A List of 20 Great Books on Prayer — which (mostly) appeared in The Washington Times special feature this week-end. 20% OFF

washingtontimes-logo.jpgYep, it was quite a surprise when our central Pennsylvania bookstore here in Dallastown got a call from an executive of the internationally known The Washington Times. I almost didn’t believe it, that this important media outlet from DC was asking me to write for them. 

They were doing a special insert that goes to newsstands and on an on-line portal at their website on prayer and wanted me to compile a short list of the best books on the topic.

prayer graphic.jpgThe feature had lots of famous civic and faith leaders involved and was going to be written mostly by evangelicals — Max Lucado, Shirley Dobson, and other important figures — but offered to a fairly wide readership.

One of the team leaders of this project had seen one of our BookNotes reviews a while back and valued my writing and recommendations. What an honor!  What a blessing to be appreciated by a national figure who is obviously quite a reader himself.

I was more than willing to compile this list of some of our favorite titles on prayer. It had to be relatively brief, so — for those that know our large selection here at the shop and my own tendency to revel in a lack of brevity — you can imagine it was hard trimming it down to size. The widely-distributed print copy had to be even shorter than the on-line edition, which couldn’t be lengthy.  What you see below is an expanded and slightly longer list then what made the final cut at The Washington Times.  We hope it is helpful for you.

A final note about the list: when tasked to curate a list of overtly Christian books, offered for a very wide audience, I felt it was wise to offer both beginning level titles, and more in-depth suggestions. Some of these recommended volumes are long, some are shorter; some delightfully accessible, some a bit more demanding.  On my list a few authors are Roman Catholic, most are evangelical in orientation, a few are what might be considered mainline Protestant. One is even written by a slightly charismatic Quaker, another by an Orthodox priest (himself a medical doctor and son of a Russian diplomat.) A couple are old-school, staunch, a few are upbeat and fun.

As a list it is, I might suggest, a bit more ecumenical and socially diverse then many of those who contributed to the special edition at the Times.  Naturally, their own orientation is notably conservative, the faith leaders exceptionally passionate about revival praying.  I appreciate much of that, but our list is at once a bit more basic and a bit more broad.

So, welcome to Hearts & Minds;  we love offering a wide and informed array of titles, good stuff, but with some surprises.  We hope this list draws you into the best and most interesting books about prayer and, more importantly, draws you to the One who calls us to pray: the Triune God of the Bible, revealed in Scripture, known in the person of Jesus Christ, whose incarnation as the true King we will soon celebrate.  May these books help you know Him and — as some of His earliest disciples were known to have said — thereby become more fully alive, more human, more like Jesus Himself. 

It would be our pleasure to serve you further.  Send us an order and get 20% off any of the titles mentioned.  Our order form (see the link below) takes you to our on line order form page which is certified secure so you can safely leave credit card info.  Thanks for your support.

Prayer- Does It Make Any Difference.jpgPrayer: Does It Make Any Difference  Philip Yancey (Zondervan) $16.99  Mr. Yancey is respected as one of the finest evangelical writers working today, a good journalist, and author of many fine books telling of the many ways in which people find meaning in faith, and search for God’s grace in a complicated world. Here, he asks a perennial question — does prayer really matter? — and not only reports his findings in captivating writing, but invites us all into a life of deeper, more fruitful prayer, even though there is great mystery. It asks questions that most people have — is God listening? Does it change what happens? Why does it sometimes seem to “work” but not always? Very thoughtful and honest.

Too Busy Not to Pray .jpgToo Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to Be with God Bill Hybels (InterVarsity Press) $15.00  A very approachable, nicely-written and quite helpful primer — which has sold over a million copies!  This is ideal for those who feel too stressed to take time to pray regularly, or for those who need guidance in the basics. It is deceptively simply, but quite profound, a joy to read, and compelling in very practical ways. Hybels is the renowned pastor of the large Willow Creek Church near Chicago, known for its upbeat services aimed at the unchurched, so he knows how to write for an audience that may not be used to deep theology or heavy Biblical studies. Very highly recommended.

Prayer  Ole Hallesby.jpgPrayer  Ole Hallesby (Augsburg) $8.99  This is a small sized book, yet an enduring classic of the 20th century and one of the best-selling religious books of our time. Written by a Norwegian Lutheran clergyman (who had been imprisoned by the Nazi’s for his outspoken resistance to their fascism) Prayer offers in eleven short chapters truly helpful guidance for beginners and sturdy spiritual insight for those who have spent a lifetime praying. Simple as it seems, even deep and reliable authors such as Richard Foster have said it is one of the very best. A nice study guide makes it ideal for small group use. 

Help, Thanks, Wow.jpgHelp, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers Anne Lamott (Riverhead) $17.95  This brief book shares the author’s colorful anecdotes about her own journey to learn about prayer; as her many fans know, she is far from a conventional Christian and her writing is more clever and spicy and honest then most contemporary spiritual memoirs.  Emerging from her own struggle with addictions, dysfunctions and urban angst, this well-known novelist and bohemian writer insists that there really are just three main words needed to express the deepest things of our hearts: help, thanks, and wow.  Seriously theological readers will know these by perhaps deeper more sophisticated-sounding names (supplication, gratitude, awe) and will want to bring greater depth and nuance, but it is hard not to appreciate Lamott’s  candor, charm, and good-hearted simplicity. Good for those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or who are allergic to formulas or techniques that promise easy answers.

Prayer Keller.jpgPrayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God Timothy Keller (Viking) $26.95  Timothy Keller is renown for his conventional evangelical emphasis on Biblical truth and sound theology combined with cultural savvy, astute apologetics, and concern for the professional and public lives of his mostly young, sophisticated flock in Manhattan.  Out of his work at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York have come many serious and valuable books, but this is his first to directly teach about prayer, knowing God more intimately, and the best ways to deepen one’s habits of talking and listening to God. It is recent, comprehensive, clear and great gift to us all.

Part One of Keller’s Prayer offers insight about why we should desire prayer. Part Two helps us understand what prayer is, Part Three offers several chapters on “Learning Prayer” while Part Four is called “Deepening Prayer.” Part Five offers several wise songs of jesus.jpgchapters on actual praying, moving from awe to intimacy, and how to ask God for help. This is particularly thoughtful, theologically reliable, Biblically-informed, and very clear.  A must-read. Rev. Keller’s first ever daily devotional was just published in mid-November, a year’s worth of Biblical meditations on the Psalm’s entitled The Songs of Jesus.  Co-written with his wife Kathy, it is very nicely done, intimate and helpful.


The Heart of Prayer- What Jesus Teaches Us .jpgThe Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us  Jerram Barrs (Presbyterian & Reformed) $14.99  This is one of the best contemporary studies by a serious, beloved theology professor at Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis. Dr. Barrs is the son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer, the late evangelical cultural scholar and missionary who in the 1960s started L’Abri, a movement in Europe reaching out to disaffected youth and others with serious questions about traditional religion; this naturally gives this book a tone which is at once socially aware and philosophically astute. Still, it firstly is a lovely study of the ways in which Jesus prayed in the first century, and how we can learn from Him.  The exceptionally eloquent evangelical thought leader Os Guinness writes that “Jerram Barrs is a wise and gentle guide to the way of prayer shown and taught by Jesus. I have benefited enormously from this profound yet simple and helpful book.”

A Praying Life- Connecting with God in a Distracting World .jpgA Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World Paul E. Miller (NavPress) $14.99  As an ecumenical Christian bookstore we have sold hundreds of different books on prayer over our 33 years of book-selling; we enjoy helping people learn about the different sorts of books about this topic.  This one may be the most talked about book in this field in decades, in part because it combines a deep, orthodox Biblical perspective with a profound sense of the goodness of God’s great mercy shown in Christ’s grace, but also because the author is himself a learner, sharing stories and anecdotes from his own struggle to deepen his relationship with God through prayer. In this very engaging work, Miller offers wise, but down-to-Earth advice, tells humorous stories about his own daily life.  Endorsements come from respected evangelical leaders such as Timothy Keller, J.I. Packer and Dr. Philip Ryken, the President of Wheaton College.

With Christ in the School of Prayer Andrew Murray.jpgWith Christ in the School of Prayer Andrew Murray (Whittaker House) $8.99  Andrew Murray was an intense but popular South African evangelist in the early 20th century, who preached all over the world.  This is his most well-known book, considered by many to be one of the most significant books on the topic written, at least in the last hundred years.  Written with a vocabulary and tone from another era, there is a reason this is one of the biggest selling religious books of all time.

Prayer- Finding the Heart's True Home Richard Foster.jpgPrayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home Richard Foster (Harper)  $23.99  Few authors have shaped the late 20th century Protestant world’s understanding of spirituality more than Richard Foster, a lively Quaker who, in his legendary Celebration of Discipline reminded us that one of the great dangers of contemporary life is shallowness. “We need deep people,” Foster implored, as he guided readers unfamiliar with medieval mystics and Roman Catholic monastics and contemporary contemplatives into deeper spiritual waters, igniting an ever-growing trend of fresh interest in classic spiritual disciplines. Many think this second of his many books is his best, offering 21 different ways to pray, from the most quiet and meditative to the robust and lively to ways to encounter God in the ordinariness of the mundane, as we learn to “practice the presence of God.”   One of the more important books on prayer written in the last 50 years!

Daring to Draw Near- People in Prayer .jpgDaring to Draw Near: People in Prayer  John White (InterVarsity Press) $15.00  There are books about how to pray written by those who are experienced with various prayer practices, and there are those who draw didactic lessons from random Scriptural instructions.  This is one of the rare books that studies the actual prayers and pray-ers of the Bible, and, by exploring the longings and words of these ancient pray-ers, offers glimpses into how we, too, can approach the Divine in words. Every chapter is the prayer of a different Biblical pray-er.  It studies the prayer and the insights about God that the person who prayed came to know; as such it is a window into God’s character, a view of eternity. 

Great Prayers of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann.jpgGreat Prayers of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox) $14.95  Dr. Brueggemann is perhaps the most esteemed, if provocative, Old Testament scholar in our generation, recently retired from the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Georgia. His dense and evocative prose has unlocked the social and historical context of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, and he has done scholarly commentaries on many portions of the Older Testament. In this popular work he construes imaginative, thick readings of Israelite faith that has endlessly rich implications for our understandings today. Not a practical manuel on how to pray, but a mature story of relevant Hebrew texts.


Beginning to Pray Anthony Bloom.jpgBeginning to Pray Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press) $9.95  This is a handsome, slim book, written plainly by a beloved Russian Orthodox monk.  Bloom was the son of a respected Russian diplomat, himself a physician and Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain.  This is not only a fine introduction to the life of prayerfulness which has helped thousands of readers since its publication in 1970, but is a very accessible introduction to the great spiritual insights of the Orthodox tradition, written nicely for anyone who, as Bloom puts it, wants to move “Godward.”


Living Prayer Robert Benson.jpgLiving Prayer Robert Benson (Tarcher) $14.95 This author has a remarkable way with words, a writing style that offers both simple storytelling and a rare economy of language; he is a master of clear and moving prose.  In this tenderly told faith journey he writes of leaving his fundamentalist background, learning to experience God through more ecumenical, liturgical practices, attending his first silent retreats, and entering the world of writers, artists, mystics and laypeople exploring contemplative spirituality. For his experiment taking up the monastic practice of “fixed hour” prayer see his very moving and quite lovely In Constant Prayer, part of the Ancient Practices series edited by the late Phyllis Tickle (published by Thomas Nelson; $12.99.)

Kneeling with the Giants- Learning to Pray with History's Best Teachers.jpgKneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers  Gary Neal Hansen (InterVarsity Press) $16.00  Few who develop a meaningful and mature life of prayer do so without learning from others; who better to learn from then the giants of the Christian tradition, those who have come before and have written the most enduring, classic works about their spiritual practices? In this remarkable book, Hansen offers a key insight in each chapter about a particular way to pray, drawn from spiritual giants of the past. As a good guide, he reminds us that the point is not just to learn about these famous pray-ers and their books but to actually pray and experience God, as did they did. Hansen, a Presbyterian seminary professor, helps us by explaining, for instance, St. Benedict’s insight on using the Divine Office, Luther’s teachings on The Lord’s Prayer, Calvin’s studious meditations on the Psalms, St. Teresa of Avila’s experiences of recollecting the presence of God, or even learning how and why the Puritans wrote out their prayers. From the ancient “Jesus Prayer” to evaluations of Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light, this covers a very wide array of material. There is an appendix on using the book in small groups or church classes as well as a final reminder called “Putting Prayer into Practice.”  Very thoughtful and highly recommended for those serious about deepening their journey into prayer.

Soul Recreation- The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism T.jpgSoul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism Tom Schwanda (Wipf & Stock) $35.00 This may not be for beginners, but it wonderfully studies the colonial American Puritan thinkers, debunking some of the popular stereotypes and inviting us to appreciate their deep and nearly mystical spirituality. This historical study is itself deeply spiritual, warm and insightful, brilliant, even, by a serious scholar of the period and a helpful spiritual guide in the evangelical and Reformed tradition. A lovely forward by J.I. Packer.

Thoughts in Solitude Thomas Merton.jpgThoughts in Solitude Thomas Merton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $14.00  Merton was certainly one of the most colorful and well known of twentieth century Roman Catholic spiritual writers and while his dense memoir of leaving Columbia and a promising literary career to become a Trappist monk (Seven Story Mountain) was famously on the New York Times bestseller list in the 1950s and his New Seeds of Contemplation help launch a lasting trend of exploring mystical theology and meditative practices, this little volume is one of his most beloved and accessible works, and great introduction to the prodigious writer. This reminds us of the need for silence, prayerfulness and solitude, and what happens to a society were a frenzied pace makes such solitude rare. For another brief introduction to how he drew upon classic, medieval insights developed by monks and women religious, offering no-nonsense spiritual wisdom for modern people wanting to learn ancient prayer practices, see his brief Centering Prayer, published in 1956 (Image Classics; $13.00.) 

