicate? What makes something compelling? How do we present truth (or what we think is truth) to others? In an age of mass marketing and social media, how do we persuade? Does goodness, beauty and truth go together, and does charm and eloquence and elegance count much in persuading others? What is a Christian view of communication and what might a theologically-aware framework offer as we think about rhetoric? What does that verse (Colossians 4:6) mean about having our speech “seasoned with salt”? Lewis asked these questions, of course.
Alas, this book came a few days after that fine event and some there would have loved it. It includes a chapter on Lewis and a chapter on Dorothy Sayers! I assume there are other astute readers of BookNotes who will appreciate just how fabulous this book is.
Seasoned Speech looks at five key Christian public intellectuals and analyzes how they spoke and wrote and bore witness Using this embodied case study approach we learn about different options to understand the core meaning of the gospel story and various styles and ways to speak about such things. Beitler invites us to ponder how each may or may not be faithful and fruitful. What a project!
Here are the five characters (presented after a fabulously rich introductory chapter) and the chapter title — this should itself inspire some of you to order this right away, eh? I’ll offer an admittedly terse phrase that captures something of Beitler’s summary of their understanding of the gospel and their rhetorical approach to how to get that said:
Preparing the Way: C. S. Lewis and the Goodwill of Advent (“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”)
Professing the Creeds: Dorothy L. Sayers and the Energy of Christmastide (“The Christian faith is he most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination.”)
Preaching the Word: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Epiphanic Identification (“The glory of Jesus is hidden in his humility and is perceived only in faith.”)
Calling for Repentance: Desmond Tutu and Lenten Constitutive Rhetorics (“We are bound up in a delicate network of interdependence.”)
Hosting the Guest: Marilynne Robinson and the Ethos of Eastertide (“Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”)
Read these endorsements to illustrate further the scope and significance of this amazing work.
It is often very hard to see the obvious–that is, something as basic as the eloquence required for the proclamation of the gospel. But Beitler helps us recognize that the simple truth has an unmistakable eloquence, which is why it matters that we take lessons from the classical rhetorical tradition. Readers of this book will discover that the rhetorical task and questions of the truth of what we believe cannot be separated. —Stanley Hauerwas
This is an enlightening and fascinating exploration of five witnesses to the Christian faith and gospel. Even more, these diverse truth bearers–C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson–function as lenses through which James Beitler III shows how the Word, liturgy, and life weave together rhetorically in faithful witness in differing contexts. Beitler’s treatment is itself a keen example of seasoned speech, an embodied and intensely personal witness tinged with liturgical overtones. The effect of Beitler’s evocative analysis is twofold: to encourage the reader to a self-examination of one’s own Christian self, and to invite the reader to participate in the kind of embodied witness that Christian existence entails. —André Resner, professor of homiletics and liturgics, Hood Theological Seminary
In today’s toxic communication climate, the apostle Paul’s admonition that our speech should ‘always be gracious’ (Col 4:6) seems impossibly naive. One factor that fuels our skepticism is that we have no models of what gracious persuasion looks like in practical ways. How can we be both gracious and convicted in our communication? We are indebted to James Beitler for offering us vivid examples of Christian communicators — Lewis, Sayers, Bonhoeffer, Tutu, Robinson — who spoke timely truth marked by creativity, passion, and respect. Even if you are familiar with Beitler’s subjects, his insights cast them in a new and invigorating light. —Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication, Biola University, author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World
The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Belief Richard Rohr (Convergent) $26.00 Okay, I’ll say right away that my announcement here does not do this book justice. As I wrote in my somewhat critical review of Rohr’s previous book, The Divine Dance, I have great appreciation for Father Rohr and his Franciscan sensibilities. His peace and justice activism rooted in a vision where “everything belongs” in the “naked now” means a lot to me. When he cites Merton and the other mystics, I’m truly glad and nicely challenged. I want to like his work; I think I’m we’re often seeking similar vistas but using different words and ways into the experience; as we implied above in announcing the new Kuyper volume on “common grace” I am thrilled by the notion that God upholds all things, inviting us to a sacramental worldview, where we see God’s presence in the mundane and God’s redemptive work all over.
This image of the cosmic Christ — think of Colossians 1 or Ephesians 1, Rohr says, rightly — is part of our story, and when Rohr starts off citing Chesterton, say, I’m fully on board.
Early in the book, Rohr writes,
As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of. Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply. I call that kind of deep and calm seeing “contemplation.”
But then without much of an argument or apology he falls into the heresy of pantheism saying dumb stuff, repeatedly, like “God loves things by becoming them.” He has goofy ways of talking about Jesus, about the Christ, about incarnation, about resurrection. I’m not too locked in (I don’t think) to rigorous, logical language about doctrine, which at it’s best should move to mystery and doxology and service. But it seems like Rohr just throws caution to the wind as if proper formulation doesn’t matter. Or maybe he really thinks his formulations — that Jesus on Easter morning was mostly Light — are right. Gosh, I hope such missteps are just poetic license and hyperbole. His central thesis — that Christ is “another name for everything” — just isn’t theologically adequate or nuanced enough.
(I have to say I’m also a little peeved at his marketing schtick which feels disingenuous — in the last book it was the Trinity that was “forgotten” and which needs to be recovered and now it’s the notion of a big reigning present Christ that has been “forgotten.” Yet, his recovery of these things is not in keeping with what the early church really taught and ignores a thousand years of Protestant thought so his project isn’t so much wanting us to merely recover and remember but to adopt his pantheistic interpretation of the creation and the cosmic Christ. What he seems to not want to say is how many thoughtful church leaders have renounced this gnostic stuff. He could be right, of course, but it isn’t just that we’ve forgotten these old notions; one could argue that they were not forgotten but rejected. I wish he’d just be more honest about his unusual phrases and images and points and be clear how he isn’t heterodox. )
I know many like to differentiate between Jesus and Christ and I get that, but he is sloppy about it all — at least so far in my reading. I find sentences that are annoying because they aren’t clear (followed by a scolding that in this book we have to withhold egoic judgements when things aren’t clear. Man, what editor did he bribe to get away with that free pass?) Most readers aren’t exactly the control freaks he implies we are for wanting a sentence to make sense. I could even live with all the sophomoric Capital Letters if it helped bring clarity and brilliance. But sentences about Infinite Primal Sources and Jesus being a Third Someone and the Logos of John being the Primordial Pattern doesn’t do it for me. Maybe it will for you.
I’m still reading this, and there is beauty and mystery and wholeness and a trajectory here that is more right than wrong, I think. I appreciated Teilhard de Chardin in the ’70s and Matthew Fox in the ’80s and while I don’t get Ken Wilber, I have friends that think he’s great. Fair enough. Brother Rohr draws on the Orthodox tradition, too — deification and such — which isn’t as useful for some of us as he seems to think, nor as self-evidently correct. But for liberal Protestants who haven’t had much of an enchanted, all-of-life-redeemed hope, this might help and fire them up. And for fundamentalists filled with hell-fire and anxiety, it would be a corrective, although no fundamentalist will be convinced by it since he doesn’t speak their language. My hunch is that those who are inclined to like this sort of thing will love it, and those who are skeptical will remain so. It’s a shame, because there is insight and provocation here that could help. I name it here suggesting you give it a try.
I’m sure some of my conservative friends will think we’re wrong to even carry such a theologically convoluted book. I disagree. There are good lines here to ponder and important notions to consider. It would make a good thing to meditate on but, better, to talk about with others. Rohr would like that, I bet, as different sorts of folk come to the table in open-mindedness to grapple with Big Ideas in this Mootable Treatise. That could be fun, eh? Seriously, check it out.
Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of AND in an Either-Or World Jen Pollock Michel (IVP) $16.00 I’m fascinated that there have been four or five (really good) books on paradox in the last year or so, the best coming from evangelical publishing houses like this one. There is afoot a lovely and healthy longing for mystery and a naming of wonder and even for those who want rigorous thinking and generous orthodoxy, they admit that there is a role for ambiguity. Our human categories simply can’t contain all these either/ors. We need the world “and.”
Again, this isn’t the first book to suggest that, not even from the conservative theological end of the pew. But it may be the most beautifully written, the wisest, the most interesting. Mystical friends like Marlena Graves (author of the fabulous A Beautiful Disaster, a book that obviously knows something about befriending paradox) says it is “wise and compelling.” Lovely writers like Hannah Anderson (author of All That’s Good) rave. She suggests it leads us to the Divine!
I like Emily Freeman’s blurb which says that Surprised by Paradox,
Highlights our call to faith that invites us to form a sacred, expectant circle around one tiny word — and… This book is a subversive invitation to make peace with the paradoxical way of Jesus.
I hope you know Jen Pollock Michel’s other books and DVDs. We love her profound and engaging teaching with almost memoir-like stories in Teach Us To Want about desire and ambition and her wonderful Keeping Place about home, home-making, a sense of place and hospitality. They tend to be used in woman’s groups but we recommend them highly for one and all.
Jen Michel is the sort of practical, down-to-Earth theologian we need. She draws on exceptional sources — Fleming Rutledge, N.T. Wright, Todd Billings, Alexander Schmemann, Eugene Peterson, Ellen Davis. From a section drawing on Salile Tisdale’s Violation to an extended riff on Chesterton to chapters with titles like “The High Treason of Hallelujah,” this is stuff your going to want to read and discuss.
There are good study and conversation questions after each of the four major parts, Incarnation, Kingdom, Grace, and Lament.
“A book that celebrates the glorious and (not or) of Christian spirituality. Surprised by Paradox has many ands of its own: it is accessible and smart, relatable and challenging, a page-turner, and theologically profound. With clarity and richness, Jen Pollock Michel invites us to sit before the beautiful mystery of God without resisting, diminishing, or seeking to solve or untangle it, which is to say, she invites us into the depths of worship.” Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary
Oversimplifications are dangerous. Especially in theology and public life we need and rely on people who are capable of living into the challenging paradoxes we find in the Gospels. Rich with personal stories and reflections, Michel’s explorations of what it means to live by ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’ offer a vision of Christian hospitality without laxity and theological integrity without rigidity. This is a timely, practical, and thought-provoking book.”–Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Word by Word, and Make a List
Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels Richard Mouw (Brazos press) $19.99 Okay, I’ll just say it: Mouw is my favorite writer in the genre of theology — he makes complex stuff really clear and explains why it matters — and is one of the very best (balanced, careful, thoughtful, wise, generous) when it comes to applying classic Reformed theology to the world and its cultures and issues. If he calls himself a Kuyperian, I call myself a Mouw-ist.
That was a long way to go for a joke I heard from somebody else (maybe Gideon Strauss of the Institute for Christian Studies) but it was worth it. We should all be Mouw-ists — generous, thoughtful, gracious, Biblically-attuned, clear about our own faith traditions and yet open to others.
We did an announcement about this last winter before it came out and took a bunch of pre-orders. It made me as happy as anything, knowing this reasonable meditation on core convictions of orthodox Christianity (granted, sung in Reformed and reformational keys) was being read by so many. Thanks to all who ordered it from us then.
Part of this book retells some of Rich’s own “restlessness” with the phrase “evangelical.” He was an early Presbyterian conversation partner with Mennonites (a move that literally was life-changing for me, realizing I could hold the Reformed worldview and the Mennonite pacifist impulses together) and he partnered early on as a Reformed evangelical philosopher with heros of mine like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider. Again, his writings from Grand Rapids in the 1970s where he taught at Calvin College with Nicholas Wolterstorff and other socially-engaged and culturally-relevant philosophers, were essential for me. Like man, I was glad for the evangelical truisms of simple faith, the assurance of salvation through faith, a relaxed piety; we “Jesus People” even used the phrase “born again” until the Christian right swiped and fouled it; we’d happily commend a “personal walk with Jesus” even as we were a bit uneasy with how that sometimes played out and what others maybe meant by it. (It’s no wonder that many of those whose faith came alive in the great awakening of the late 20th century ended up studying Catholic monks and embracing contemplative spirituality and liturgical church practice.) Beth and I were both raised in mainline denominational churches and hold membership in conventional mainline congregations, we w’eve been restless with our evangelical movement, even though we are stuck in the middle of that subculture as Christian booksellers. We are restless with progressive, liberal theology and we are restless with conservative evangelicalism. Mouw walked this way before we did, and his report on holding these tensions together from a solid Biblical perspective is sensible and good.
He told more of his own life story in a memoir called Adventures in Evangelical Civility but here he explains what the label “evangelical” means and why it matters and why he continues to use it. In a way Restless Faith is an excellent theological primer for our times.
Mouw not only explains his own restlessness with evangelicalism from the vantage point of his on-going conversations with folks from across the theological spectrum (few are as ecumenically aware as he is) but also — and this is important! — why he still clings to the word, the tradition, the movement. That is, even though he disapproves of how the far right (political, socially, and theologically) have captured and co-opted the broad tradition that was once known for Billy Graham and Carl Henry (and now is know from Jerry Falwell and Donald Trump) he still holds to that theological identity. This interesting book is a much needed reasonable voice and will explain much you should know about basic Christian convictions and robust, sensible discipleship. I very highly recommend it.
In Restless Faith, Richard Mouw stakes out a thoughtful defense of evangelicalism as a spiritual and even intellectual tradition. Always compassionate, Mouw’s voice is a vital corrective to the invective that distinguishes some prominent evangelicals. You don’t need to be religious yourself to appreciate his earnest pursuit of truth and meaning in our divisive age.
— Sarah Jones, staff writer for New York magazine
Rich Mouw has contributed much wisdom to Christian faith and life over many decades. This wonderful book continues that gift. With characteristic honesty, humility, and hope, Mouw acknowledges the restlessness of his own evangelical identity but then points a way forward to a generous and faithful expression of that identity. For other restless believers, this book contains needed ingredients: some correction, some coaxing, and plenty of celebration for God’s good gifts.
— Leanne Van Dyk, Columbia Theological Seminary
Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin (Brazos Press) $19.99 This book has been called “timely, relevant, and necessary.” It is a study of gun violence from the point of view of a simple-living, urban activist. Shane — whose Irresistible Revolution is a must-read and whose Jesus for President grows more timely every day — lives in a brutally rough part of Camden NJ and has experience drive bys and gang violence and police shootings (that is, police shooting his black neighbors) more than probably anybody you know. He grew up a Southern Baptist boy and still retains a vibrant and happy style of speaking about Jesus. I suppose he grows restless as Mouw does, but because he shares life with the wounded and hurting and sees the glories and dignities of the poor, his restlessness is more with apathy and carelessness and those who have denied the basic teachings of Jesus.
That is, he takes the Bible pretty literally when it talks about peacemaking.
Swords into plowshares? You know those two verses that insist this is God’s plan, an iconic pointer to the reconciliation and hope God is bringing through Jesus (and his people.)
And so, Shane — who knows how to handle a rifle because he grew up hunting, after all — is just energetic and crazy enough to find some guys who know something about metal working and they’ve learned to forge guns literally into garden tools.
He is on tour now with his co-author Michael Martin, Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith (and now director of RAWtools Inc.) They literally turn guns to garden tools, instruments of death-dealing into instruments of feeding and life. It is practical application of Bible principles, performance art of Biblical teaching, prophecy enacted, a Christian imagination of creative problem solving shown, not just told. This book is the story behind this tour — how they got fed up with mass shootings and urban crime and a religious culture that makes a fetish out of violence and victory. It explains the problem but more, it shows how they came up with ideas of how to respond.
The stories are heartening and very, very moving. Listen to Brenda Salter McNeil (author of Roadmap to Reconciliation) who explains why this book is so important to her:
As a Black woman, mother, and reconciler who has witnessed countless parents losing their children to gun violence, one of my greatest concerns is to find a way to stop this senseless loss of life. That’s why I highly recommend this timely, relevant, and necessary book!”
And listen to Phil Yancey, one of our most reliable and esteemed evangelical writers today who offers this simple endorsement:
Finally we have a winsome, reasonable approach to an issue that usually generates far more heat than light.
I suppose I don’t need to rehearse the grim facts (although Beating Guns explains this stuff as helpfully as any book I’ve seen; Yancey is right — it is a good read even if includes some hard data.)
More Americans have died from guns in the US in the last fifty years than in all the wars in American history.
Though the people of the United States total 5 percent of the world’s population, they own almost half the world’s guns.
With well over 300 million guns in the US, there are more guns than people. America also has the world’s most gun deaths–including homicide, suicide, and accidental gun deaths–at 105 per day, or about 38,000 per year.
As Shane and Michael say on the back cover, “The world doesn’t have to be this way. Beating Guns shows how we can all be part of the solution.”
I might add that this book is nicely designed, on good stock paper that allows full color pictures and some nice graphics. I’m glad Brazos spent extra to make this book a beautiful witness to this good work. It is a clarion call, aimed at our hearts, our minds, and our actions. There is nothing like it — if you worry about this issue, you’l take heart. If you tend to resist thinking about this or are alarmed by those talking about gun danger, I challenge you to read this. It will help us all.
Turn, Turn, Turn: Popular Songs Inspired by the Bible Steve Turner (Worthy Books) $24.99 I have been wanting to tell you about this book for weeks now. Turner is an amazing rock critic and Christian thinker about pop culture. His books should be widely known and shared, especially among younger creative types for whom his work could be a life-line.) Oh how I wish we could sell more of his must-read books Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts and Pop Cultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainmentwhich explores very thoughtful Christian principles for all kinds of pop culture pressures and joys, from fashion to video games to advertising to comedy to TV watching. I hope you recall how much I raved about his spectacular book (a must for any Beatles fans) called Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year.
As distinguished writer of University of Pennsylvania (and hugely significant contributing editor at Rolling Stone), Anthony DeCurtis puts it,
Steve Turner is a splendid writer whose deep and ranging musical knowledge blends inextricably with his understanding of how songs can touch — and save — people’s souls. Those virtues come fully into play in this book, which taught me a great deal and moved me even more.
Holy smokes, did you get that? Anthony Rock and Roll DeCurtis says this book taught him and moved him!
I’m going to indulge my baby boomer rock and roll soul here, myself and celebrate that we have this book that has endorsements on the back by — get this! — these icons: Roger McGuinn, Judy Collins, and Nick Cave. Yeah, Nick Cave says this is “an absolute pleasure to read.”
You should know this, though — the cover, designed, I guess, with the “Museum of the Bible” popular culture display in mind, has this obvious ’60s flower power thing going on. That’s fun. But this book includes song reviews of songs from long before the 1960s and include every decade since. Turner wisely explains the Biblical influences of songs by Noel Paul Stookey like 1971s “Wedding Song (There Is Love)” but also “After Forever” by Black Sabbath. It includes studies of Bowie’s “Word on a Wing” from 1976 and “Adam Raised a Cain” from Springsteen’s ’78 classic album. I love that he has Cockburn’s 1981’s “Dweller by a Dark Stream” and a couple of good 80s Dylan songs. Obciouasly he has U2’s “40.” You can see what Prince was up to in 1987 (“The Cross”) and some good ones from the 90s, from Don Henley, Michael Jackson, ALice Cooper and “New Test Leper” by R.E.M. (1996.) Whitney Houston relased “Joy” in 1996 and Turner’s got it. He of course does a Lauryn Hill song from ’98 and Moby’s “Run On” from 1999.
Turn Turn Turn is unfortunately named and the pop-art cover makes one thing it is about the late 60s, but Turner covers songs from pre-World War II and “Can I Get A Witness” from Marvin Gaye, released in 1963. And he has almost 20 songs from the new millennium, from Sting and Sufjan Stevens to Kanye West and Matisyahu. He looks at the Killer’s 2006 release “Why Do I Keep Counting?” and “Judas” by Lady Gaga. Of course he looks at Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, but he also looks at Katy Perry, Coldplay, Stormzy (from 2017) and Mumford and Sons. Turn, Turn, Turn is a blast.
I’m going to let the publisher explain why this book is so fun:
Did you know:
– 36% of Bob Dylan’s songs published between 1961 and 1968 had biblical references, including his 1964 hit “The Times They Are A-Changin.'”
– The book of Ecclesiastes has been a great inspiration on popular music including the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Birds, the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, and “Desperado,” the 1973 hit by The Eagles, among others.
– Paul Simon once advised a young prospective lyricist to raid the Bible for memorable phrases. “Just steal them,” he said, “That’s what they’re there for.”There’s no question that Scripture has influenced music since the first ever song was penned. In Turn! Turn! Turn! author and music connoisseur, Steve Turner, takes an in-depth look at the lyrics and cultural context of 100 of the greatest songs from the 1930s to today to reveal an often overlooked or ignored strand of influence in popular music–the Bible.Indeed, some of the “greats”–including Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bono, Johnny Cash, Sting, and others–have repeatedly returned to the Bible for such sustenance, as well as musical inspiration and a framework with which they can better understand themselves.
“I hope the book prompts, provokes, and intrigues as it reveals this often-hidden history,” writes Steve Turner. You’ll never listen to your favorite song or popular tune the same way again after discovering how the Bible has influenced music.
The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction Justin Whitmel Earley (IVP) $18.00 We have lots of books here at the shop about self help sorts of things, from time management resources to books helping you get your house in order. Many are useful, some are more profound than others. None of us want cheap promises or easy answers.
This recent book, The Common Rule by Justin Earley, is nothing short of brilliant, and I hesitate to promote it as a self help book as those sorts of personal growth titles are sometimes dismissed. Unfairly or not, some book buyers tend to assume that such books are cheesy or formulaic. We’ve followed Justin Earley on-line a bit over the last year or so and have friends that know him well. We can vouch that he is a solid, thoughtful guy and this book is very rich and wise. It is inspired by classic theology and ancient spiritual practices but is savvy about modern lifestyles and what forms habits that help us flourish.
In a way, it is fair to say that this is a practical application follow-up to James K.A. Smith’s award-winning, very widely read You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits. Listen to Andy Crouch, author most recently of Tech Wise Family and Strong and Weak:
“This is a wonderfully practical book. But even more, it is a beautiful one—full of glimpses of the life we were made for and the simple choices that can take us in that direction. The habits described here and the wisdom they embody are the path toward sanity in a frenetic world.” Andy Crouch
Here is how the publisher describes the significance of The Common Rule:
“The modern world is a machine of a thousand invisible habits, forming us into anxious, busy, and depressed people. We yearn for the freedom and peace of the gospel, but remain addicted to our technology, shackled by our screens, and exhausted by our routines. But because our habits are the water we swim in, they are almost invisible to us. What can we do about it? The answer to our contemporary chaos is to practice a rule of life that aligns our habits to our beliefs. The Common Rule offers four daily and four weekly habits, designed to help us create new routines and transform frazzled days into lives of love for God and neighbor. Justin Earley provides concrete, doable practices, such as a daily hour of phoneless presence or a weekly conversation with a friend. These habits are “common” not only because they are ordinary, but also because they can be practiced in community. They have been lived out by people across all walks of life–businesspeople, professionals, parents, students, retirees–who have discovered new hope and purpose. As you embark on these life-giving practices, you will find the freedom and rest for your soul that comes from aligning belief in Jesus with the practices of Jesus.”
