New books on spiritual formation: Eldridge, Benson, Foster and more…

I just finished an oddly fascinating book, John Eldridge’s Walking With God (Nelson; $22.95) a book which was not exceptionally well written nor a sustained example of good teaching.  Still, I wanted to weigh in, suggesting it to interested readers for a variety of good reasons.  For those who haven’t heard of popular evangelical superstar John Eldridge, you should know that he wrote two fine early books, The Sacred Romance and The Journey of Desire (recently reissued as Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers) that I really liked.  They were passionate and spiritual, full of purpose and meaning and joy.  These notions were well captured in a later book which was good, too: Waking the Dead: The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive.  Like several other vibrant evangelical authors, Eldridge is convinced that many of us missing our dreams, afraid to honor the desires of our hearts, and are sleep walking through a routine life and routine faith.

He took a wrong turn (in my estimation, a view that seems to be more accepted than when I first voiced it, but is still the minority report) with the famous, mega-seller Wild at Heart.  I disdained the book for many good reasons and still get good feedback from the long and feisty review I did several years ago. (You can read it here.)  Although I tried to affirm some of the insights in the book, and admitted it resonates with many,  it was still the most critical review I’ve ever done.  Mr. Eldridge’s mix of bad theology, psycho-spirituality and macho gender assumptions combined for an odd and dangerous book; I didn’t even touch the one he and his wife did for women, Captivating.  Ugh.  When he did, though, a fabulously fun, brief book about the Bible’s unfolding narrative, and our privilege to be passionately involved in God’s epic plan to rescue the planet–Epic, it was called, and you can buy or rent the DVD talks, that are great—I cheered.  I’m not at all against the man, despite his truly unbiblical view of gender, and the strong rebuke I wrote in that review.  You can visit his interesting website for tons of stuff here.

Walking With God (with the subtitle that tells you, in a phrase or two, the strengths and weakness of this book, Talk to Him, Hear From Him, Really) is his new one, a book that is essentially a journal Eldridge kept over a year, with plenty of insistences that readers pay attention to the way God speaks to us. 

Like I said, I don’t think this is brilliant.  There are a few sections that seem overblown, and I feel badly that a guy with such obvious talent and passion for the things of God is bogged down with inner hurts, past issues, self-doubt, and needlessly high expectations for transcendent moments.  He’s got such a craving for some large sense of joy, nearly a fetish for joy.  He is striving so hard—and teaches that that is normative—to fight for joy.  I got tired and filled with self-doubt just reading about his singular Quest for God’s Voice. I, like Eldridge, like most of us, have baggage—issues, fears, hurts, sin, and I don’t think I take any of it lightly. I, too,  am grieved by my own sin and long to know the comfort of a loving Abba.   Still, his daily inner conversations (if this journal is typical, which I have no reason to think it isn’t) are some days exhausting.

I am not so sure everyone is as deeply hurt as Eldridge assumes, although (as I have written not long ago in a blog post about the Psalms of lament) it is obvious we all have hurts and anguish, and need not fear sharing our hurts and troubles and doubts.  I appreciate Eldridge’s call to be real, to be more self-aware, to live with daily faith, to sense God’s Spirit throughout the day and I found some of his entires about how God wants to touch us in very deep places to be very moving.   I think he frets a bit too much, and yet his intensity doesn’t seem to have the depth that such a book would demand.  Still, it is instructive to see how he yearns for healing.

I also believe that we can learn to sense and follow the promptings of the Spirit. And I believe this sometimes happens through signs and wonders.  Yet, when he says God gives him “words” or mysterious phrases it made me wonder why God is so inarticulate, mono-syllabic, in his revelations to Mr. E.  These “words” of revelation are not the way God has typically communicated in the past, and Eldridge’s unquestioning assumption that these are, in fact, from God, struck me as both a bit weird and a bit prideful.  (Couldn’t he have at least cited something of the Pauline literature on “words of knowledge”, told of some church service where such was appropriately manifested, or drawn on the work of, oh, say, Jonathan Edwards whose meaty and wise Religious Affections guides us in these precise matters.  Surely, if he is commending this practice of listing for cryptic words to ponder, he should explain where this is shown in Scripture as a way of God’s revealing things to us, and, further, some guidance about how to discern which are the words from the Spirit and which are just stuff spilling freely from our overactive imaginations or subconsciences.  He doesn’t really explain this much, just tells us how God wants to give us these phrases from time to time.  Unlocking their meaning becomes a major part of his spirituality. 

I have experienced a bit of this first hand so do not mock him, as some might.  Still, as naturally as John tells of it, sharing this or that phrase, and how it has blessed him to discern its appropriate meaning, I am a bit skeptical.  How, really, does he “hear” this voice speaking?  (The words he gets are, interestingly, predictable.  For instance, he gets “intimacy” but not “fair trade.”  God wants him to ponder His “love” but doesn’t say much (that he reports, at least) about “racism.”  Why is this?  And, why doesn’t it occur to him?  As he sometimes says, Geez Louise.

In my diatribe against the macho madness in Wild at Heart, I affirmed his reflections on spiritual warfare, wanting to honor him where I could, and aware that he was at least offering some insight about this controversial and complicated arena.  In Walking With God he is deeper into resisting the work of Satan’s agents, and some of his stories are compelling.  Many of his ruminations, and teachings, though, are nearly off the chart weird, more psychobabble than theology, with little or no serious exegesis.  He is obsessed with past “agreements”, as he calls them, pacts we make (unknowingly, with slips of the tongue and subsequent formation of heart-deep attitudes) with the demonic.  You know, we “agree” with the accusation “you’ll never amount to anything” and thereby are bound–psychologically, and spiritually, perhaps eternally, held back by bad self-image and evil spirits, smelly guys that he sometimes senses as a foreboding and menacing presence in his home. I found myself riveted, but wishing for more, well, balance and insight.  Cliches, I know, but there you have it; his reminders to work on this stuff just didn’t get very deep, despite the drama.