Sacred Rhythms- Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation.jpgSacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation Ruth Haley Barton (InterVarsity Press) $18.00  Ms. Barton, who runs the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Illinois, is a lovely writer, one who has absorbed the best insights of broad streams of church renewal and who also knows how to explain these contemplative practices to ordinary, contemporary people with our fast-paced lives; she jokes that she herself was an over-booked, busy soccer-mom while writing this book. An earlier book — it’s quite wonderful — called Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence — was widely appreciated, but many readers said they just didn’t have time to make time for solitude and prayerfulness.  The beautiful and helpful Sacred Rhythms was her answer, guiding readers on a rule of life that allows us to make room for God to work in our lives by practicing transforming disciplines and, as the subtitle so aptly puts it “arranging our lives for spiritual transformation.”  Very highly recommended.

Invitations from God- Accepting God's Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive.jpgInvitations from God: Accepting God’s Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (InterVarsity Press) $16.00  Another great book in the impressive “formatio” line of books, this, while not exactly on prayer, is about how to live a prayerful, spiritual life by realizing God is speaking to us, nudging, wooing, leading us — inviting us — and that we can be more human and whole by attending to that which God is calling us.  In her wonderful attention to divine invitations she offers extraordinary insight about wise and spiritually- alive lifestyle choices and habits of the heart that allow us to be transformed from the inside out. Her practical advise, offered in moving, poignant prose, helps us respond to God, aware that the God of the Bible, known in Jesus Christ, is not merely interested in our so-called “spiritual” lives or praying habits, but about all of life, real life in the here and now, and our Creator intended it to be.   As Calhoun says, “what we say yes to and what we say no to form the terrain of our future.”

Fingerprints of God- What Science is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience  .jpgFingerprints of God: What Science is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience  Barbara Bradley Haggerty (Riverhead) $17.00 What an extraordinary book, an engaging and wide-ranging survey by a seasoned journalist, a National Public Radio correspondent, who explores the emerging field of neurobiology, brain science and religious experience. Haggerty talks with cutting edge scientists, interviews those who have had extraordinary religious experiences, and attempts to give a lively account of the relationship of religion and science, and more specifically, the neuroscience of faith. One chapter is entitled “The Biology of Belief” and another explores the mind/body connection. Although she is not the only one saying it, the final chapter calls for  paradigm shifts in how we approach faith, science, spirituality and more. Fascinating.

soul of shame.jpgThe Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves Curt Thompson, MD (InterVarsity Press) $22.00 This is not a book on prayer, but it does explore the psychiatric benefits of a coherent understanding of the Biblical teaching about sin and shame, about how modern science and neurobiology explains what happens (even in the body itself) when people are struck by toxic emotion.  With verve and plenty of real stories, Thompson explains the ways in which spiritual experience can help bring restoration and healing as people learn to “dare greatly”, taking risks of relational vulnerability. Thompson is a psychiatrist with interest in brain studies and a dedicated follower of Christ who integrates his faith and scholarship in meaningful, insightful ways. His earlier book laid a good groundwork for these themes: see the very readable  Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Tyndale; $15.99.)



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NEW (and old) ADVENT DEVOTIONALS — all 20% off the listed price

Advent-2015.jpg pope jpgThere are so many great new Advent devotionals, I can’t tell you about them all now — and, there are a number of equally wonderful, useful ones from other years about which I have to remind you.  As a retailer, I just can’t bring myself to write about Christmas resources earlier in the fall — something in my bones still wants to resist consumerism and what Jamie Smith calls “secular liturgies” that press seasonal buying while the leaves are still changing.  So I apologize if this seems tardy.  We can ship things out right away, so don’t delay: now is the perfect time to order some resources to help you navigate the upcoming crazy and wonderful and complicated weeks.

So here are a few brand new titles, and a few older ones, too, a few with DVDs for home or study group use.  Once we all really get in the mood — this coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, after all, so you might have a wreath at church or in your home — I’ll list a few more. And I’ll soon do a list of holiday books for kids.  All will help you live your life in the way you most deeply desire, I’m almost sure of it. 

ALL WILL BE 20% OFF of the regular price shown. We sure would appreciate it if you’d send an order our way (the link at the bottom goes to our secure order form page or you could pick up the phone old-school and give us a call.)  Supporting family-owned and indie businesses is, for many of us, a Christian practice of faithful economic life, and we’d be delighted to fill your order with a prayer and a grateful ho-ho-ho.

In fact, I suppose you know all about Small Business Saturday and the “Indies First” campaign of the American Booksellers Association.  Makes us glad to know some folks have our back.

God With Us - Reader's Edition .jpgGod With Us: Reader’s Edition edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe (Paraclete) $18.99 You may know that this splendid, beautifully done, best selling hardback is out of print and exceptionally rare to find, even used.  Happily, the publisher recently reissued a very lovely paperback version, which they call the Readers Edition.  The artful, literary text is the same, and although it doesn’t have the glossy paper or the full color artwork in such lavish amounts, it is one of the nicest paperback books this season. The cover is lovely, with French folds, and the page layout is attractive. There is a 4 page section in the center with some full-color art. Contributors include poets and writers, mystics and preachers, artful and thoughtful companions for the journey: Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson and Luci Shaw.  

Time to Get Ready- An Advent, Christmas Reader.jpgTime to Get Ready: An Advent, Christmas Reader to Wake Your Soul Mark A. Villano (Paraclete Press) $16.99  Many of us are deeply grateful for the lovely and artful books produced by this publisher that grew out of a deeply spiritual, monastic community, and this new book is a good example of the books they do so well.  It is a handsome paperback, nicely designed, offering thoughtful writing that is moving — one reviewer says it “breathes silence and grace” with an upbeat, contemporary feel. The author has done Roman Catholic campus ministry and is a bit of a film buff, so there’s classic liturgical insight, deep spirituality, a bit about peace and justice and a bunch of pop culture references, helping us wake up, get ready.  This has good Bible teaching, pointing always to the life-changing mystery of Christ, inviting us to both an inward journey of spiritual intimacy and what we might call an outward expression, learning to be alive to God’s work in the world. Ronald Rolheiser (I hope you know his The Holy Longing!) writes 

Readers will not be disappointed with Time to Get Ready. Villano’s book will appeal to a wide audience: young people, and the more mature, those who are new in their faith, and those who have journeyed longer. Use it as a retreat, and be prepared to ‘wake your soul.’

Advent Presence- Kissed by the Past, Beckoned by the Future.jpgAdvent Presence: Kissed by the Past, Beckoned by the Future Melford “Bud” Holland (Morehouse Publishing) $14.00  Bud is a beloved Pennsylvania Episcopal priest, storyteller and photographer.  The reviews of this have been lovely — from excellent writers, too, such as Barbara Cawthorn Crafton (who says it is “much more fulsome than those one usually finds in books intended for daily devotional reading” and Greg Garrett  who says “I will come back to this book year after year.” It is written with great, quiet imagination, offering a place to open up and perhaps experience what he means by being “kissed by the past, beckoned by the future.”

Sent- Delivering the Gift of Hope at Christmas.jpgSent: Delivering the Gift of Hope at Christmas Jorge Acevedo  and others (Abingdon Press) $14.99 regular book/ $39.95 DVD  Acevedo is the dynamic lead pastor at Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida.  I’ve read a few of this other writings, one on vital congregations, and contributions to a book on youth ministry. He is a passionate, vibrant, solid leader of a multi-ethnic church (and several women and men who work with him have contributed here.) This is a great theme — God sent Christ at Christmas and Christ sends us.  This is upbeat, missional, absolutely Christ-focused stuff, a dynamic 5-week Advent journey with Jesus.  There is the stand alone book, but also a DVD study ($39.95) with each session running about 10 minutes, leaving plenty of time for discussion.  There is a useful leaders guide ($11.99) and a short daily devotional book ($9.99.)

The Season of the Nativity Confessions and PracticesGOOD.jpgThe Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas & Epiphany Extremist Sybil MacBeth (Paraclete Press) $17.99  Here is what a wrote last year: Wow, what’s not to like about this – written, as it is, by a self-professed season “extremist.”  Ha!  I love that! (And, as a good liturgical aficionado would, this resource includes ample stuff for Epiphany!) The spiffy ad copy on the back – with a design that looks warm and contemporary – says “Christmas sparkles brighter – when you celebrate the season in all of its fullness.”  Okay, there’s an allusion to Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany – but it means more, I think.  Ms MacBeth, you see, is the author of the very popular Praying in Color (and the pocket edition, and the kid’s edition) that invites us to doodle and design and be creative in our playfully serious coloring our prayers.  From ideas about colored pencils to other creative options, that book, like this one, is fabulous for those who can’t just sit still and read and meditate.  When this invites us to celebrate in “fullness” it means to suggest a multi-dimensional, holistic kind of engagement.  And – kudos to the Sisters of Paraclete Press – the design of this colorful book is as lovely as the idea.  It really is vibrant, colorful, and winsome.

Listen to what Lauren Winner writes about it.  (She was, by the way, an early booster of MacBeth’s earlier projects.)

This gorgeous book is going to remain at my reading chair, dog-eared and bookmarked, all through the Yuletide season. It will also be under the tree of just about everyone on my gift list. We will all have more interesting winters, and greater intimacy with Jesus, because of it.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift.jpgUnwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas Ann Voskamp (Tyndale) $24.99  The last two years we raved about a very handsome hardback devotional by Ann Voskamp, the amazingly good writer of the very popular One Thousand Gifts.  It was called The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Love Story of Christmas  There is a fabulous DVD curriculum to use with it, which explores the great, rich tradition of “The Jesse Tree.”  We were fond of that book and DVD, too, but can hardly express how this material has generated yet another Advent book by Ms Voskamp — a full-color, over-sized hardback with good, glossy pages, which beautifully helps families explore moving scenes from the Bible that lead us, step by step, through the history of redemption and towards the birth of The Greatest Gift- Unwrapping the Love Story of Christmas .jpgChrist and the Advent of His Kingdom. Vivid, contemporary illustrations enhance the Scripture readings and questions and activities; links for downloadable ornaments are included that help communicate the stages of salvation history, starting with the Garden of Eden.  On the back cover of Unwrapping the Greatest Gift they invite us to “Celebrate the best love story of all time with your family!” Indeed, this helps your family retrace the linage of Jesus and fall in love with the story of God, unfolded bit by bit, with breath-taking, contemporary artwork and these great downloadable ornaments.  

This is a beautiful book you will want to own and keep, because, we hope, it is one you will cherish.  It is our pleasure to tell you about it.

Light Upon Light- A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent.jpgLight Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete Press) $18.99  Dare I tip my hand and say that I intend to use this often this season?  It really is an extraordinary book, a literary and spiritual feast full of fiction, poetry, and excerpts of great literature. The book is elegantly designed with French folded covers, and an equally beautifully tone.  Perhaps you know Arthur’s previous one like this, At the Still Point which was for use in Ordinary Time.  This includes a daily prayer which is most often a poem (including some surprising choices) and then a Psalm, Scripture readings, and then some daily offerings of poems and short excerpts of fiction.  If you believe in the holy coming to us in the guise of literature, this is for you.  

As poet Luci Shaw writes of it, “Sarah Arthur illuminates our whole year with the gift of flaming words. A treasure of enlightenment.”  Just a thought: even if you aren’t interested in Oscar Hijuelos or MacDonald’s Gifts of the Christ Child or Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Gerard Manley Hopkins or Fred Buechner or Christiana Rossetti, you surely know some lit-lovers, English majors, or aspiring poets who don’t want a more customary Advent devotional.  This would make a beautiful, appreciated gift.

By the way, odd as it is, we just got in Sarah Arthur’s brand new release, a Lenten companion to At the Still Point and Light Upon Light.  It is called Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week and Eastertide (Paraclete; $18.99.)

A Very Different Christmas .jpgA Very Different Christmas: What Are You Hoping for This Year? Rico Tice and Nate Locke (The Good Book Company) $4.99  I love this British publisher, evangelically-minded Anglicans, mostly, I gather, who do very lively outreach tools — pamphlets, videos, inexpensive books, as well as serious Bible studies and books to help live out a missional Kingdom vision.  This is a small book, with a really nice engraved letterpress cover, that is chatty and clever, creatively inviting seekers to a different sort of Christmas living room — one in heaven, with the Triune God giving the gifts. Becky Pippert (herself one of the finest evangelists) says  it is “wonderfully compelling. You’ll love it!”  Heady Reformed theologian and host of the White Horse Inn radio show, Michael Horton, calls it “a provocative invitation.”  The authors say they hope that the very different presents presented in this fable can “transform the way you look at Christmas, your life, your hopes, your future.”  What a cool little book to give away, or to read together as a family.

Advent in Narnia- Reflections for the Season .jpgAdvent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season Heidi Haverkamp (WJK) $16.00  This slim hardback is a great book and would be a great gift for any family that has loved the Chronicles of Narnia.  Why didn’t somebody think of this before?  I can’t wait to read it myself!

As the Very Reverend Gary Hall, the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral puts it, Advent in Narnia is both “delightful and profound.” Haverkamp is a young clergywoman in the Episcopal church, and a Benedictine Oblate at the ecumenical Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin.  There is mature spirituality here, theological depth, and a reminder that Christ, like Aslan, is “on the move.”  What a great idea this book is!