Want some help saying yes to life-affirming, good things? Want some help resisting troubling or life-sucking habits? This simple graphic, with four daily and four weekly habits (some affirming, some resistant) can provide a way to think about and measure your growth into better life habits.
Listen to Karen Heetderks Strong, senior director, The Falls Church Anglican, Falls Church, Virginia:
Although I’m a church leader who has known the Lord for decades, I struggle to find space in my days to actually abide in Christ. Instead, I’m tethered to the demands that barrage me through my smart phone. The Common Rule offers a practical way back—not only for individuals but also for churches and small groups.
Do you recall the hubbub when the Academy Awards decided not to broadcast some of the very important awards? As if some people didn’t care? Well, that didn’t go so well, since some of those awards, although specialized, were very important. And interesting. You wanted to see them, but you couldn’t. Just to save a little time.
I’m here to solve that problem.
We’ve got a specialized list that other stores may choose not to name, let alone broadcast.
Ladies and gentleman, we present to you our short list of the best books about race, racism, multi-ethnic ministry, and related concerns of 2018. Sorry it’s running a bit late and long, not unlike the more famous award show.
We had hoped to run this in January and for a variety of reasons that mostly go under the heading of “too darn busy with other essential stuff” — from prepping for Jubilee to needing to list Lent books in March to getting a tooth pulled — we got delayed.
2018 saw a good number of very important, interesting, and useful books on the themes of racial injustice, racism, Biblical justice, Christian reconciliation, urban ministry issues and the like. From moving memoirs to incisive critiques to books offering missional vision and programmatic application, we have seen so many new titles on this topic that we wanted to thank the publishers (and authors) for their commitments to doing this kind of risky publishing. (Risky, because, of course, often these books languish on the shelves. In fact, I’m told many of our fellow-Christian booksellers simply don’t carry many of these sorts.) Many faith-based publishers have done good stuff and just when one is tempted to think that we hardly need more books on this vexing topic, these great reads prove otherwise. We hope you vote with your dollars and purchase some, sending the message to the publishers that we indeed need these kinds of resources.
Here then are some that deserve special acknowledgment, that we recommend, and that we trust you will be glad to know about. Although a bit late, here are some notable books on race from 2018. I will try to keep my remarks brief, but know that we applaud these authors and believe their work is urgent.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness Austin Channing Brown (Convergent) $25.00 This has been our big selling book on the topic since it came out in the Spring of 2018. We promoted it early on and a number of book clubs, readers, churches, ministries and organizations of used it. Simply put, I’m Still Here is one of the very Best Books of 2018 and we highly recommend this moving memoir of a young Christian woman who has particularly been involved in white middle-class evangelicalism. She tells us what it has been like for her and I am sure many will enjoy, be moved by, be horrified by, and be changed by her brave telling of her own story. Very highly recommended.
All the Colors We Will See Patrice Gopo (W Publishing Groups) $16.99 We’ve highlighted this several times at BookNotes, and we want to celebrate it again as one of the more interesting books you will find from this past year. What a memoir — a black woman raised in Alaska who then moves to the deep South. There’s all kinds of cross-cultural fiascos, here — some a bit light-hearted, some beautifully and tenderly told, and some horrific. This moves around the issues of race and culture and the questions of how being different effects us. Gopo is a smart, smart woman, a good writer, and she here tells of her marriage and her church and how we think of beauty and brokenness and all kinds of good, good stuff. A lovely blurb on the back from writer Bret Lott reminds us of the high quality of this enjoyable, fine book.
Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody James H. Cone (Orbis Books) $28.00 The year of our Lord 2018 saw the passing of brother James Cone, perhaps one of the most important theologians of the late 20th century. His previous, recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree continues to sell and transform readers by is powerful prose and insightful, prophetic critique. One need not agree with Cone’s black liberation theology — and there are important books which respond critically to his corpus — to realize how important he was. This book (with a wonderfully poetic foreword by Cornel West — who else?) is the story of his life, his own poetic autobiography that he said he didn’t want to write. But many, many intimate friends and distant readers are glad he did.
It is, as Harold Recinos of Perkins School of Theology says,
A must-read for everyone interested in discerning how to live awake in the gospel while inspiring the voice of the oppressed.
There are remarkable blurbs on the back of this volume — from womanist Emilie M. Townes of Vanderbilt to Willie James Jennings of Yale to Cheryle Townsend Gilkes of Colby College. Cone clearly has left his mark in the academy, in the progressive mainline church, and in the historic black church. He was, doubtlessly, the “genius architect of black liberation theology” and some have called this “his final masterpiece.” It is, of course, unrelenting in its observations and resistance to white injustices and white supremacy. But it is also revealing and vulnerable, an example of how theology matters and what it was like being a liberationist scholar in the too often staid scholarly circles of the mainline academy.
Question: is the title drawn from the gospel song, or maybe the old Sam and Dave hit? Read it to find out!
The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities Adrian Pei (IVP) $17.00 I so, so appreciate the above three books that are memoirs of those sharing their own story, using narrative to help folks understand better the life of a person of color in our time and place. Regardless of one’s own ethnicity and race, these books are captivating and often enjoyable to read, joining the writer on her or his journey, hearing them narrate their own life and times. This important book from 2018 tells some of the author’s story, but it is also research based and loaded with good, helpful, valuable information. As Kathy Khang writes, “The Minority Experience is a helpful addition for organizational leaders to grow and deepen their cultural intelligence to include race and ethnicity.”
Yet, it is more than just a good resource helping leaders understand race, but it helps (most often white) leaders understand the experiences (and, necessarily, the feelings) of minority staff and members.
Here is what it says on the back:
If you’re the only person from your ethnic or cultural background in your organization or team, you probably know what it’s like to be misunderstood or marginalized. Organizational consultant Adrian Pei describes key challenges ethnic minorities face in majority culture organizations. He unpacks how historical forces shape contemporary realities, and what we need to know in order to wrk together fruitfully. If you’re a cultural minority employee or if you’re a majority culture supervisor of people from other backgrounds, discover here how all can flourish.
Isn’t it beautiful to realize such weighty but helpful books are being released by solid, faith-based publishers, knowing that God cares (and the Bible addresses) these very topics? Kudos to IVP, once again, for being the leading publisher consistently offering top-shelf books on this topic.
Listen to what Andy Crouch says about Adrian Pei and The Minority Experience:
Even well-intentioned efforts to build more diverse organizations will fail unless we address the realities of pain, power, and the past. With clarity and honesty, Adrian Pei shows how facing these realities can lead to compassion, advocacy, and wisdom for a better future. This book is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to see genuinely multicultural organizations thrive.”
Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and Strong and Weak, partner at Praxis
Inside Outsider: My Journey As A Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for All of Us Bryan Loritts (Zondervan) $17.99 I hope you know Bryan Lorritts — he’s a good, good guy, a fabulous preacher, and a perfect leader to bridge the divide between whites and black, especially between those inside or outside of the evangelical subculture. As a graduate of what is now called Cairne University — previously Philadelphia Bible College — he knows white evangelicalism well. One of my own great heroes, Tom Skinner, from New Jersey, was influential in the Loritts family; Skinner, too, was a great example of a black preacher and evangelist who travelled often in white circles. I met Skinner often in college as he spoke and taught in CCO circles or with his friend Tony Campolo. With a great foreword by John Ortberg, Inside Outsider will be appealing to many of our Hearts & Minds customers since we know many trust and respect Ortberg.
Loritts is the lead pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in the Silicon Valley; he previously pastored churches in Memphis and Manhattan. Now he also is the president of the Kainos Movement, an organization aimed at establishing more multiethnic churches in America.
As he notes, “It’s tiring to always play the part of a stranger. We long for home.” Ahh, yes, but does that mean just being among those that look just like us? Can “home” be a place where even outsiders feel like insiders? Can those who are people of color in predominantly white evangelical spaces ever be comfortable? Can we honor the fact that theology and spiritual formation always is influenced by our own cultural lenses and outlooks and that is never neutral?
He likens some white folks to those Americans who travel abroad but can’t imagine that they have an accent. We are all too unaware of our ethnic theological accents that we carry.
Loritts wisely thinks it’s good to listen to others whose stories and accents (theological and cultural and literal) are different then out own. We can move “with God toward a holy vision of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “life together.'” Insider Outsider bears witness to that and with lots of fascinating stories and good Scripture study, helps us all in our longing for home and “belonging in the family of God.”
It’s a fine, fine, gentle and positive book which will be helpful for many who are wanting a helpful, reliable guide to all this hard stuff. One of the Best of 2018.
Intersecting Realities: Race, Identity, and Culture in the Spiritual-Moral Life of Young Asian Americans edited by Hak Joon Lee (Wipf & Stock) $23.00 What a fascinating glimpse into Asian American young adults and how complexities of race and ethnicity (and nationality) influences this important rising cohort. There is more pain within Asian American communities than many realize and much hard stuff to deal with as youth transition into the young adult world. This book is a must, therefore, for anyone working campus ministry or who is keeping current with the recent batch of books about contemporary generations and young adult outreach.
Here is what it says on the back cover; it puts it well:
Experiencing racial marginalization in society and pressures for success in family, Asian American Christian young adults must negotiate being socially underpowered, culturally dissonant, and politically marginal. To avoid misunderstandings and conflicts within and without their communities, more often than not they hide their true thoughts and emotions and hesitate to engage in authentic conversations outside their very close-knit circle of friends. In addition, these young adults might not find their church or Christian fellowship to be a safe and hospitable place to openly struggle with all of these sorts of questions, all the while lacking adequate vocabulary or resources to organize their thoughts. This book responds to these spiritual-moral struggles of Asian American young people by theologically addressing the issues that most intimately and immediately affect Asian American youths’ sense of identity–God, race, family, sex, gender, friendship, money, vocation, the model minority myth, and community– uniquely and consistently from the contexts of Asian American young adult life. Its goal is to help young Asian Americans develop a healthy, balanced, organic sense of identity grounded in a fresh and deeper understanding of the Christian faith.
Consider this quote by a remarkable writer and memoirist, Russell Jeung:
Intersecting Realities employs the perfect combination of personal narrative, cutting-edge thinking, and sharp biblical reflection to explore today’s key issues facing Asian American Christians. Subsequently, it’s a readable, intelligent, and applicable book that is both pastoral and prophetic. I’m very grateful for the wisdom shared by each of the contributing authors and know that it will bless its readers. –Russell Jeung, author of At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus Among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors
Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey Sarah Shin (IVP) $16.00 Of course, racism is a sin and our divisions and prejudices are hurtful, but — let’s face it — pretending we are all the same, or saying we “don’t see color” is just dumb. Of course we see color and gender and other things that make us, and our neighbors, who we are. To try not to is, frankly, disrespectful and not a helpful thing to say to a person of color. Some of what we see could be considered wounds, even, but (again, we should say this over and over) race and ethnicity and skin tone and the possibility of unique cultural practices are not part of what theologians call “the fall” (and sin) but are part of the good, created order. Again, our colors are what God intended. What God calls “very good” in Genesis 1 reverberates down to the realities of our current world, so we can say that color and race and ethnicities are good gifts from a creative God. Racism may be wrong in countless ways, but race, as such, is good.
So how do we steward well our own unique make-up? How can we honor and celebrate our ethnic journey in helpful and life-giving ways without making an idol of our own unique make-up? This is a gem of a book, inviting us to consider we need a strong sense of ethnic identity and how God can redeem and use our racial histories. Yes, there’s some hard stuff in here — we cannot deny that in a fallen world our ethnic journeys indeed need redeeming. But we can steward these gifts well, and Sarah Shin is a fabulous resource specialist to help us.
Sarah Shin is a speaker and trainer in evangelism, by the way, for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who tries so very hard with so much good intention to get this stuff right. Ms. Shin is impressive to say the least — she has a master’s degree in theology from Gordon Conwell and another master’s in city planning and development from MIT. She and her husband live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice Eric Mason (Moody Press) $14.99 Oh my, Reverend Mason is a passionate, compelling, voice from urban Philly — we’ve met him at Jubilee at time or two — and while he is non-compromising in his call for the church to become woke, he is regularly engaged with theologically conventional white evangelicals. One could hardly ask for a more dramatic and fun speaker, rooted in contemporary culture and experience and yet fully reliable in conventional theological, Biblical truth. In fact, the very white, seriously Reformed, Dr. Ligon Duncan — who says he’s about “the least ‘woke’ person you could meet” — wrote one of the two forewords (the other is by John Perkins.) This is an urgent call to learn, to care, to rise up. It’s nicely designed, an engaging read. Good stuff. Highly recommended.
The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation Miles McPherson (Howard Books) $26.00 I’m not going to lie — I like Miles McPherson, an upbeat former pro football player turned pastor but I may not have chosen to read this if I wasn’t on a committee considering a book award and was asked to consider it since it has was on a short list. Rev. McPherson is a dynamic communicator, a clear writer, a conventionally inspirational evangelical conference speaker, and as a black man, he surely has sensitivities to racial injustice and social issues. But I didn’t realize he’d have that much to say, or that much beyond “God loves us so in Christ’s Kingdom we should all get along.” We need more profound analysis, better theological depth, and more anguished and passionate writing.
And you know what? I couldn’t put this easy-to-read, inspiring, evangelical volume down! It was compelling with lots of stories, lots of Bible, lots of insight, plain-spoken, with a light touch, calling us to follow Christ as His agents of reconciliation. I’m not sure why Rick Warren calls it “a landmark book” but it is compelling and enjoyable and informative and maybe just what some need for a gentle, kind, and eye-opening call to be a “third way.”
What does this inspiring pastor mean by a “third way”? He is concerned, obviously, about racial hatred and prejudices but he thinks that we continue to be stuck in an “us vs them” approach. That’s it, one is either with us or with them. A Christian third way is based on honor and outreach. He preaches it really well.
McPherson has played in the NFL and has seen a lot. He is himself mixed race, so even as he was growing up he was teased and rejected by both the black and white communities. He knows what he’s talking about and this is a gentle, sensible, spiritually clear resource.
As Sam Rodriquez (President of the National Hispanic Church Leadership Conference) puts it:
The Third Option will not just inspire you; it will equip you with the necessary tools to advance facilitate, and usher in a spirit of unity. You will not just be blessed, you will be transformed.
By the way, there’s a nice foreword by Drew Brees.
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Jemar Tisby (Zondervan) $21.99 Although this publisher has not done many books on this topic, this one is simply extraordinary and, in part due to his own energetic social media presence and no-compromise outspoken teaching, it is perhaps the book of 2019 in this field. This is important. If you haven’t ordered it from us yet, you should seriously consider it.
The Color of Compromise is certainly one of the most talked about books on a Christian publishing house in years. While it officially has a 2019 copyright, I had an early edition so I read most of it in 2018 and we were taking pre-orders in 2018 so forgive me for stretching the rules just a bit here and honoring this very, very important, very informative work.
Of course there have been many other books that tell the story of racial oppression and the vivid injustices faced by African people who were enslaved and by black Americans even after emancipation and into the Antebellum Era. Who doesn’t know at least a little about the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow and lynchings and the vile treatment of those working against segregation and voter rights, about voter suppression and the implicit bias and institutional racism in everything from banking to policing to education? Sure it is an ugly bit of history, but we need books like to inform those who don’t know and to remind those of us who do. Few have told it so well, with an eye to how the church was complicity and compromised. As the publisher summarizes: The Color of Compromise:
…reveals the chilling connection between the church and racism throughout American history. A survey of the ways Christians of the past have reinforced theories of racial superiority and inferiority provides motivation for a series of bold actions believers must take to forge a future of equity and justice.
Mr. Tisby is is a lively and thoughtful educator and we are very, very glad he wrote this book. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame, has an MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary (in Jackson, MS) and is the president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. He has spoken nation-wide at conferences and his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, CNN, and Vox. He is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century.
Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & A New Way Forward Skot Welch & Rick Wilson with Andi Cumbo-Floyd (Herald Press) $16.99 This, friends, is surely one of the fine and helpful titles of 2018 and is one more example of the many, many good books being done on race and racism. And, further, it’s a great example of the wise and deeply Christian insights offered by Herald Press, a Mennonite-related publishing house. We carry all their new releases and recommend that you pay attention when they do new books.
Plantation Jesus itself has a back story that may make you want to be a part of this — buying a few, maybe, and spreading the word. Rick Wilson (a white guy) died during the writing of the book and his friend (and former podcast partner, Skot Welch) finished it, in part as a way to honor Wilson’s brave and relentless work as a racially-sensitive journalist. But Rick really was the better writer of the pair, so Skot employed old Hearts & Minds pal, Andi Cumbo-Floyd (who herself has written a striking memoir about race and the enslaving of people called The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of My Home) to join in helping polish the manuscript started by Skot and the late Rick Wilson. The result, as the great Patricia Raybon (author of My First White Friend) puts it, is “a healing triumph.”
Get that: a healing triumph!
Of course for it to be truly healing it has to be true. That is, it has to tell the hard historical story of white supremacy with candor and grit, and it does, with what one reviewer called “fearless urgency,” As Rachel Held Evans says, it is a “must read” because it is “raw, unflinching, and yet ultimately hopeful.”
“Plantation Jesus”, as they call him, is a (false) god who legitimized slavery. This Jesus wasn’t bothered by Jim Crow. By portrayals of Jesus as white, a god who is “comfortable with bigotry, and an idol that distorts the message of the real Savior.”
Can anything be more important than discovering and knowing the real Jesus? Can a church shaped by an inadequate or even wrong and hurtful Jesus ever find real renewal? For the sake of our churches, for the sake of our witness and work in the world, for the sake of fidelity to the real Palestinian, Semitic Christ, we simply have to find a way to understand, renounce, reform, and move away from the racist baggage that comes with “Plantation Jesus” and join up and move towards and find grace from the real, Biblical, Jesus. Plantation Jesus can help, believe me.
Justin Timbay has written the very important history of compromised faith espeically regarding complicity in racism in the history of the US, and in many ways, this book explores some similar ground. But, to be honest, it has more vibrant alternatives, more stories of transformation, more ways to invite readers to “encounter the Christ of the disenfranchised.” Andi has this story in her bones, as her own memoir explains. Skot — a black man — starts the book telling about how his (white) best friend (Rick) had his back. I dare you to read even a few pages into Plantation Jesus and not be choking back tears, smiling, and eager to race forward to see what happens next. Kudos to Skot Welch, the late Rick Wilson, and Andi Cumbo-Floyd for bringing us a rare and special book, one we very highly recommend.
By the way, does anybody out there do racial sensitive seminars, workshops on being an anti-racist church, diversity training, and the like? Their chapter at the end called “Resources and Exercises” is amazing and you will draw on it, I’m sure. It is followed by a bibliography of books and films and documentaries which is (even though not annotated) very, very useful.
Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (IVP) $20.00 This good book which released just a year ago, in March of 2018, was one of the volumes that captured many reviewers and had quite a buzz for a bit last Spring. It did want other books this year have done — named the legacy of “American’s Original Sin” and how “slaveholder religion” has not been adequately excised and exorcized from our faith communities. This is a mighty book, important and chilling and powerful. Jonathan, you may recall, came out of Eastern University where he shared a journey somewhat similar to his pal Shane Claiborne. Exposure to healthy evangelical piety and prophetic social critique and a wholistic vision of the Kingdom of God shook his world as he had to re-think his Southern fundamentalist assumptions about church, state, poverty, war, community, mission — and race. Drawn to the ‘new monasticism” he took vows to serve the poor and live simply among those on the margins of the Empire (as they put in their early years.) After years of praying and living and serving among mostly poorer small town folks in the South he has written what may be his most enduring book, inviting us all to find freedom from toxic faith based on white supremacy. It is a remarkable read.
William J. Barber wrote a passionate, moving foreword to Reconstructing the Gospel which hints at just how important this is and how widely respected Jonathan is. We have been grateful to get to sell this vital, feisty book and invite you to read it, and others like it. Let’s make sure that the books published in 2018 aren’t mere fads, and are taken seriously, prayerfully considered, and fuel for our own efforts to “reconstruct the gospel.”
After a strong critique of “slaveholder religion” the second have offers visions and practices to help heal the land by starting with congregational renewal. It rejects (as a chapter in the first half puts it) “the gilded cross in the public square” and invites us to a “Christ-like” posture. This includes moral revival, having church, and “healing the heart.” (He’s been reading Benedict, too, by the way, so themes of staying put and being in community and practicing the presence of God are present as keys to a spirituality that can sustain us in the struggle.
You’ve got to read the Epilogue, a “Letter to my Grandfather and my Son.” Oh my, yes.
One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love John M. Perkins (Moody Press) $15.99 Doubtlessly there are few people who have so influenced American evangelicalism as much as John Perkins. From his 1970s book about being tortured by white cops in Mississippi and his subsequent conversion to Christ (Let Justice Roll Down) to his founding of the Voice of Calvary community and the influential Christian Community Development Association, from his tireless touring and speaking and publishing, Perkins (with a third grade education and several honorary doctorates) has left his mark for the better. To the extent that many evangelicals (despite what the media says) cares about racial justice, poverty, even the redistribution of wealth (one of Perkin’s famous 3 Rs), we have this old saint to thank.
One Blood, he says, is his final book. It deserves reading and reading twice. It deserves awards and applause. With the foreword by Rick Warren and the afterword by his young white rock star friend, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, One Blood invites us to keep up the good fight, in the name of God, in the power of love. He highlights a few multi-ethnic churches that are doing this kind of work, so there are a few other contributors. Karen Waddles helped with the book and there is a nice study guide, making it ideal for book clubs and small groups. One Blood is really fine, from a hero and wise elder. Don’t miss it.
Can “White” People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission edited by Love L. Secrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, and Amos Yong with contributions by Willie Jennings, Elizabeth-Conde-Frazer, Andrea Smith, Jonathan Tran, and others (IVP Academic) $30.00 Wow, just the title alone is pretty intense, eh? Of course, there are layers of meaning to the question (not to mention those quotation marks) and even though it is a solidly evangelical publishing house that published this collection of academic pieces, it is serious, prophetic, hard-hitting, and admittedly provocative. For anyone who is keeping current on the more academic studies of faith and race theory and missional justice work, this simple is essential. Let me say that again: essential.