As is often the case with bad doctrine and incoherent worldviews, a legitimate insight becomes absolutized and consequentially distorted.  At times, his call to break with past ways works as a metaphor, but his insistence on this literal spooky narrative of the devil binding us seemed to (at times) trivialize the very real possibility of the need for rites of deliverance.  Sometimes, he is offering interest
ing insight (he notes something spiritually awry when a son brings some artifact into the house that had very pagan connections) and other times he seems to say how the demonic works, without much reliable explanation.  The casual flavor of his teaching, coupled with his earnest yearnings and constant reference to the heart, his heart, your heart, God’s heart, makes this friendly, touching, but dangerous.  Just because he’s sincere, and telling stories, doesn’t mean he’s well-grounded in Biblical teaching or the history of the church’s best thinkers on this stuff.  Maybe he is, but it doesn’t come across in this casual, instructional memoir.

I am not at all opposed to honest memoir and at times Eldridge’s year’s worth of reflections really works—his longing for friends, his severe grief over the loss of a beloved family dog, his desire to pray with his sons, his recovery from a riding accident, which necessarily slows down his active outdoorsy lifestyle.  Interestingly, the book seems to work best when it is not at its most intentionally passionate or instructional; the heavy dramatic portions most often seemed precious.  At times, I wanted to give him a bit of his own macho medicine and tell him to just buck up and quite blubbering. 

Still, I couldn’t put this book down, which says something about the strength of the writing, the narrative, the story, the insight or the four-season structure of the book.  I wondered what God was doing in his life, or at least what Eldridge thought God was doing, and was astounded at his vulnerability in sharing his journey with such honesty.  Who doesn’t want a life of walking dearly and daily with God?  For those with time and inclination—especially if you don’t have a real community that talks like this, or a regular spiritual director or soulfriend—it is worth the investment to buy books as companions on the journey, even as conversation partners that you might not fully agree with, and this one could be useful and enjoyable.  Walking With God (which has a website, too, with more stories and continued teaching about various subjects he raises in the book) helps remind us to pray persistently, to be attentive to God’s active involvement in our lives, to resist the banal and secularizing forces of contemporary life that marginalize and silence our active, speaking, loving, God.  Right or wrong about some details, quirky or not in his own expressions of his unique brokenness, fully brilliant in his proposals for finding hope and healing or not, exceptionally graceful in his creative writing or not,  Eldridge is a guy who has bravely laid it out there for us, a year in his Colorado life, a memoir of seeking God’s voice and guidance.  We suggest it to you, to be read with discernment, and expectation.  Maybe like him, you, too–I, too–will be more able to hear the still small voice of God, day by day, and live out a more daring discipleship in the year ahead.

* * *

A more wise and much better written volume in this quest to hear God’s voice is the remarkable (and in some ways surprising) new book by Leighton Ford.  As a lifelong colleague of Billy Graham, I have assumed Dr. Ford’s many books to be fine but non-essential; good workman-like stuff on evangelism, missions, basic Christian growth. 

The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (IVP; $18.00) is an extraordinary book about fixed hour prayers, a practice that I do not feel at all drawn to.  It is a prayer tradition–“praying the daily office” or “praying the divine office”—that many are writing about these days, and many of the books about it are truly inspiring.  Ford shares Eldridge’s bold claim that God is still speaking but tells the tale of learning to discern God’s voice with less bathos and in truly beautiful prose.  Perhaps he is from a different generation (in his retirement years, he is older than the youngish boomer Eldridge) so is less inclined to spill his guts (as we ungraciously put it) or perhaps he just isn’t as needy and broken as Mr. Eldridge.  Still, he writes as the elder evangelical statesman he is, graciously and wisely telling how he has shifted from a public ministry of evangelism (“making new friends for God” as he puts it) to a ministry of spiritual direction and reflecting on his inner journey.   He deeply hungers not just to serve God but to know God, and in the pace of life, the daily grind, he yearns, like Eldridge, to be more spiritually alive.  The Attentive Life chronicles this new desire to “be attentive” and more deeply nurture a viable set of practices that facilitate such spiritual intimacy with God.

Mr. Eldridge’s memoir tells of his long quiet times, his journaling, his struggle with simple phrases the Spirit seems to lay on him.  It is earnest, individualist, and typically evangelical with no apparent connection to the wider body of Christ or the insights of church history.  Ford, in contrast, has submitted himself to this new (for him) discipline of fixed hour prayer, of joining others all over the world who have, for centuries, bowed in prayer at certain times during the day.  These set practices, regular prayer, using historic prayers from a standard prayer book, set the stage for a mature discernment of the very things for which Mr. E searching.  As Ford’s good subtitle puts it, Discerning God’s Presence in All ThingsHere is the IVP website that includes Q & A with Ford, a video clip and book excerpts.  Nice!

Let me be candid.  I have no intention of starting the fixed hour prayer custom; I don’t care that many find it helpful.  (Many find other things helpful, too, like street preaching and drinking prune juice, but I’m not drawn to those customs, either.)  Nonetheless, I found great, great solace in these pages, and great if quiet joy in his journey.  That mainstream evangelicals like Ford are quoting Thomas Merton (for instance) and helping others to take seriously what the monks and mystics know is just so exciting.  Whether one is drawn to the actual habits of using the classic prayers or not, the creation of rituals and solitude, even daily, is very important, and Ford draws us to this very nicely.  Thanks to InterVarsity Press for their “Formatio“ line of books, of which this book is a part, books that are well written and designed lovingly, to enhance our spiritual lives in contemplative and prayerful ways.

 Here is what the IVP website says:

 Formatio is a line of spiritual formation books written by men and women steeped in the traditions of the church and designed to lead you on a journey of transformation that ends in the life-giving presence of God.

Attentive To God is a perfect example of the kinds of things the Formatio line is about.  We highly recommend it.  Here is a videotaped interview with Dr. Ford where he delightfully explains his writing of the book. 