Finding Bethlehem in the Midst of Bedlam.jpgFinding Bethlehem in the Midst of Bedlam James W. Moore (Abingdon Press) $14.99 regular book/$39.99 DVD  Moore is a popular writer who has offered oodles of often very funny books, upbeat, casual, with maybe the sort of inspirational tone you’d find in Guideposts, say.  I think this is a good example of how we can have some fairly serious stuff approached in a way that isn’t off-putting and is inviting for readers who aren’t too sophisticated in theology or spiritual formation.  As you can guess, this is a sane call to find God not by avoiding the bedlam, the frantic schedules and hard stuff, but to find God in this messy stable of a world. The Bible story itself, Moore reminds us, isn’t a sweetness and light, and our lives are often pretty crazy, too.  There is this stand alone book and there is a five session DVD, too ($39.99) and a helpful guide for facilitators ($9.99.) 

The Joy of Advent- Daily Reflections from Pope Francis.jpgThe Joy of Advent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis Diane Houdek (Franciscan Media) $12.99 Pope Francis captured the attention of the nation earlier this season when he visited Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. His love for the original Saint Francis is so evident as he offers clear, gentle words of challenge and blessing. Here we have a Scripture for each day and a selection from the pope’s writings, and then a “bringing the Word to life” suggestion for daily application. Very nice.

Watch for the Light- Readings for Advent and Christmas .jpgWatch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas Plough Publishing $24.00  This stunning collection of some of the best spiritual writers of all time came out in 2001 from the exceptionally thoughtful, high-quality publishing house founded by a simple-living Hutterite community.  The community gave up their publishing venture, the book languished, got picked up by another publisher, but now, Plough Publishing is back, and this great resource has been restored to its lovely hardback edition.  Wisely selected pieces from older writers Aquinas, Luther, Donne through writers such as Hopkins, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Lewis and Merton, and contemporaries like Kathleen Norris, Philip Yancey and Annie Dillard.  What a delight to have seasonal readings from theological voices like Jurgen Moltmann, mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux,  poets — from Sylvia Plath to T.S. Eliot to Jane Kenyon,  contemplatives such as Henri Nouwen and storytelling writers like the late Brennan Manning.  Short readings for every day from the end of November through the first week of January.

Advent of Justice big_W&S.jpgAdvent of Justice Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Mark Vander Vennen, Sylvia Keesmaat (Wipf & Stock) $10.00   

Here is what I wrote when this potent book re-appeared after a year of being out of print:

I have long said that there is no other Advent devotional like this, nothing in print that comes close.  It has been out of print for a few years, and we are glad it has been re-issued, with a nicer, full-color cover. (Otherwise, the inside, the handsome fonts and nicely designed pages with a few art pieces by Willem Hart, remain.)  

This is a set of 4 week’s worth of daily readings, studies of lectionary texts (mostly from Isaiah coupled with seasonal NT texts) with a serious contextualized reading of these passages.  Some of the Isaiah passages are familiar to us while a few may be less so.  The hard-to-pronounce names of kings and prophets, nations and armies, are made more clear, brought into focus so we realize what was going on, geo-politically and religiously among the divided kingdoms.  That they invite us to ponder this and to apply the lessons to our own times, indeed our own lives, is a great holiday gift. It is not sentimental and there is nothing about Christmas ornaments or hot cider or snowy Winterscapes. This is Bible study with cultural analysis.  Dare I say it is an urgent antidote to some of the ways we’ve tamed the Christmas story and, well, you know… One friend who appreciated it a lot called it “Advent with a Vengeance.”  Well, sort of.

I have read through these short, dense pieces many times, and get something new with each reading.  Walsh brings the big picture gospel to bear, as always, and Middleton especially explains the intricacies and drama of Old Testament politics.  Mark Vander Vennen – an old pal and peace activist from our days in Pittsburgh, now a wise and respected family therapist – brings his own well-trained Old Testament scholarship to the plot, with very nicely written daily meditations, journeying with us as we wait expectantly.  The last week New Testament scholar (and organic farmer) Sylvia Keesmaat eloquently brings it all together. Dr. Keesmaat, by the way, served as chief editor for this whole project, and brings the touch of a scholar and creative wordsmith. 

For those not used to Advent being a time to inhabit the broad Biblical drama, this may be challenging. Not surprisingly, it has some themes of social criticism, a faithful emphasis on justice and the common good, since the Scriptural texts point us towards these concerns.  That Advent of Justice was firstly produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a Canadian social justice advocacy group – the Citizens for Public Justice (formerly the Committee for Justice & Liberty) – is fitting. These authors live this stuff, and their own rich Biblical reflections have emerged out of their own engagement with issues in the public square, service to the marginalized, and taking stands for public justice and the common good.

Still, even though this is dedicated to the justice activists and citizen advocates of CPJ and brings themes of justice to the fore, it is – let me be clear – an advent Bible devotional, short readings, day by day.  They invites us to read the Bible text first, spend time pondering their explication, and then to return to the Bible text again, reading and hearing it with new eyes and ears.  They do this to help us have a meaningful and joyous holiday season, to wait well, to make time for God’s Word during Advent. They really do hope you have a good holiday season. May it help you wait well.

Awaiting the Already- An Advent Journey Through the Gospels.jpgAwaiting the Already: An Advent Journey Through the Gospels Magrey R. deVega (Abingdon) $9.99  Okay, I’m not going to embellish this. The author is United Methodist pastor and Bible scholar (he has contributed to Feasting on the Gospels volume on John) and has worked on the ongoing Covenant Bible studies series. The arrangement of this little book is simple: the chapters explore Advent and Christmas in five chapters: 

Mark: Slow Down, Pay Attention

Matthew: The World as it Is

Luke: The Ultimate Advent Playlist

John: The Light in the Darkness

Titus: Paul’s Christmas Letter

Bet you didn’t see that last one coming, didya?


advent conspiracy book and DVD.jpgThe Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World  Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder (Zondervan) $12.99/$29.99 book & DVD pack  I mention this every year, and note that this is a stand-alone book, but it goes with a tremendous DVD curriculum, upbeat and cool, cleverly offering excellent Biblical teaching, honest stories of struggle and new ways to think about Christmas, inviting individuals (and, better, faith communities, fellowships, churches, BIble study groups) to pledge together to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.  This is how to have a Christmas worth remembering, not dreading. I have even offered this to congregations with a money back guarantee — I am so confident this will make you think, give you fresh ideas, help you take steps towards pushing back against the frantic pace and commercialization and financial stress.  Can we conspire together to do the holiday in more meaningful, appropriate ways?  

The irony is not lost on me, of course, to promote this anti-commercialism with such erstwhile salesmanship, but here’s a deal: if you want the DVD curriculum and one book, there’s a set that we will sell now at almost  50% off the “study pack” discounted price, making it $15.99. I believe this is so important, we’re eager to spread the word about it once again. While supplies last.  Boom.


And, just for fun, to help your Advent worship, enjoy this: James Romaine, a thoughtfully Christian art historian has put together four youtube videos called Art in Advent. Each week you can experience great visual art as James guides you through some insightful Advent meditations.  Here’s the “trailer” a short one on the Annunciation, with further links to the whole series.  Happy viewing.



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“Between the World and Me,” “Under Our Skin,” and other Powerful, Recent Books on Racism (and a few evangelical classics.) ON SALE see below for the link to our secure order form.

How-God-Became-King-202x300.jpgAt the intense N.T. Wright lectures earlier this week there were so many brilliant lines, so many echoes of inter-textual Biblical connections, and so many fresh insights into the bigger Biblical narrative unfolding and pointing towards Christ’s redemptive project of launching a new exodus into a new creation.  He cited his important book How Christ Became King (HarperOne; $24.99) and we particularly showed off his latest book, The Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle (Baylor University Press; $34.95.) Those that know Tom Wright know that his work is appreciated by Paul Debate (Baylor U).jpgdiverse corners of the church – liberal mainline Protestant denominational folks sat next to Roman Catholics who were chatting with nondenominational evangelicals and conservative, confessional Reformed folk.  The diversity of races, ethnic backgrounds, theological viewpoints and faith traditions was heartening to say the least.

And then, perhaps not even recalling how fraught with racial tension his host city of Baltimore is these days, he reminded us that one of the grand themes of Paul’s explication of the work of the cross is that those “far away become near” and that the centrality of the new community forged in Christ between first century Jews and Gentiles (underscored, by the way, in Wright’s studies of Romans) might help us even teach children of the church about racial reconciliation and how to navigate in faith the complexities of racial injustice. Of course we should proclaim that we should just love everyone, but the Bible – including the teachings around topics of Christ’s death, the atonement, and such – offers thick resources, sturdy ideas and fruitful directions for moving deeper into the questions of how to be agents of reconciliation within our pluralistic and multi-ethnic (and often unjust) society.  

Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates .jpgBaltimore is the hometown, by the way, of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates who has just won the prestigious National Book Award for his extraordinary, exceptionally passionate book Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau; $24.00.)  The title itself is a phrase from Richard Wright, which should hint that Coates is an intellectual rooted in the broad, classic canon of African American literature.  He grew up in the 1980s and ’90s inner city Baltimore, raised by parents who were militantly Afro-centric; his father was a former leader in the Black Panthers, became a librarian (specializing in rare writings by blacks, intellectual stuff written centuries ago and nearly lost to modern readers) at Howard University. His father started a small and very eccentric publishing house – we ordered from them years ago! – In Baltimore, and Ta-Nehisi grew up reading, reading, reading, everything from Richard Wright and James Baldwin and Malcolm to authors with exotic sounding names who wrote books like Black Egypt and Her Negro Pharaohs.  

beautiful struggle.jpgCoates tells of his growing up (“coming up” as he puts it) in Baltimore – the awful gangs and robberies, the drugs, the rise of hip hop, the violent and seemingly pointless urban schools, the rough and racist cops, and more – in a thrilling 2008 coming of age memoir called The Beautiful Struggle. I read this first to prepare myself for the New York Times best seller Between the World and Me. I knew Between the World… was going to be hard-hitting, painful, perhaps (it is written as an extended letter to his own 15-year-old son, advice and ruminations offered in an age of Trayvon and Ferguson) and having read his own coming-of-age story before tackling Between the World was good. 

I simply could not put down The Beautiful Struggle, and I highly recommend it for those who are interested in memoir, in allusive, creative writing (he has been compared to James Joyce) and certainly for anyone interested in the stories and experiences of fellow Americans who grew up in almost exclusively black neighborhoods and schools.  I’ve read a bit of this kind of literature and I must say I was still utterly drawn in, my own heart pounding in fear of gangs and guns, angry at dumb schools and cops, moved by the sub-plot about his parents, anxious about his teenage confusion – would he go to Howard, which his father called The Mecca and at which he worked in order for his children to be able to afford to attend?  His timid efforts at dating, his discovery of African drumming, his feelings as his parents moved from his ‘hood — all of this rang so very true to me and I was sad for the story to end.

I have to admit, though, I kept an urban slang dictionary app open on my phone as I read because I simply didn’t know many of phrases or even the pop culture references (gansta rappers, video game characters, basketball stars.) The prose is high-octane, spectacular, moving from heartbreak to hilarity, from anger to rage, from sweetness to immense, profound sadness. It’s a wild ride, both the setting and the prose, and it was an incredible one to take.

There is a reason it was so esteemed and the raves were so substantial – you should see the fantastic endorsements by the likes of James McBride, Eric Dyson, Natalie Y. Moore, Michael Chabon, and Walter Mosley, and was widely reviewed in journalistic outlets from Essence to Entertainment Weekly to Kirkus Review.

The year’s award-winning Between the World and Me is equally passionate, in some ways more so, and includes many anecdotes from his earlier life as he passes on his wisdom, such as it is, about living in a racially unjust world, to his teen-aged son. Mr. Coates has honed his writing craft and his style a little less flamboyant (he now is a staff writer for The Atlantic and lives in Manhattan) and some would say the new book is more mature and deeper than his earlier memoir. Both touched me deeply, and I appreciated both. The new one is certainly more polemical as he explains to his son what it means to inhabit a black body in these days.  He is in teaching mode, here, not just meandering through his past for the joy of it all, and he brings some of the fire of his father to bear on what his son must know.

And, of course, what it means and what he must know is often awful, with a constant realization of the gross ugliness of chattel slavery – the truth that the great, great grandmothers of those with black bodies were raped with impunity, the great, great, grandfathers sold and beaten and lynched.  This is, like it or not, one of the inevitable realities of our culture; even our most beloved founding fathers were in league with great evil on this matter, and Coates reminds his son, and his readers, of why this matters yet today. It is powerful stuff, and vital.

America's Original Sin.jpg(Jim Wallis of Sojourners has a book coming out early in the new year about race and racism which many have for years encouraged him to write, named America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos Press; $21.99) which you can pre-order from us for 20% off. There will be a foreword by Bryan Stevenson, which itself I’m sure will be good. I don’t know if Jim will dwell on this as Coates does, but it is gruesome truth that such stuff happened in our land, not that long ago.)  

I cannot now do an extended review of Between the World and Me  which deserves consideration and critique, I think, but I will say just two things: firstly, Mr. Coates’s materialistic atheism – this stuff and this life is all there is – seems to have been merely inherited from the nearly Maoist worldview of his father, a rare father who loved him (few of his friends had father’s present in their lives) and sternly abused him, and who was devoutly anti-Christian.  One would think that such a thoughtful person, in a polemical letter to his own son, would have invited him – yea, challenged him! – to think for himself, even on this matter of what is true about the most basic things. We get little self-doubt about that, and no encouragement to think the options through.

It seemed to me that Mr. Coates’s philosophical views are asserted but not always argued, and for an esteemed thought-leader and rising public intellectual to be so unforthcoming about the illogic of his Ivy League disinterest in religion (not to mention his glib dismissal of King and his religious nonviolence) was frustrating to me.  I can appreciate a hard-won, intellectually substantive journey towards disbelief, or even a visceral antagonism to the repressive and toxic implications of conventional religion. But to fail to grapple with foundational questions about first things, in such an otherwise astute and eloquent and thoughtful work inviting his son to be principled, hopeful, humane and fully human, was disappointing. Perhaps Coates’s son will rebel a bit, as Ta-Nehisis did against his own father’s blind spots, and reconsider the philosophical assumptions and (seemingly) unexamined secularism which significantly shapes much of the discourse in Between the World and Me. 