The question of how to “de-colonize” missions should be obviously crucial; what it means to “decenter” whiteness in our study of missions (and even how we should more deeply understand Dr. King’s “beloved community”) is burning. This big book has admittedly many authors from various perspectives but it hangs together as a momentous manifesto.
This book is nicely dedicated to a handful of scholars who founded the multilingual and multicultural programs at Fuller Theological Seminary, the most diverse seminary in the world, I believe. One of those is Bill Pannell, an early influence on us, a black, evangelical gentlemen I met in my college years through the CCO and who sometimes would call us in our early days at the shop to encourage us to keep on keeping on. To see his name on the inside touched my heart. C is a serious and extraordinary book of interest to anyone serious about global missions, evangelistic theory, race studies and cross-cultural theology.
Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity edited by David Evans & Peter Dula (Cascade Books) $17.00 As many readers of BookNotes know, Coates has been perhaps the most important public intellectual writing profoundly about racism in our culture in many years. We’ve long carried his moving memoir about growing up in Baltimore, The Beautiful Struggle. He became famous as a journalist (and many of his previously published pieces from places such as The Atlantic were published in the must-have collection from 2017 We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy; it is now in paperback, by the way.) HIs most famous and beloved and controversial work, though, is Between the World and Me which is memoir and essay and polemic and story and prophecy. Appreciate his deep, deep Afro-center anger and righteous call for change or not, he is a scholar and artist and pundit to be reckoned with.
Evans and Dula are thoughtful Christian scholars at a Mennonite institution of higher education, and they have taught this atheists work in the classroom. Out of this engagement with Between the World and Me and other of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s polemics comes this slim volume where they invited other Christian academics to offer chapters thinking about Coates’s views. This is a beautiful example of the integration of faith and scholarship, of academia and the real world, of Christian higher ed engaging the issues of the day by listening to and entering into respectful dialogue with one of the culture’s major voices. Kudos to Evans and Dula and to Eastern Mennonite where they teach.
Here is the Table of Contents and the contributing authors:
Echoes from the Mecca and the Capstone: Christianity and Social Justice at Howard University – Cheryl J. Sanders
Black Futures and Black Fathers – Vincent Lloyd
Shall We Awake? – Jennifer Harvey
The American Nightmare and the Gospel of Plunder – David Evans
What Does He Mean by, “They Believe They Are White”? – Reggie Williams
Hope’s Vagaries: How Ta-Nehisi Coates and Vincent Harding Convinced Me That Hope Is Not the Only Option – Tobin Miller Shearer
Between the Tragic and the Unhopeless: Coates, Anti-blackness, and the Tireless Work of Negativity – Joseph Winters
White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege Amy Julia Becker (NavPress) $15.99 I hope you recall that we celebrated this a time or two previously at BookNotes. We so respect Becker as a writer and thinker; her previous books have been about her journey of being a mother of a child with intellectual disabilities. (You really should read A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny or her delightful, but smart, Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters Most.) This recent one, certainly a notable, best Book of 2018, reflects on privilege in a way that is thoughtful and wise and balanced and assessable. There is plenty of fire in Ms. Becker, but she has a different style and vision than, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a thoughtful, classy, brave book, very nicely done.
Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in our Diversity Terrell Carter (Chalice Press) $19.99 This thin book is concise and potent and very useful. In a no-nonsense style, Rev. Dr. Carter — a St. Louis pastor, seminary professor, former police officer, and now Director of Contextualized Learning at Central Baptist Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas — shows us how to bring awareness and strategies for helping congregations discern what they can do. There’s some personal narrative, some global thinking, some Bible teaching and a whole lot of good sense, learned the hard way. Carter draws on legendary, important black thinkers such as James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore and respected contemporary practitioners like Jospeh Brandt and Kristen Du Mez and Michael Emerson. Perfect for those who want to hear a somewhat progressive voice of a historic black Baptist. There is a free study guide available for download at the publishers’s website.
Anxious To Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism Carolyn Helsel (Chalice Press) $19.99 We are glad for this Presbyterian seminary prof and race training facilitator who has written a very useful tool — award winning, actually. (It was named as a 2018 Book of the Year from the Academy of Parish Clergy, a very prominent award.) Anxious to Talk About It (what a great title!) is a book has been used by mainline denominational groups I know and they have found it very useful, open and fair and inviting. Let’s face it — many white people are overwhelmed when this topic comes up, anxious, indeed. Helsel offers tools to engage racial justice concerns with less fear, more compassion, and more knowledge. We’re impressed and anxious — as in eager — to celebrate it here and invite you to use it. It’s got a lot of really great ideas and guidance for leading discussion groups and workshops and such. (Chalice Press offers a free group leader’s guide, too, at their website.)
By the way, don’t miss Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders also by Rev. Carolyn Helsel (Chalice Press; $26.99.) This is a homiletics book that Dr, Helsel published later in the year, after her important Anxious to Talk About It. It’s a useful guide for all sorts of preachers. What a good year 2018 has been with these great resources and tools. Kudos to Chalice for caring about raising these questions in our mainline churches.
Healing our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing The Church and Renewing the World Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Graham Hill (IVP) $17.00 Ms Kim is an important scholar and activist and has written other good work but here she shines as she offers an extraordinary, broad and visionary picture of how a renewed (reconciled) church can help bring about restoration and justice for the common good. As we noted when we first announced this in the summer of 2018, this is surely one of the most important books of its kind this year, inviting us to all kinds of fresh ideas and new practices and faithful experiments with how to be peacemaking people, renewed and renewing, for the sake of the world.
There are actually nine transforming practices described here, and then there are meaty appendices, discussion questions, forms for use in conversation, even accountability stuff to use in the local setting. This is really useful for those who are serious. It can be used by all kinds of congregations, by the way, but Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim is ordained in the PC(USA.)
The number of impressive scholars and pastors and activists who have endorsed this notable itself — from Soong-Chan Rah and Randy Woodley to missional Aussie Michael Frost to the vibrant black preacher Jacqui Lewis. There is a very important foreword by Willie James Jennings.
This book is simply incredible…it is robust in theology, rich in ecclesiology, and practical in application. Tara Beth Leach (pastor of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena.)
What Truth Sounds Like: RFK, James Baldwin, and our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin’s Press) $24.99 This compact, chunky-sized, hardback looks and feels like a companion volume to Dyson’s 2017, powerful Tears We Cannot Stop and may be even more important as that one. Of course, we carry almost anything this Philly-based, nationally-revered sociologist and black pastor writes, but What Truth Sounds Like was particularly interesting to me. It ruminates on the “epochal” meeting in the spring of 1963 between Robert Kennedy and James Baldwin. You may have heard of that famous gathering held in Bobby Kennedy’s New York penthouse. Other guests for the conversation included beloved entertainers (and serious civil rights leaders) Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and a young social activist named Jerome Smith.
Here’s the gist of that argument, as the publisher describes it on the flap of the book cover:
Baldwin and friends charged RFK with being ignorant of black life and struggle, and Kennedy countered that the black elite emphasized witness — attesting to suffering — over policy.
Of course, in different ways, that debate continues today. (Or it will, for those who read this astute little book.) The cover copy continues:
Every group represented by the people in that room — politicians, artists, intellectuals, activists — has the power to fix what still ails us. Examining the role of everyone from Jay-Z to Kamala Harris and everything from Black Lives Matters to Black Panther, Dr. Dyson asks us all to seize Baldwin’s challenge.
Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster) $17.00 This book came out a year ago, but we celebrate it now, here, since the paperback edition came out late in 2018. What a fine, fine work of history — a page-turner, actually — and an extraordinary account of the black culture of mid-20th century Pittsburgh. Here’s the thing: they aren’t kidding when they talk about the Pittsburgh Renaissance in the revered phrase similar to the Harlem Renaissance. I used to live in Pittsburgh — and read the historic black paper, the Pittsburgh Courier sometimes, and had friends deeply involved in life in the famed The Hill district and such, but I had no idea of the stunning breadth of this beautiful, consequential era. From the 1920s to the 1950s so much was happening in the black community in Pittsburgh. Besides the nationally-known aforementioned paper, there were playwrights like August Wilson, two Negro Leagues ball teams, jazz giants, artists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, a “citadel of black aspiration in music, sports, business, and culture.” What an enticing and wonderfully-written bit of American history this is.
Whitaker, by the way, has a memoir called My Long Trip Home and is a renowned journalist having worked at the top of CNN and NBC News and was the senior editor of Newsweek. He knows his stuff. I think nearly anyone who likes history or wants to understand black culture would enjoy the untold story of Smoketown — “the other great black renaissance.” And if you are from Pittsburgh — what are you waiting for?
The Story of Latino Protestants in the United States Juan Francisco Martinez (Eerdmans) $28.00 Kudos to Eerdmans for seeing the need for a book like this and to Dr. Martinez, a professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a fifth-generation American Latino Protestant himself, we learn, and is considered one of the leading experts on the movement and its colorful history.
When we said 2018 was a banner year for studies of race and cultural diversity, we weren’t kidding. This is a groundbreaking book, the only serious resource of its kind. It provides the first major historical overview of Latino Protestantism in the United States. It starts in the early nineteenth century and explores the movement up until the present time. Rave reviews grace the back from the likes of Gabriel Salguero.
United Methodist scholar and esteemed church historian Justo Gonzalez nicely offers a very good foreword. This is a major contribution.
Hermanas: Deepening Our Identity and Growing Our Influence Natalie Kohn, Noemi Vega Quinones & Kristy Harza Robinson (IVP) $16.00 Okay, this is another I am going to stretch the rules just a bit in order to list this here. We received this right at the very end of 2018 — like maybe the second to last day of the year and while it has a formal 2019 copyright, it might have been the last new book we put out in 2018. And so, we’ll formally award it, I’m sure, as one of the Best Books fo 2019, but we’re jumping in early and celebrating it now, too. As we explained early on, this is a book of Biblical study, exploring woman of the Bible through the lenses of thoughtful Latina women today.
As Sandra Maria Van Opstal (author of the great book on multi-ethnic worship, The Next Worship) puts it, Hermanas is “a gift to anyone teaching and preaching from the Scriptures to have this in their theological library.”
Agreed. But, I’d say, not just those teaching and preaching, but anybody who cares about faith formation, the Bible, Christian discipleship, mentorship, leadership, public witness, or making a faithful difference — these Biblical stories of twelve often disenfranchised but clever women come alive in the hands of these Latinas.
This is a very special book written by three mujeres poderosas and I hardly know anything else like it. Felicidades!
Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation Jaun Videl (Atria Books) $26.00 Videl is a respected commentator and essayist whose work is appearing all over, from NPR to Esquire and Rolling Stone. He is a thoughtful pundit on issues of race, urban culture, hip-hop and pop music and, yes, now, fatherhood. The book starts in vivid writing, with pages that seem to shift from exceptionally creative writing, pushing the limits normal speech with high-octane prose laden with street slang, Latino culture, and old-school rap references to fairly straightforward explanation of his youth, raised my a caring mom and violent dad who left early on deepening his life of drug dealing and jail. It’s no wonder the kid took to petty crime and hard skateboarding and is moving to hear how he found solace in 80s and 90s rap.
It is harrowing and an immersion into street life and hard hip hop and Latinex culture, but one realizes from back cover raves that Videl settles down and learns to become not only a respected pop music critic but a (postmodern) sort of good family man. He wants to be a good dad. Rap Dad is the telling of this story — a triumphant tale of moral improvement and learning the art of caring fatherhood as well as the exploration of the influential role (for better and for worse) of the rap subculture. There’s serious discussion of tracks and rhymes and beats and superstars, especially the stuff he grew up on in end of the 20th century Miami.
(Although — he’s still at it; the playlist offered at the end is pretty up to date — proper.)
It’s not every book that narrates an episode at which I was an observer and even though it was merely in passing, I couldn’t believe my eyes! What fun — in passing he mentions hearing hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco being interviewed by black preacher/philosopher Cornel West at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith & Music. Later (in an unexpected turn in this book on a general market/secular publisher) he takes an interest in church, talks about God and faith, and listens to some thoughtful, Christian rap and hi-hop. (Indeed, he name checks faith leaders like Alex Medina and Sho Baraka and Lecrae in his acknowledgments.) Man, I didn’t see that coming.
Rap Dad is a very fine, very creative and pretty edgy bit of writing exploring the interface of race, rap, and family. It’s not for everyone, although many of us need to be reminded of the heartbreak of troubled kids without fathers. Much of this is straight, Latino memoir. It is not only about race and urban injustice, but it’s a very appropriate read for this list and will be an enjoyable one for those paying attention to pop culture. It was unlike any other book I read from last year and important to be listed as one of the notable books of 2018.
Check out these endorsements:
In Rap Dad, Juan Vidal captures all of the angles of being a rap fan who falls in love with the genre and then fights to stay in love with it at all costs, despite life’s many twists. In reading this book, I learned a greater love for what I already love, I learned that there is a future in which that love can remain abundant, limitless, and endlessly fulfilling. I am thankful for this personal, funny, insightful ride.”— Hanif Abdurraqib, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
“Rap Dad is a page-turner. It’s drenched in history and encompasses the energy, fire, and passion that is hip-hop. Vidal is a brilliant storyteller with a knack for prose. This book is a reminder of why I can’t live without writing.”— D. Watkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Beast Side and The Cook Up
“Rap Dad is a tender, occasionally heartbreaking, and exceedingly honest look at what it means to be a modern father in America (and, really, what it’s meant to be a father in America in decades past). Vidal writes with all the grace and insight you’d want from someone untangling such intricate, intimate subject matter.”—Shea Serrano, New York Times bestselling author of The Rap Yearbook and Basketball And Other Things
Homeland Insecurity: A Hip-Hop Missiology for the Post-Civil Rights ContextDaniel White Hodge (IVP Academic) $27.00 I’ve read a few of doc Hodge’s good books — check out his 2010 very good The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology. (He also did another scholarly work in 2018 called Hip Hop’s Hostile Gospel: A Post-Soul Theological Explorationpublished last Spring by Haymarket Books ($28.99) that has gotten critical acclaim.) But this one should be considered a vital work for 2018 and needs to be on our list of Best Books of the Year. I wrote a bit about it last summer at BookNotes, saying, 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.
Hodge is dead serious and brings the zeal and directness of hip hop and rap to the question of missiology, asking how passion for justice and authentic incarnation will be enhanced and given credibility if it takes serious the message from the streets. Can hip hop provide methodology, insight, an approach for missional living? Right on.
A Perilous Truth: Thinking About Race, Inequality, and the Law (The New Press) $14.99 I am sure almost anyone who reads BookNotes knows how we value the remarkable work of legal aid work of literal life-saver Bryan Stevenson, one of the great legal activists and social reformers of our generation. His Just Mercy (and the 2018 release of a version adapted for youth called Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice ) is one of our all time favorite books. Well, did you know that 2018 also saw a small hardback narrating a conversation with Bryan and three other very important figures in the modern civil rights movement? A Perilous Truth explores the legal aspects of racial injustices and is a must-read for anyone interested in social injustice and certainly for anyone in law, whether an attorney, judge, or law student. We comment this book to you as it allows you to listen in on a stimulating and provocative conversation.
Again, you should know our Christian acquaintance Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Eastern University and Harvard Law School. The other authors are Sherrilyn Ifill (the sister of the late Public Broadcasting journalist Gwen Ifill, who grew up in Steelton, PA) who now is president of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund; Loretta Lynch who was the eighty-third attorney general of the US, and Anthony Thompson, a professor of clinical law and the faculty director fo the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law. Together they offer a “blisteringly candid discussion of the American dilemma in the Age of Trump.” It is, according to the Kirkus Review, “A wake-up call for the American Dream.”
How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick: Restoring Health and Wellness to Our Communities Veronica Squires & Breanna Lathrop (IVP) $17.00 Of course toxic buildings and environmental dangers are not exclusively the plight of those living in parts of cities populated by people of color, but there is a thing called environmental racism, and it is undeniable that those in poorer neighborhoods often people of color, are plagued with bad water and industrial pollution and lead paint and asbestos and the like in levels much worse than wealthier and mostly whiter parts of town. Further, as Squires and Lathrop bravely discuss, even the psychological conditions of living with racial trauma has significant documented health repercussions. (I’m writing this just days after a police officer in Pittsburgh was exonerated for shooting a boy in the back as he was running away; a good friend of mine, a black pastor in ‘the burgh, wrote that he hardly feels safe in his own town.) These troubles — physical, sociological, psychological — impact the health of those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
We have long wished for a readable, affordable book about public health from a Christian perspective. And, we have long wished for a book about the poverty experienced by the urban underclass which includes more about substandard housing and the health problems associated with leaky pipes which cause mildew, sewage problems, asbestos, and the like.
How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick is a godsend and we congratulate IVP for being the first publisher to make this contribution to our understanding of how sin and dysfunction has badly effected our built environment and how social injustice literally has public health implications.
The book is well designed, handsome, interesting, well informed, passionate without being polemical, and a generous look at the stark realities of public health in old and often poor and often urban settings.
Kudos and many thanks to these authors. Here are their bios for those who might want to know solid credentials and be pleased to learn of their deep experience:
Veronica Squires is chief administrative officer for Good Samaritan Health Center in Atlanta. She previously served as director of corporate development for Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta and as the Georgia director of ministry partnerships for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She is a certified CCDA practitioner and serves on the advisory board for the Georgia Charitable Care Network.
Breanna Lathrop is chief operating officer and a family nurse practitioner for Good Samaritan Health Center. She earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice from Georgia Southern University and a Master’s of Public Health and a Master’s in Nursing from Emory University. She is passionate about eliminating health disparities through improving health care access and health outcomes among vulnerable populations, and has previously published on the social determinants of health.
Urban Ministry Reconsidered: Contexts and Approaches (Westminster/John Knox) $40.00 I simply don’t have time and space to do a major review of this and do it justice as it is extraordinary and covers so much ground. Here is what I wrote before at BookNotes when it first came out: Let me just note that if you know anybody who is seriously studying this topic, this is a major anthology, edited by leaders of the Metro-Urban Institute at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. These folks have decades of scholarship and practice as theologians and activists. There are chapters on poverty, housing, health, racism, missional church stuff, global insights, and lots more. It is fairly diverse theologically, mostly progressive in terms of social agenda, and pretty scholarly. It advances a number of fresh insights, offers current research and we have a few trusted friends (such as Lisa Slayton & Herb Kolbe of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation) who have chapters in it. There is nothing on the topic with so wide a scope on the market — again, further proof that 2018 has been an important year with publishers doing commendable work.
Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put Jose Humphreys (IVP) $16.00 I wrote about this earlier, too, and want to honor it again as a vital and important work from 2018. Here is some of what I said in one of my BookNotes announcements:
This great book is part of the Praxis imprint and, with the colorful cover, is immediately attractive. This is very much about a sense of place in the urban context and how our own stories and faith formation are tied to particular places. The author is a Puerto Rica pastor who has planted a multi-ethnic church in East Harlem and this book is ideal for anyone thinking practically about urban ministry.
Humphreys is pastor of Metro Hope Covenant Church and I like that the church is described as being “involved in shalom-making in the city through facilitating conversation contemplation, and action across social, economic, cultural, and theological boundaries.”
Good, good evangelically-minded activist/scholars/pastors endorse this with rave reviews, from Soong-Chan Rah to Paul Sparks (of The New Parish) who says, “Go get this amazing book!”) to Lisa Sharon Harper, who says it is:
A beautiful love letter to the church about how to be church in our browning, decolonizing world…Every pastor’s next must-read.
Rethinking Incarceration Advocating for Justice That Restores Dominique Dubois Gilliard (IVP) $18.00 Most aware readers know about what is not called “mass incarceration” and the injustices told in such powerful narratives as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (surely one of the most moving memoirs and favorite books I read last year.) The classic in this field is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, that shows in detailed data and much number-crunching, that over and over and over, in state by state by state, people of color arrested for the exact same crime are given much harsher sentences than their white counterparts. This book is so important there have been several books about it and the phrase — the new Jim Crow — is now shorthand for this outrageous and indisputable example of systemic racism.
Enter Dominique DuBois Gillard, an advocate for reform, for restorative justice, for a distinctively Christian contribution to the debates and street level (and policy level) activism for change. “Mass incarceration has become a lucrative industry, and the criminal justice system is plagued with bias and unjust practices,” the book reminds us on the back cover.
“And the church has unwittingly contributed to the problem.”
Rethinking Incarceration is not the first Christian book to study prisons and prison reform — in stands in a centuries old tradition of faith-based efforts, that itself goes back to the earliest Christians. But it is a major contribution in part because of the astute and vital way it weaves racial analysis into the mix. And it has gotten rave reviews from important reviewers and activists alike.
For instance, Publishers Weekly gave it a prized “starred review” saying is it “an outstanding contribution.” Soong-Chan Rah says it “should be now required reading for any thinking and feeling American Christian who wants to engage the topic of mass incarceration in a meaningful way.”
We all know that the United States has more people locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers than any other country in the history of the world. We know something is very wrong, and Gilliard’s historical lens is a good place to help. His Biblical work is exciting and generative, and his practical and innovative interventions give us handles on things we can propose, pray for, and actually do. This book deserves to be taken seriously, to be well known, and is surely one of the most significant 2018 books for Christian who care about peace and justice and race and public discipleship. The book has a great cover, too — our compliments to the designer.
Praise the Lord for Dominque DuBois Gilliard who is the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is an ordained minister and has served in Oakland, Chicago and Atlanta.
Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope from Civil Society Anthony Bradley (Cambridge University Press) $34.99 This is certainly a major scholarly work, released last summer by one of the world’s oldest and most venerable publishing houses, the noble University of Cambridge. Dr. Bradley is a compelling and lively and funny gospel communicator — he speaks at our Jubilee conference from time to time, always to grand applause — and is a mature and careful thinker. He brings the implications of the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom of God (about which he has published) to many social concerns and issues and has several worthy books offering collections of essays. He has written much about human flourishing, moral formation, and freedom.