* * *

Fixed hour prayer is explained even more elegantly in a new book by the very fine writer–one of the best penmen today—the sweet, spiritual, understated, exceptionally clear and always enjoyable Robert Benson.  His new one is called In Constant Prayer (Nelson; $17.99.)  It is easy to read and spectacular.  Really it is.  As I hoped, it would be itself prayerful, gentle, nice.  And, as I hoped, it would be clever and funny and a bit witty.  It was.  It is!

Whether he’s writing about Saint Benedict’s habits for ordinary folk (The Good Life), baseball (The Game), eucharist and learning to love (The Body Broken), vacationing (Home By Anot
her Way
), gardening (Digging In), or compiling his own handsome prayerbook (Veniti), Bob Benson is always interesting, clever, gracious and quietly inspiring.  He is one of those writers who has a “fan base” who will read anything he writes.  Of course, he has written about prayer before, in the well-rendered Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and in the 1999 release, Living Prayer.  Not a bad oeuvre for a guy who spends a lot of time messing around in his backyard.

You can check out excerpts of his books at his own bookshelf, here.

As I noted in the rave blog post announcing this book, you must know that it is the first of a projected 7-set series called “Ancient Practices.”  To be published by Nelson, these will explore various ancient practices (shared by Muslim, Christians, and Jews) which are increasingly being found useful for seekers and pilgrims in our postmodern world.  There will be books on tithing, sabbath keeping, fasting, pilgrimage, sacred meals, and so forth.  More on these in a moment”¦.

* * *

It is a bit inaccurate to say that Mr. Benson’s book, In Constant Prayer, is the first in the series.  It is the first that explains and invites us to one of the particular historic practices, the first specific one of the others to follow.  The actual first in the series, though, is the overview of them all, just out, an introduction and invitation to the series, to the practices, one which, as such, stands as a fine overview.  The very first in the Ancient Practices series, then, is the very, very enjoyable Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, authored by Brian McLaren (Nelson; $17.99). He sets the stage, warms us up, as it were, for the rest of the project.  McLaren not only gives a very lovely overview of these practices, but makes a very solid case why they are so urgently needed in these unhinged, epoch-changing, postmodern times–I love this stuff, this cultural analysis and spirituality.  With his cultural expertise, his pastoral experience, his openhearted and increasingly ecumenical involvements, Brian McLaren is the perfect author to make this case, to offer the invitation, to explain the importance and relevance of  this life-giving way of life;  this book does it wonderfully.  A life shaped by engaging in ancient-future practices like these makes perfect sense as he weaves the story.  Reading Finding Our Way Again made me want to live differently, take small steps, be more intentional about ways to make this whole spiritual journey work, and it did not overwhelm.

Half a year from now I will surely name Finding Our Way Again as one of my favorite books of the year.  Although not disconnected from Brian’s unofficial eldership in the emergent village or his role as a major voice in that evolving conversation, this new book is a step away from controversies about epistemology, post-modernism and theology or (as with Everything Must Change) global politics.  Brian does hang out with a very wide variety of folks—Christians and otherwise—and dialogues with everyone from secular environmentalists to conservative CBA authors.  His wide interests and ecumenical spirit come through clearly in this generous book but it is not a call to activism, not a call for new kinds of Christianity, nor a call to “think globally/act locally” as are his other recent (important) works.  This is a gentle, spiritual guidebook to thinking about what practices might best facilitate true spiritual growth.  As a pastor and fellow-seeker, Brian is a capable of such teaching and is kind.  As an evangelist (he’s written two books on apologetics and one on evangelism) he cares about unchurched folks coming to know Christ, and this offer to be formed by ancient ways could be useful for those who are seeking faith.  The tone is conversational, light, inviting.  The idea of the project itself, which will not be completed until 2010, is weighty.  Some of the writers (Scot McKnight, Dan Allander, Phyllis Tickle) are themselves weighty scholars and mature writers.  McLaren’s introduction to it all is done with a perfect touch, conjuring up both the significance of this stuff, and offering a light invite to take it in as a glad experiment in faith. 

Visiting the tradition of the daily office–praying seven times a day as Psalm 119 instructs—is, as mentioned, the first one to follow Brian’s introduction, and was written by Robert Benson.  Benson has a great little glossary in In Constant Prayer about such stuff (what is a breviary, what is the Divine Office, where do words like lauds or compline or vespers come from?) and tells truly lovely stories about saints, ordinary folk like Bettie, who pray a lot.  I personally enjoyed his description of different kinds of prayer books and his joy in finding various ones; his little names for them made me chuckle.  Mostly, though, he unfolds the reasons and mysteries of this kind of regular prayer, and how it has effected his pretty ordinary life. His own foibles, his funny stories about his own less than stellar success, and his conviction that it all matters made for a truly great read.  It is inviting and hopeful, even as I say, again, that it is not my custom, although he did make it sound pretty righteous, pretty cool.  It may not be your custom or intention, but reading about it sure can’t hurt, can it?  And it will surely be a fabulous reading experience, perhaps even if you are not Episcopalian.

Other books have been released in recent years on this topic, some from authors who are themselves from faith traditions that do not carry out this practice.  Arthur Paul Boers, for instance, is a Mennonite pastor and very good author (you should know his spectacular book about going on a hiking pilgrimage along the Spanish El Camino de Santiago, called The Way is Made by Walking.)  A few years ago, he–urban pastor, peace activist, Anabaptist theologian–took up the fixed hour prayer practice, and wrote a small book about at least a part of this, called The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours of Prayer (Paraclete Press, $15.95.)  Scot McKnight did a book last year, also with Paraclete, called Praying With the Church (not, notably, praying in church) with the great subtitle, Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today ($15.95.) Most significantly, Phyllis Tickle made a truly historic contribution, in an extraordinary publishing event, with her seasonal three-volume Liturgy of the Hours, then a pocket-sized abbreviated one, and a beautiful edition called The Night Offices: Prayers from Sunset to Sunrise.  We are fond of the Northumbria Community prayerbook called Celtic Daily Prayer, and there are so many more…