Ta-Nesihi Coates.jpgSecondly, although this book offers a radical – some would say extreme – view of race relations, there are moments here that are self-revelatory about Coates’s own foibles and fears. (His telling of his own fear of visiting Paris, and his love of the City of Lights once he went was just beautiful.) His description of falling in love with the classmate who became his wife is lovely.

Many white readers, I can only suppose, will be shocked by some of the angers expressed here and a few might be shocked by the recounting of gross racial profiling and police abuse, even in Prince George’s County, outside of DC, where Coates was working as a reporter after leaving The Mecca. But no reader can be left unmoved — certainly not by one of the centerpieces of the book, the murder by police of a kind and gentle Christian college friend — and no father will close it failing to think about what he might say to his own son, of any race or any age, about the weight of history upon us. Yes, it is an outspoken critique of racism, mass incarceration, and the hardships faced by people of color and other minorities in our culture. But it is also a story, more than a cautionary tale, some hint of a ritual rite of passage for the day mentoring his son, a meditation on parenting, and at times a very poignant, if complicated, one.

 An incident of his endangering his young son by seriously escalating a volatile argument with a white woman in a crowded mall was told frankly, examining the political and the personal, so to speak, with Coates saying what he regretted and what he did not about the scene.  In many ways, he is his father’s son,  righteously outraged, remembering much and refusing to allow us to forget what most blacks know in their bones.  Black lives matter, indeed.  But he lives a more affluent kind of life then his parents did, his own neighborhood and workplace are more diverse, and his own kind and playful spirit shines through.  Yes, this is a hard book to read, but it will be seen by many, as Toni Morrison notes, as “beautifully redemptive.”  She continues, “its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.”

Stand Your Ground- Black Bodies and the Justice of God .jpgStand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Kelly Brown Douglas (Orbis) $24.00  I mentioned Baltimore. This author is herself a scholar near there (she teaches religion at Goucher College) and as a black woman (and Episcopal priest) has thought long about racial injustice. More to the point, as a mom of a black son she was profoundly shook by the Trayvon Martin case.  Out of moral, prophetic outrage and person angst as an understandably worried mother, she set herself to study the history of the “Stand Your Ground” common law that was used as a defense for situations such as George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin.  As Baltimore burned last year, Orbis Books, known for its liberation theology and social-justice minded resources (they published James Cone’s must-read The Cross and the Lynching Tree), rushed this book to press even as the author was speaking out and offering leadership to the faith-based racial justice movement.

I wish I had time to review this more substantially, but will at least explain this much: this book is an uncompromising study – very academic at times, laden with cultural studies lingo betraying her privileged place as a liberal religious studies professor – of the history of racial injustice in America, by studying the ways in which property and violence were construed by the formative thinkers that shaped the founding fathers. (That would be the often slave-holding, violent founding fathers, let us not forget!) 

You will be surprised that a book about the justice campaigns developing after Trayvon and Michael Brown, Ferguson and Baltimore, begins with Roman legal thinker Tacitus talking about the Germanic peoples of the Black Forests.  The racial feature of these pale skinned, red-haired people were described in ancient Rome, and the trajectory towards racial purity and eugenics and vile racism begins.  Anglo-Saxon views of property and power developed – think John Locke, etcetera – undergirding certain assumptions about law and justice, and soon enough, well, you know. There is a connection between the old German woods, English philosophy of law, and slavery. It is, as the Declaration puts it, “self-evident.”  What these white men saw as natural law — yes, she also explains Aquinas, and how the Reformers and Puritans later used such medieval notions theologically and politically — became codified in laws and common law, in civic culture and politics. The evil slave sales and mass rapes and lynchings and Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration culture are not accidents of history, but are shaped and authorized by political ideals and philosophical assumptions.

Stand Your Ground is a passionate, provocative, tireless expose of all this, from American exceptionalism to Manifest Destiny to the large and looming question of where God is found in all of this. Do black lives matter?  Can the black church tradition offer particular insights for us all to move forward in our stand-your-ground culture with justice and honesty? It is not particularly nuanced or even fair, but it is a cry of the heart, a voice to hear. There are some historical connections here that I have not considered, at least not lately, and I am glad for this heavy, serious work. 

A thought: one can disagree with some of this, with much of it, even, and still find it a valuable read. Her evaluations of how black bodies – given the Anglo-Saxon myths and narrative of (white) American exceptionalism – are always seen as guilty seems to me to be overstated, and I am distressed saying this, thinking she would merely say this proves her point. Is Douglas right that the question of whether black victims of police brutality are at all responsible, even in part, for the unjust crimes waged against them, is nearly irrelevant – that we always blame the victim, even in their graves? And if so, what are the implications of this for the common good? (Does she really mean to move from “blacks are always guilty” to “blacks are not ever guilty”?) What does it mean in a racially-charged culture to insist on fair trails for all? Does it matter at all that in some of the recent horrific shootings the victims did, in fact, use violence before they were shot? I do not mean to suggest in any way that this justifies police shootings; to imply, however, as Dr. Douglas does, that to mention this is inappropriate strikes me as unhelpful.

Further, I found some of her judgments lacking in charity; in one instance a white child, the child of family friends, said something obviously racist, and she opined that while the family surely did not teach their child these prejudicial attitudes “they clearly did nothing to prevent them.”  What an odd thing to say – it is certainly not clear, since we have no way of knowing what these parents did or didn’t do to teach their child proper attitudes and facts about race relations. And what parent doesn’t know that kids blurt out embarrassing things in direct opposition to the values the parents tried valiantly to impart?  I was just astonished that an editor would let such an unfair statement go unchecked – suggesting this was a clear matter, and the fault of the white parents – and sad that a person of faith harbored such thoughts about a woman she said was a friend.

Still, this was one important book, heavy and serious, documenting relentlessly the intellectual and cultural convictions that have shaped the mess we’re in. It is strong in intellectual history, but it also does close evaluations of contemporary media coverage (and not just the far-right talk shows, but respected guys like Matt Lauer and his interviews with the parents of Trayvon Martin, which Douglas shows as terribly unfair.)  As H.H. Kortright Davis of Howard University School of Divinity says, “No one reading this well-researched and eloquent scholarly testimony will ever be the same again.” Let us hope this is so.

Ferguson & Faith.jpgFerguson & Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community Leah Gunning Francis (Chalice Press) $19.99  We all know how the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, reignited a movement there, and elsewhere, for racial justice, police reform, and urban renewal. In places like Ferguson young activists and older clergy marched side-by-side, forging a new alliance, a new civil rights movement. Last year in Missouri, many St. Louis area clergy stepped up to support the emerging young leaders, and Leah Gunning Francis (of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis) documented it all.  She is a board member of the Religious Education Association and has provided pastoral leadership for several congregations, but her she is found interviewing folks on the street, literally.  Some of these stories you may have heard, but I suspect most you have not. How interesting and good it is to read story after story of real pastors and Christian leaders and what they did in the protests and on-going campaigns for justice in that place.  This really is a behind the scenes story!

Yep, this thrilling book is really a collection of stories – testimonials and reports – of activists and church folk and religious leaders who worked long hours in the streets during the uprisings in Ferguson. It offers the anecdotes and perspectives of the people who were directly involved. As Shane Claiborne put it, “Leah Gunning Francis has penned a theological memoir of a movement.”

I think it is valuable for us all to realize how some people of faith, of some sorts of churches, got out of the pews and into the streets, and what that was like for them. In a way, this is a guide for any of us, in any town, on nearly any issue, imagining how we might become more missional and engaged in local activism.  Granted, this is a particularly dramatic situation, in a particularly urgent setting, with a specific crisis in view, but the bigger question of how to be involved in this kind of work is important.

Unleashing Opportunity- Why Escaping Poverty Requires.jpg(As is, by the way, the less dramatic, on-going work of “unleashing opportunity” for the poor and abused, pursued by engaged citizens and good neighbors, combining proposals for both volunteerism and political solutions. See the exceptionally helpful little book I’ve named before in this column, Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice by Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers & Katie Thompson [Falls City Press; $11.99.])

And so, I invite you to read Ferguson & Faith, no matter if you live in a tense urban center or not, whether your congregation has been activist oriented or not. Listen to another religious educator – Evelyn Parker of Perkins School of Theology – who writes that “This book is required reading for clergypersons serving in congregations and social agencies regardless of their social location, as well as required reading for seminary students preparing for leadership in faith-based communities.” I’d expand that not just to clergy or seminarians, but anyone wanting to see how Christian faith can be lived out in this dramatic way.  As Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a U.S. Representative from Missouri writes, of those whose stories are told in this book: “They embodied the best of the human spirit that resonated with many around the globe and challenged this nation to live up to its ideal of liberty and justice for all.”

Under Our Skin - Ben Watson.jpgUnder Our Skin: Getting Real About Race – And Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us  Benjamin Watson (Tyndale Momentum) $22.99  As you can tell from the other books listed, I think that there are serious, challenging, and hard-hitting voices that we need to hear. Coates rejects any semblance of a Christian worldview, but writes with heavy passion and award-winning eloquence. Rev. Brown is just as hard-hitting, or more so, as she shows the complicity of many theological systems and social philosophies that have authorized and motivated racial violence and white supremacy in the dominant culture.  The Leah Gunning Francis book is less polemical, but tells the story of on-the-street and often in-your-face activists, insisting on reform and justice.  These voices are not moderate, and I recommend them for just this reason. The cries are so urgent and anguished and those of us who are less aware of these issues really could benefit from immersing our selves with – being schooled, if you will – by those who see themselves as outspoken voices for change.

Benjamin Watson, an African American professional football player (tight end for the New Orleans Saints) is not exactly one of these hard-edged and prophetic voices. He speaks his mind as a black man who has seen discrimination up close and who knows what every black family knows, that it is not unlikely that his children will be followed by police, feared by strangers, treated poorly by the ignorant. He is not casual about this and he has spoken out.

But yet, as an evangelical Christian he is convinced that – as he put it in a Facebook post that went viral after the Michael Brown trial – we have a “sin problem not a skin problem.”  In this, Watson spoke for many who wanted to admit that there are deep and tragic problems in our culture, including racism and police brutality, but that the deepest answers to these complex matters simply must deal with the sin of the human heart, and bring a gospel-centered response to the brokenness. 

And that the ideological answers of the far left and the conservative right are both inadequate. We need nuance, balance, human-scale honesty and lots and lots of grace.

In a matter of days, Watson was an Internet sensation and was invited on national television. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, that he was invited to write a book.

I have some misgivings about how this works – crafting even a good Facebook post, even one that goes viral, does not necessarily mean the writer has a book in them. Too often publishers jump on the “next big star” who has thousands of twitter followers and a big platform. I hope you don’t think I am cynical for suggesting that a big platform does necessarily mean that one will speak with needed Christian wisdom and it does not authorize one to speak for, or even to, the Body of Christ.

BenjaminWatson_HP.jpgIn this case, I am happy to report, we have a thoughtful Christian leader who brings a great reputation and the ability to speak sensibly and thoughtfully into this very touchy and hard topic.  I am very, very happy to recommend Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race… for anyone wanting basic Christian insight offered plainly and clearly. 

Here’s a quick note: some (mostly white and mostly conservative) folks appreciated the football player’s passionate post because they thought it dismissed the radicals and their protesting. “It’s a heart problem, after all, spiritual, you know,” they thought. “Here’s a guy who gets that and knows that protesting doesn’t help. Jesus is the answer.”  They might be surprised to see his further explications of his moving Facebook post that, while gentle in tone and Christ-focused throughout, are honest about naming social sin, describing the dangers and sad consequences of racism, and renouncing those who want to merely sweep it all under the rug. I think it will prove very valuable to educate and raise the consciousness of those evangelicals who might not realize just how pervasive racial tensions are, and how the gospel can addresses them, as such.  That Watson is a known sports star doesn’t hurt either. He speaks for many a-political middle American’s, or so it seems to me.

Others, though, I think, (mostly considered liberal, I suppose, on this issue, at least) feared that Watson was doing an end run around the hard facts on the ground. Of course this is a skin problem – we are humans of different hues, actually, and some people think that those of lighter hues are better than others, and that those with darker skin are not to be trusted.  It is sinful, of course, but to not name the sin what it is — racial injustice and white privilege — allows us to be so vague and general in our concern as to avoid denouncing the specific sin and thereby not owning up to it and the work that needs to be done.  I admit I was concerned about this, given the title of his first Facebook post: he needs a dose of Race Matters by Cornel West, I thought. Is the brother Gnostic, pretending we don’t live in real skin, in a real world of real injustice?  Again, these readers will be surprised to see that Mr. Watson doesn’t back away from talking about race, and doesn’t overlook the details of this racial crisis in our country.  As Holly and Rodney Peete have written, “Under Our Skin is unflinchingly honest, strong and authentic. You won’t be able to put it down, and it will surprise, challenge, and inspire you in ways you never expected.”

To say he is “balanced” isn’t quite right, since that sounds so moderate, even-keeled, dispassionate, and this is not that. It is not ideological, it isn’t partisan, it holds out no easy answers. In this, it is profoundly Christian, I think, honoring the depth of the hard stuff, and yet still holding out hope, a hope based in the work of Christ and His redemptive purposes.

I am glad that so many folks are recommending this book.  Tony Dungy says, “Benjamin Watson is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful men I have ever met, inside or outside of football… I know you will benefit from his insights into race and religion in the United States today.”

Barry Black Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, writes, “Packed with germane insights, this eye-opening book challenges current trends in American race relations, providing an important context for conversations about finding roads to racial unity.”