His recent Ending Overcriminalization is the fruit of years of research and offers a somewhat different take on the above mentioned work done by Michelle Alexander in her widely discussed The New Jim Crow which helped popularize the phrase “mass incarceration” and linking this to the so-called “war on drugs.” This matter of racial profiling and the conservative “drug war” and mass incarceration is one of the most urgent of topics in our day and this 2018 volume is one of the most provocative of contributions — it should be being read widely and reviewed seriously and debated robustly. It offers “more to the story” than Alexander’s thesis, based, it seems, on Bradley’s reading of empirical data (most people are not in prison for drug offenses) and his multi-dimensional Christian worldview. So much of the rise in prison population comes from violent crime, he argues, but it is true that most are not consistently violent or routine danger; the power of prosecutors to elevate crimes to more serious sentences. I am not a criminologist and don’t know how to parse social science research; I’ll admit I’m inadequately studied when it comes to a Biblically-faithful views of crime and punishment, restorative justice, prison reform, and the like. But I’ve got my hunches and I’m hoping that those more involved than I can do good reviews of this major work. We like Dr. Bradley a lot, honor his extraordinary output, including this academic work on a prestigious publisher. We hope many buy the book and learn of how his view (what loosely might be called more conservative than Alexander’s) and his critique of inadequate popular thinking about the causes of mass incarceration.
Call it conservative or Biblical or common sense or wholistic, Bradley reminds us that civil society — civic institutions, families, schools, churches and other features of our multi-faceted lives — must come in to play to shape the lives and uphold the dignity of those vulnerable to incarceration. He gives a lot of suggestions about things we can do, opportunities for involvement, and obstacles that have to be dealt with to shore up the social order in redemptive ways so that law and order and health and wholeness and justice and grace can reign in live giving ways. I’m glad for this multi-dimensional approach and how he studies both big policy stuff and personal matters as well. Perhaps we could call this approach personalism; is this adequate?
As a black scholar who has been outspoken about evangelical racism — and has compiled damning books showing evidence of systematic racial discrimination (see Black Scholars in White Spaces and Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions) Bradley is not afraid to be clear about injustice. However, he doesn’t fall in line with all the proposals emerging from those fired up about “the new Jim Crow.” We hope this book re-ignites a conversation and pushes us to better insight and better proposals.
Voices Rising: Women of Color Finding & Restoring Hope in the Cityedited by Shabrae Jackson Krieg & Janet Balasiri Singleterry (Servant Partners) $15.95 How glad we were when a mail-order customer invited us to check out this classy small press that does books on urban ministry and related mission topics. We ordered most of their books right away and we are thrilled to show them off. This one is just spectacular, a must-read, just-have resource for anyone interested in urban renewal or world missions or the experience of women in Christian ministry.
Voices Rising is a collection of chapters by various women of various cultures who are working among the worlds poorest, in slums and ghettos in big cities all over the world. For those who care about global missions or urban life, this puts you in those places and shares what it is like doing ministry in those hard, human, beautiful places.
Our friend Lisa Sharon Harper of the organization Freedom Road has a lovely blurb on the back and you can take it from her:
God has been at work in the hidden corners of the evangelical church; raising up evangelical women of color to enter the mission field again — for the sake of the preservation of the faith and the glory of God.
Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine Emily Bernard (Knopf) $25.95 You are just going to have to look the other way at the time stamp or something because this book came out early (very early) in 2019, so it isn’t a Best Book of 2018. But it is so, so good I just can’t not list it here, now. As I look back at all the books I’ve read and those I’ve browsed and those I’ve skimmed and those I’ve studied, there are a lot, old and new. Black is the Body garnered excellent advanced reviews and she is known for being an elegant, important writer. (Her rich and dramatic first book on the Harlem Renaissance (and a cat named Carl Van Vechten) was called “a landmark study” and her Remember Me To Harlem was called by the eminent Henry Louis Gates “a major contribution to our understanding.” Bernard’s writing has been called scrupulous and magnificent.
And so, Black is the Body is, I predict and surely hope, will be one of the most discussed literary books of 2019. It begins with an awful, riveting piece about her being knifed as a Yale college student in a Cambridge coffeeshop (I’m still so angry at the rude surgeon that I must catch myself) and her deciphering how she does and doesn’t weave the questions of race into this brutal narrative is nothing short of brilliant. I was hooked on the first page and raving by the end of the first chapter. As the dust jacket notes, “Bernard explores how that bizarre act of violence set her free and unleashed the storyteller in her.” She reminds us, vitally, that “the equation of writing and regeneration is fundamental to black American experience.”)
She is married to a white man and they live in Vermont, attending a Lutheran church. Her fascinating, precocious children often talk about their own skin color and race; oh, the parenting stuff is wonderful, tender and wise and honest. (It is surprising, perhaps, but I haven’t read much about families of color talking about the N-word with their little ones.) An episode with her husband driving with her parents in the south — the infamous Green Book is mentioned — was so eye-opening I wept. Yet, in each of these interlocking dozen essays/episodes, she moves beyond a simplistic narrative of black innocence and white guilt. “Each is anchored in a mystery; each sets out to discover a new way of telling the truth.”
There is one story she tells of teaching African American literature to an earnest group of all white college students. Oh my, this is rich, honest stuff.
“Not every black person here is black in the same way,” she notes.
Once my mother pointed to a Donna Summer album cover that featured the singer’s face surrounded by long curly locks, “You have hair like this girl,” my mother said. I burst into tears right there in the record store. I went back to bands and barrettes.
“What are you afraid of?” asked a friend of my parents, a professor at a local university, a black woman with short, natural hair. “Why do you bind your hair?” It was fellowship hour at our church. We were standing side by side, each of us holding identical Styrofoam cups. I held mind tighter and then looked for the first moment to excuse myself. She was right; I was afraid. I was not until college that I gathered courage to free my hair. Once I did, I shuddered to realize that what I had been afraid of was simply being black.
Ms Bernard knows black experience from her own body, of course, and has pondered these things and shared them with us in clear, solid prose. She knows black literature — citing Du Bois, Baldwin and Hurston — and is obviously a learned, thoughtful professor of English and a strong writer. Black is the Body includes stories we can all enjoy, by which we can be moved and taught, edified. We are glad for the many great books on theme about race and racial justice that were published in 2018. And for this one newly published early in 2019.
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Do you do Lent? Do you need some resource, some guide, some extra inspiration to ponder this time of year? Whether you are a liturgical aficionado or a beginner, we can help.
I recall growing up hearing about Lent, I suppose, but it wasn’t really an emphasis in my old EUB church, not even when EUBs merged with the Methodists. Wesley’s roots were high church Anglican, of course, but we were a small town congregation of common folk and we didn’t do the fancy stuff. Or anything that seemed Catholic. My Lutheran friends didn’t even talk about it, as far as I recall.
Years later, while working with nuns and other Roman Catholics — people who knew Dorothy Day, even — at Pittsburgh’s Thomas Merton Center I still didn’t quite get this penitential season of Lent. I figured God forgives us in Christ so, rooted in the Reformation’s discovery of free grace, we didn’t need to belabor things. While working against nuclear weapons and world hunger and pondering daily the fate of the earth, giving up chocolate seemed trivial, at best. (Again, even though I was reading Merton and Nouwen and Richard Foster and the like, the deeper consequences of fasting, the re-ordering of our desires, making space for God’s inner transformation, didn’t quite make sense. I suppose I hadn’t discovered Dallas Willard, yet, let alone read You Are What You Love. But I digress.) I’d say smug stuff like I’m giving up sin for Lent. Or apathy.
Which, actually, comes closer to the reason for the season, I think. It maybe was Brian Walsh in Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times who reminded me that in Walt Brueggemann’s profound The Prophetic Imagination he riffs on the spiritual dangers of a-pathos, apathy that is, the lack of pathos — deep, tragic, caring. Our hearts grow hard and our lives are so enmeshed with the ways of the world we don’t really want anything to change. We don’t care. Discontent, though, can be a spiritual gift, motivating us to holy reform. If anything, the season of Lent should teach us to care and to not care in the right way. We can be deepened and formed to care about the suffering of this sad world and to not care what others thing about our radical commitments to Christ’s ways. Or, as John Piper sometimes reminds us, to not care about our own suffering — our neighbor’s good and God’s glory is the true treasure we seek. We can take up the vocation of offering the world a prophetic word of critique, healing, and hope only if we care deeply enough to weep (subversive) tears and to host some disregard for our own comfort and success.
So, here are a handful of books that might point us in the direction of being formed in the ways of the weeping prophet Jeremiah, the foreteller of the Messiah, John the Baptist, and the Suffering Servant Himself, Jesus the Christ.
Some of these are new, some are older ones I wanted to remind you about. All are on sale and we would be grateful if you used the order form button below to buy a few. Best wishes.
Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition & the Life of FaithJen Pollock Michel (InterVarsity Press) $16.00 This isn’t a Lenten book, per se, but, as I hinted above, Lent may be a time to think about our desires, about reforming our loves, about ordering our inner life in ways that are consistent with God’s intentions. Okay, that sounds fine, but what about ambition? What about women, especially, who in our culture are often expected not to want what they want. (Don’t get me started on Augustine’s dumb views of women and desire and sex and such.) Jen Pollock Michel is a great writer and we were early adopters of this fine work. It has a nice foreword by Katelyn Beaty, herself a good writer. This is written mostly in a narrative style, almost like a memoir, and calls us to ponder how God refines and even purifies our longings and heals our unmet hopes and dashed dreams. This is a great book and just might be what you need. Well worth reading during Lent.
A World Worth Saving: Lenten Spiritual Practices for ActionGeorge Hovaness Donigian (Upper Room) $13.99 A few customers got this from us last year and said it was very useful. Here is what the publisher says about it:
God thinks the world is worth saving and invites us to believe this too. For anyone who thinks Lent is a seemingly endless time of self-sacrifice and introspection, this 6-week study offers a breath of fresh air. Author George Donigian challenges readers to connect their inner spiritual life with outward actions of compassion in the world. He inspires readers to pray about daily news events and respond to the needs around them by serving others, feeding the hungry, fighting injustice, offering healing, and extending friendship. Give up apathy for Lent this year!
A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $13.00 I mentioned Brueggemann and his remarkable Prophetic Imagination. Here is one he wrote a few seasons ago, a short Lenten collection. As the publisher reminds us, “We begin our Lenten journey addressed by the remarkable assurance that the God who summons us is the God who goes along with us.” If I am attending well to this, I can get choked up just reading that line. Of course, this feisty, poetic, scholarly, passionate Old Testament scholar is good on stuff pertaining to times of wilderness and wandering “from newly freed Hebrew slaves in exile to Jesus’s temptation in the desert.” God has always called people out of their safe, walled cities into uncomfortable places, revealing paths they would never have chosen.
As it says on the back, “Despite our culture of self-indulgence, we too are called to walk an alternative path – one of humility, justice, and peace.” I think these short readings might be prophetic for you as they are for many. Hold on, though: this isn’t sentimentality or mere inner piety. This will lead to a life-changing, challenging, beautiful life that comes “with walking in the way of grace.” A way not our own.
Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels Heidi Haverkamp (Abingdon) $14.00 This is another one we sold well last year and I want to tell about it again. Here is what I wrote a year ago at BookNotes:
Haverkamp is a writer, retreat leader and an ordained Episcopal priest. She is also a Benedictine oblate at the extraordinary, ecumenical, Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin (and author of the lovely Advent devotional, Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season.) In this Lenten guide there are six weeks of reflections, with each week offering meditations on a certain theme, related to the practices of solitude and silence.
For instance, there are five days of “Solitude and Struggle” and “Solitude and Journey” and “Solitude and Hospitality” and “Solitude and Resistance.” The last days for Holy Week are under the rubric of “Solitude and Confinement” and moves from Jesus’ imprisonment to Daniel in the Lion’s Den to John of Patmos and more. I have to admit I’ve jumped ahead to the Holy Saturday reading and the Easter Sunday one, “Mary Magdalene at the Tomb.” There’s an appendix called “Ten Ways to Be Silent.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs it. The soft, beautiful cover just makes it just perfect.
The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament Aubrey Sampson (NavPress) $15.99 We were happy to honor this with one of our “Best Books of 2018” awards and we were even happier that it sold at out Jubilee 2019 last week. Well over 3000 college students were hearing about the Lordship of Christ over all of life as they indwell the unfolding story of the Bible of Christ’s Kingdom coming — by telling the story of the goodness of creation, the distortions and pain of the fall, the redemption Christ brings, and the hope for restoration and hope we have as the story moves towards final consummation. I announced this book from the main-stage and exclaimed how moving it is, how it tells of several woman’s serious suffering, and how the Bible teaches about lament… lamenting doesn’t do anything magical, it says, but it can lead us to hope as “God sings a louder song” than suffering does, “a song of renewal and restoration.” This book tells of stress and suffering and outlines in a narrative way a Biblical theology of lament, making it useful for this Lenten season, I’d say.
Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $17.00 This is not designed for Lent and it is not particularly sad or painful, but it is ideal for those who struggle with the weight of the world, but who want to embrace the goodness of creation (and all the various jobs and callings and careers and tasks that emerge from the possibilities and potentials God ordered into creation, knowing that embracing it all can be both hurtful and rewarding.) We know that there is much broken in this hurting world and most of us live within some tension of how things are and how they are meant to be; we live the “now” of God’s victory and the “not yet” of that future hope when it is fully realized. This is the longing Fleming Rutledge writes so wonderfully about in her Advent sermons and it is the constant theme for Garber. He invites us to this messy, complicated world without growing cynical or jaded.
Can we take on the pain of the world as God does and know deeply and still find some measure of proximate justice and proximate joy? This is one of my favorite books and I commend it to you during Lent, especially. Please click on that link at the bottom and order this. It is worth it, I assure you.
Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through ScriptureAlister Roberts & Andrew Wilson (Crossway) $17.99 I reviewed this more extensively in our end of the year “best books of 2018” list in January (or was in February?) I noted that I really appreciated the way it picks up the “echoes of Exodus” and liberation and freedom that keep appearing throughout Scripture. The authors are conservative, Reformed folks but this should appeal to anyone who likes astute Bible study and the big picture of the healing of the cosmos that is the unfolding drama of the whole Bible. Some of their examples of “exodus” themes are pretty obvious and others are creative and generative. I applaud these authors and commend these 20-some chapters, short and potent. It isn’t arranged as a daily devotional, let alone a Lenten one, but if you are like many, you may not need a handy 40 day devo anyway. Pick this up and spend time pondering this pivotal aspect of Scriptural truth.
Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us Simone Weil (Plough Publishing) $8.00 The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations Oscar Romero (Plough) $8.00 The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus Dorothy Day (Plough) $8.00 Do you know Plough Publishing? They are a classy small press emerging from the Bruderhof communities, radical anabaptists who have several intentional communities throughout North America. They publish very good stuff and they do a nice job with quality paper and lovely production. These are the first three in a series they are developing called “Plough Spiritual Guides” and affectionally known as “Backpack Classics.”
The Simone Weil one is quite new and, as you might realize, each of these are meditations offered by those who suffered much in their service of Christ’s Kingdom and the good of the world. These are good for Lent, although not designed as such. Kudos to Plough Publishing for offering these gifts to the reading public.
Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) $16.99 What a great new paperback this is. (And there is a DVD curriculum which I’ll mention below.) As you maybe know, Dr. Levine is an internationally respected Jewish scholar whose speciality is the New Testament. She teaches Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and is an upbeat, feisty speaker. She does extraordinary scholarship about first century Judaism and the early Jesus movement. (An earlier book was called The Misunderstood Jew and, more recently, she did Stories Jesus Told: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, not to mention the Oxford University Press release, The Jewish Annotated New Testament.) As an Episcopalian prof from Seminary of the South writes, “Grounded in the rich and compelling scholarship we have come to expect from her, AmyJill Levin’s Entering the Passion of Jesus will surprise many and inform all who walk through Holy Week with her.”
This really emphasizes the risks Jesus took to love as he did which, asking us, too, what role we might place as we take risks to bear witness to and join with God’s work in the world. I maintain that this only isn’t adequate and not the only way to view the passion, but it is part of any faithful interpretation and for that, we have this moving study. Highly recommended.
The Crucified Is My Love: Morning and Evening Devotions for the Holy Season of Lent Johann Ernst von Holst (Plough Publishing) $18.00 This came out last year from Plough and should have been more widely celebrated, although the Bruderhof folks are a quiet bunch. Still, the recent publication of this is remarkable; von Holst was a Lutheran pastor in Riga, Latvia (1828 – 1898) and these stirring readings for Lent have been handed down for generations. They are based on the gospel accounts and are exceptional.
Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing) $24.00 This is a perennial title from Plough and matches nice their popular Advent collection, Watch for the Light
Here is what I wrote a while back at BookNotes:
This handsome hardback has brief readings from some of the world’s leading literary and spiritual writers, offering just enough meaty and aesthetically-rich writing to please and challenge anyone who wants to dip in to a more mature sourcebook. Bread and Wine (like its companion Advent volume, Watch for the Light) draws wonder-full excerpts from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Philip Yancey, Jane Kenyon; from Frederick Buechner, Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry, Watchman Nee and Dorthy Sayers. How many books have such thoughtful excerpts of Tolstoy and Updike and Christina Rossetti, Fleming Rutledge, Martin Luther and Barbara Brown Taylor, Oswald Chambers and Alister McGrath. As you can see, this is really diverse, delightful, thoughtful; a publishing triumph pulling together such writers and thinkers, poets, mystics, evangelists. With each several-page excerpt linked to a brief Biblical text, Bread and Wine is a wonderful devotional that you will use for a lifetime.
The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sister Wendy Beckett (SPCK/IVP) $15.00 This was our biggest selling Lent book last year when it was released (from the UK) and the companion, The Art of Advent was our biggest selling Advent resource last December. It is a small, square-sized paperback made nicely with glossy paper and excellent art reproductions gracing every other page. On the facing pages the esteemed Carmelite sister and art historian, Sister Wendy, offers remarkable insight that is at once a blend of interesting art facts and art historical exploration and inspiring faith-shaping wisdom. There are over forty paintings, some quite famous and others lesser known, each explaining succinctly and with a natural, winsome invitation to use them prayerfully. This is so nice I’d recommend getting a few – it’s a wonderful book to share with the unsuspecting, one who might not ordinarily read a Christian book or who might not take up a more conventional Bible study. The book is wonderfully designed, too, with full color pages and good graphic lay out. Highly recommended and in stock now.
Lent and Easter Wisdom from Henri J. M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers Together with Nouwen’s Own Words edited by Judy Bauer (Liguori Publications) $11.99 This publisher has done other small season devotionals (Advent and Lent) based on the writings of great saints and mystics. We’ve appreciated their ones on Chesterton, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, Saint Benedict, Francis & Clare, and more. As with all of these, Lent and Easter Wisdom from Henri Nouwen offers Scripture and prayers and excerpts of his own writing and prayers. It includes a daily practice to deepen one’s spirituality and nicely goes through the second Sunday of Easter.
Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus as Recorded in Mark Walter Wangerin (Zondervan) $14.99 We’ve suggested this over and over since it released in the early 1990s. I have a few good friends who have said this is their all time favorite Lenten devotional.
We like hand-sized, compact hardbacks and so appreciate the fine, fine writing in this powerful little book. I suppose you know Wangerin who has garnered award after award for his fantasy novels, his memoirs, his Biblical work, his children’s books, his book about being a young writer (Beate Not the Poore Desk published by our friends at Rabbit Room) and more. As a poet and preacher and a former inner city pastor, this passionate Lutheran leader reminds us through Scripture and storytelling that “we crucify and we are crucified, are condemned and redeemed.” Eugene Peterson, who said Wangerin is one of the “master storytellers of our generation” insists that Walt is “at his best, writing on and around the Master Story.” This isn’t new and we’ve described it other years here in BookNotes, but wanted to remind you of it again.
Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday Fleming Rutlege (Eerdmans) $18.00 I suppose this might be the most significant new release this year and it already has become a good seller for us. The cover is brilliant, the compact shaped appealing, and the writing suburb. That she did these sermons all in a three hour service a year ago is remarkable and this book is a prefect follow up to her more heady works (such as the must-read The Undoing of Death and her major work on the cross, The Crucifixion, both published in paperback by Eerdmans.)
There’s a bit of a buzz about this new volume for which we rejoice; I suspect we might even sell out as the end of Lent approaches so you might be wise to order it now. You may know that Dr. Rutledge did a similar book of meditations in 2004 (that is still in print, now in a small sized paperback) called The Seven Last Words from the Cross (Eerdmans; $13.00) which offers a profound devotional experience. We highly recommend them both.
The Beauty of the Cross: Reflections for Lent from Isaiah 52 and 53Tim Chester (The Good Book Company) $12.99 Tim Chester is a very popular (and prolific) author who is a pastor and evangelical theologian from the UK. He writes wonderfully assessable, gospel-centered books, often devotional in nature (although he has written in other genres including some more rigorous volumes.) He has a few collections of Advent readings that we loved and last year did the Lenten devotion called The Glory of the Cross: Reflections for Lent from The Gospel of John (The Good Book Company; $12.99.)
This new one, The Beauty of the Cross, is mature and thoughtful and and reveals an important reminder of Christ’s suffering.
Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2017 Justin Welby (Bloomsbury) $13.95 This was the big Lent book for the Church of England last year and while you may have heard about it, I bet you haven’t seen it around much or reviewed stateside. The Archbishop of Canterbury (formerly Rowan Williams, now Justin Welby) always picks a book for the Church to read during the season of Lent. The following year, then, it is usually released in the States. This is the first time (I think) that the Archbishop actually wrote the annual Lent book.
Certainly in the Bible and certainly in our time, mammon is one of the chief idols, a good deformed that captures our hearts and damages our society. This is important. Looks powerful, eh?
The Passion of the King of Glory Russ Ramsey (InterVarsity Press) $16.00 This book is the second in a trilogy and all three deserve much, much more than I can say here, now. Let me entice you by saying that Ramsey is a creative, colorful, passionate writer. I raved about his near-death memoir — one of the best! — called Struck: Oner Christians Reflections on Encountering Death and I’d read anything else he writes. He is a Reformed pastor, visionary, missional, caring about the gospel and caring about the world. In this set of 40 reflections Ramsey offers retellings of the gospel narratives. It captures the lively and passionate feel of the Bible stories so much so that writer Trillia Newbell says “you’ll wonder if he sat down and spoke with all the people involved in the story.”
How a creative writer “throw opens the curtains” (as Scotty Smith puts it) and invites us into the story, feeling it is a mystery, but he has the gift. These forty short chapters, arranged in five big sections, recounts key episodes and offers a taste of what it must have been like to be there with Jesus irsthand.
The first volume in this set, by the way, is called Advent of the Lamb of God and the third is The Mission of the Body of Christ. Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Chruch in Nashville.