* * *

Catholic monks have long been maligned—by me, especially–for being simply unbiblical in their escape from the world; I have written else where that we ought not so greatly esteem the Desert Fathers and any others who fail to be leaven in the world by irresponsibly eschewing ordinary life and social obligations.  Although that may be a bit harsh as an over-reaction, it is an impulse of my Reformed tradition that I think is correct.  Still, some of those who have spent the longest time in ancient prayer practices have been the very ones to most clearly remind us of God’s presence in the ordinariness of mundane life.  (And, in cases like Merton, say, have energized a faith-based and spiritually-driven historic movement for peace and justice; where would Dan Berrigan be if not for Merton?  Dorothy Day without her Pittsburgh retreat house and spiritu
al director?)  Which brings me to the new book by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, whose sweet book Tree Full of Angles has helped many of us “see the holy in the ordinary.”  Yes!  Now, guess what?  Her beautiful new release is a small hardback with a beautiful cover, winsomely entitled Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Ave Maria; $18.95.)  Again, we are seeing many of our best spiritual writers, in the longing to know God deeply and attend to God’s presence in the ordinary hardships and joy or real life, drawing upon the practices that have sustained many before us.  Wiederkehr has thrilled many with her past books, including a co-authored one with Joyce Rupp (whose new book, by the way, is simply called Prayer.)  From all this comes a sacramental view of reality, a worldview shaping set of experiences that cannot help but be fruitful as we learn to live in all things before God, and for God. 

* * *

As I’ve implied by this observation against the near Gnostic, anti-cultural approach of many monastics, not all spiritualities yield care about and fidelity in the complexities of life in the real world.  Some contemplative habits and monastic disciplines (and charismatic excesses and fundamentalist dispensationalism, too) fail to facilitate a fully human, incarnational, spirituality.  Some encourage either pious narcissism or apocalyptic resignation.  Some are so mystically focused on God alone that they miss the beauties and duties of living in a real creation.  We need not embrace the panenthism of Matthew Fox, say, to glory in and expect to find God in our daily vocations as earth-dwellers, culture-formers, history-makers.  That is, true spirituality should make us more human and alive, not less so; our union with Christ heals the very image of God within as we are restated to our task to rule with Him over all things earthly.

Brokenness and Blessing: Toward a Biblical Spirituality by Frances M. Young (Baker; $16.99) is a book which does encourage fruitful human witness in this world of wonders.  It is not disengaged, but engaged, not romantic but real.  As Marva Dawn puts it on the back cover, “”¦Young’s profound insights draw us into the kind of biblical spirituality needed for this century–a spirituality of discovering our limitations, wrestling, following, imitating, emptying, and longing”¦.”

Young, a Methodist minister and theology professor in England (with a Ph.D. from Cambridge) works this magic–authentic spiritual formation and judicious cultural engagement—by placing our inner journey within “the overarching story of the Scriptures, read as a unity.”  This is an urgent project and Ms Young does it with not only wise Scriptural exegesis, but with a close and inspiring medley of images, stories, autobiography.  This is a book that is serious and rewarding!

I would be remiss, in this celebration of recent books on  solid spirituality, not to mention one of last year’s favorites, one of the books I named as a “best of” in last years end of the season award lists.  I refer to the very important overview of the history of spirituality, and a call to new ways to engage the best practices of the best spiritualities in our contemporary culture written by the late, great Robert Webber.  It was called The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Baker; $16.99 )and offers a non-dualistic, culture-transforming, fully ecumenical, historically-rooted and creatively contemporary call to live out of God’s love as well as anything I know.  That, too, is a serious work, but it is the sort of meaty spirituality we need if we are going to get further than the self-absorbed, very sincere, and very shallow efforts of some of the best of our CBA evangelical superstars.

* * *

No contemporary author has done as much to introduce modern readers, especially Protestants, to the classic contemplative traditions and the best historic spiritual masters as Richard J. Foster, who has just graced us with a brand new book, Life With God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation (Harper; $24.95.).  We love his Renovare small group resources and testify that his guidance—writing and speaking—in these areas is reliable and healthy and very, very usable.  His Celebration of Discipline and Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home are true classics, among the most important books of our time.  His Streams of Living Water (now in paperback) is a personal favorite, offering the best thinking and insights of various aspects of the Body of Christ to help us mature into a fully developed, balanced and faithful spirituality.  In an era that is only getting more hectic, busy, and, frankly, more worldly, his books Freedom of Simplicity and The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, and Power are under appreciated and under-used resources.  Such books are lifelines of Biblical sanity leading us to inner depth and public courage, showing the way to fidelity and shalom.  We cannot recommend them enough!

Colleagues and friends such as Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, and Walt Brueggemann helped Foster in his large project of last decade, the creation of a devotional/study edition of the NRSV Bible, The Renovare Spiritual Formation  Bible (Harper; $39.95) whose notes are specifically about spiritual formation.  Again, it hasn’t sold nearly as well as I would have expected, and think it is a truly under-appreciated treasure.  Check it out if you haven’t, please.  I would think that it was his work with this sophisticated Bible project that gave rise to Richard’s most recent writing emphasis—Biblical study.  (This is not new for him, of course, and he has in every book insisted that the best and most faithful and most enduring spiritual practices must be Biblical in nature.)

Life With God (Harper; $24.95) is the first new Foster book in over a decade.  It has been endorsed, of course, by leaders from across the church—J.I. Packer, Lauren Winner, Will Willimon, David Neff etc.  In it, he deftly works, this time more intensely, with the interplay of spirituality and Bible reading.

As with most of Foster’s books, this one offers plain teaching, much Bible study, stories of ancient saints and quotes from spiritual classics.  He doesn’t make it difficult with deep dissertation or complex theology, although this is what the Apostle Paul would have surely called “meat.”  Foster does not, though, go out of his way to offer tender stories, clever illustrations, or moving parables.  There is nothing sentimental or schmaltzy here; it is not condescending or manipulative.  I wouldn’t call it inspirational.  It is very helpful, though, and there is a exceedingly helpful chart in the back outlining all kinds of spiritual traditions, practices, outcomes, and such.  This is a solid teacherly book.