I hope knowing of these recent titles is somehow helpful.  Perhaps you or your book club might tackle one of them, or you might commit yourself to reading on this topic, or leading conversations in your church or group.  What do you think?

* * * *

Not long ago a customer asked what books I’d recommend for a reading plan exploring a Christian vision for concern about racial reconciliation.  My reply to her wasn’t comprehensive, of course, but it did offer a nice selection of some of our favorites with which to start.  Here is a slightly edited version of the reply I sent to her. I hope your know at least some of these.  Happy reading!

Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity by Randy Woodley (IVP) $18.00 This is one of our most-often recommended books in this field. Mr. Woodley is a deeply evangelical Native American, and so brings a healthy insight that our need for racial unity isn’t just about resolving “black vs. white” tensions, but must be increasingly multi-ethnic. Still, as a First Nation’s person of color,  he is also deeply aware of the agonies of abuse, the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and such. So he doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff.  Still, it really is a lovely, solid book and very inspiring.  I think this is really a great one to start with.


Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church Soong-Chan Rah (Moody Press) $14.99  This is just a little more mature than some may whish, an excellent sociological study of the changing face of American culture and the Christian community.  With the country’s demographics changing the conversations about race must be more than only about black and white tensions. Obviously are many Hispanic and Latino and Asian Americans of various sorts whose lives are different then many in the conventional white communities.  Soong-Chan is a great and important voice lamenting the homogeneity in the white church and inviting us to move towards great diversity and sensitivity. 

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America Michael Emerson & Christian Smith (Oxford University Press) $19.99  This is a very important little book, compiled by competent and respected social scientists, determining the exact details of racial segregation among evangelical Christians. The stories here are poignant, the data significant, the evaluation astute. Based on hundreds of interviews, Divided by Faith documents a lot of important findings, notably that there is a huge gap between what most white folks think about the prevalence and urgency of racism and what most African American’s perceive. In fact, at least according to their research, most white evangelicals see no systematic discrimination against blacks. The authors ponder how the individualism of most American evangelicals hinders their awareness of how things really are in our society. Fascinating!

More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel Spencer Perkins & Chris Rice (IVP) $20.00  One of the very important books in this field, a best seller for years, nearly a contemporary classic in the field. It looks honestly at racism and why we simply must speak out — for the sake of the gospel! — but also about how hard it really is once we get beyond the nice rhetoric and good intentions.  The late Spencer Perkins was the son of the legendary racial reconciliation leader John Perkins, raised in the inter-racial Voice of Calvary community in Mendenhall, Mississippi. (I hope you know his work and the amazing array of important books on this topic which he has written. It might be said that John Perkins was one of the most important evangelicals of the later part of the 20th century and helped put racial reconciliation and social justice “on the map” of 1970s evangelicalism after their complicity and silence during the historic civil rights struggles. His own autobiography is pretty widely respected, considered one of the important books of 20th century evangelicalism, Let Justice Roll Down. (And, sorry if I sound like I’m bragging a bit, be he offered a chapter in the book I edited, Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life. What an honor it was to have him involved!)

Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Towards Beloved Community  Charles Marsh & John M. Perkins (IVP) $16.00 This is one of John Perkin’s more recent books, a survey of the ways in which the gospel calls us all to struggle for social justice, economic unity, racial diversity and more.  His co-author is a scholar of the civil rights movement (and a Bonhoeffer biographer, by the way) from the University of VA, and John, of course, is an evangelist and activist. Together they are a great combo, working together to tell the story and bring the message.  This is, by the way, part of the excellent series of books on reconciliation produced by the Duke Center for Reconciliation. The first in that series is a must-read:  Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing by Emmanuel Katongole & Chris Rice (IVP; $16.00.)

Race Matters Cornell
West (Vintage) $14.95  This is one of the many by the outspoken black
intellectual, and is one of the most important books on this topic
written in recent decades. I highly recommend it, even though he, while
clearly a person of deep, articulate faith, grounded in both the
historic black church, the black liberation thinking of James Cone, and
the sophisticated social ethics of the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, isn’t
quite an evangelical.  Interestingly, it seems that he wrote this
important book somewhat in response to a book by Shelby Steele called The Content of Our Character. Steele
is a fascinating and eloquent conservative African American who thinks
much of the talk about racism is overdrawn and the best thing we can do
is stop talking about it.  He thinks most of the ways we talk about race
is designed to help white liberals with their guilt which is the topic
of his more recent books. In The Content of Our Character Steele takes that one line from King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” and (without noting the rest of King’s work) says that not
commenting on skin color is what it is all about: that is, being color
blind. Basically he is saying that race doesn’t matter. Dr. West didn’t
cite Steele, but his passionate book later that year fired back “race
matters!”  Both are important.

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah (Zondervan) $22.95 I actually have an endorsing blurb on this, raving about its importance.  (One of my little claims to fame — ha!) I like the diversity of this team, all who are acquaintances — Mae is a deeply spiritual white woman, Lisa is a leader in social justice minded evangelicalism (and a black woman), Troy is a white pastor, now community activist, and Martin Luther King scholar, and Soong-Chan is of course Asian American. In this collection they lament the ways in which the church has been complicit in various injustices, against women and people of color and immigrants and the Earth itself. It invites us to confess our sins by at least knowing this history well and realizing the ways in which the reputation of Christ has been damaged by the ways in which the church has too often not been passionate about inclusion and care for those who have been oppressed.  It is a powerful, important read, essential for moving forward, I’d say…

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption  Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau) $16.00  This is one of the most moving books I have ever read, and have described it often at our website.  Maybe you know his passionate and articulate TED talk about injustices in prison sentencing, especially around the issue of children in prison.  The whole movement against mass incarceration, what some called (inspired by Michelle Alexander’s book by this title) “The New Jim Crow” is about how many people of color, when arrested, get worse sentencing and worse treatment then their white counterparts who have the exact same crime.  The institutional racism is undeniable, and Bryan’s work defending the poor and the needy, usually people of color, who are mistreated by the criminal justice system is simply a must read for anyone who wants to know about the reasons blacks often feel assaulted in our culture.  Bryan spoke at our Jubilee conference years ago – he graduated from Eastern University, then went to Harvard Law School, and is a Christian hero of our times. 

I’m probably giving you more than you need at this point, but I’m so grateful for your interest, that I’ll point you to this set of book reviews I did at our BookNotes blog a few years ago.  We still stock these, so would be glad to have you order some!  Thanks again for asking for our suggestions, and thanks for your support of our bookstore.  We are grateful.


OR, more recently, this:  




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Do You Want to Order an Autographed N.T. Wright book? ON SALE, too.

st mary's seminary Baltimore.jpgYep, friends, we are taking the Hearts & Minds-Mobile (we got the brakes fixed) off to another event, a two day gathering with N.T. Wright at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore.  We’ve mentioned this at Facebook and Twitter, and hope that if you are in the greater mid-Atlantic area you might get yourself over there Wednesday night. It will be a significant lecture (and subsequent by-registration only follow up day on Thursday on the theme “The Royal Power of the Cross: New Priest, New Temple & the Gospel Narrative.”) We’ll have a whole lot of his many books there. The folks E.I. at St. Mary’s are hospitable and sharp, and you should know their work. (For instance, on December 7, 2015 they are hosting Fleming Rutledge who will lecture and participate in a conversation about her stunning new book on the crucifixion of Christ.)

You surely know Wright is very, very prominent (and how honored we were to host him here inN.T. Wright Merritt jpg our shop a few years ago!) His current bio could be summarized by saying that N. T. Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early
Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. He
previously served as the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and
is one of the world’s leading Bible scholars.

Here is a piece I wrote a while back which I called “A Bookseller’s Appreciation for a Scholar’s Service to the Church and World”. It highlights some of his many works.

He has, though, authored more than
seventy books.

You should know that he has two very new important books out, both on Paul.  

Paul and His Recent Interpreters.jpgFirst, you should know about the new and very substantial Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Fortress Press; $39.00) which is a serious, weighty volume, just over 400 pages, published by Fortress Press, seemingly to supplement his already weighty volumes on Paul which they released to a flurry of well-deserved attention two years ago.
Those much discussed 2013 volumes included his massive and magisterial 2-volume set, 1700 pages on Paul, called Paul and the Faithfulness of God ($89.00), the fourth volume in the on-going “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series, and the 650 page stand-alone anthology of almost everything important Tom ever wrote on Paul called Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978 – 2013 ($69.00.) Those Fortress Press volumes — the two book set and the collection of older essays, reviews, and articles — finally laid out and meticulously advanced his version of a new Perspective on Paul, showing both his consistency and his intellectual development in the trajectory of his work over last 25 years. It would seem to me fair to say that no contemporary Biblical scholar as paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-god.jpgpauline perspectives.jpgbeen so erudite and thorough and important. 
That new Paul and His Recent Interpreters, as you can surmise, looks at and responds to many other writers on Paul — some to his left, so to speak, a few to his right, if you will — and it is a very valuable exercise to see not only his birds-eye overview of anybody significant writing on Paul these days, but especially his replies to those who take issue with him and his work. This is gracious and yet sometimes robust conversation, sometimes offering firm rebuke.  It is a serious, big volume, and having some familiarity with the lay of the land of contemporary New Testament scholarship would be helpful.  I suppose those not in the guild studying these things might find some of it tedious. For those committed to this level of scholarship, it is a tremendous gift, and agree or not with all of his evaluations of his conversation partners, allies and detractors alike, you will be amazed at the level of discourse and the implications of these big conversations.  Whew.
Paul Debate (Baylor U).jpgThe Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle (Baylor University Press; $34.95) is the second brand new book from Wright and one that I am happy to say is much more accessible, a bit shorter, and a fabulous introduction to the lay of the land in recent Pauline scholarship, the debates about all manner of things (both big and small) and Tom’s views of these topics. In this great, new volume they keep the really arcane debates to a minimum and Wright is at his clearest, explaining nicely how each of the topics relate, and who stand’s where on various controversies.  The friendly reviewer Michael Bird (Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College) says it is the “little brother” of the magnum opus, Paul the the Faithfulness of God. Ha, that it is.
Kudos to Baylor for releasing this clear and useful guide to the debates about Paul, in a very handsome hardback, a volume with some heft that just feels good to hold. It is important stuff, so this is apropos, I suppose — the nature and origins of early Christianity, the worldview of Second Temple Judaism, who are the people of God, how justification happens (and how it is developed within Paul’s own soeteriology), the nature of the apocalyptic, and how all that effects his (and our) view of the local church.
And kudos to Wright for listening to his critics (as he explains in the candid and clever preface to this volume, the list of those who have reviewed Paul and the Faithfulness of God is “as scary as it is gratifying — and opinions have been freely shared and often contradictory.   He thanks them, here, even the ones that rebuked him, and has written this book clarifying not specific critics but large, looming questions. (He says that “The five chapters represent a response to the five most questioned elements in my book.”)
Agree or not with Tom Wright on these unique questions, this is a grad level class in one good book, a way to read about very important matters, and be tutored by a gracious, eloquent, and passionate leader of the church of Jesus Christ whose work continues to develop, even within the broader contexts of the wider church and the debates in the academic halls.  I very highly recommend it.
Surprised by Scripture.jpgAlthough it is a different sort of book, his Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne; $15.99) is now out in paperback. This is a great collection of chapters that were all originally speeches, speeches on topics he was invited to address. We have here delightful, and often profound, Scripturally-directed scholarship, offered in in the fashion and verve of a keynote speech, with Tom weighing in on  Christian views of science, creation-care, the role of women in the church, social concerns, the problem of evil, engaging the world of tomorrow, a thrilling chapter called “Apocalypse and the Beauty of God” and a closing on on becoming people of hope. This is a fine introduction for those who appreciate his all-of-life redeemed, surprised-by-hope, transforming vision of the Kingdom of God that has missional implications for our life of faith here and now. 

simply good news .jpgWright’s most recent popular level book, by the way, is a great hardback that came out early in 2015 called Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good (HarperOne; $24.99.) It is a really useful, pleasurable, inspiring book, almost a “greatest hits” where Wright looks at most of the themes he has developed in other books (worship, worldview, work, the nature of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, Paul, prayer, and more.) It is clear that the gospel is, in fact, news of a real event, and that that event is even better then you might realize. It is a great way into his broad, evangelical vision, and a good reminder of God’s grace, the reality of the Kingdom coming, and the multi-faceted implications for a creation being saved. 

When Simply Good News came out early in the year I said it was among a small handful of “best boo
ks” so far, adn that I suspect it will remain on our list of favorite books of 2015. I’ve got no doubt. Again, it is highly recommended.

quiet moments (Tom Wright).jpgQuiet Moments  Tom Wright (Kregel) $9.99  This lovely new gift book, a smallish hardback, just arrived a few days ago, and it is so very nice — moody nature photographs with well-designed graphics showing quotes pulled out from Tom’s journals or poetry, all extolling his love for quietude and stillness. Years ago we carried four very little shirt-pocket sized paperbacks of his which we imported from the UK, I think. They had these poem-like sayings, koans for reflection, almost, from The Right Revered Wright. They didn’t stay in print long, I guess, but those same little ones have now been put out in a very nice, slim hardback, a gift item with inspiring meditations to bring calm to our human selves. It is inspiring to realize such a thoughtful intellectual scholar and active church leader ruminates with such tender thoughts on inner peace and cultivating silence, the importance of solitude and prayer. You may like giving this as gifts, or using one in your own quiet times.

We have all of Wright’s books for sale, always, and now we are running this sale for our on-line readers.  (Everything is 20% off the listed price, which we’ll happily deduct when you place an order.)

We think we will be able to get autographs — we can’t fully promise this, but I’m pretty sure — and if you order before Thursday noon, we’ll do our best to get the right book that you’ve selected into Tom’s hands, so he can inscribe it as you wish.

Just let us know what books you want and to whom you want each made out, or if you just want the autograph.