Prayer: Forty Days of Practice Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson (Waterbrook) $16.99 This is not a Lenten book as such but this would make a great companion for anyone wanting to focus on their inner life for a season. We’ve promoted the previous self published edition and this is one of those rare instances when a big time publisher picks up a volume that was self published. Justin is a great writer, an artist and coach of creatives, and public speaker while Scott is himself deeply read and yet primarily a visual artist. Together they’ve created a book that is full of prompts and ideas and short reflections to help you ponder and pray, all arranged around a set of very contemporary graphic-like art pieces done by Scott the Painter. This invitation to deeper intimacy with God has gotten nothing short of rave reviews by all kinds of folks, from hip hop artists Propaganda (who highlights how the marriage of words and image work) to seminary president Mark Labberton to writer and missional adventure Sarah Thebarge (who calls it “a gift of a book) to Shane Claiborne and many others.
Listen to Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren:
In my home we have a special shelf where we keep sacred things of beauty. On the shelf are a few icons, seashells, the Book of Common Prayer, and this book, Prayer. Each person in my family–from children to adults–sits in quiet wonder as they flip these pages. This meditative and practical book brings together prayer, practices, and visual art to provide a feast for the soul. McRoberts and Erickson have created something beautiful, thoughtful, and mesmerizing.
Or this from activist and author Dominique DuBois Gilliard, author of Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores:
Prayer empowers us to walk by faith and not by sight. In a world where death, oppression, and violence all too often feel like the final words, we’re prone to forget that prayer truly changes things. Prayer begets revelation, enabling us to see, name, and confess the brokenness within us and our world. Prayer then leads to repentance, which reorients our posture toward God and neighbor. This book prophetically uses art to inspire us to remember God’s faithfulness amid the darkness. It also structures prayer in ways that draw us simultaneously inward and outward, producing a more faithful witness.
LENT FOR CHILDREN
Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter Laura Alary, Illustrated by Ann Boyajian (Paraclete Press) $15.99 Wow, what a wonderful children’s picture book, delightfully illustrated and nicely told. It is an invitation for children to wonder about the Lenten story, helping children to experience Lent with all their senses. They are taught to see it as a special time for creating a “welcoming space for God.” As it says on the back, “Simple activities like cleaning a room, making bread and soup, and inviting a neighbor for supper become acts of justice and kindness, part of a life following Christ.”
The story unfolds reminding the child of the things “we” do — meaning the church of which she is a part. Maybe your church isn’t “dressed in purple” and maybe you don’t have a Maundy Thursday service (but I sure hope you do!) Most of us don’t go to a lake for a sunrise service as the parish in this story does, but kids can realize that these are the kinds of things some churches do. Maybe it will inspire them to make suggestions of Lenten practices for your church or family! I think it is a fine book for almost any kind of Christian.
As our friend Gary Neal Hansen (author of Kneeling with the Giants) writes about Making Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter:
The book reveals what is usually hidden: what we knew as penitential is actually life-giving and faith-building. After reading the book to my kids, my five year old daughter exclaimed “I can’t wait for Lent! I just can’t wait!”
Holy Week: An Emotions Primerboard book Danielle Hitchen, illustrated by Jessica Blanchard (Harvest House) $12.99 This has already become one of our best sellers this season and a favorite among our staff. This simple board book does some things that no other book does (as far as we know.) It shows various episodes or characters of holy week and links each to a particular emotion. How interesting! This is part of an excellent series (called “Baby Believers”) which are done in colorful styles, offering a helpful way into many Biblical themes. (One is called From Eden to Bethlehem: An Animals Primer and one is called Psalms of Praise: A Movement Primer and another is Let There Be Light: An Opposites Primer.) These aren’t goofy and they aren’t shallow, even though they are designed for little ones and little hands. Again, this holy week one uses Scripture to teach about emotions. Highly recommended.
Teach Us To Pray: Scripture Centered Family Worship Through the Year Lora A. Copley & Elizabeth Vander Haagen (Calvin College Press) $29.99 We know this is both pricey and hefty. At almost two inches thick and a big square size (almost 9 x 9 inches) with 864 pages, it is impressive. More impressive is the remarkable two-page spread for each day, clearly offering a pattern of daily devotion under the categories (highlighted by symbolic icons) of Preparing-Inviting-Stilling-Singing-Bible Reading-Dwelling-Praying-Blessing. Teach Us To Pray has some experimental feel, a bit of a liturgical feel, and is wisely construed for families with children wanting to dwell within the ancient church calendar. (There is a very nice, useful several page introduction to all this and a lovely little chart for those needing some quick guidance.) The authors are both ordained CRC pastors and were supported in this project by the Calvin Institute on Christian Worship.
A FEW GOOD DVD CURRICULUM CHOICES
DVD or book AdamHamilton (Abingdon) DVD = $39.99; hardback book = $19.99; Leader’s Guide = $12.99 This is the brand new book and DVD by the very popular Bible teacher AdamHamilton. He has several well-loved DVD series including some previously released for Advent and Lent. I suspect that this study of the life of Peter was first used as a Lenten series at his big United Methodist church although much of this was filmed in the Holy Land making it really interesting to watch. The chapters of the hardback book are short and readable although one doesn’t need to have the book to use the DVD curriculum. (There is a youth study guide, too, by the way.) Either way, using the book or using the DVD (or both) here is the content:
Additional components for a six-week adult study include a comprehensive Leader Guide and a DVD featuring author and pastor AdamHamilton teaching on site in Israel and Italy.
The Call of the Fisherman
Walking with Jesus in the Storm
Bedrock or Stumbling Block?
“I Will Not Deny You”
From Cowardice to Courage
The Rest of the Story
DVD or book Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon Press) paperback book= $16.99; DVD= $39.99; Leader’s Guide for DVD = $12.99
I hope you noticed I mentioned this as a stand alone book, above. We recommend it, even though it’s a rather audacious project: a non-Christian scholar of Jesus reminding those who are followers of Christ what that maybe entails, based on interpretations of the first century cultural context. This is fascinating stuff and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is a fabulous communicator, so watching the DVD (alone, or, better, with a group) would be a stimulating experience.
Here is what the publisher says to explain it all:
Jesus’ final days were full of risk. Every move he made was filled with anticipation, danger, and the potential for great loss or great reward.
Jesus risked his reputation when he entered Jerusalem in a victory parade. He risked his life when he dared to teach in the Temple. His followers risked everything when they left behind their homes, or anointed him with costly perfume. We take risks as we read and re-read these stories, finding new meanings and new challenges.
In Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week, author, professor, and biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine explores the biblical texts surrounding the Passion story. She shows us how the text raises ethical and spiritual questions for the reader, and how we all face risk in our Christian experience.
Entering the Passion of Jesus provides a rich and challenging learning experience for small groups and individual readers alike. The book is part of a larger six-week study that is perfect for Lent and includes a DVD, and a comprehensive Leader Guide.
The book’s six chapters include:
Jerusalem: Risking Reputation
The Temple: Risking Righteous Anger
Teachings: Risking Challenge
The First Dinner: Risking Rejection
The Last Supper: Risking the Loss of Friends
Gethsemane: Risking Temptation
DVD or book Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable JesusJohn Ortberg (Zondervan) paperback book = $16.99 DVD and Leader’s Guide package = $36.99 This isn’t exactly Lenten, but this is a season to consider the impact of Jesus, so wanted to list it. Like the ones above, there’s a few options for this study, too. First, there is a regular book that each can read and talk about. It’s great — inspiring and impressive, starting with how Jesus’s earliest followers changed the world in so many ways. Why? Because of what he taught and who he was. So the question looms large: who was He, if he inspired all this world-changing stuff? It’s a great, great book for seekers or followers of Jesus.
The DVD is very cool, creatively filmed, upbeat and vital so you can use it without reading the book. Participants can just watch the presentations and then discuss them with the well done Leader’s Guide. The Leader’s Guide is for the DVD, not the book.
The book is longer, but the DVD is just five sessions (but there’s plenty to talk about so you could stretch it out, easily into more weeks if you are planning an adult class or small group for Lent.) It ends, the last session, with the death and resurrection of Christ so it is arranged very well for use during the time leading up to Easter.
The Man Who Won’t Go Away
A Revolution of Humanity
The Power of Forgiveness
Why It’s a Small World After All
Three Days That Changed the World
A FEW FINAL IDEAS
The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent Aaron Damiani (Moody) $12.99 I started with a passing reference to “giving something up for Lent.” Here is a book that we’re suggested before for those who are not familiar with (or have some suspicious about) that practice. Written by a conservative evangelical Protestant, it is handsome and nicely done, inviting folks to this classic spiritual practice.
As I’ve said at BookNotes before, I liked this a lot and even appreciate the handsome design (with touches of purple ink.) Nice job, Moody Press.
40 Days of Decrease: A Different Kind of Hunger. a Different Kind of Fast.Dr. Alicia Britt Chole (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 This has been a popular one for us, a very interesting and easy read, but yet challenging. It is useful for any time, but maybe is designed for Lent — especially for those that aren’t terribly connected to a liturgical tradition and just want to enter a 40-day experiment. It calls us away from trivial sorts of symbolic gestures and invites us to give up dangerous stuff. And, significantly, it invites us to do so in community, as small groups or families or maybe whole congregations. Wow — this is worth considering!
Here is how the publisher describes it:
“What are you giving up for Lent?” we are asked. Our minds begin to whirl: Chocolate? Designer coffee? Social media? Forty days later, some feel disappointed in their efforts (it was a limited-time blend), some feel surprised by their success (didn’t even miss it), but perhaps precious few feel spiritually renewed.
Can such fasts alone truly prepare us to celebrate Easter? Or any other chosen time of reflection during the year?
Or could it be that before we can be duly awed by resurrection, we need to daily honor crucifixion?
40 Days of Decrease emphasizes a different type of fast. What if you or your church fasted comparison? What if your family fasted accumulation? What if your office fasted gossip?
40 Days of Decrease guides readers through a study of Jesus’ uncommon and uncomfortable call to abandon the world’s illusions, embrace His kingdom’s reality, and journey cross-ward and beyond.
Ancient Practice Series: Fasting Scot McKnight (Thomas Nelson) $12.99 Do you know, or do you maybe recall hearing about, the “Ancient Practice” series that the late Phyllis Tickle put together almost 10 years ago, now. She found authors who could write in ways that were deeply ecumenical, informed by ancient ways, and yet accesible and even upbeat. I loved these books — Dan Allender on sabbath, Robert Benson on fixed hour prayer, one on pilgrimage and one on eucharist and one on the church year and one on tithing. (Interestingly, these are practices shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews.) Anyway, McKnight here has given us one of the most insightful and helpful books about fasting. It’s a good time to read it, no? Very nicely done.
Comfort Detox: Finding Freedom from Habits That Bind You Erin M. Straza (IVP) $17.00 Well, how about you? I know I’m often feeling overwhelmed and stressed and perhaps (truth be told, but we’re among friends, eh?) a little jealous about the success of my friends and peers. I do not feel like we live a life of ease, although I realize any complaining I do is always in the context of first world problems. We’re not starving. Still even though I fret about my own pain and worries, I realize that there are comforts I cling to (complaining? feeling like I ought to have privilege?) and, like many middle class folks, maybe ought to take a hard look. I’m not going to lie: I haven’t read this and not sure I will. Without digging deep, my first instinct is I don’t have that much comfort to give up.
But those who have read this have said it is excellent; maybe you, like me, ought to check it out.
See how four authors I deeply respect have described it:
“In an age when the problems of the world are one keystroke away, never has it been so tempting (or so easy) to retreat into our cocoons of comfort. Never has it been more vital that we don’t. In Comfort Detox, a simultaneously profound, personal, and practical book, Erin Straza invites us to live for something more than our own comfort―to discover the truer peace that comes from knowing the divine Comforter and extending his comfort to those in need.” Hannah Anderson, author of Humble Roots and Made for More
“Erin skillfully captures the nature of our addiction to comfort and its power and ubiquity in modern American life. Weaving personal narratives, Scripture, and practical advice, Straza shows how we can leave behind a worldly, desiccated vision of comfort for the true comfort of Christ.” Alan Noble, author of Disruptive Witness
“Our obsessive pursuit of comfort may be the most acute and least diagnosed malady of North American Christianity. In Comfort Detox, Erin Straza helps readers imagine something more glorious―if also riskier―than a life insulated from interruption, inconvenience, and even anguish. I am grateful for her invitation to keep company with Jesus―and keep watch with a sorrowing world.” Jen Pollock Michel, author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place
“Comfort Detox exposes the way our everyday complacencies keep us from seeing and responding to the needs of those both near and far. With compassion and conviction, Erin Straza shows us how we can and why we must break the habits that serve self rather than others.” Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked and Fierce Convictions and On Reading Well
Ms. Straza herself writes:
For too long I have lived life on comfort mode, making choices for life engagement based on safety, ease, and convenience. It has left me very little wiggle room, just a small parcel of real estate upon which to live, move, and have my being. It’s not quite the abundant life Jesus was offering.
The publisher explains it like this:
Whether we’re aware of it or not, our minds, bodies, and souls often seek out what’s comfortable. Erin Straza has gone on a journey of self-discovery, awakening to her own inherent drive for a comfort that cannot truly fulfill or satisfy. She depicts her struggles with vulnerability and honesty, and shares stories of other women who are on this same path. Straza also provides practical insights and exercises to help you find freedom from the lure of the comfortable. This detox program will allow you to recognize pseudo versions of comfort and replace them with a conviction to embrace God’s true comfort. Discover the secret to countering the comfort addiction and become available as God’s agent of comfort to serve a world that longs for his justice and mercy.
Sounds like this time of Lenten reflection towards the cross might be a time to dig into this. Anybody in?
City of God: Faith in the Streets Sara Miles (Jericho Books) $16.00 We love the extraordinary writing and remarkable storytelling of colorful Episcopalian convert and author and activist Sara Miles. We recommend her stunning story of her own unlikely conversion in Take This Bread and the exceptionally moving, feisty, raw book about urban ministry called Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, and Raising the Dead.City of God (now out in paperback) is her third since her coming to faith. What a writer! We commend City of God for this time of year, though, because it is a further rumination on her life among the under-resourced in the Bay area of San Francisco, working out of the famously eccentric St. Gregory’s, framed by her experiences on Ash Wednesday, make this a memoir well suited as a Lenten reflection. In fact, most of it is about her ministry of offering ashes out on the streets. Wow.
Here is just a little of what I wrote in a longer review three years ago when it first came out and I first spent time with it:
…. I want to tell you about one of the most interesting books I’ve read in quite a while and it is perfect to read here as we approach Lent; as you’ll see it is a memoir mostly about experiencing Ash Wednesday. It arrived into the shop a few weeks ago, but, because I know this writer is thoughtful and such a very good wordsmith (and would be writing about some fairly intense stuff that I would want to consider carefully) I wanted to hold it until I had time to savor, to appreciate, to ponder, and to grapple with it.
Today I feel a little like Jacob after that long night of struggle, a bit banged-up myself, but blessed for the effort. I read the new book City of God: Faith in the Streets by a truly fascinating person and gifted, remarkable writer, self-confessed Episcopalian “church nerd” Sara Miles. I have read her earlier books and spent a few days at an event with her a year ago. I respect her a lot, as a writer and as a follower of Christ.
The City of God: Faith in the Streetsis mostly about celebrating in high church fashion the service of putting ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent.) And doing it out on the streets, for one and all.
City of God is an amazing book for several reasons. Firstly, it chronicles one day in Mile’s life, a busy Ash Wednesday, and three Ash Wednesday services in which she was involved that day.
Coloring Lent: An Adult Coloring Book for the Journey to ResurrectionChristopher D. Rodkey & Jesse & Natalie Turri (Chalice Press) $12.99 Lastly, I hope you have seen the BookNotes posts we have done about our friend and neighbor, UCC pastor and postmodern theologian, Chris Rodkey, and his three exceptional adult coloring books. Along with some Pennsylvania artist friends, he did an unusually interesting Lenten coloring book for adults that follows the lectionary, called Coloring Lent. Trust me — there is nothing like it. See our earlier review, which is pretty interesting, actually, HERE.
For what it’s worth, Chris and his artist friends did another one called Coloring Advent and also a new one — which you really should check out — called Coloring Women of the Bible (Chalice Press; $14.99.) As I’ve suggested in our reviews of the other two, there is more meat here than meets the eye and the captions and art (kudos to Natalie Turri ) and the footnotes all make for a deeply provocative, learning experience as one takes time to attend to this approach to the Biblical texts.
BUY ANY OF THESE AT OUR BOOKNOTES DISCOUNTED PRICE BY CLICKING ON THE ORDER LINK BELOW WHICH WILL TAKE YOU TO THE SECURE ORDER FORM PAGE OF HEARTS & MINDS. WE’LL BE IN TOUCH TO CONFIRM.
Thanks to all who expressed appreciation for last week’s big Best of… list. We are truly grateful for your encouragement. Thanks even more to those who sent us orders. You all keep us going. (Although let’s not fool ourselves; this business can’t survive on accolades alone.) So, fight the social trends and resist the cultural tendencies: read, read, read! Buy books and give them away. Stack them around. Spend less on other stuff and invest in interesting books. Be curious. (Use your library!) As Karen Swallow Prior says, reveling in an older usage, read promiscuously. Move beyond the predictability of safe Christian book lists or popular best-seller fare. Be surprised; take risks; dare greatly in your book buying. Have fun subverting the spiffy ease of digital everything. Don’t you want to be the kind of person that does that, that kind of reader, that kind of book buyer?
We think we can help.
Here are some more titles we really enjoyed this Year of our Lord that deserve special acclaim. Add this to our previous list of favorites for 2018.
We suspect some of these titles we are about to celebrate are not for everyone, but after last week’s honoring of truly significant works, we wanted to highlight more. Some of these are doubtlessly deserving of highly significant honors, others we were itching to name because one of us was wowed by reading them or we got a kick out of telling folks about them. These are some that we have to name as we look back in our year in review. Congrats to one and all.
BEST BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS, READING, and WRITING
On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books Karen Swallow Prior (Brazos Press) $19.99 I certainly hope you didn’t miss the hullabaloo about this wonderful work this fall. We celebrated it because (a) we love Karen and her other work, such as Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and her biography called Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist and (b) because this book is about the value and virtues of reading classic and higher quality literature, and (b) because our good friend from Square Halo Books and World’s End Images, Ned Bustard, did artwork for each chapter. That this book got so much publicity on-line, in newspapers and podcasts and (yes!) here at the shop where we had a wonderful evening hosting her speaking about her passion for books and reading from On Reading Well, is just further indication that this is an important work that resonated with many. Blurbs on the back are from diverse authors such as Jonathan Merritt (who says “her book on books is her best yet… a love letter to literature.), Tish Harrison Warren (who says it is “an exploration of the formative power of stories and an excavation of the life well lived.”), and Russell Moore who says On Reading Well is for those who may at first think reading about reading is for them. He continues, “A significant and powerful work that will refocus discussion on the meaning of reading for spiritual formation.”
I enjoyed writing a long review of it at BookNotes and concur with Tish Warren, who writes,
This story-saturated engagement with the virtues is pragmatic enough to touch the nitty-gritty of our lives and imaginative enough to inspire.
We are not the only ones to determine to honor and celebrate Karen Swallow Prior and her book OnReading Well as one of the best books of 2018. It was happily on a number of critics and periodicals end of the year lists and has garnered a number of impressive awards. Now is gets a coveted — haha — Hearts & Minds Best Book award as well. Cheers!
I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life Anne Bogel (Baker Books) $14.99 Oh my, we wish we could just give these out to anyone and everyone — it is a book lover’s joy to see a handsome little book offering all kinds of insights about the lifestyle of being a serious reader. Yet, even though it (not unlike Prior, but perhaps with a bit more whimsy) understands and helps explains the significance and implications of the reading life, it also holds up the joy and quirky (charming and sometimes odd) habits that those of us who love books exhibit.
Anne Bogel, as we explained in our review earlier, is the creator of the popular blog Modern Mrs. Darcey and the podcast What Should I Read Next. I suppose this may be aimed at female readers, mostly, but I loved it. Beth and I (and our staff) so appreciate a little volume that declares to the world what we are about and is unashamed to admit that many of have this hobby that is more than a hobby but nearly a beautiful obsession. Anybody who loves reading and cares about their bookish habits will enjoy this and I know many have purchased it as a little gift for their book-loving friends. More importantly, perhaps, it might introduce the charms and benefits of reading to those yet to be seduced. Let us hope this good guide makes it way to many.
Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life Sarah Clarkson (Tyndale Momentum) $15.99 There is no doubt this is one of my favorite books of 2018 and one we will continue to tell others about for a long time to come. In my too-brief review last fall I considered, but did not, use a Goldilocks analogue, but I shall now. If Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well is tooo tough and long and Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather Be Reading is tooo short and sweet, well, Book Girl is “just right!” Indeed, Clarkson is as smart and charming and fun and practical and wise (and well-read!) as both of the above mentioned authors and their books combined. I adored this very, very thoughtful reminder of what books can do for us, the profound ways they shape our worldview, the way they can create empathy and help us navigate our world. It is a wonder no one has written a book quite like this (although, I must say, it is stuff I’ve said often in workshops and lectures.)
Not only did Book Girl make a convincing case about the value of the reading life and explain how books nurture both the life of the mind and the calibre of the heart, it also is loaded with book lists, recommended readings, annotated inventories of titles for this or that topic. Highly recommended.
Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William edited by Jack R. Baker & Jeffrey Bilbro (Front Porch Republic Books) $27.00 There are so many books that fall into the “literary criticism” and “books about books” category and we appreciate many. For instance, who wouldn’t find intriguing a 2018 book called Haunted by Christ: Modern Writers and the Struggle for Faith (by Richard Harris; SPCK; $27.00) or the fabulous new book from Plough Publishing called The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers (compiled by Carole Vanderhoof; $18.00.) One of the good ones that we actually sold a handful of was by the great Sarah Arthur called A Light So Lovely:The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle; Zondervan; $19.99.) There are so many books like this and we are glad.