Learning to read the Bible, though, in ways that intentionally effect our lives–the spiritual transformation of the subtitle–is surely among the most urgent and deadly serious tasks of our time.  For churches, classes, small groups, youth ministry, and individual Christians, the importance of this cannot be overstated.  Are disciplines required for discipleship?  Of course.  Do we need a more disciplined discipleship?  Need we even answer?  Do we need an orientation to Bible reading that helps us in this?  And how might that differ from more typical approaches to Bible reading? 

Hear Mr. Foster himself:

Regarding the Bible, then, perhaps the most basic questi
on is: shall we try to control the Bible, that is, make it “come out right” or shall we simply seek to release its life into our lives and into our world? Shall we try to tilt it this way or that, or shall we give it complete freedom to tilt us as it will?

Can we surrender freely to the life we see in the Bible, or must we remain in control of that life, only selectively endorsing it so far as we find it proper and safe from our perspective?  Can we trust the living water that flows from Christ through the Bible, open ourselves to it, and open it up into the world the best we can, and then get out of its way?  This is the goal of reading the Bible for spiritual transformation.

About half of this important new book is specifically about how to read the Bible; there may be other better guides to this, but the brilliance of Life With God is the way in which Foster relentlessly and helpfully keeps the text before as a way to God, as a form of prayerful interaction.  Our own encounter with the Sacred Story leads to our own transformation–as is often said, we don’t read for information, but for formation.  After teaching us helpful methods and (more importantly) attitudes about lectio divino–sacred reading—Richard ends the book with vast and practical implications for the spiritual life.  Some of this seems like ground he’s covered before, but yet it has a new ring.  His teaching on freedom, his emphasis on relationships, his insistence on grace, all is solid, mature, clear, Biblical.  How can I write about a new Richard Foster without hype?  If you have read his other work, you know how important he is.  If not, this is a fine introduction to one of the great Christian leaders of our time.  Thank goodness for his mature and helpful work.  May it, as he writes, help us experience a bit of the glorious reality of God’s everlasting loving community.  “We can taste it now” he writes, “by entering the Bible in order to plunge our dry lives into the great river of life with God.  And just as surely as rivers run toward the sea, this vision will sweep us into the practice of life with God, for we will no longer be satisfied to stand on the banks and watch others swim past.”

Global Peacemaking: A Brief List

It is a great privilege anytime a customer taps out an inquiry on email or picks up the phone to call in an order.  Best of all, we love seeing folks in the shop, although I’ve grown fond of some of my favorite blogger pals and mail order customers.  We try to keep in homey, but this high-tech stuff has allowed us to serve folks far and wide.

Which is extra cool of course.  Today, for instance, an old acquitence that has started an extraordinary NGO is a very war torn and troubled land asked for some prices on some books about international affairs, peace building, faith-based diplomacy and such.  Knowing he’s a bookman, I figured I could rattle off a couple others that, if not precisely what he needs, will at least remind him that there is a growing body of literature on conflict resolution, peacemaking and creating alternatives to war and violence.  Heaven knows—I know heaven knows—that he needs reminded of this in his land of sorrows.

I thought some of you, too, might like to see this little list.  My descriptions are pretty much off the top of my head, cribbing a bit from back covers. There are more.  After some small talk and answering the questions he asked about, I sent off this list.

Forgiveness in International Politics…An Alternative Road to Peace
William Bole, Drew Christiansen & Robert Hennemeyer (USCCB)
$19.95  A splendid collection of essays compiled by US Conference of Catholic
Bishops, which draws largely on three case studies—Northern Ireland, Bosnia
and the truth commissions in South Africa.  With endorsements from the likes of
Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard) and scholar of diplomacy, Douglas Johnston,  this should be taken seriously.  What a
remarkable notion— forgiveness offers implications for diplomacy  and statecraft.
at peace and unafraid.jpgAt Peace and Unafraid:
Public Order, Security and the Wisdom of the Cross
edited by
Duane Friesen & Gerald Schlabach  (Herald Press) $16.99  A hefty paperback
volume from the Mennonites from all over the world offering principles and
practices to guide international peacemaking efforts.  There are plenty of case
studies, fairly scholarly studies, great stories, and very hopeful examples of
field-based discourse on this whole movement.  Very,
very impressive.
Just Policing, Not War: An
Alternative Response to World
just policing.jpg Violence  Gerald Schlabach, editor
(Michael Glazier) $27.95  Again, a masterful volume collecting a variety of
fairly academic case studies and new notions about just policing.  The
contributors are from across the theological spectrum and raises lots of
interesting theological/spiritual reflections (from Augustinian thought to
Benedictine spirituality) and social ethics in a violent
world. Those of us who are advocates against war have to think this through:  on what basis are some opposed to intervention, say, in Iraq, and yet favor military involvement in the Sudan?  Perhaps this exploration will help. 
Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global
  Robert & Judy Zimmerman-Herr (Herald Press)
$12.99  This is a tremendous collection of case studies, including some examples
of peace building in Africa, compiled by MCC workers who we knew years ago in
Pittsburgh.  These are dear folks, really sharp, with remarkable experience in
how to link very broad global peacemaking concerns with specific episodes of
local reconciliation.  Very useful. 
Civil Society East and
Peter Blockhuis (Dordt College Press) $18.00  What a
fascinating gathering, a world-class conference which brought together scholars
and leaders on civil society issues, especially around the changing cultural
landscapes in Eastern Europe.  Some of my neo-Calvinist Kuyperians are here, and
their insight is extraordinary.  Sponsored by International Association for the
Promotion of Christian Higher Education (IAPCHE) A rare
Globalization and
edited by Max Stackhouse (continuum) $34.95  This is the
4th volume in the academic and prestigious “God and Globalization” series, with
papers by a stunning array of thoughtful Christian scholars.  Here is a great
pdf article which reviews this project and summarizes it’s serious themes,
written by Gabriel Fackre  Not sure if this is the sort of stuff you’re reading, but it sure
looks meaty, eh?
  Any one of these would be well worth working through to enhance the big picture of our times.

Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises
Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen, and David Van Heemst  (Baker) $19.99  I have blogged about this often, celebrated our tiny role in encouraging the authors, and explain to anybody that will listen that this is a profound and worthy bit of Christian thinking—wise and insightful thinking–about the nature of ideologies in the modern world.  With a forward by Desmond Tutu, the “New Vision Group” (as Brian McLaren calls them in his popular Everything Must Change) this explores how to break with the engine which fuels some of the largest problems of our time.  To relate international peace-building to environmental degradation and global poverty is essential, and these guys understand these dynamics deeply.  Here is a very thoughtful review worth reading.

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Four excellent new books on spirituality: Brian McLaren, Robert Benson, Richard Foster & Leighton Ford

We couldn’t be happier to tell you about four absolutely fabulous new books on spiritual formation.  I will review them more thoroughly over at the monthly column—I’m reading and writing as fast as I can—but had to at least announce them now.  They’ve each been in the shop just a few days (although I had an excerpt of one for quite a while.)  I realize the goofy irony of reading books like this quickly, but that’s my occupational hazard. Should you choose to buy them, you may want to rush, too, to get to ’em, but please don’t.  This is rich, good sapience and deserves to be read with care.

We will offer a deal: buy any two (or more) now and get a 25% discount off of both. 

Finding Our Way Again.jpgFirstly, I was truly touched, found great enjoyment and learned quite a bit from the brand new Brian McLaren book called Finding Our Way: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nelson; $17.99), the first in the new “Ancient Practices” series released by Thomas Nelson publishers.  Over the next few years eight books will be released—-from authors as diverse as Dan Allender and Phyllis Tickle, Scot McKnight and Nora Gallagher, and I am sure they will be wise and helpful and inspiring.  Each will explore a particular ancient practice, and Brian’s book is the first to set the agenda for the others.  What a nicely done, conversational, insightful call to recapture true spirituality in this age of disorientation.  It was the most pleasant and interesting book on spirituality I’ve read in a long time.  Not as intense as some, nor as mystical, it made these grand, complex matters very attractive and placed them not only in historical context, but in ordinary 21st century life.  It did just what it should as an introduction to this series.  More later!

in constant prayer.jpgThe second book in this series, the first after Brian’s overview, arrived also, and it is graciously written, a charming introduction to the practice of fixed hour prayers.  Who better to share the history and benefits of this classic custom of “praying the divine office” than Robert Benson, who gives us In Constant Prayer (Nelson; $17.99.) Phyllis T writes a wonderfully little preface, and his first chapter or so has already won me over to reading about this practice that I (truth be told) I have little inclination to pursue.  I will explain more of the book’s charm and the significance of the “Ancient Practices” series in the full review, soon.

A very long-awaited book has finally arrived this week, a book thatlife with god.jpg some of us have been awaiting for a year or so, Life With God (HarperOne; $24.95) by none other than Richard Foster.  What a great book this will be, by the man who in many ways helped start the renaissance of contemplative spirituality in this generation.  Here, he offers his writing on how to read the Bible for spiritual transformation.  I will have more to say about this one, too, in the monthly column (soon.)  For now, just now that this has the sorts of blurbs on the back that you’d expect, from across the range of the church: J.I. Packer and Walter Brueggemann, David Neff and Lauren Winner.  Willimon calls is “radiant” and Publishers Weekly reminds us that it is a “deep reflective guide to spiritual rumination and growth.”

attentive life.jpgLeighton Ford is a well-respected evangelist, a Presbyterian leader and solid author.  Here, though, he has turned in the book of his illustrious career, a book about the deep spiritual habit of paying attention.  The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (IVP; $18) is not just about paying more attention to the voice of God–although it is—but it is a profound exploration of Benedictine spirituality, vocation, discipleship, and, yes, aging— living into the seasons of life with grace and Godliness.  Luci Shaw calls it “a primer in how to respond actively to Jesus’ challenge: Behold!  Look!  Listen!  Take notice!”  John Ortberg says he was “both pierced and healed by longing in the reading.”  Here is a great little interview, with Ford sharing the way in which praying the daily offices–and using these “hours” as a metaphor for the stages of faith development–has helped him in this new phase of life. It is short, but really lovely (especially if you are a dog lover!) Check it out.

25% off
any two (or more)
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Compassion Forum and Faithful politics

compassion forum.jpg

A number of friends saw my daughter and I on CNN, sitting in the VIP section at the Compassion Forum hosted by Messiah College on Sunday night.  As you most likely know, the Faith in Public Life folks—we know and respect nearly half their inter-faith board—were joined by the ONE campaign, Oxfam and a few other groups wanting to ask questions about faith and public policy sponsored a discussion with Senators Obama and Clinton (John McCain chose not to attend.)  They each talked about their faith journey, how they’ve experienced and describe God’s presence, and how their sense of Christian social principles might guide them as they confront incredibly complex and urgent social issues such as AIDS, peacemaking, poverty, torture, creation-care and abortion.  The talk was earnest, it seemed to me, and the moderators—CNN’s Campbell Brown, and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham—did an admirable job asking questions in fair and candid ways.  Other previously prepared questioners, representing Jews, Muslims and others, were in the audience (we were happy to see some of our acquaintances, folks like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Lisa Sharon Harper, former IVCF staff friend, and now Director of New York Faith & Justice, the always-interesting NAE policy guy, Richard Cizik and teacher and author David Gushee.) 

Marissa and I enjoyed watching how a TV show is produced, and the opening remarks, music and prayers from the generous hosts at Messiah were inspiring.  Of course the conversation could have gone in other directions, and it is clear that there was a progressive bias to most of the questioning. (Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins was invited and never replied; he later complained that he wasn’t involved.)  I enjoyed meeting new folks, authors, think-tank wonks, and policy activists, Republicans, Democrats, people from various faith traditions. Next to me was a sharp staffer from a Washington agency that is working on “third way” common ground strategies—just hearing about these different groups as projects made being there a delight.