20% off
order here
takes you to the secure Hearts & Minds order form page
just tell us what you want

inquire here
if you have questions or need more information
just ask us what you want to know

                                      Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717-246-3333

BRAND NEW: Tim & Kathy Keller’s “The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms” — and a review of our journey to New York City for the (Redeemer Presbyterian) Center for Faith & Work Conference

songs of jesus.jpgWe just got in the brand new daily devotional by Tim and Kathy Keller entitled The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (Viking; $19.95) which we have at our BookNotes 20% off.  You can see my comments about this high quality, handsome hardback below, as well as our convenient link to our secure website order form page. First, though, a little bit about a recent conversation with Tim, and, more importantly — I hope you agree — a bit about books sold at an important, recent event.  What an adventure we recently had, complete with burning brakes and selling books at three different off site venues.

As you probably know, our bookstore is in a small town. We attend a medium size church of the mainline variety.  Our customers come in all sorts, and we love the mix of folks that show up here day by day.  Amy, one of our long- standing employees, greeted lots of local folks at the Christmas in Dallastown event this past weekend; it was just one of the local things going on here at, as they say, our bricks and mortar store. At the same time, we had some off site things going on, too.

We have been honored to set up book displays or give talks to small, rural congregations (we’ve done book displays at gatherings with a dozen folks) and at large institutions, hospitals and colleges and at out of state conferences. We’ve been to camps and retreat houses and fancy hotels to do our thing. Sometimes, we do events that take us days to set up, with thousands in attendance (like our beloved CCO Jubilee conference every February – you should come!)

Indie bookstores like ours with an odd niche get some nifty opportunities, but the pool of those interested enough to order from us is a bit small.  We’re known, I suppose, for providing thoughtful, ecumenical Christian resources, for all sorts of churches, but especially books for folks who want to learn more about social concerns, cultural engagement, and the many implications of a robust sense of the Kingdom of God in the here and now, helping readers embody the ways of Jesus and Christian wisdom in all areas of life.  Consequently, we have to hustle around to even come close to making a living selling these kinds of books. Fortunately, we enjoy doing out of town events, even though sometimes, well oftentimes, they are stressful.

This weekend, for instance.

uhaul8.jpgEn route to lower Manhattan to set up books for the Redeemer Presbyterian Center for Faith & Work event (certainly the classiest and most interesting event we serve) we realized our brakes were burning; the newly replaced rotors were crumbling and we had no choice but to head home. It was too late at night to find a rental truck, so we had to delay our start until the early morning, repacking and reloading in the mist, adding stress and strain to our already nerve-wracking journey to this significant church in this world class city.

(Did I mention that we’re from a small town? Did I say that the Redeemer event is classy? I fret about everything, even including what to wear! I don’t get to serve as a reading consultant to playwrights and Wall Street investors and urban planners and software engineers and rising PhD students that often, so, believe me, we do a lot of planning and praying.)

When we do off site events we struggle hard to determine what books are best to take; in this case we curated a selection for (mostly) evangelical Christians in art and architecture, marketing and management, drama and dance, urban planning and politics, those wanting to honor God in science and sex and spirituality.  Stringing clever lines together like that easily flow off the keyboard, but finding mature and interesting books that enhance faithfulness “in the world but not of it” in various vocational spheres is a bit harder, and I’m nervous heading into these events. Our book-heavy van breaking down doesn’t make it any easier.  I won’t tell which of us cussed and which of us prayed, but you should know that my wife and co-pilot is a saint.

flow package.jpgSo, we keep on, keeping on, lugging books to interested buyers, here and there.  The Redeemer event was only one we pulled off this weekend. Thanks to friends at Calvary Baptist Church in State College PA for allowing us to offer a book display at their great conference — similar to the NYC Redeemer CFW event, actually – which was built around the stellar For the Life of the World DVDs. (See our review here if you haven’t bought these yet.)  It would have been great to hang out with FLOW star Evan Koons and the Gospel Coalition’s work-world writer Bethany Jenkins and the CCOs Terry Thomas and to join in that town and gown event, reflecting on the relationship of God’s grace for all of life.  It is inspiring to know that there are folks working out this “all of life redeemed” vision of culturally-savvy, whole-life stewardship, living into the wonder of the economy of God.

god in the gallery.jpgAnd thanks to Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, PA, for allowing us to sell a few of Daniel Siedell’s insightful God and the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Baker Academic; $25.00) and his new Whose Afraid of Modern Art? (Wipf & Stock; $21.00) during a lecture and conversation they hosted on modern art. What a cool thing for a church to sponsor! That we also had Dan’s good books at the Redeemer CFW event in New York as part of our arts section there made me smile a bit, too.  And we still have some left over for you to order, now. 

I can’t recount most of the books we displayed at these events, other than to say that Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, co-written by our friend Katherine Leary every good endeavor.jpgAlsdorf (Dutton; $16.00) is a masterpiece, truly one of the very best in this burgeoning field. Obviously it is a key title for anyone interested in their CFW event. It is theologically sound, savvy about the corporate world, and inspiring with stories and examples to consider. It is gospel-based, historically informed, and not the least bit simplistic or sentimental.

Surely, though, I also like meditative ruminations on the deeper meaning of all this, too.  For instance, I hope you recall our review of the luminous memoir-like Finding Livelihood: A Finding Livelihood.jpgProgressive of Work and Leisure by Nancy J. Nordenson (Kalos Press; $14.95) or unique, formational ones such as Paul Stevens & taking your soul to work.jpgAlvin Ung’s Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace (Eerdmans; $15.00.) These are excellent, at least for those who have already read more foundational books like Keller’s or the slim, no-nonsense volume How Then Should We Work: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work by Hugh Whelchel (Westbow; $13.95) or Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway; $16.99) that remind us that jobs in the work-world are every bit as important before God as those called to traditional ministry or the mission field.

Every pastor should be thinking of how to honor and inspire their congregants who have calling in the world; Faith as a Way of Life: A Vision for Pastoral Leadership by Christian Scharen (Eerdmans; $16.00) is a title that illustrates why this matters and how it might be done. It starts with a good foreword by Miroslav Volf about their work together on this project at Yale Divinity School.

Of the dozen tables we had piled with books – two layers on each table, with shelves we created with boxes and boards – there were six books that stood out as best-sellers among the thousand-plus we took.  I suppose it was because I highlighted them in an announcement, but also because they truly are compelling must-reads, beautiful and important and well-worth owning.

The six biggest sellers were:

every good endeavor.jpgEvery Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work  Timothy Keller (Dutton) $16.00  Obviously, this is one I wanted to announce and describe. Since it is Keller’s church that sponsored this great event, I wasn’t sure if we would sell many, but apparently not everyone had it already, and some of the folks attending this were new to the topic. (And some, like some serious Christian scholars from important universities, just hadn’t picked it up yet.)  People were in for this event from other states (and as far away as Australia!) so to remind participants that this is a key text in this conversation was a no-brainer. I didn’t brag about this to them, but inside the paperback cover there are some excerpts of some favorable reviews.  I wrote one of ’em, so it was nice to see that blurb in there. We were glad we sold a bunch!

the-call-by-os-guinness.jpgThe Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life Os Guinness (Word) $17.99  I know I mention this a lot. It is one of my favorite books, and its’ insight, eloquence, historical learnedness and relatively short chapters makes this an ideal Christian book in my view. I said with a degree of boldness I had not rehearsed, that this conference, and the others like it going on these days, may not have developed in our generation as they have if it were not for this book being published a decade or so ago. It is that important.  (Have you ever seen the book Beside the Bible?  It is a collection of 100 book reviews of books that are important in contributing to the formation of a healthy culture. I wrote just one chapter, and, yep, it is on the Guinness classic. I was thrilled to be included in that collection of reviews, and was insistent that The Call had to be included in that top-100 list.)  Anyway, I was glad to promote it at the CFW event.

how not to be secular.jpgHow (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans) $  One of the things that draws so many young adults to Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church at their various locations in New York, and their affiliates in the City-to-City church network, is, interestingly, not glitzy, loud worship or hip progressive theology or theatrical stunts or religious fads. He preaches old-school, grace-based, conventional Reformed theology and he engages the cultural milieu with the seriousness of Abraham Kuyper or early Francis Schaeffer.  In his opening address to the conference, Keller explored individualism and unhelpful views of the self that permeate the contemporary work world. With his tweed jacket and jeans, he seemed like an Ivy League prof, less like an evangelical church leader. In his talk he highly recommended the often-cited, still-relevant Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert Bellah et al (University of California Press; $29.99) and then hung out on insights gleaned from the heavy, heavy The Secular Age by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (Harvard University Press; $50.00.)

Dr. Keller was certainly right to remind us of the need to understand how people think about themselves and their identities and their jobs and how we all tend to “lean into life” if we are going to be agents of Godly transformation and human flourishing in our cities and towns, workplaces and civic institutions. He has been sensitive to “worldview thinking” since his studies as a seminarian, at a seminary that helped offer pastors skills in cultural analysis and which emphasized a theological critique of Western philosophy.  Ohh, that all preachers would similarly astute about such things, helping us become what Leonard Sweet has called “spiritual semioticians.” Anyway, Keller recommended Bellah, of course, but to get at the thick conversation going on in Charles Taylor’s dense work, he recommended How (Not) to Be Secular by Jamie Smith.  I had a hunch this might be on his mind, so brought an oddly large amount. We sold ’em all.

visions of vocation.jpgVisions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $16.99  This is another truly remarkable book that I press into the hands of anyone that will let me; it is smart, beautiful, honest, profound. I told the gathered crowd that it is rich and helpful for those of us who have a dream of making a difference in the world, maybe seeing ourselves as social entrepreneurs or agents of God’s reign or those wanting to be idealistic about our witness in the world, and yet who realize, sadly, that it may be that we will not make much of a difference. Can we settle for what Garber calls “proximate justice”? Can we keep on, despite all odds, loving the world as God does? What will it take to be alive to the things of God in this missional sense, even in the work-worlds of the world, without growing cynical or jaded or weary? We sold out.  It was, by the way, one of the key books at the State College Faith/Life/Work event as well. 

Community- The Structure of Belonging Peter Block.jpgCommunity: The Structure of Belonging Peter Block (Berrett-Koehler) $21.95 I suspect Block wouldn’t want to be known as a religious writer, although there is much in his work that gives the impression that he is aware of the profound theological implication of his work. (His very well-received book about business was called Stewardship.) The theme of this year’s CFW conference was “Beyond Collaboration” and explored the communal nature of calling. We are not merely called as individuals, but into communities, in which we are called to collaborate. I held this book up, insisting it was the best thing I have ever seen on community in the work-place or neighborhood.  Of course there are fabulous church-related books on community like Bonhoeffer’s beloved Life Together or the must-read Living in Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us by Christian Pohl or the delightful missional call to a “sense of place” found in Staying is the New Going: Choosing to Love Where God Places You by Alan Briggs but Community by social critic and neighborhood activist Peter Block is one of a kind.  Joy at Work author Dennis Bakke says “From the author who gave us the best book about business stewardship now gives us the best book about how to transform the places where we live, work, and play…”  

soul of shame.jpgThe Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves Dr. Curt Thompson (IVP) $22.00  I have written at length about this powerful, moving, Biblically-informed study of neuro-science and shame. (Read my BookNotes review, here.) It is an exquisite and important follow up to his very nice and engaging The Anatomy of  A Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Tyndale; $15.99) which itself is a great book.

I hope you know this author, his books, and our appreciation of them.  To be honest, I think this was our biggest seller at the CFW event, not only because it just seemed to resonate with folks and it intrigued people (even before they heard him speak) but because, frankly, he brought the house down, clearly the most energetic and lively speaker of the event. (And his quip, “I want to be like Tim Keller, with hair,” was gutsy, and well-received…maybe Keller doesn’t get much ribbing up there, I don’t know.)  Kudos to the team at CFW for realizing that the insight and healing carried in this book about shame is needed if we are to pursue collaboration and community in the workplace. As Thompson makes clear, being vulnerable in order to be open to relationship and community is risky business, and Evil doesn’t want us to be that free, or bring hope to culture in this way. This fine book ends with a rousing and important call to think about these matters, even as they relate to being creative in public life and in our callings and work. A very apropos contribution to an excellent gathering.



Well, I could tell you more about the event and our display.  Just imagine seeing some of these titles, each anchoring a section of other books in their respective fields: God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Daniel Siedell), The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Eric Jacobson), To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Mark Gornick), Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theater in Dialogue (Todd Johnson & Dale Savidge), Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views (edited by P.C. Kemeny), Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice (Michael Gerson, Stephanie Summers, Katie Thompson), The Language of Science and Faith (Francis Collins & Karl Giberson, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture & Computer Technology (Derek C. Schuurman), Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace (Kenman Wong & Scott Rae), On the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as The Modern Global Economy (Scott W. Gustafson), From Shop Class to Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Matthew B. Crawford), Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids (Nicole Maker Fulgham), To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (Parker Palmer), It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God (edited by Ned Bustard),  Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession (Mike Schutt), Redeeming Mathematics (Vern Poythus), Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson),
or Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (Mary Molewuk Doornbos et al.)

Obviously we had more specific categories (fashion, engineering, creation care, sociology, ethnic/racial studies, international affairs, film studies, marketing, higher education, food and home-making, and more.)  And, we lead off with lots of general titles about engaging the culture and resisting the brokenness and fragmentation and loss of meaning, how to serve as winsome agents of Kingdom renewal. From Andy Crouch’s thoughtful but lovely pair (Culture Making and Playing God) to James Davidson Hunter’s important To Change the World to James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom and his Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture we had rows and rows of such titles. We even sold a few of the recent Eerdman’s book – missional before missional was trendy – by early/mid 20th century Dutch neo-Calvinist, J.H.Bavinck,  Between the Beginning and the End: A Radical Kingdom Vision.