But Baker & Bilbro have given us something truly remarkable and I am thrilled to tell you about it. Telling the StoriesRight, as the subtitle suggests, is a collection of essays about the fictional world Wendell Berry has created, the legendary Port William of Kentucky. Berry is known as an essayist and agrarian reformer. He is a farmer, a poet, an environmental activist, and is well known for essays about rural life, farmer — the good and the bad — and about being attentive to place, to land, to creation. For instance, 2017 saw a fabulous hardback collection of recent agrarian essays (The Art of Loading Brush) but 2018 saw the release of the first volume of the handsome Library of America ‘s (what will be) complete collection of Berry’s fiction, in (fictional) chronological order. In this volume, all of his novels and short stories are placed in the proper order (not when they were written, but when the story takes place) starting somewhat after the Civil War. The prestigious Library of America will do a second volume two collected fictional works maybe next year…
This Front Porch Republic book by Baker & Bilbro offers a look at many facets of Berry’s fiction, his rendering of the small Kentucky town and it’s fields and characters and ethos. There are twelve chapters here and as it says on the back, they “approach Berry’s fiction from a variety of perspectives — literary studies, journalism, theology, history, songwriting — to shed light on its remarkable ability to make a good life imaginable and compelling. This volume is not the first to study his fiction but it is the best, insisting that “any consideration of Berry’s work bust being with his stories.”
There are wonderful writers here, doing very interesting things. Kiara Jorgenson from St. Olaf College writes about affection and the sense of vocation in the stories. Eric Miller, a historian who teaches at Geneva College (and who lived for a spell in York, PA, near us) studies letters Wendell Berry received, about the novels, looking for clues to how readers respond to the stories. Bilbro’s own chapter is called “Andy Catlett’s Missing Hand: Making Do as Wounded Members.” Jake Meador of the Davenant Institute writes on Jayber Crow; singer-songwriter and founder of Rabbit Room Andrew Peterson has a lovely, short chapter paying tribute. A few other acquaintances are here: Michael Stevens (who wrote the first book that explored Berry from a Christian viewpoint, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life) has a brilliant chapter about marginal characters (and hedgerows.) Doug Sikkema writes for Comment and has a piece about the “narrative tradition” of Berry’s fiction, comparing him to Stegner, Stanford, and the Class of ’58. Yes, the women and men who offered chapters here know Berry’s work well and obviously enjoy writing about this fictional place that “makes goodness compelling.”
The next best thing to reading Berry is to read those who write about Berry’s writing. We should be extremely grateful that we now have this collection of wise investigations of Berry’s novels and short stories. These essays do what they were meant to do which is nothing less than celebrate Berry’s fertile imagination.” –Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University
“”When I encounter readers, who share Wendell Berry’s concerns but are unfamiliar with his work, I urge them to begin with his fiction. One finds there, more fully arrayed than in his essays or poetry, the web of relationships connecting persons, place, and community. The weaving of that web, on the page and in the world, is the subject of the dozen studies in this book, a worthy guide to the storytelling art of an essential author.” –Scott Sanders, author of Earth Works
A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’EngleSarah Arthur (Zondervan) $19.99 I do not know if you will adore this book or not. If you like L’Engle you will be glad to learn of her impact and influence on others. You may know about some of her struggles, personal and otherwise (including the loud criticisms she got from some quarters. It seems she was to open-minded and literary for some conservative religious adherents and yet too Christian for some mainstream critics. Yep.) From Phil Yancey to Luci Shaw, she inspired and befriended many thoughtful Christian writers, and her soul friends are here. Fiction writers like Jeffrey Overstreet are interviewed as are other of L’Engle’s writing colleagues.
Her faith was profound and she had what might be called a sacramental view of reality. This book explores her view of her craft as a writer, her role as a thinker, cites her memoirs and essays and Bible studies as well as the Wrinkle in Time works. It’s thoughtful, but not heavy, but not a simple biography. It really is does explore L’Engle’s “spiritual legacy.” I liked the little “French fold” covers that make it extra nicer, not to mention a foreword by Charlotte Jones Voiklis. And you thought you like Meg Murray and Calvin O’Keefe! Thanks to Sarah Arthur for offering this lovely book.
BOOKS OF FAITH FORMATION (BUT NOT TYPICAL DEVOTIONAL/CHRISTIAN LIVING WRITING)
Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts Marilyn McEntyre (Eerdmans) $21.99 Even if I hadn’t cracked the cover of this compact, hand-sized hardback I’d have nominated for a “best cover” award, I think. I love Marilyn McEntyre, having read several of her volumes of poetry, devotion, Advent, books about grief, about dying, even one about St. Patrick. I’ve chatted with here and served on a panel once and she remains a literary hero. One of my favorite books in the last decade has become a chestnut for me, one I take everywhere and often press into people’s hands — it is called Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. These were lectures (The Stone Lectures at Princeton, actually) riffing on the theme of words as natural resources and offering “stewardship strategies” to steward them well lest they turn toxic and pollute our common life. More recently she did a lovely and thoughtful devotional playing with words, called Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice. And later this year, Eerdmans will release When Poets Pray.
Make a List is the one we are honoring now, though; at first blush it seems less overly spiritual than most of her others. And yet, this human practice — list making — can be stewarded well, as well, and can become a spiritual discipline. In her insightful hands, a book about list-making becomes a mature and generative work. Who knew?
We could give this an award, if we were being goofy, about Make a List being one of the hardest books to know where to shelf here in the shop. Is it a self-help book? A time management tool? A resource for the absentminded, helping one become productive in a “getting things done” section of the store? Or is it, as the subtitle audaciously says, a “practice” that can “open our hearts”? Maybe we should put it under spiritual formation? As Jamie Smith says, ‘the things we do, do things to us” so, surely, this is a book about formation.
The author is treasured by many. Authors and artists and theologians such as Shauna Niequist and Michael Card and Samuel Wells all have accolades on the back of the book. Lauren Winner’s endorsement is on the front. Any new book of McEntyre’s, we think, is deserving of a very big shout out. I think I’ll make a list of all the things I like about this. Number one is that it is just so nicely written, so charming and artful and good. Cheers.
Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People Bob Goff (Nelson) $16.99 This is, obviously, one of the notable books of 2018. Bob is a funny, funny, guy, but behind the exuberance and whimsy and connecting everybody and encouraging others is a sly, whimsical, but sly strategy. Bob is inviting people to live a better story, a story connected to the big themes of the Kingdom of God, the joys (and sacrifices) of following Jesus. He knows the gospels and he has spent much of his life serving God, helping others, building a famously creative and adventurous family — not to mention an avocation of fighting sexual trafficking, starting orphanages in war zones, schools in rural Africa, and coming alongside folks as diverse as hipster cum business consultant Donald Miller to thoughtful global activist and history writer Jay Milbrandt or fun and fiery spiritual renewal leader Bianca Juarez Olthoff. He gets around and knows folks all over — just read the wonderful forward to, for instance, the brand new Salvaged: Leadership Lessons Pulled from the Junkyard by his childhood friend, Roy Goble or learn how he continues to serve folks in Somalia or Uganda. What his Dream Big video promos and pick up the wholesome, energetic, encouragement.
Anyway, like his much-loved Love Does this 2018 release is inspiring, funny, dramatic, well-told, audacious, and yet, oddly, down to Earth. Some have told us they think some of the stories are more powerful than Love Does. I think that may be the case….I couldn’t put it down, but what do you expect.
We carry the DVD, too. Top notch, sure to please almost any teen or adult ed class or small group. Not terribly intense doctrinal study, but if you, like Bob, want to “love everyone, always” but being involved in “Bible doings” not just “Bible studies”, he’s your man.
If you want to “Dream Big” as he puts it, he’s really your man.
Here is how the publisher describes Everybody Always:
Driven by Bob’s trademark storytelling, Everybody, Always reveals the lessons Bob learned–often the hard way–about what it means to love without inhibition, insecurity, or restriction. From finding the right friends to discovering the upside of failure, Everybody, Always points the way to embodying love by doing the unexpected, the intimidating, the seemingly impossible. Whether losing his shoes while skydiving solo or befriending a Ugandan witch doctor, Bob steps into life with a no-limits embrace of others that is as infectious as it is extraordinarily ordinary. Everybody, Always reveals how we can do the same.
Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light Rachel Marie Stone (IVP) $16.00 This is a book that just took my breath away at times, very well written and very well thought out and very touching, tender, even. Rachel tells illuminating stories that hold her life up to the light — and allows us to join her and do the same — and see where fear and loss and pain has shaped her and how hope has broken through. Amy Julia Becker (herself a very talented writer) says “Birthing Hope drew me in from the first page to the last…”
Two scenes early in the book are indicative: there’s a story about her fearing water as she her dad helps her learn to swim. It is so well told and so realistic that I felt it. More extraordinary, perhaps, was a riveting story about a risky procedure in a birthing clinic in a part of Africa plagued by HIV and AIDS. Why are we sometimes brave, why do we take risks why do we sometimes not? Where is God amidst our human fears and foibles?
Rachel Marie Stone wrote a very good, basic, clear, theologically-wise book on food called Eat with Joy that is unparalleled as an accessible good study. As in that one, but more-so, Birthing Hope offers a robust, down-to-Earth creational theology, and, in this case, uses the good metaphor of birth as a way into the conversation (by way of writing about family and motherhood and physicality and anxiety and more) about birthing hope.
There are so many good endorsements of this book and since I am telling you why we name it as one of our favorite books of 2018, allow me to share what others have said, who say it more eloquently than I; do read this — they are eloquent and compelling.
“I love this book. You needn’t have given birth to love it. Maybe you don’t even have to be curious about God or life as a human being to love it―the prose is that strong and compelling that perhaps even the God-and-human-uncurious might love it. My copy is going on my read-once-a-year shelf, after Jane Smiley and before Robert Penn Warren.” (Lauren F. Winner, associate professor at Duke Divinity School, author of Wearing God)
“Ask me what this book is about and I will struggle to give you a simple answer. It is about pregnancy and birth, anxiety and despair, blood and water. It is memoir and history, poetry and theology. Ask me, though, why you should read this book, and my answer is very simple―because you are a person with a body in and through which you bear pain, fear, and failure. Read this book for its necessary wisdom. In our most desperate vulnerability, when all we can do is endure, God is there too.” (Ellen Painter Dollar, author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction)
“Birthing Hope drew me in from the first page to the last. Rachel Marie Stone’s masterful interweaving of family story, theological truth, and personal reflection on birth, life, and loss puts her in the company of writers such as Rebecca Solnit and Eula Biss. I will return to this book for wisdom, beautiful writing, and encouragement that, even in the face of loss and sorrow, it is good to give ourselves to the light.” (Amy Julia Becker, author of Small Talk and A Good and Perfect Gift and White Picket Fences.)
“We all carry fear with us in our bodies. Some of us try to escape it, some excel at denying it, and others attempt to bully it into submission. Rachel Marie Stone’s shimmering writing instead invites readers to recognize the ways in which fear shapes us (and sometimes breaks us) as human beings. Birthing Hope reveals, with honesty and grace, the ways in which holy, embodied hope can re-form our response to fear.” (Michelle Van Loon, author of Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith)
“I’ve been waiting for a book like this one for years, and no one could have written it more beautifully and wisely than Rachel Marie Stone. With the skill of a poet and the patience of a doula, Stone invites the reader to look straight into the face of fear and find in it the spark of hope. There are words and phrases from these pages that I will go on pondering for years. Theologically rich and carefully researched, Birthing Hope is a book for everyone, but as a new mother it proved life changing―the kind of book that leaves you breathless.” (Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday and A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Inspired.)
“Profound theology, deep psychic insight, and the kind of wisdom that only emerges from immersion in life and the Scriptures―Rachel Marie Stone’s book is a treasure, unforgettable, entirely compelling.” (James Howell, author of Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week)
“Why do so many movies and TV shows portray birth so laughably poorly? It’s as if we’ve all agreed the real thing―the most elemental human reality―is too raw and inelegant, too terrible and ecstatic, to be honest about. Rachel Marie Stone upends this conspiracy in this feisty, smart, theologically illuminating book. In her hands, birth is not only a sacrament of solidarity, a sign of hope amid the chaos of doubt and fright, but also a reminder that, for all our talk of immortal souls, we have and are bodies, fearfully and wonderfully so.” (Wesley Hill, author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian)
Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing Jay Stringer (NavPress) $16.99 I thought of listing this in our last list of Best Books of 2018 but I felt like that list was getting long and a bit heavy. The topic of this is heavy, but I wanted to name it in this second list of perhaps more fun and fresh writing. This is not your typical study of lust and purity or closing the window on porn use. It is about finding God’s grace to be transformed, in slow and deep ways, that allow us to find healing from unwanted sins and hard temptations, and it is brutal to read in some ways. But yet, unlike any other book of this kind, it offers a remarkable approach. As String puts in in a slogan perfect for this age of hashtags: listen to your lust.
As we explained before this book came out, we knew of Stringer and his family decades ago, and I’ve come to respect him immensely as we studious and Biblically-informed scholar of psychiatric care. His most important qualification, in my book, besides his being a kind and faithful counselor who is attentive to the Word and attentive to the world, is that he studied with Dan Allender at the Seattle School of Theology.
Dan Allender does not write too many blurbs on too many books, but he says this of Unwanted:
“Without rival, the best book on broken sexuality I have ever read.”
Another key writer on books about sex addictions is Mark Laaser. Laaser wrote the foreword, which is a huge sign that this book is making an important contribution to this field. It is certainly deserving of the accolades and good reviews it has gotten.
Another thing that makes Unwanted a book worthy of acclaim is that it draws on what seems to be the largest survey yet of those who experience some kind of unwanted sexual behavior. And from this data comes a whole lot of anguish and a pattern that emerges: putting a “tourniquet” on these problems, just saying no, getting an accountability partner or safe software doesn’t work. A deeper evaluation is needed, and that is where this book comes in, inviting us to delve more deeply into the backstories of our lives, to reflect on our desires, to re-orient our loves, to seek a reformation of character by healing the hurts that have shaped our desires. He talks about “reenactment” indicating that our current brokenness may be re-playing some deeper hurts and unfulfilled longings.
This isn’t weird or even that unusual. A biblical view of the person affirms that our past plagues us and that we all are hooked into false realities — idols the Bible calls them — and until we let go of those bad stories and wrong idols and defective imaginations, we will never be fully free. Listening to what’s going on deep inside is good advise for anyone seeking spiritual growth and is common sense counsel from any advisor. In the hands of Jay Stringer it becomes a healing balm for many and Unwanted is one of the rare books in faith-based psychology that dares to speak this kind of grace-filled, hard truth. I suspect it is too deeply spiritual for some secular or humanistic counselors and I suspect it is too raw and real for some pious Christian counselors. Read it for yourself and I am sure you will see that it is certainly one of the more interesting books in many year. Kudos.
Becoming Gertrude: How Our Friendships Shape Our Faith Janice Peterson (NavPress) $14.99 Decades ago, Eugene Peterson and I stood in the hallway of a local church, and then slowly strolled out to the parking lot where we chatted a bit and dreamed about him doing a poetry reading at our store. (We had heard he sent out original poems as Christmas gifts to his mailing list of fiends and family, and I knew he might want to read for us some Gerard Manley Hopkins, say. His own poetry volume came out many years later entitled Holy Luck.) Even then, before The Message, Peterson was famous and I was reluctant to invite such a serious thinker to our small bookshop. We couldn’t pay him and we didn’t know how to proceed — we were young and idealistic but didn’t want to be rude. He was hospitable with us, friendly and willing. It never worked out, but I stopped in, later, unannounced (making a delivery, if I recall) to the apartment he and his wife, Jan, shared in Pittsburgh for a year, having left Maryland and before the call to Regent in British Columbia. Gene wasn’t there but oh did I enjoy chatting with Jan. It was a short visit and (I’m not just saying this) she was as gracious and kind and warm as can be. Years later we crossed paths a few other times and conferences or events, and what she writes about in this book (as you’d expect from anyone in this family) is born from a life lived well. She knows how to be friendly and show God’s hospitality and has done so, long before it became somewhat of a trendy theological trope. Becoming Gertrude is about friendship and kindness, showing grace and attending to others being a servant, “pouring into” others, as a younger generation puts it nowadays. In Janice’s younger days, it was as simple as being asked up on the porch for a glass of lemonade by a woman named Gertrude.
Can we all become Gertrude’s to others? This small sized, handsome book of story and guidance is, for all it’s aw-shucks, elderly wisdom, this teaching is more radical and counter-cultural and full of subversive, Kingdom implications than the lovely homespun cover suggests. To say no to busy-ness and be open to interruptions, to say no to “investing” and pragmatics and be present and real, to offer friendships in earnest which opens us up not only to love but to be loved, is not the way of the world, or even the way of the church, too often, these days.
Jan Peterson tells of the bonds of friendship that she has encountered and opens up her own storied life (yes, with some stuff about being married to Gene) but also examines five elements of relationships that can be appreciated and explored in the rhythms of ordinary life. She offers us insight about caring, acceptance, service, hospitality, and the ministry of encouragement. We ourselves can flourish as we offer these gifts to others.
Peterson offers a lot of good reminders about all this — we can get hurt, giving our lives to others with abandon; we should care about simple and good nutrition when sharing food with others, we have to accept our own selves as we practice accepting others.
She writes good words such as these:
When I offer hospitality, something amazing happens — so much more than I have anything to do with. An exchange takes place. Our guests bring who they are with them and enlarge our lives in their offerings. When we offer guests space, a lot of creative growth occurs.
When we announced this a BookNotes earlier in the fall we noted that it had reflection questions that would make Becoming Gertrude a very nice and useful book to read together with others. We honor it as a quiet little guide about friendships and mentoring and much, much more.
Becoming Gertrude: How Our Friendships Shape Our Faith byJanice Peterson released and was in her hands a few weeks before her beloved friend, husband, and partner in ministry died. I am sure Gene was very proud of her and I’m sure all were glad about this bittersweet moment when the book arrived. Now it is available in stores and for sale, and we hope it becomes well known. It might help you become Gertrude, and maybe even become Janice for others.
Keep Christianity Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different Michael Frost (NavPress) $7.99 I should have named this in our last post, but was sort of afraid it might seem weird to celebrate an inexpensive, pocket-sized paperback as a major, enduring book of the year. But, hey-o, let’s keep it a little weird and list this goofball of a book as an award winning, super-important, major release.
For starters, it is not goofy. The “Keep Austin Weird” movement is catching and, like evangelical trend-spotters before him — Tom Sine, decades ago, and Leonard Sweet, just to name two — Frost is naming a cultural moment about which the church should be aware. Give the Aussie a medal, for God’s sake, because this is very, very observant stuff that no one else has named yet. Yep, this is a ground-breaking little bit of analysis, and he’s right on.
Secondly, anybody who has been in small group Bible studies for long has surely heard some joke about being a “peculiar people” as 1 Peter 2 puts it. But, again, this holy call to distinctiveness, is serious, and although we have fun with it (yeah, some of us are more peculiar than others. hahaha) the churches accommodation to the culture around us, the bland and normal and bureaucratic and conformed, that does not invite anyone to be very much surprised by our faith, is surely deeply sad. Why are we so normal?
That is the question Frost examines and it is prophetic and profound. In a short, short, read, he invites us to “go and do likewise” by following an upside-down King of an upside-down Kingdom. Not since Brian Walsh’s utterly profound collection of messages in Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time have we heard this kind of call to “resist the allure of acceptability.”
Frost has written some of the best missional church stuff and some of the best missional discipleship stuff in recent decades. If his name is on it, buy it. But this little volume — an important follow up to his small Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People — is cheap enough and simple enough, that you could pass ’em out like pancakes. It is fun, at times funny, but mostly quite serious as he explore how the cultural creatives in our culture are themselves celebrating the unusual, the eccentric, the artful, the subversive. We need to embrace some of peculiarity if we are to reach them, but that’s only the start. We shouldn’t embrace weird to merely reach those on the cutting edge. We should embrace weird because in doing so there is something very healthy and appropriate for those called to live “non-conformed to the ways of this world.” We should trust God in ways that lead us to be adventuresome, creative, risk-taking and such.
While food trucks and hipster coffee shops and co-working places are popping up all over, malls have become ghost-towns, he reminds us. Nobody wants a McMansion any more. “Millennials have discovered kitchens,” he writes; what can we learn from the culture’s fascination with the artisanal? Who in church history can teach us about radical reformation? What keeps us from being weird? How do relate to the world that is changing, in some ways, perhaps, for the better? What sort of habits and practices and spirituality will bear the fruit of helping us “see things weirdly”? Michael Frost’s Keep Christianity Weird is asking hugely important questions and it is short enough to allow many to join the conversation. One of my favorite books of the year!
Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences Cary Nieuwhof (Waterbrook) $19.99 Although last week’s BookNotes honored some very serious books about theology and culture and spirituality and our public lives that I think are important and good, I wanted to add this to a Best of list, but wasn’t sure where to put it. It is partially an auto-biographical telling of this pastor’s own journey into burnout, somewhat of a pop-self-help book which, while valuable, aren’t always enduring or profound. Nieuwhof is one of these high achievers, known in the mega-church world (he founded a church with one of those edgy-cool names, Connexus) a creative designer of educational programs, leadership podcasts, children’s ministry conferences, and more. Often when authors travel in those high-octane worlds I tend to tune out — they may be considered thought-leaders but I would rather slow it down and invite them to think a bit more about what they are doing. I’m distrustful of the glitz and success, although can admire the organizational energy and communication skills of guys like this.
Alas, I have to admit I was a tad smug when I heard Nieuwhof, organizer, thought-leader, big shot, had a bout of burn-out. And, then, he wrote a book about it. Of course he did.
Well, I’m here to repent of my cynicism (most of it anyway) about this and rejoice that Mr. Nieuwhof wrote this vulnerable, telling, helpful, guide to thinking about this leadership challenge. Well, seven challenges, actually, and not just those faced by leaders but by most all of us, living and agin as we do in a fast-paced world or pressures. These concerns really are for any of us who care at all about the world, who are engaged in good work, who are busy and dedicated and may not attend to our interior lives, even though we’ve heard over and over that that is important for sustained integrity. What happens when this stuff starts going off the rails, when we fall prey to distractions and distortions?
I suppose I didn’t see it coming, either, and still am not sure if my periodic melancholy and anxiety is stress or depression or just lack of sleep. I’ve struggled with this hard stuff most of my adult life — workaholism, we used to call it, being addicted to one’s own adrenaline. Is it ego? Idolatry? Heath issues? Or do serious times demand serious sacrifices? I don’t know, but I was glad to read this book, which I liked much more than I expected, as Neuwhof ruminate on his own being bogged down by distractions. It was reassuring and helpful as he offers guidance about seeing what might be coming around the bend.
There’s binoculars on the cover, after all. Nice.
Here are the seven topics he writes about with remarkable candor: Cynicism, Compromise, Disconnection, Irrelevance, Pride, Burnout, and Emptiness. I bet I’m not the only one who could benefit from this book, eh?
This isn’t a memoir about a major mental health crisis or a moral failure or a terrible crack-up. It just exposes this slow, gnawing, sense that something isn’t right, that we can’t just plow on through, that we have to be aware.