I kept thinking of the writing I’ve done this season on books like Ron Sider’s Scandal of Evangelical Politics (Baker; $15.99)–I hope you read my review in February’s website column—and how important it is to have this kind of consistent and comprehensive Christian framework for thinking coherently about a “faith-based” orientation to our citizenship duties and the role government.  The candidates are good and thoughtful people, I think, and they each have had church involvement over the years, but I suggest that if you read a few popular level books of the sort I’ve described in that column, you may have a more integrated and wise perspective than half the folks who showed up for the Forum.  It is easy these days to critique the hard Christian right; the last year or two saw way too many repetitive and often mean-spirited left-leaning diatribes against conservatives, books that too often trafficked in the same sorts of one-sidedness and glib overstatement that they criticized  on the other side.  Yuck.

 We hope to promote books that will engender deeper conversations among faith-driven citizens, who are seeking a true alternative to left and right, rooted in a radical Christian worldview. It is the sort of perspective documented in David Gushee’s great new book, The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center (Baylor University Press; $I24.95.)  I’ve often mentioned David Koyzis smart work, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies  (IVP: $20) and it would be well worth working through this balanced and perceptive history of the ideologies that have shaped American political discourse in this season of election-mania.  Do we even know what words like “liberal” or “conservative” or “progressive” mean, or where they’ve come from?  I know that political philosophy isn’t for everyone, but for anyone who is feeling called to enter serious civic discussions or be involved in campaign work, I couldn’t recommend a serious book more urgently.

* * *

And, enjoy this: I often appreciate the great reviews over at The Discerning Reader and their interview, here, with Os Guinness, around the themes of his new book, The Case for Civility and Why Our Future Depends on It (HarperOne; $23.95) is stellar.  Congratulations to Tim Challis for asking good questions and to Os for once again speaking clearly and significantly into the issues of the day.  I really hope you read the interview.

At the Compassion Forum, I spoke to a few activists, journalists, and scholars and I had the opportunity to bring upcase for civility.jpg Dr. Guinness’ urgently needed book in no less than three different conversations.  Clearly nonpartisan, The Case for Civility is what I sometimes call a foundational text.  That is, he is framing conversation in ways that are basic, reflecting on “first things.”  I hope you print out this interview and, if you know anyone who finds it helpful, that they will spread the word about this profound, foundational study.  We explained our appreciation for it in that same monthly column where I reviewed Sider’s book, by the way, making us one of the first sites to comment upon it–although Challis’s Discerning Reader review is much better.  I wish we could sell a bunch, helping not only make the case for civility, but shaping a movement of those who care as deeply about American survival as does her generous critic, Dr. G

Watch CNN archieved video of the Compassion Forum here and various questioners from the Faith in Public Life website, here.  You can read transcripts of the event here. Messiah College has a great slideshow, from several days before up through the big evening, here.

Selling books at “The Global Schoolhouse” conference in Lexington MA

Although it wasn’t my main reason for driving to New England, I did enjoy spending some leisurely time walking through Gloucester MA with old CCO alum and good friends Scott & Denise Frame-Harlan and their two lovely kiddos.  They took me to a house once lived in by T.S. Eliot and we looked for the famous rocks of The Dry dove descending Howard.jpgSalvages, of Four Quartets, but it was, alas, too foggy to see, which for some reason seemed right.  They showed me the colorful Catholic church where Thomas Howard, a famous and flamboyant former evangelical writer, was converted to Rome—we have plenty of all of his books, and love several of them, like the exquisite Christ the Tiger, The Splendor of the Ordinary, and Why Evangelical is Not Enough and his books on Tolkien, Lewis or Eliot.  They showed me the very beach where Sebastian Junger, the guy who wrote The Perfect Storm wrote The Perfect Storm.  Nearly every time we turned a corner, or, later, as I drove home, I saw signs of this famous writer or that—-Louis May Alcott, Walden Pond, of course, the real house with seven gables.  I passed near Ipswich (think Updike) and reflected upon the legacy of the first Great Awakening as I neared towns of Edwards.  And had some killer clams and chowder, right from the bay, back in Gloucester, America’s first commercial seaport.

Hearts & Minds was in the great state of Mass, as they call it, working for the excellent in-service conference for Christian school teachers, an event sponsored by Lexington Christian Academy, an excellent, alternative Christian school in that famed revolutionary town.

 Getting to jaw with James Sire (a truly charming and clever gentleman besides How to Read Slowly.jpgbeing a worldview guru and one of our favorite authors, whose many books we stock) and to hear philosopher Peter Kreeft (a prolific apologist, cultural critic and Catholic scholar whose many books we routinely carry), were among the obvious highlights of this year’s event for me.  Nothing can explain the rewards, though, of the biggest thrill—that of of offering good books to thoughtful teachers, knowing that to shape their reading habits is to surely effect a generation of emerging Christian students.  The teachers from all over were eager to talk books, and some told me about innovative and important programs they run in their respective schools.  God bless ’em for breaking the mold of what some think Christian schools are about, and illustrating a wide-as-life view of redemption and a caring commitment to helping students become life-long learners, servants and robust disciples of the Master in our multi-cultural world.

  As you might guess, I really promoted The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students by our good friends Don Opitz & Derek Melleby (Brazos; $13.99) as a key book to supplement their work with high school students.  Telling you about that now gives me an excuse to bring it up again—it is the best gift for high school seniors going off to college, you know, and I hope you remember to order some, soon.  (Tell your church, if you can, to consider this is a way to honor your students who are in that college transition year.)  It playfully and smartly writes about worldview and life, about college and classrooms, about learning and living for God, Biblically and with humility and thoughtfulness.  What a great hope for all of our young people! 