Renaissance -  Os Guinness.jpgWe had some pretty new, scholarly works (for instance Nicholas Wolterstorff’s brand new Oxford University Press title Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art) and some that, although very well written, would be inspiring for nearly any thoughtful person of faith — like Os Guinness’s important Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times or Richard Mouw’s wonderful Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World

So, you get the point: we had lots of interesting books, a selection and mix that is hard to find elsewhere, or so we are told.  We believe people are hungry for these kinds of books. We’ve staked our own livelihoods on it.

Maybe you, too, are hungry for thinking more deeply about your own life, your professional field, your own passions, your own callings and a theology that can inform and sustain your involvements and endeavors. Give us call or send an email if we might help develop a reading plan along those lines.


Timothy-Keller.jpgI got to chat just a bit with Rev. Keller after his talk, and we reminisced about how we value Jamie Smith’s book on Charles Taylor.  I was fully sincere when I told him that his own quick survey of the significance of Taylor’s insights about secularization in the modern world that he offered in the middle of his short book on communicating the gospel to the late modern mind called Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton; $19.95) is itself a wonderful overview of understanding Taylor and the modern milieu.  I described it in a previous BookNotes and commend the whole Preaching book but especially those middle two chapters for anyone who is a preacher, of course, but also to teachers, evangelists, Bible study leaders, college or youth pastors, parents of young adults… it actually covered some of the same material Keller taught in his opening lecture at the CFW “Beyond Collaboration” conference, which explored individualism and unhelpful views of the self that permeate the contemporary work world.

He was certainly right to remind us of the need to understand how people think about themselves and their identities and jobs and we all tend to “lean into life” if we are going to be agents of Godly transformation and human flourishing in our cities and towns, workplaces and civic institutions.  One does not need to be in agreement with all of his views or tendencies to appreciate that he is one of the preeminent Christian leaders of our generation, and his widespread influence has been one of the significant contributions to the deepened tone of much evangelicalism in our day.  I am nothing but grateful, glad to know his work, and pleasedl to have some small connections to Keller and his work.

Which brings me to this.

His brand new book that we just got in today!

songs of jesus +.jpgThe Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller (Viking) $19.95  Our 20% on line sale price = $15.96

We are thrilled to have received the shipment of his latest book, hitting bookshelves today.  We would be grateful if you ordered it through us.  Songs of Jesus is a daily devotional, compact-sized and handsome. It will be widely reviewed and beloved, I’m sure, as there has long been a desire to have a Keller-written daily devotional.  More, so, it taps into the increasingly common interest in the Psalms.  Chatting with Tim a bit about it at the conference, he assured Beth and me that he’s uncommonly happy with it — he, like many authors, are sometimes a bit chagrined when they actually see their books in print. “It’s not as good as I had remembered it to be” some say.  Ha.

Well, Keller is usually humble about his books – unlike some authors, he is not a salesman,  and doesn’t ever seem to promote his own work much – so that he told us that he is pleased about this one is striking.  It is, simply put, a year’s worth of short readings, devotionally ruminating on every verse of every Psalm. 

Perhaps you appreciate, as I have, The Case for the Palms by N.T. Wright.  (You can read my review of it here.) I think I might re-read it before starting the Keller devotional.

Perhaps you have drawn on Walter Brueggeman’s many books on the Psalms, or read Tremper Longman’s wonderfully clear guidebook How to Read the Psalms.

I occasionally dip into Derek Kidner’s wonderful two-volumes on the Psalms in the IVP Tyndale commentary set and recommend them highly. (So does Keller, by the way.) Some of our CCO friends, I know, have read together the big volumes by Bruce Waltke, James Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary and The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. 

Heck, although they aren’t straight commentaries, there are many of us who count among our all time favorite books Eugene Peterson’s two sets of Psalm reflections, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (on the Psalms of Ascent) and Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms That Summon You from Self to Community (on the more public, communal Psalms, those calling us to “un-selfing” and towards the common good.)  His Answering God has been valuable for many on using the Psalter as a tool for prayer and for nurturing what he calls “Earthy spirituality.”

You see, the Psalms are important and there are so many resources to help us appreciate them more fully, as the church always has – as Jesus himself obviously did.  Thoughtful Christians study them, use them, sing them.  Keller himself, you may want to know, started reading through the Psalms every month years ago.  His wife, Kathy, started this practice herself during a period of serious illness. (They wrote a bit about this in their co-authored book about marriage, called The Meaning of Marriage.) In a way, this new work may be their most intimate book, reflecting not only years of study, but of their own interaction with these songs of Scripture during their own journey into hard times. 

So, we are very excited to commend this little hardback as a guide to the Psalms, and as a tool for your own devotional practices, as an aid in your worship, and to stretch and challenge and comfort you, even if you are in a hard place (maybe especially if you facing hard times.) Read, reflect; pray, protest; lament, love; worship, work; rest, renew; the Psalms famously have it all. (Eugene Peterson’s Where Your Treasure Is was originally called, swiping a line from G.K. Chesterton, “Earth and Altar” which alludes to the divine in all things!) The Psalms are essential to help us embrace a Christian imagination, a faithful sense of things.

tim and kathy keller.jpgThese short studies by Tim and Kathy – part commentary, part spiritual reflection – will be helpful, I am sure.  The book is a bit bigger than compact, but smaller then a typical hardback; there is some classy, discreet color on the glossy pages, a ribbon marker, making it very nice book. There is a good flow to each page, with each day’s reading inviting us to a three part process of studying and learning from these inspired songs. There is a mature, short prayer for each day, too.  And, of course, Keller cites great commentaries and classic authors but interesting literary sources as well — from Ray Bradbury to their beloved Tolkien.

We are eager to get the word out about all of Keller’s good books, but this one is going to be very, very special, accessible and obviously edifying.  Order it from us, and we’ll have it to you promptly.  The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms is a rare gem, an easy book to read and pass on to others, accessible and personal, yet grounded and informed by thoughtful and wise appropriation of these Biblical texts. It is surely one of the best devotionals to come out in years.

songs of jesus +.jpg



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“Lands & Peoples” (a recent album by Bill Mallonee), the new Marilynne Robinson essays (“The Givennesss of Things”) and a new novel by Richard Cleary, “Bridging the Abyss” – BOOKNOTES SALE: All items mentioned 20% OFF.

Hide me in the darkness – all that’s lost and found                                                                                  Hide me in the darkness – there’s sure plenty to go around

                  Bill Mallonee                                                                                                                                                     “Hide Me in the Darkness” from Lands & Peoples

lands & peoples.jpgIn his most recent Americana folk-rock album, Bill Mallonee (formerly of the acclaimed Vigilantes of Love) pours his heart on magnetic tape again, giving us yet another “audible sigh.” There are some glorious songs — arguably some of his best, and certainly one of the most lovely (“Sangre De Christos” is a tenderly happy song about the Mexican-American peoples shaped by this famous mountain chain that Paul Simon so beautifully reminded us, in “Hearts & Bones,” are also called the “Blood of Christ Mountains.”)

I’ve been listening and listening to Lands & Peoples (Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers; $17.00) and do not tire of it. Those who know Bill Mallonee’s work will not be surprised to know it is dark, a poetic outcry against duplicity and brokenness, a bit disillusioned, if not jaded. I may not want to concede to the singer’s dour take on small towns, but “I Just Hope the Kids Make It Out” (“it all dried up here years ago; they moved it all over-seas, let us go. No back up plan, baby, it’s all gone south) is one of the most catchy and biting bits of rock I’ve heard in years and I’ve hit “repeat” on that one song more often then I should admit. Also for what it is worth, this new record includes one of my all-time favorite Mallonee songs — he has over 50 albums with hundreds of songs. “Steering Wheel is a Prayer Wheel” brings just enough faith and hope amidst the wandering and wondering. In another song he may be “falling through the cracks” and – in a perfect Neil Young vocalization – dares us to “look at all of the diamonds, look at all of the rust; look at all of the boom, look at all of the bust,” but there is still grace and goodness to be found. 

I’ve been listening to this CD put out with “The Big Sky Ramblers” (which includes his wife, Muriah) because it is musically solid, wonderfully recorded (the acoustic guitar sounds perfectly bill and mariah.jpgcrisp) and lyrically brilliant; I have found that it repays repeated listening and it gives me courage. I value Bill’s artistic take because it doesn’t sound like political preaching, even as he offers sober assessment of the “flags and rhetoric” which under-girds late-model capitalism, mostly through allusive lines and curious storytelling; one of the more obvious narratives is a song about farm foreclosure in dust-bowl era Kansas that could be listened to alongside The Grapes of Wrath. The banker man looking at his gold watch just slays me…

As always, Bill is clever and literate, with striking lyrical moves, from post-industrial halogen glow to a deeply religious song about “Northern Lights and Southern Cross.” “This guitar is stumblin’ drunk and full of stories,” he says. He moves from the personal to the social, from his own soul to the state of the nation sometimes in one quick couplet. And I love the hints at God’s glossolalia that shows up in these songs, a nearly sacramental view of creation that seems to assure us that the “stuff of Earth” somehow reveals a divine presence, if not a divine order. Living under the big sky out West has seemed to deepen his appreciation of the rugged rawness of creation.

In the passionate liner notes, Bill notes that his vantage point is “like that of a concerned traveler, one with an ear to the ground and an eye to the skyline.”  

I listen to this Lands & Peoples album, also, however, because I can’t shake its setting mostly in the American Southwest, which is also the setting of a part of a novel I want to tell you about, a novel written by a dear friend, a serious thinker, a pundit and philosophy prof who himself loves the great outdoors, and sets some of his story in Northern Mexico and some of the desert bridging the abyss.jpglands of the Southwest. Mr. Richard L. Cleary, whose newest novel, Bridging the Abyss (Xulon; $15.99) may not resonate with the stream-of-consciousness/Jack Kerouac influenced Mr. Mallonee, but with themes in his songs of loneliness and tragedy and why there is such evil in our world, and lyrics set in the deserted highways near the Sangre de Christos of New Mexico – okay, I admit I’m also thinking of the stunningly Shakespearean tragedy of our times also set near there, Breaking Bad – it has seemed that for me, at least, Lands & Peoples has been a good soundtrack for this moving new novel.  I will admit that both gentlemen are friends of mine, so I am partial.  I trust that you, too, will enjoy and be troubled by, and finally be edified by these works of art.


how dante can save.jpgI have told you in recent weeks about How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem (Regan Arts; $29.95) Rod Dreher’s spectacularly interesting, intimately confessional memoir about reading Dante to get out of a serious, stressful depression due to a lack of reconciliation among his small town Louisiana family. (See my comments, HERE.) It is the sequel to his beloved The Little Way of Ruthie Liming which I hope you have read.  In this follow-up story after his move to his old hometown he tells of his illness, family issues, conversion to Orthodoxy and Christian growth by way of reading Dante’s Commodia.  He writes,

These emotionally gripping scenes rendered with supernatural artistry reveal the power of great art to transform us. The poet Dante is showing us how stories and images prepare our imaginations for moral instruction by engaging our emotions.

Research psychologists Keith Oatley and Maja Dijikic have shown that people are more likely to be open to new ideas when those ideas are present to them in the form a of a story. But they also found that a work of nonfiction is more effective than fiction if the reader perceives it to have high artistic quality.

Dreher, in a chapter on pride, reveals being especially convicted by the vividly rendered scenes in this canto of the classic poem.  He explains,

        The words and the images in Dante’s great poem worked a conversion within me. Their beauty and truth cracked the stone in my chest and made me confront the nature of my condition.

Listen, as he continues,

        There is no lesson in the Commedia that I had not read of heard before, but Dante incarnated that wisdom in verse that pierced the rocky soil of my heart and planted seeds of truth there, seeds that neither my anxiety, nor my insecurity, nor my anger, nor my weakness, could dislodge.

I know I don’t have to convince you of this, or the value of reading novels, but as I am about to tell you about a novel I enjoyed, it seems good to quote Dreher again, as he ruminates on how this story effected him, and how good art can touch us all.

           Once you have seen yourself in Farinata, in Pier della Vigne, in Brunetto, and in Ulysses, once you have stood with Dante and Virgil on the beach listening to Casella’s song, wanting to abandon the hard road ahead and rest for a while, they become part of you. In their fates you observe – no, you feel – the logic of your own trajectory through life revealing itself to you. And if you take these words and images into your heart, you gather within yourself the will to change the direction of your own story.

I suppose this line from Dreher on Dante is as good as any description of the power of stories, of movies and novels and memoirs. And it is as good as any description of the power of Bill Mallonee’s music for me, too, for that matter. Perhaps his songs (and I could add other artists who I similarly esteem and moved by) and their characters or images don’t usually call me to “change the direction” of my story, but they do give me peoples and pictures who can accompany me on the journey. Lands and peoples, indeed. 


the givenenness of things.jpgOne of the most significant books to come out this year is the new collection of thoughtful essays by Marilynne Robinson, the acclaimed novelist. Her Gilead, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize and its sequel, Home, earned the Orange Prize.  The third in the series, Lila, is now out in paperback and is a must-read for those who have followed these stories. The Givenness of Things: Essays (Farrar Straus Giroux; $26.00) is the title of this new anthology of her non-fiction pieces (the fourth such collection) and its suggestive title implies surely that things, things on Earth, as Colossians 1 might put it, are a gift; this is a serious theological claim that has huge implications, not dissimilar to Wendell Berry’s prominent essay and book title Life Is a Miracle. Of course, if things are given, then there is a giver, and, one could surmise, an order to life in this world.  It is not just Mallonee’s beloved Sangre De Christos or the Northern Lights or the Southern Cross that reveals God, but, somehow, all things can. And more than God is revealed: the creation reveals the ordinances of God, the laws of how the world really is.  God sustains the world, ordering it in certain ways, the Bible maintains, and we can surmise that this is something intended in Robinson’s evocative title.