Listen to just a couple of the many fans of this book and of this author:
One of the biggest challenges of the Christian life is staying the course. Experiences happening to us and around us every day try to derail us. In this book, Carey will help you identify some of the biggest distractions threatening to keep you from your God-given destiny and will provide you with tools to redirect your focus and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus so you can finish your race strong.”
—Christine Caine, best-selling author and founder of A21 and Propel Women
“If you don’t take the time to see what’s coming at you, you can’t see the One who’s coming for you. And that’s why you have to read this book, which hands you more than binoculars. Carey Nieuwhof offers you his own beckoning hand. And he is one uncommonly perceptive and generous guide whose fresh, luminous insights are a needed lens for all leaders to scout out more courage, more capacity, more Christ.”
—Ann Voskamp, author of New York Times bestsellers The Broken Way and One Thousand Gifts
“Communication skills are only half the battle in leadership and life. If we’re honest, the real struggle happens inside our hearts and souls. Nieuwhof’s new book provides expert guidance in the life issues that make or break us as leaders and as people. He addresses each issue honestly and with an accuracy that pierces the heart.”
—Nancy Duarte, best-selling author and CEO of Duarte Inc.
“Carey Nieuwhof cares deeply about leaders and proves it with this challenging yet hopeful book. We all need a guide to help us know what’s around the corner in our leadership journey, and Carey provides helpful perspective for any leader at any level.”
—Brad Lomenick, author of H3 Leadership and The Catalyst Leader and former president of Catalyst
FAVORITE MEMOIRS & BIOGRAPHY
Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, A Coffin, and a Measure of Life David Giffels (Scribnerr) $16.00 I had not read a single review of this, but the title itself — gosh, even those first two words should be award winning for a great title! — and the beautiful, beautiful cover made me pick it up. I told groups about it when it first came out, people who like well-written memoir, good stories, fine writing about the meaning of life that isn’t pushy or propaganda. For readers who like those who press into the mysteries by telling a good story with eloquence and good humor.
Well, did I under-sell this. It is brilliantly written, doing all of the above in spades. Giffels is a great writer, turning phrase after phrase that made me catch my breath, even as he writes about boyhood plywood projects or going to a lumber yard with his aging father. How eloquent can a guy be talking about lumber, you ask? Pretty damn eloquent, I’d say. Giffels is a master of common-place prose and it made Furnishing Eternity a true delight. I can’t tell you enough how much I loved his writing Akron writing style.
Speaking of which, Giffels was raised by a book-loving mother — she owned the whole big set of OOD, which many a library doesn’t even own — and he teaches creative writing at University and has two other books under his belt, so he’s no novice. (He previously wrote a great volume we stock called The Hard Way: Dispatches from the Rust Belt and another memoir called All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House. He used to be on NPR and has written for, get this, MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. Like I said, not a novice.)
Besides the spectacular craft of his witty, blue-collar eloquence — is that a style? I disagreed with Publishers Weekly saying it was “a sweetly mordant” — the book is tender without being sentimental, raw without being morbid. He is, you understand, making his coffin with his wood-working father. Part of it is that Giffels is cheap and can’t abide paying the crazy-high prices for those big caskets with the fancy presidential names. Also, he loves to do these kinds of projects. As his mother is dying of cancer and his father falls ill, he is forced to consider his own mortality. Furnishing Eternity is literally about making a casket (called a coffin in most other English speaking countries) with his dad. Hence the trip to the lumber section of Home Depot and his rumination about more glorious wood choices at the local lumber yard that had just burned down.
With chapter titles like “Measure Twice, Cut Once” it really does have some stuff about wood-working, although most of the writing is the bigger backstory. I liked the line from one reviewer who called it “a saga of death and carpentry.” Kirkus Review put it simply, saying Furnishing Eternity is “a lifetime’s worth of workbench philosophy in a heartfelt memoir about the connection between a father and son.”
I so enjoyed this book and I enjoyed it on multiple levels. It is doubtlessly one of my favorite books of recent years and a Best Book of 2018.
Is it possible to write about the death of your mother, the death of your best friend, the coming death of your father and the inevitable death of yourself in a context that’s both honest and lighthearted? Only if you are David Giffels, and only if you also include some practical information about woodworking. This book is like a Randy Newman song.”
Chuck Klosterman, New York Times bestselling author of But What If We’re Wrong?
“Giffels does the rare emotional work of peering behind the curtain of the father-son relationship, and examining it under the press of mortality. He writes with honesty, humor but above all generosity. We could all learn something from these excellent pages.” Alexandra Fuller, author of Quiet Until the Thaw
“Obituary writers know our job is essentially reassessing life through the lens of death, searching for lessons. Giffels’ writing is clever, vivid, hilarious and touching without ever being maudlin. He writes with the humor, expertise, reflection and precision of Steve Martin, Jessica Mitford and Bob Vila sharing a drink at a wake. In the process, he and his family have constructed a story filled with lasting lessons for us all.” —Jim Sheeler, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of Final Salute and Obit
Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints Christiana Peterson (Herald Press) $16.99 We announced this at BookNotes with great delight and I noted that throughout this memoir the author has sidebars about various saints — Francis, Clare, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, who she has an uneasy relationship with, and more — including some letters written to them. This is wonderful stuff, great for those exploring these old saints for the first time.There is a very nice foreword by spiritual writer Jon Sweeney, a former fundamentalist who learned of the mystics, especially Francis, from Mennonites (which is appropriate since Peterson and her husband joined a Mennonite rural community.) The titles refers to these mystics, but what I loved most about it was less about the contemplative journey but as a well-told memoir about a young married couple trying to find a more simple lifestyle, leaving the bustle and high-power work of Washington DC to a farming community in the rural mid-West.
Even for those who haven’t experimented with intentional living or read much about utopian communities, the back-to-the-land movement of the 70s, or the newer contemporary monastic movements, this story of a fairly mainstream couple moving to share life in this Mennonite gathering (of separate homes and land) is captivating.
Plow Creek is the name of the intentional community Christiana and her husband discovered and with a bit of prayer and vetting — but not as much as one might think — off they went to take up their new lives as part of this faith-based community. And, wow, what a journey. What a story! Peterson is an honest and good writer and I was hooked as she so beautifully told of the experiences at Plow Creek, the descriptions of the joys and hardships of farm labor, realizing the different sort of faith traditions and personalities in the community, the struggle with members, volunteers, interns, are all told with verve and clarity. Which is to say, I couldn’t put it down. Each night I’d read more — yes, appreciating the interludes with pieces on St. Francis or Dorothy Day, and, yes, appreciating Peterson’s own journey learning about Nouwen and Merton, deepening her faith as she experimented with spiritual writings of this classic sort and dabbled in contemplative prayer herself. (Again, the blurbs are by writers like Richard Rohr, who she nicely describes reading, by the way) but be aware, the book is more about the misfits than the mystics. And much more about loss and endurance than prayer and ecstasy. It is a memoir, not a guide to contemplation, but she does introduce us to many historical figures and her description is excellent. Even those familiar with these saints will learn something new!
Listen to these two reflections on the book:
“I cried healing tears as I read this book. Christiana N. Peterson’s breathtaking way with words, coupled with her rare perception–her ability to name unseen movement in the air around grief, family, and community, and the mysterious shifts in the soul–left me pared back and longing for the deeper, more honest things of faith. Anyone grappling for words to express the strange intermingling of joy and suffering needs to look no further. Peterson brings in the misfits (the saints and the readers both), looks us in the eyes, and makes room for us to embrace the only thing we can in the midst of this nuanced, beautiful, and painful life in the flesh. She makes room for us to embrace the mystical misfit within us all.”
–Amber Haines, author of Wild in the Hollow
“In Christiana N. Peterson’s beautifully told memoir, the reader comes to understand that our relationships with saints living and dead can take many forms but that at their heart, they are about the compassion that draws us into community. Peterson deftly sketches the optimism that drew her to an intentional Mennonite community as well as the difficulties of community and family life while carrying on conversations with her chosen groupings of Catholic saints. It’s an unexpected juxtaposition that works beautifully.” –Kaya Oakes, author of Radical Reinvention
Both of those authors, by the way, Amber Haines, a former evangelical, and Kaya Oakes, a Catholic punk rocker, have done spiritual autobiographies that blew me away. I am glad to see Christiana Peterson’s Mennonite publisher drawing on these sorts of good writers to endorse this book. It is a good, good work and should be very widely read. I gladly name it as one of my favorite books of 2018. You’ll have to get it yourself to see how the Plow Creek story unfolds and how Christiana and Matthew and their children fared in this experiment with community. You don’t want to miss it.
How To Be A Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green (HMH) $20.00 Without a doubt, this is was one of the enjoyable and moving books I read this year. I was surprised, actually, by how much I liked it. The story is simple — Sy Montgomery is a serious animal lover and a scientist of sorts, and each chapter is a part of her life as told through the lens of her relationship with an animal. From her own dog (and pig!) to extraordinary journeys to a Southern Pacific cloud forest to study rare tree kangaroos to the opening piece on making eye contact with emus in the Australian Outback.
As I said in our earlier BookNotes review, this is an immediately attractive book for those that like creative and whimsical design, but don’t let the colorful, child-like look confuse you, let alone dissuade you, for considering this extraordinary, thoughtful, beautifully-written book. I forget how we first discovered this – maybe from the brilliant Brain Pickings blog by the genius Maria Popova. It’s that kind of book: about nature and science and human psychology and meaning; it is full of nuance and wit, the wonder of life and startling truth. And it is nicely illustrated. It is, as the subtitle suggests, a study of what it means to learn from a certain animal, with each chapter exploring a certain creature.
The first line of the just-jacket reads: “Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative.” Indeed. How to Be a Good Creature is a great read for anyone who loves animals, for those who sense they are connected well to other living things, or who exhibits great empathy. This collection of animal stories is for the curious and caring, what one reviewed called “a rare jewel” and what another described as “a superbly crafted memoir,” saying it “brims with wonder, empathy, and emotion.” Beth and I both loved this book (Beth has been reading many of the chapters twice for the sheer joy of it.) I will spare you the Biblical justification for caring about creation, as I trust you understand that. You will understand it more deeply by enjoying this set of interlocking narratives. One of the Best Books of 2018.
Why Religion: A Personal Story Elaine Pagels (Ecco) $27.99 Neither Beth nor I have read this fully, but we wanted to name it because people have told us it is extraordinary. The story is remarkable — one of the leading scholars of gnosticism who went forward at a Billy Graham rally as a teen, and hung out with Jerry Garcia. Her longing to be a dancer with Martha Graham, her being groped as a young academic in religious studies, her earning national awards for contributions to history and humanities. One customer of our insisted with great passion that it was perhaps the best book of this sort she has ever read! We heard Pagels on NPR and we were very moved, eager to sell the book, despite some misgivings about her own personal scholarship and views about topics such as the gnostic gospels or the nature of Satan or how one determines what is true about anything, actually.
Be that as it may, Pagels is one of the legendary scholars of religion in American and is in some ways emblematic of a certain sort of non-Christian scholar who is greatly respected in the field and as such, her story is important to read. Still, I wondered how interesting her life could be, studying and writing about arcane stuff as she does, reading Coptic, writing books? But, boy, was I wrong: Pagels writes thoughtfully and beautifully, by all accounts (one important reviewer called it “luminous”) of the deepest things of life, including the tragic death of her son — he died in her arms at age 6 — and, a year later, the shocking loss of her husband (who fell to his death while hiking) and other immeasurable hardships and perplexities. Her life has been anything but dull and her writing is vivid. This is a serious study of culture by way of a very potent memoir of a fascinating life.
Here are some of the rave reviews Why Religion? A Personal Story has garnered; it is hard to avoid the consensus among the cultural gatekeepers that this book is a must-read and worthy of our consideration. I’m hoping to finish it soon, searing as it is.
“Pagels has done it again, but more personally. The scholar’s tale of loving, grieving, enduring, and searching will grab readers at the outset and never let them go. A memorable story unforgettably told.”– Madeleine Albright, author of Fascism: A Warning
“Elaine Pagels’ study of new gospels and revelations challenged our understanding of ancient Christianity. In this mesmerizing memoir, we see how she was also grappling with devastating loss and struggling within to find “the light that never fails,” even in deepest anger and guilt, grief and desolation. A must read.”– Karen L. King, Hollis Professor Divinity, Harvard University
“Elaine Pagels has written an extraordinary memoir of loss, spiritual struggle, illumination and insight–emotionally heartrending, intellectually exciting, a model of what a memoir should be.”–Joyce Carol Oates, bestselling author
“With characteristic intelligence and wisdom, Elaine Pagels lays bare her own life-shattering losses, offering up the possibility that suffering might afford each of us membership in a profoundly connected human–and cosmic–community. Why Religion? is a revelation and an immense consolation.”– Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States
“A magnificent, searing, soul-affirming memoir. Pagels shines the bright light of her brilliant mind on the most essential of human dilemmas: how do we go on in the face of immeasurable loss? I came away from this book transformed.”– Dani Shapiro
“In this compelling, honest, and learned memoir, Elaine Pagels, takes us inside her own life in a stirring and illuminating effort to explain religion’s enduring appeal. This is a powerful book about the most powerful of forces.”– Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
“A wide-ranging work of cultural reflection and a brisk tour of the most exciting religion scholarship over the past 40 years. . . . Pagels is as fearless as she is candid.”– Washington Post
Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy Michael Perry (Harper) $25.99 Beth would say that the first coupla pages are so beautiful in their homespun way that it is worth buying to book for that joy alone. She and I both agree that this was one of the most fascinating, wonderful, interesting and funny books we read all year.
I have tried over and over to convince folks that the essays and memoirs of this blue-collar Wisconsin rural guy are worth reading, every single one. From memoir-ish storytelling in Population 485Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time to Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace to Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg to Truck: A Love Story and his several collection of hilarious collections of short essays (we named Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and Off the Back Forty one of our favorite reads in 2016!) this is an author who has a way with words, an aww-shucks sort of self-deprecating humility, and an earnest demeanor. And man, can he spin a good tale.
I’d read anything he writes, but this is curious, perhaps his most serious. Perry may come across a bit like those up North guys standing in the cranberry bogs in those TV commercials, but he’s smart as heck. In Montaigne in Barn Boots he tells how he has discovered the 1700s French philosopher. Montaigne wrote about all manner of stuff — including sex and apparently quite a bit of adolescent humor, which makes him perfect for the shameless Mr. Perry. Yet, it gets serious, pondering God and marriage and justice and illness. Perry himself has been in more pain than I think I ever would have guessed and he is vulnerable here without being saccharine. He is exceptionally thoughtful without being dense. Between barnyard jokes and small town stories and not a little bit of personal back story, Perry invites us to join in the ongoing conversation about this world-famous figure.
Perry knows the secondary literature (and there is a lot.) He’s a good teacher. Between guffaws, you’ll learn a bit. But here is what I really loved: you’ll be introduced to how a guy comes to enjoy learning about important philosophical stuff. Even while being a forgetful and sloppy worker and an anxious writer and a less than fully successful breadwinner, he’s buying books and learning up and sharing this story about his love of learning. I bet you’ve never read anything like this. Believe it or not this is absolutely a Best Book of 2018. Beth and I both say it is very highly recommended.
All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way Patrice Gopo (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 I so enjoyed this and thought it so very interesting and well written that we exclaimed about it at BookNotes late last summer when it first came out. Many of been reading 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. All the Colors We Will See is simply a 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 special, too — such an endorsement assures us we are on firm ground naming this as one of the Best Books of 2018. He notes that Gopo’s “calm voice and winsome demeanor” allows her to speak hard truths… including “what it takes to continue in Christ’s love despite the fallen and falling world around us.”
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”?
That she lived in Pittsburgh for a while makes it that much more enjoyable for some of us who love that city. Importantly, she navigates the shift in cultures, telling about living in the deep south, reflecting on immigration questions, turning her voice (as it says nicely on the back cover) “to themes such as marriage and divorce, the societal beauty standards we hold, and the intricacies of living out our faith.”
There is a simple eloquence here, and it is clear that this poetic writer has born pain and can teach us much about resilience, about longing, about differences and race and justice. So much in one story, eh? You should get this for your next book club and you’ll have much to discuss, I promise.
Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved Kate Bowler (Random House) $26.00 I hesitated to list this as I’m sure most BookNotes readers would know that it has won many awards and was much discussed earlier this year. It is what I called in BookNotes earlier this year “achingly beautiful.” Ms Bowler has garnered so much buzz and has been reviewed so well, it is nearly a publishing phenomenon, riding the best-seller list for much of the year and ending on lots of year’s end Best Books lists. Perhaps in league with the stunning When Breath Becomes Air or Being Mortal it is a book about ultimate things that is exceptionally insightful, beautifully written, raw and wise (and irreverent and funny, too, believe it or not.) With advanced rave reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, Bowler’s reflection on dying has become a touchstone for many conversations these days.
Bowler was somewhat known for an Oxford University Press book called Blessed which studied the prosperity preachers. She became a professor at Duke Divinity School. She became a young mom and then got the terrible news about her Stage IV colon cancer. She tells her story bringing us in to a colorful cast of characters with almost unbelievable candor and courage. And what a writer she is!
Her gifts and guts have made Bowler’s Everything Happens…and Other Lies… one of the most respected and truly great books of 2018.
As Glennon Doyle writes:
I fell hard and fast for Kate Bowler. Her writing is naked, elegant, and gripping – she’s like a Christian Joan Didion. I left Kate’s story feeling more present, more grateful and a hell of a lot less alone. And what else is art for? Everything Happens for a Reason is art in its highest form, and Kate Bowler a true artist – with the pen, and with her life.
Given Up For You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief Erin O. White (University of Wisconsin Press) $26.95 There are certain books that are so captivating to me, the reading of them such a full-bodied experience, that I recall where I sat, how the light fell on the page, how I felt, wiping away tears from my cheek with the back of my hand, and reading portions out lout to my own beloved spouse. Such memories are dear to me, and this was one of the most precious books for me this year. Yet, I know that some will not be as affection toward it as I would hope. It is a love story, a love story between a lesbian couple. And it was very, very well written, very moving, very enlightening for those of us who are not much experienced in such things.
The story, of course, is complicated, but I must say that as a narrative it is compelling and beautiful and humane. The writer is herself a writing instructor and has been published in good outlets such as the wonderful Portland Magazine and The New York Times. Her craft is part of the story, I suppose, as any book about an academic and writer would be.
Ms. White is a serious seeker after God, a sophisticated intellectual who through yearning and pondering concluded she wanted to go to Catholic confirmation class, learning the ancient ways of Christian belief and practice. She was drawn in by good leaders and stimulated by good theology. In the late 1990s she spent Saturday nights with her girlfriend and Sunday mornings in church. Eventually, of course, she is not permitted to join the church and much of the writing here laments “the faith denied.”
This is not an uncommon story, and I’ve read other moving memoirs of LGBTQ Christians, including those from evangelical backgrounds. From Jeffrey’s Chu’s excellent Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America to Justin Lee’s Torn to the must-read, riveting Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family (one of the most moving books I read this year, but it came out in 2017) there are many, many poignant memoirs and stories where gay persons of faith offer a glimpse into their lives. This testimonies are gifts to those of us who might not have gay friends who have shared the struggles of their interior lives. I ought not need to say this, but as a reminder, it might be wise to always recall that we enjoy and benefit from the genre of memoir not to firstly ask if we like or agree with a person’s story, but to understand. Looking over the shoulder, seeing how people narrate and make sense of their lives is always instructive and brings the “human face” to theological or policy debates, whether about the controversies of immigrants or soldiers or people of other races or other religions or those with same-sex attractions.
And so, as memoir, Give Up for You, is masterful. The title itself echoes with multiple, multiple meanings as this queer woman was turned away by her church, unable to be received because of her commitment to her lover. (Further, her lover, who Erin eventually marries, is herself not a believer.) On so many levels this is a complex, human drama, a well-told story of love and hurt, exclusion and embrace, hurt and desire. Some of it made me very sad.
It includes some exceptionally lovely writing about married life, decision making about the mundane things, balancing home and work and life and differences. Her telling of babies and raising an infant and how motherhood changes things was wonderful.
There is much to admire about Erin White’s integrity, her struggle to reconcile, as one reviewer put it, “the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith.” It is of course an anguishing question — what will I give up for God? What does God expect? And, naturally, what will I give up for my beloved? What does it mean to be true to oneself? How do any of us navigate disagreements — even deep, deep, disagreements — between us and our families and loved ones? This story is captivating and painful and gloriously written and I am sure I will never forget it.
I do not want to spoil too much but there is a small side plot, after Erin realizes she cannot be a good Catholic, when she and Greta attend an open and affirming mainline Protestant church with less rigorous theology and liturgy, but that is fully accepting of them. It is a fascinating telling of that season, in that church and pastor, which finally proves unfulfilling for them. Allow me to say that I have friends that could have written this portion of the book, and that the spiritual matters in Given Up for You sounded remarkable familiar, even if the causes of the fracture between congregant and church (between believer and God?) were different.
Here are some blurbs that endorse it, suggesting how many found it wondrous. I do not know anything about these writers (except one) but find their words helpful in understanding this religious love story and how and why it resonates so.
“Reckoning with the rival claims of queer desire and Catholic faith, Erin O. White has written that rare and wonderful thing: an intimately personal page-turner that raises complex questions about the wider world and our future in it.”
–Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
“A testament to the struggle to reconcile desire and belief, and a poignant reminder of what’s lost when a church refuses to open its doors wide. In beautiful prose, White shares her grief and longing for a faith denied, and in that telling claims a wholeness that was hers all along.”
–Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God
“A wonderful book about the blessings–and burdens–of love, both spiritual and carnal. In White’s heart, there may be no act more subversive than surrender, no prayer more devout than desire itself. Joyful, erotic, and contemplative. A miracle!”
–Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There
“With grace, wit, humor, and raw honesty, White gives us a story that wounds, entices, makes the reader want to say, Oh, yes, me too. This is a book for everyone who has been on a journey of love and longing. An important work.”–Rilla Askew, author of Most American
“In this tender, unsentimental and powerfully honest story, Erin O. White writes of a real life shaped by longing for God. Her prose shines, and her devotion burns: she reveals, in an utterly contemporary context, what Gregory of Nyssa saw in the fourth century: God creates life; life beholds beauty; beauty begets love; love is the life of God. A wonderful book.”–Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion and City of God
MORE AWARD WINNING MEMOIRS and BIOGRAPHY
I cannot stop naming these books that so moved me this past year. As you can see, Beth and I both read a lot of memoirs, and so many were almost stunning, we were entralled and pulled into their stories. It is hard to award one without thinking of others that so moved us this year. From Tara Westhover’s much-discussed Educated: A Memoir (Random House; $28.00) to Courtney Hargrave’s satisfying Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South (Convergent; $26.00)to the incredible The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by former (wrongly imprisoned) client of Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton (St. Martin’s Press; $26.99) these all must be touted this year. Each of these books provided hours of entertainment, educating us and inspiring us. I reviewed all three in a bigger column last fall, and you may want to revisit my long explanations if you don’t recall. These are surely among the best books of 2018.