At the Lexington conference we heard lectures on science, on inter-faith experiences, on standing for justice in the two-thirds world—-all in open-minded spirit of conviviality, with little controversy or tension. From Calvin College scholar Joel Carpenter, who has co-edited with Gambian scholar Lamin Sanneh the serious and important The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World (Oxford University Press; $21.99.) we heard about Christians in the global South.(We featured the important work of Philip Jenkins, too, of course.)   Dordt College’s Pro Rege editor, English prof Mary Dengler spoke passionately about the nature of uniquely Christian thinking—she even dared to cite Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd to remind us of the multi-faceted nature of reality, and the subsequent need for multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary teaching and learning.  I especially enjoyed meeting a fellow central PA new friend–we had not heard of each other, oddly—Michael Evans, a vibrant and young African American speaker who argued for schools to equip their young students to learn to become Kingdom leaders of culture, engaged in the Godly vision of transforming the world through investing in various careers and professional arenas, especially around issues of urban poverty and racial justice. It sounded like a Jubilee conference talk to me!  Way to go Mike!

There were numerous other authors speaking at the LCA Cultivating Inquiry conference.  Former Time magazine journalist David Aikman spoke both about China—you should know his highly regarded and very interesting book  Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power whichdelusion of disbelief.gif is now out in an impressive paperback (Regnery; $16.95) and offered a thoughtful response to the new athists (Dawkins, Harris, et al) which is the theme of his brand new book,The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness (Tyndale; $16.99.)

Marvin R. Wilson was there, pouring out his heart for Jewish-Christian dialogue (and, yes, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.)  Wilson has taught at Gordon College for years, helping his students get involved in the Jewish community, and his book, Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of Christian Faith (Eerdmans; $22.00) is considered by many to be the standard Christian study of the subject.  We now stock his DVD (Jews & Christians: A Journey of Faith)  that was on PBS, a fine and useful study for adult groups. We sell it for $29.99.

Thanks to the hosts at LCA for going to the immense effort of hosting this excellent teaching event—and for hosting me as bookseller.  Thanks to Tim Bogertman for helping out, a man who, if he wasn’t in church work, could easily be a bookseller any d
ay.  And thanks to Hearts & Minds staff, for helping me go on the road, taking our wares to places such as Lexington Christian Academy, in the heart of literary New England.  I couldn’t do any of this without each of them.  May God be honored, and the Kingdom advanced, book by book by book.  Ordering from us, helps all of this happen, too, so I hope you, too, feel a part of it all. 

of the above mentioned titles or authors
20% off

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Karl Barth’s Fifty Prayers

fifty prayers.JPGI wanted to type this on Sunday, as I was using this new book in some sabbath reading, but just didn’t get to it.  Even though it is a day late, now, I’d like to share that we now have this book of prayers written by Karl Barth, prayers never before translated into English.  It is a very sweet and thoughtful little paperback simply called Fifty Prayers (Westminster/John Knox; $12.95.)

After noting that a colleague gave him an A in preaching and a D in liturgy,  the famous theologian wrote this in the preface in 1962:

For a long time I never felt good when before and after my sermons I thought I should, or was allowed, to keep to the order of the usual liturgical books…I was disturbed by the lack of functional relationship, but also by the inorganic relationship between the archaic or even the modern language of these prayers and the language of my sermons.  For a while, I sought help by replacing the petitions of the order of liturgy not with extemporaneous prayers ( I have never dared to risk such a thing), but with freely bringing together biblical passages from the Psalms.  Only in more recent years did I begin to set forth such texts, first for the end and later for the beginning of the main part of the worship service, within the context of preparing for the sermons themselves.

Isn’t it interesting that in just a few generations we have even one of the century’s foremost preachers and theologians uncomfortable with conversational prayer in worship, to a time when liturgy in many Protestant churches has been so thoroughly contextualized to the commonplace and extemp, where nearly anyone can utter nearly anything?  I am not overly fastidious about liturgical purity (even though some of my friends in our church’s contemporary service think I’m fussy) but it is evident that Barth has a certain gravity and thoughtfulness that is striking.

He continues, naming the considerations that guided him in writing these prayers.

The worship service, the center of the entire life of the community, must be presented as a whole, a whole of calling on the gracious God.  Following the greeting of the community as the people of this God, the worship begins with the common singing, which I think is not seen as being as important as it truly is.  It continues with the pronouncement of the community’s thanks, its penance, and its special petition for God’s presence and support in the special act of gathering for worship, by the member of the community who service as the leader of the action.  It ascends to the sermon, in which the call to explanation and application of the Scripture passage (better short than long!) is spoken and proclaimed.  From here, it descends to the final prayer, in which the proclamation of the sermon is briefly summarized (with a direct call to God), but in which the worship service is possibly opened, above all, as an outstretched petition to the outside, to all other people, to the rest of the church and the world (is this too often neglected?) 

It doesn’t matter much to me whether you or I agree with his description or vocabulary here.  I quote it because it shows his deep awareness of the flow, of the wholeness, of worship, and his description of the sermon being the highpoint reminds us of his regard for the Bible. He explains a few more elements of the service, including more singing and a final dismissal (apparently by a layperson) of blessing—again, this is for us as we serve the world. (His parenthetical question hangs still, over the decades, does it not?)   This brief description calls us to that which constitutes meaningful worship.  (He mentioned communion only in passing, but gives attention to the liturgical year.)

Anyway, these prayers were first written in the context of a whole worship service, and are tied to the sermons that the great man preached.  (By the way, Regent College Press recently published two previously untranslated sermons of Barth’s, one on the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, under the title The Word in the World. ) At the conclusion of the forward to Fifty Prayers, Barth says he hopes that the prayers (each about a page long) may be useful for personal and private devotion, but also to inspire “consideration” among other worship leaders.   It is an understated recommendation, fitting from a humble saint who understood God’s redemptive work in Christ in exceptional and awesome tones.

These stunning pastoral prayers mostly follow the liturgical calendar, but the rest are arranged thematically. They give us a glimpse of how the Swiss theologian practiced this huge Christian discipline and his rich words and cadences and theological depth can only help us, these days.  Kudos to the publisher for making them freshly available to us.