The dust jacket copy of Givenness…, declares “…cultural pessimism is always fashionable, there is still much to give us hope. In The Givenness of Things the incomparable Marilynne Robinson delivers an impassioned critique of contemporary society while arguing that reverence must be given to who we are and what we are: creatures of singular interest and value, despite our errors and depredations.”

Ahhh, but how do we get there? From the beauty of the Earth to the value owed us? From the insight about reality as a gift to a sense of orderedness; from experience to meaning, from a sense of the appropriateness of reverence to a belief that God is there, and even God speaks?  Is it so that we can determine, in Francis Schaeffer’s memorably book title, that “He is There and He Is Not Silent”? Is there some kind of natural law (to use standard Catholic language) and if so, how do we know it? 

Marilynne-RobinsonCROPPED.jpgMarilynne Robinson offers seventeen essays that examine the ideas that have inspired and informed her: Calvin, Locke, Bonhoeffer and Shakespeare, for instance. As one writer put it, “her peerless prose and boundless humanity are on display… exquisite and bold.”  And then this: “The Givenness of Things is a necessary call for us to find wisdom and guidance in our cultural heritage and to offer grace to one another.”

Well, this is huge: a renowned and respected Calvinist novelist who is known in the highest literary circles (published and respected in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and the like) whose prestigious publishers say that it is “necessary” to find “wisdom and guidance” in order to “offer grace.” What sort of cultural moment generates lines like that from New York publishers?

Her first essay starts with the glory of the humanism that emerged from the Renaissance, but ends up critiquing the neo-Darwinism that resists claims about meaning and transcendence.  This is not the first time Robinson has reflected on the implications of neuroscience and evolution and scientism. She is incisive in her critique of certain notions, found on the right and the left, or so it seems to me, among fundamentalists of science and religion, insisting that behind this “infinitesimal nuancing” there is mystery.  Do I hear an Amen?

But she does not stop there.  There are chapters about grace, servanthood, proofs, value, metaphysics. What is “realism” in this world, how ought we to think about “experience”?  What does the Biblical phrase “Son of Adam, Son of Man” mean? This is a multi-faceted, diverse set of significant, intellectual essays, and they push us to ask the biggest questions we can ask, although she is no evangelical preacher. She is careful and dense, and not so prosaic, but I am not ashamed to be simple: a question floating around all this is, simply, if there is a God, does God speak and make it clear “how then shall we live?” And if not, how do we determine what is right and what is wrong? In a culture that has rejected a sense of a God who speaks and the authority of God’s revealed Word – heck, in a church where in many quarters such things are routinely denied or qualified to death – how can we know what is right and wrong?  Can we?

“I’m hoping to turn in one good day,” (but “Losing streaks take no pity on the meek”) Mallonee wistfully sings in one of the moving songs on Lands & Peoples.  But what is one good day? How in the world do we know?

You may think I’m drifting towards the stupid question of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”  I hope you know I tend towards the practical and have little time for abstract intellectualism or vain philosophical ramblings.

But this question — without a God who has given us some standards of what is right and good, how do we know that war or rape or whatever is truly wrong? — is not silly. Dostoevsky insisted that “if there is no God all is permitted.” It is a grand question of modernity, it is the existential quandary of our times, and it is at the heart of the postmodern turn (who’s view of truth, who’s view of good and right, who gets to say?) 

This is the exact question that haunts Richard Cleary’s new novel, Bridging the Abyss, a gripping crime/adventure tale set in the underworld of sexual trafficking and inner city ministry.

This big question – what is really right and wrong in a secularized society? — was a theme of his somewhat more heavy-handed previous fictional effort, the 2012 In the Absence of God. In that big in the absence of God.jpgnovel, there is a violent criminal on the loose on a college campus, and the professors in the story must come to grips with their own assumptions (not to mention the reading assignments they give) about the nature of right and wrong, ethics and truth and what is truly true. Can a prof claim to agree with Nietzsche and Sartre saying that there is no meaning and therefore no ultimate truth and yet say that the rapist on the loose is truly wrong to exercise his power? Can one say there is no universally binding right or wrong, but participate in the campus anti-war movement, condemning war as immoral? Can one believe in intelligent design – the observation that even at the molecular level there appears to be an orderly design so complex that it could not have happened by “chance” as Darwinists insist – and yet be a serious scientist, and what might the implications of this view of science be for social ethics and cultural studies and this discussion among colleagues about right and wrong on campus? The various characters – collegiate athletes and their coaches, young students and their teachers, an inter-racial dating couple – engage in this campus drama with plenty of coffee shop conversations about what we can truly say about right or wrong.  They each grapple with the question of what a world looks like if God is considered mostly irrelevant.  You can read my BookNotes review of this stimulating, philosophically-oriented thriller, HERE.  (And, of course, there is a link there to order it at our on-line discounted price.)

One does not have to read In the Absence of God to enjoy Bridging the Abyss, although one of the characters that makes a small appearance in Absence is a major character in Bridging. If you read Cleary’s Absence of God you will recall that he is, after all, a former science teacher and college philosophy professor, and he wrote that book to open up conversations about this fundamental philosophical question.  Can ordinary people who haven’t read Plato or Kant, Camus or Kierkegaard, Derrida or McIntyre or Charles Taylor, enter into the large quandaries of ethics and secularization?  Cleary’s novel hoped to entertain even while it taught and I maintained that it did both.

bridging the abyss.jpgBridging the Abyss offers a better developed plot, with much more action, and the characters are more interesting than those in In the Absence. This is, it seems, the product of at least a few matters.  Firstly, I suspect that Cleary has just practiced his craft as a fiction writer more, and this third novel is better than his first two; as a former high school science teacher and current college philosophy teacher (not to mention political pundit at his on-line Viewpoints blog) he is not primarily an artist or fiction-writer (although as his bookseller, I happen to know that he has read widely in the great classics and knows great literature better than most.) So he is honing his storytelling and is learning to be a little less didactic and teacherly and bit more allusive and artful as a novelist.  I think you will enjoy this story, captivated by the fast moving plot and the truly interesting people.

It does seem obvious that in this new novel, Cleary wants people to be entertained. For those of us who enjoy late night theological arguments in the dorm room or local pub, his previous book was certainly interesting – listening in on these characters as they parried and debated was a hoot, and intellectually stimulating, as well. But it was perhaps a little short on plot and character development and bit heavy on the long conversations.  (Dick and I have had these long conversations, in person and via email, so he gets it honestly!)

Bridging the Abyss, however, is really full of action and pathos and page-turning thrills which makes for a better read. Of course it keeps coming back to this central insistence — if modern people dispense with God and believe life can go on as before, valuing goodness and beauty and meaning and human dignity – they are living a conceit. There is no sturdy reason or basis for acting as if this or that is truer or better.  Dostoevsky was right.  We are staring at a huge abyss if we are only honest enough to admit it.  The title comes from a realization that one of the characters in the story voices in his own struggles with this very question.  The cover photo aptly shows an abyss.

Unless, unless.  Unless there is an older truth – deeper magic, in Lewis terms – that tells us that there is indeed more to life than meets the eye.  There is more. There is a God and God has spoken and we can deduce right and wrong, or at least notions of the good, the true, the beautiful. There is an order to the givenness. The abyss is real, but it can be bridged, and the gospel of Christ is the most reliable answer to our existential quandary.

The dialogues between the main characters in this new story are realistic enough, but they do circle back to these tough religious questions. In Bridging the Abyss, though, these are not college teachers in the faculty lounge.  These lively characters in Bridging include frantic, grief-stricken Baltimore parents whose daughter has suddenly disappeared – we learn that she has been abducted by a deadly serious cell of sexual traffickers and she is most likely bound for a perverse Saudi sheikh. Their questions are more urgent then most of us can imagine.

Unknown to the parents, or their caring inner city pastor, whose own story is wonderfully told, there is an under-the-radar group of former Navy SEALs doing a vigilante-style rescue of the captured and trafficked children. (Does the FBI know about these guys? Are they complicit, at odds, in some sort of “look the other way” cooperation? Who are the good guys and who is to be trusted? Why are they doing this undercover work?) The former soldiers and law enforcement men in this group are believable – especially if you watch light TV shows like Burn Notice or read the more serious spy stuff like the Jason Bourne novels and the like. Who knows if there are real units doing such investigation, search and rescue ops like this, but Cleary makes it ring true and it is fascinating.  He is a profoundly moral man, and refused gratuitous language or violence, even if a bit rougher language might have made it seem more realistic.  But, still, be warned: the episodes of the plot itself, kidnapping, sexual trafficking, shootouts and (maybe?) torture and connections to drug cartels are vivid.  (Reading Bridging the Abyss will be a bit heavy and disturbing if one has only read Amish fiction or Christian romances, of course, but it is nothing compared to the grueling scenes of the standard crime or CSI shows on TV these days.  If you watch Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds you know what I mean.

And, I might add, the book’s plot, interesting as it is, and surprising as some twists are, is not deep or literarily sophisticated. It’s a good story and a fairly quick read, not ponderous or obtuse.

Some of the plot of Bridging the Abyss is about the missing girl and the vigilante rescue unit.  Much of the plot is more domestic, about the anxiety and prayers of the people in the Baltimore neighborhood and the church. Baltimore cops and local thugs and the neighborhood pastors all show up as the day-to-day ups and downs of raising a family in a transitional neighborhood in a big city are described, and as the realities of the crisis become known.  Caleb and Patty Hoffmeyer are the parents of the missing Alicia; Caleb’s brother and sister-in-law (Willis and Marie) are the classic religious skeptics who are walking through this family tragedy with them. They are grateful for the outpouring of concern from Caleb and Patty’s church friends, but find the faith behind their actions to be a bit naïve.

Reverend Loren Holt is the pastor that a character in In the Absence of God had visited and he is known (briefly) in that book as a reasonable, good man. In Bridging the Abyss he is one of the main stars, and his well-informed but humble faith and his hard but meaningful inner city ministry is beautiful to behold.  Loren and his wife Olivia have had quite a journey themselves, and their own story informs their own pastoral care for the Hoffmeyer’s and others in this tragic drama.

There are a few surprise plot twists that I should not mention, and some characters about whom more is revealed later in the book.  It is hard to describe this in detail because there is so little I can say without spoiling the fun of the ride.  You must read this for yourself to learn about the vile Carlos and Luis, about John and his team of renegade activists (working their ops under the name CSR.) You will be delighted to realize something about a small side story with a kid named Keyvon and a huge plot twist involving, well… nope, I’m not going to say. If you are used to mysteries and thrillers, I suspect you might see it coming, but it’s a blast either way.  I’m not going to spoil it. They don’t call ’em “page turners” for nothing.

dick cleary headshot.jpgKudos to my friend and nearby neighbor Dick Cleary for working so hard to bring some of the most important questions of our age – voiced in readings he has done from the likes of Charles Taylor and Albert Camus and Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, not to mention recent atheists like Dawkins – in an easy-to-read, hard-to-put down, adventure yarn.

I do not mean any criticism to say this is not as profound or lyrical as this year’s award-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – one of the best novels I’ve ever read —  and will not be on the best seller lists as will recent novels we carry such as Jonathan Franzen’s Purity or the new take on the life of David by Geraldine Brooks (The Secret Chord.) It is not Gilead, Home, or Lila, not by a long shot.  But if you want a captivating story, vivid, interesting characters who are living through horrible tragedy and finding hope and purpose through it all, the lives of the Hoffmeyer’s and the Holts and the Baltimore police officers and informants and the brave CSR squad may inspire you. The conversations they have — what is true, how do we know, could the gospel be the answer to this existential human quandary of knowing what is right and how to live well, and if we can figure it all out — will be an enjoyable read, will stimulate your own thought, and even will serve you in your own interest in apologetics. 

Cleary enjoys making up these tales, recounting these fictional philosophical and theological debates, and although I’m sure he would firstly want you to enjoy getting to know his characters and taking this fictional journey, he’d be most happy if through listening in on the dialogue in In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss you would feel more sure about what you believe and why you believe it. Learning how to press this honest question about the moral consequences of a culture which has cast God away and how to present a durable answer that can be offered to contemporary seekers is surely one of the benefits of reading these dramatic stories.  In a world of sexual trafficking and urban racism and religiously-hostile intellectuals and all sorts of inner anguish, these kinds of personal stories can help.

And, if the songs on Lands & Peoples are any clue, there is much anguish even for Christ-followers in this world that often seems forsaken. But as Bill Mallonee sings, in one of two desperate songs with baseball allusions, there can be new resolve in finding purpose, discerning meaning. Maybe it is so for many of us: “ever since my eyes beheld your beauty and your grace, I’m going to swing with everything I’ve got.”  Yes, even in this “sad, slow crawl” we can swing with all we’ve got.  It matters. It matters because there is meaning and purpose and some kind of order in this fallen world, if only we have eyes to see and the moral resolve to act on it.

Just as Dante clarified this for Rod Dreher, Bill Mallonee knows and reminds me. It is why none of his sad songs on his rootsy albums with raw acoustics and fuzzy feedback and Dylan-esque harmonica are finally depressing. Mallonee ends his latest set of allusive story songs with a bit less overtly redemptive hope than is found in Cleary’s Christian novel but both the Lands & Peoples CD and the Bridging the Abyss story are clear: there is hope in this hard world, and we can know something about the goodness of God’s creation order which impinges upon us because it is real and true and good.

As Marilynne Robinson puts it, in a characteristically Calvin-esque phrasing, there is a givenness to things.

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CD Lands & Peoples Bill Mallonee     regular H&M price $17.00  —  our sale price: $13.60

The Givenness of Things: Essays  Marilynne Robinson  regularly $26.00 — our sale price: $20.80

Bridging the Abyss  Richard L. Cleary   regularly $15.99  —  our sale price: $12.79



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