I have already written much about one of these, but want to keep the reputation of Hearts & Minds for always listing some books about rock and rollers. I hope you recall my reviews in past years of Testimony by Robbie Robertson of The Band, Rumours of Glory by Bruce Cockburn, or Steve Turner’s wonderful Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year and other interesting books about rock stars.
Here are two more for 2018.
Paul Simon: The Life Robert Hillburn (Simon & Schuster) $30.00 There has yet to be a really good biography of the legendary singer-songwriter and this one finally is the one, the one some of us have been waiting for. (Simon cooperated with it, which explains only part of its brilliance.) It’s been called “a straight-shooting tour de force” by USA Today and “epic” by Rolling Stone. It comes with raves by the poet Billy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Muldoon, even early RS writer, Cameron Crowe, who knows a thing or two about all this. Hillburn is renowned as a rock critic and biographer and is the man for the job; the magazine No Depression says, Paul Simon: The Life “flows smoothly along on the river of his liquid prose.”
Listen to what Bono says:
There are two great storytellers colliding here. There’s no tougher a mind, no more tender a voice than Paul Simon, and there’s no better man than Robert Hilburn to decipher the hardwiring of this hyperintellect. From the prologue I was sucked in, suckered into a sense that I too might discover the genetic code of some of the greatest songs of any century. By the epilogue, you realize the great songs can never be fully explained, but the great man on his way to find those songs surely can.
Why Should the Devil Have All the God Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock Gregory Alan Thornbury (Convergent) $26.00 Yes! Thank you Greg Thornbury for writing this book that cried out to be written, surely one of the best books of 2018.
As I said in a major BookNotes review of it last March when it first came out, this is a fabulously interesting book and, like the best rock and roll biographies, it includes lots of stuff about music and song lyrics and production of albums and rock tour stories, but also fair amount of fun celebrity gossip and, thank goodness, some social and cultural and religious commentary. How can one reflect on an artist who hung out with The Jefferson Airplane and opened for Jimi Hendrix and chatted with Paul McCartney and sang about racism and poverty and against the rootlessness of a materialistic generation not explain a bit about the ethos of the 1960s? Norman came of age, and gave voice to Christian faith amidst the California counter-culture; his art was a loud and often-controversial critique of bad religion and boring church and it stood (at least in the early days) as part of the broader zeitgeist which critiqued the bankrupt values of the American dream and the sins of the American empire.
I said, then, and still believe, that Why Should the Devil… gives us the very best study yet of the odd Christian folkie-rocker and One Way leader and it is nothing short of a must-read for anyone interested in rock music of the 60s & 70s and onward, how the Jesus Movement emerged from the hippy counter-culture, and how this gave rise, oddly – yep, this is true — to the rise of the Christian right in the 1980s and 90s.
Please visit hereto read the entire review, showing why I want to celebrate Mr. Thornbury’s book as one of the Best of 2018 and a personal fav. (Notice, though, that the free offer is now expired.)
A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (Viking) $27.00 Just a few days ago a customer new to our store was gabbing and in the middle of deep conversation let out a yelp, a delightful cry of discovery, as she picked up A Gentleman in Moscow from our fiction shelves and exclaimed how much she loved it. I think she was also expressing a little surprise that a so-called Christian bookstore would carry a secular best-seller. And, I am sure, a bit of a “you to?” question — that question we have when we so love a book and wonder if others share our joy. Beth would certainly say that this was her favorite book of 2018. I’ve heard plenty about it, from customers and from her, and intend to read it myself, soon.
Here is the bare-boned description from the publisher: “When, in 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he’s sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery…”
Many of enjoyed this sprawling, witty, surprising novel, and it is on many people’s Best Books lists. It has been called winning, stylish, perfect, elegant, and irresistible. Don’t you want to order one today?
Here is what the prestigious Kirkus Review says:
In all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight.this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles’ stylish debut, Rules of Civility.”
While speaking of Beth’s most memorable novels this year, she reports that some of the favs that she read in 2018, had come out previously.
For instance, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (VIntage; $16.00), the much-discussed Little Fires Everywhere(Viking; $27.00) and Everything I Never Told You (Penguin; $16.00), both by Celeste Ng.
The Edge of OverThereShawn Smucker (Revell) $17.99 Okay, this is another fictional gem that I didn’t read but that Beth adored. It’s YA fantasy, and that’s not my genre, but, whew, even though Beth rarely reads fantastical stuff like this, she was hooked by the first one, The Day the Angels Fell.
You know a book is captivating when a reader can’t wait for a sequel, and she thought The Edge of Over There was well written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Really. This sequel is engrossing and when we met the author for the first time, the first thing Beth wanted to know is what is going to happen to 16 year-old Abra and her search for the next Tree of Life.
Becoming Mrs. LewisPattie Callahan (Thomas Nelson) $25.99 Not a few C.S. Lewis fans have hoped for a book like this for decades. It is a beautifully-told, well-realized, fictional telling of what Joy Davidman might have gone through as she married the famous Oxford don. It came out in the tail end of 2018 and became an immediate best seller.
Here are some of the good endorsements that show why this is deserving of being on the Best of 2018 list.
;”I thought I knew Joy Davidman, the oft mentioned but little examined wife of C. S. Lewis, but in Becoming Mrs. Lewis, Patti Callahan breathes life into this fascinating woman whose hunger for knowledge leads her to buck tradition at every turn. In a beautifully crafted account, Patti unveils Joy as a passionate and courageous–yet very human–seeker of answers to the meaning of life and the depths of faith. Becoming Mrs. Lewis is an unlikely love story that will touch heart, mind, and soul.” –Diane Chamberlain bestselling author of The Dream Daughter
“Patti Callahan has written my favorite book of the year. Becoming Mrs. Lewis deftly explores the life and work of Joy Davidman, a bold and brilliant woman who is long overdue her time in the spotlight. Carefully researched. Beautifully written. Deeply romantic. Fiercely intelligent. It is both a meditation on marriage and a whopping grand adventure. Touching, tender, and triumphant, this is a love story for the ages.” –Ariel Lawhon, author of I Was Anastasia
“Patti Callahan took a character on the periphery, one who has historically taken a back seat to her male counterpart, and given her a fierce, passionate voice. For those fans of Lewis curious about the woman who inspired A Grief Observed this book offers a convincing, fascinating glimpse into the private lives of two very remarkable individuals.” —New York Journal of Books
Hey, this last one doesn’t hurt either: those of us who have met C.S. Lewis’s step son, Douglas Gresham, know that he’s a straight shooter. Here’s what he says:
“It’s not supposed to be a technical biography of my mother. It’s novel. And it’s a very good one. . . extraordinarily accurate. . . more accurate than most biographical essays that have been written about my mother.” Douglas Gresham, son of Joy Davidman
Lights on the Mountain: A Novel Cheryl Anne Tuggle (Paraclete Press) $17.99 This recent novel, set in Western Pennsylvania, North of Pittsburgh (with mentions of New Wilmington and the Beaver River and more), is beautifully rendered; it is offers gorgeous literary prose, and certain deserves accolades galore.
As I said in BookNotes when we announced a number of good novels, the story is written by an Orthodox writer and is set on a farm, and is about farming. (Move over Wendell Berry I can hear some saying!) Young Jess Hazel, the main character in the story, inherits his parents farm when he loses them in an accident. As it says on the back cover, “Unable to shake the memory of a strange light he has seen hovering the mountain peak above his valley home, he embarks on a pilgrimage — a halting inner odyssey riddled with fits and false starts.”
This story picks up speed as it goes but even from the prelude readers know this is a very artful, intelligent writer, and it will be savored slowly as good literary fiction often is. She has a poetic voice and the story is, as one reviewer put it, “as deep and rich as the ancient ground beneath the character’s feet.”
Paraclete Press does mature spiritual books, ecumenical and contemplative resources, mostly non-fiction that is always very well done. They have a few books about aesthetics and the arts, too, so they truly have a vision for making a distinctive contribution to the publishing world. When they do novels, they are certainly well worth owning. Lights on the Mountain is surprising, eloquent, entertaining, and spiritually enriching art. Kudos.
Unsheltered: A Novel Barbara Kingsolver (Harper) $29.99 This is a novel Beth and I (and one of our daughters) read late this fall and we are still pondering it. It may be my pick for favorite fiction this year. Beth, too (after The Gentleman in Moscow, maybe.) I hope you know Kingsolver’s early works (Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, and her essays which I love, like High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder.) Too many only know her for Poisonwood Bible. So, read this one, one of the most discussed books of 2018!
Here is some of what we wrote in BookNotes this fall:
This is profound and complicated but the short version is this: every other chapter tells of the lives of two families that reside in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, one in the late 1800s and one in contemporary times. The house is falling apart which becomes an obvious metaphor for their struggles as families and for the town itself. Did you know that Vineland was an early planned community (founded by a guy named Landis who later moved to Central Pennsylvania?) Much of the plot of the story of the first family, set in the 1800s, is about a science teacher and, without spoiling too much, a character who is corresponding with Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, and a renegade newspaperman who is telling the truth about some of Landis’s injustices. The contemporary story — in that same house — is about an adjunct college prof and his wife, who is taking care of a brand new grand-baby (whose mother, their daughter in law, committed suicide shortly after childbirth.)
There’s a lot of politics in this as you’d expect from the ecologically-minded, lefty Kingsolver (one of the daughters of the contemporary couple just got back from living in Cuba for a while and disapproves of her brother’s work in the financial sector.) The New York Times review said
This is fiction rich in empathy, wit, and science… Kingsolver’s gifts are ‘fierce and wondrous’ with ‘colors moving around like fire.’
There is some vulgar language here but, still, Unsheltered is a novel which, as the Washington Post Book World review put it, “is on familiar terms with the eternal.” I don’t know about that, but it sounds right. This novel is richer and more interesting the further in goes and has stuck with me for months. It is seeking a better world, asking big questions about meaning and life and death and love and goodness and the idols of our times. I admire the talents and vision of the author and I enjoyed this complex book immensely. Maybe only because of Darwin’s role in the plot, it reminded me a bit of one of my all time favorite novels, the extraordinary, unforgettable The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Kudos to Kingsolver for her craft, her cares, and her famous support for independent bookstores. It’s an honor to get to sell literature like this.
Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel Jonathan Miles (Hogarth/Random House) $16.00 We all know about ties, close calls, draws. I suppose I want to honor the above-named Kingsolver Unshelterd as my favorite novel of 2018, but, to be honest, this one was one I tore through, turning the pages and wondering what was going to happen next. It, too, is a bit vulgar, but is nonetheless a story that is about God and faith and the meaning of things. I adored Anatomy of a Miracle, now out in paperback. As I said in a previous BookNotes review this summer, the author, Jonathan Miles, is theologically aware (quoting C.S. Lewis and others about the theodicy question) and portrays different sorts of skeptics, seekers, believers, and charlatans, all really, really well. In this story, a handicapped Afghanistan war vet one day just gets up out of his wheelchair while heading to the local convenience store to buy some smokes. (You could see this alluded to on the hardback book cover.)
The parking lot of Biz-E-Bee, right there in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi, becomes a pilgrimage site as others seeking healing flock there. In the meantime both a serious theologian from the Vatican — you learn why as the story unfolds — and the doctor of the now-walking/healed vet are trying to determine what in the world happened. For the secularist scientist, there simply cannot be such a thing as a miracle, so she has to run bunches of neurological and psychological tests to figure how the inexplicable happened. (Maybe he never was really a paraplegic? Maybe he’s a nut job, or a fraud?) When the reality TV show people come in with tinsel town promises (what a way to help others, they say!) all hell breaks loose.
And all of this, even from the preface, is reported as if it is all true.
Anatomy of a Miracle is a fun and fascinating story, by a writer who has been called “gripping and memorable” and “a rare original” and “raucously ambitions.” With blurbs from the likes of Dave Eggers and Joshua Ferris and Elizabeth Gilbert and Richard Russo, you should be aware of this. I thought it one of the best I read this year and it’s just out in paperback.
STUNNING NARRATIVE NON-FICTION
Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America Eliza Griswold (MacMillan) $27.00 This was one of my personal favorites and one of the Best Books of 2018. What a story. I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting my review from BookNotes as we honor the amazing work this writer did in telling this story. 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.
But I can’t stress enough how universal all this is, how this tale is a story of everywhere.
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. And it’s just as much of a ride. I hope some BookNotes readers order it.
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.
Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America Vegas Tenold (Nation Books) $27.00 Again, this was one I stayed up late turning the pages, not wanting to miss a bit, and, months later, still recall the powerful feelings I had immersed in this remarkable reading experience. And, man, I can’t believe what some authors do to get a story told. Give this guy a medal. And a Hearts & Minds Best Book Award, at least.
I really enjoyed writing some of these lines in my BookNotes review and hope you enjoy my telling about this wild book.
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 few 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) 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 in our state’s capitol. 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!
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America Beth Macy (Little Brown) $28.00 This. This is one of the most amazing books of 2018 and many, many observers have insisted it is a masterpiece of groundbreaking reporting. I love this writer and trust her writing and you will be amazed at what you learn (outraged, too) by taking up even a few chapters of Dopesick.
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.” It has been 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.) Beth Macey’s Dopesick is equally acclaimed, winning a number of important awards. And our little shout out here.
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….”
BEST BOOKS ABOUT FAITH & THE ARTS
Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life Jennifer Allen Craft (IVP Academic) $30.00 This is yet another in the exceptional, thoughtful, scholarly series called Studies in Theology & the Arts and we are very, very glad to honor this latest release in this series. I think when we first reported about this in BookNotes I quipped something to the affect that “just when you thought there was little else to say about the interface of faith and the arts…” Yes, indeed, this very idea deserves an award and it is beautifully, artfully, if seriously, explored.
It is, as you can tell from the title, a study of place. I can do no better than to allow the publisher to explain this complex and yet sensible idea:
We are, each one of us, situated in a particular place. As embodied creatures, as members of local communities and churches, as people who live in a specific location in the world, we all experience the importance of place. But what role does place play in the Christian life and how might our theology of place be cultivated? In this Studies in Theology and the Arts volume, Jennifer Allen Craft argues that the arts are a significant form of placemaking in the Christian life. The arts, she contends, place us in time, space, and community in ways that encourage us to be fully and imaginatively present in a variety of contexts: the natural world, our homes, our worshiping communities, and society. In so doing, the arts call us to pay attention to the world around us and invite us to engage in responsible practices in those places. Through this practical theology of the arts, Craft shows how the arts can help us by cultivating our theological imagination, giving shape to the Christian life, and forming us more and more into the image of Christ.
To accomplish this, Craft explores the relationship of art and the natural world, of course. There’s a good section on homemaking and hospitality. Thirdly, she has a chapter on the churches role in placemaking, and using the arts to help deepen our experience of mission and place. The fourth major chapter is about society more generally. What good stuff this is, exploring the placed consequences of a robust vision of the arts.
Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God Jeremy Begbie (Eerdmans) $18.00
A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts Jeremy Begbie(Baker Academic) $32.00
Is there a dual award for an author who puts out two remarkable, substantive books on the same field, and both seem to be utterly righteous and commendable? A lesser author might rehash previous stuff, or have one be a less academic version of another, but both of these 2018 releases are splendid, serious, major contributions towards a Christian view of aesthetics and the arts. Redeeming Transcendence is perhaps (I’m stretching here) about the arts from a theological perspective while A Peculiar Orthodoxy is perhaps more about theology, viewed through the contributions of music and the arts.
The former, published by Eerdmans in paperback, is asking if transcendence is something that we should properly speak of when talking about our experience of art. It is a live questions, with lots of implications. He uses a “Trinitarian imagination” and says yes. The endorsing blurbs include rave reviews by N.T. Wright (himself a composer), poet Christian Wiman, the justly famous abstract artist Mako Fujimura, and visual artist, collector, art historian and leader of CIVA, Sandra Bowen.
Just listen to these comments:
“Begbie’s argument here, both learned and lucid, is that only when we allow for a more explicitly biblical and Trinitarian vision of God will the vague claims for transcendence in the arts begin to make sense. This book will challenge and illuminate the whole field.” –N.T. Wright
“This book is a revelation. Jeremy Begbie has distilled much of modern theological aesthetics–and has done so with a sensitivity that is alert to the realities of a practicing artist. I feel both chastened and emboldened by his thoughts.” –Christian Wiman
“Jeremy Begbie has consistently been an essential guide for me as an artist who thinks theologically. Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts finds Jeremy at his best — full of theological wisdom and aspiration, with abundant artistic inspiration. A stellar guidebook for our complex journey of art, faith, and theology.” –Makoto Fujimura
“This book is a must-read for those at the intersection of art and theology.” –Sandra Bowden
The second one mentioned, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, published in hardback by Baker Academic, has a related but different concern; the endorsing blurbs do not include artists as such, but theologians, mostly — granted, exceptional ones, such as Matthew Milliner, Trevor Hart, Judith Wolfe, and Alan Jacobs.
Listen to Nicholas Wolterstorff on A Peculiar Orthodoxy:
Orthodoxy, yes, but not at all peculiar–unless it is peculiar for a person so steeped in orthodox trinitarian theology to be so richly acquainted with the arts, or peculiar for a person so richly acquainted with the arts to be so steeped in orthodox trinitarian theology. Only a person as learned and immersed as Begbie in both of these areas of human endeavor could spy the wide range of connections that he brings to light between theology and the arts, especially music, many of them connections I had never noticed, connections that I will want to think about for quite some time. Extraordinarily perceptive. And the range of reading brought into the discussion, with never-failing generosity of spirit, is amazing. This is state of the art!”
The Art of Edward Knippers: Prints and Drawingsedited by James Romaine (Square Halo Books) $19.99 This latest release in the small but vital “The Art of…” series by the Lancaster-based boutique arts publisher, Square Halo, is a sight to behold, and a valuable historical artifact by one of the most important Christian painters of the last 40 years.
Mr. Knippers is a conservative evangelical and masterful painter, known for, among other things, vivid, lurid, violent, stunning paintings — often very large — of Biblical characters. He famously does many of them nude, mostly to show that these people are real, raw, grounded in history and creation. These are no fairy tales or myths. He resists the ethereal spirituality of Gnosticism and its related pieties with all his painterly might. There is nothing sexual about them, of course, but on occasion he is protested and his works have been damaged and defaced by fundamentalist censors who somehow find the penis of David or Jesus to be offensive. Touche, Knippers.
This book is visually striking with dozens and dozens of small pieces but, like the others in this series, includes good commentary and informed Christian criticism. This book offers a small collection of essays about the important late 20th century/21st century painter and they are excellent — even if you are unfamiliar with Mr. Knippers and his work. There is a foreword by Bruce Herman (and it is always a joy to read anything by him, retired now from teaching at Gordon College) and the major introduction by historian James Romaine. There are other pieces — “Faith and Form” is the central essay, by Chat Barlett, who studied at MICA, although the striking Steve Prince — now at Wayne State in Detroit teaching drawing and printmaking — has a fabulous short essay explaining Knippers as a printmaker and, curiously, happily, Danika Bigley (who holds a degree in Dance Performance from the Purchase Dance Conservatory in New York) has a essay entitled. To quote Romaine, “Bigley’s essay frames Knippers’ narrative treatment of the nude figure in terms of a dancer’s understanding of the body in motion.”(He continues, “She also touches on issues of sexual slavery and the freedom of marriage as seen in his art and in the Bible.) There is a closing conversation with Ed Knippers, interviewed by James Romaine as they strolled through the National Gallery of Art not long before the book came out. Overhearing part of that interview, transcribed nicely for us by Margaret Bustard, is a great privilege.
Of course, through it all we have the smaller works of Ed Knippers (not reproductions of his large paintings) and the diversity of styles and subjects makes this a sheer delight, a great little book of art. This includes many black and white drawings and etchings, prints, and one section of preliminary sketches. There is helpful explanation of these; despite the excellent, substantive text, this is still mostly a book featuring the artwork itself. It makes a fabulously interesting, inexpensive coffee table book. Kudos to Square Halo for this labor of love, adding The Art of Edward Knippers to their previously published wild paperback TheArt of Guy Chase and the lavish, priceless hardback, The Art of Sandra Bowden.
God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes From the Life of Alexander Hamilton & The Broadway Musical He Inspired Kevin Cloud (Deep River Books) $15.99 Can we at least agree to give this book a “got there first award? It had to happen, and we couldn’t be happier to know that this book will take its place alongside many, many other studies of God in popular culture. My old housemate Bill Romanowski wrote one of the defining books on a methodology for discerning themes of faith — good or bad faith, that is — in popular entertainment and his Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture remains a standard in the field. (Look for his forthcoming book on film in late May 2019, by the way, to be entitled Cinematic Faith: A Christian Perspective on Movies and Meaning, published by Baker Academic; $22.99 for those that want to PRE-ORDER it.) But I digress…
We are here to close up our list of (at least some of) our favorite books of 2018 and want to affirm this fine study of theological themes and enduring insights from the smash Broadway hit. It’s fun to see very thoughtful writers endorsing this — from the justice activist Phileena Heuertz to film scholar (and now President of the Seattle School of Theology) Craig Detwiler and glorious memoirists like Katie Savage (we love her book Grace in the Maybe that alerts us to seeing signs of life in daily stuff.) And there are signs of life in Hamilton and Cloud helps us explore them.
I have not see the play and am less familiar with the soundtrack than, well, 3/4 of the people I know. But when I see this evangelical leader thanking Lin-Manuel Miranda so earnestly, and read cast members offering affirmations for this thoughtful book, when solid missional pastors and thinkers I respect rave, I know this is worth celebrating.
Who knows, maybe there will be more studious and enduring books on a Christian evaluation of the Broadway phenom. There will be ongoing engagement with Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, on which the play was based, and which Cloud refers to nicely. I’m sure there will be more to this on-going conversation.
For now, this is a fabulous little resource and we are happy to honor it, thanking those who are helping us think faithfully with “eyes wide open” seeing the “trailing clouds of glory” even in a hip hop musical about a long dead politician. Hip, hip hooray!