I hope you saw my long essay the other day about the importance of the forthcoming Jamie Smith book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Brazos Press; $19.99) at the previous BookNotes post. (All of my past blog posts are archived at our Hearts & Minds website.) A couple of folks said it was quite an education, and I enjoyed sharing, again, some of my own significant influences and some of my own favorite books and authors. Trying to offer a bit of a backstory (my own or Smith’s I can’t quite say) that frames the new book was fun and meaningful for me, at least. I do hope you considered it.
Alas, I haven’t gotten the real review of the book itself done yet, and I’ve learned You Are What You Love (can we call it YAWYL?) won’t arrive for another week, so I’m going to sneak in a random, but no less important, shorter BookNotes list now. Stay tuned for my eventual review of YAWYL and do check out that “part one” rumination about it if you haven’t yet.
In the mean time, it’s usually quite invigorating being around here any given day at the Dallastown shop, realizing just how many great books keep coming and coming. There’s lots of dumb stuff out there and plenty that is mediocre. But, truly, there are wonderful reads and fine authors and helpful publishers; the book world and publishing industry really is a blessing to us all. I know I speak for all our staff here when I say that Beth and I are glad there are readers who care. I don’t mean that only because your shopping with us keeps us afloat, tenuous as that project seems. It means that people care about words, about ideas, about being moved by the art of writing and the habit of reading. That’s good — essential! — for the health of our world, you know.
Some new and very good books that I shall list below just might scratch where you itch these days or they might make a good gift to somebody who you may know who needs some pleasurable and helpful resources this very week. Spread the word.
TEN NEW BOOKS THAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue Barry H. Corey (Tyndale) $15.99 When reading an advanced copy of Good Faith which I reviewed a week ago I noticed a footnote to this book that had not yet been released. Kinnaman and Lyons said very good things about it in that footnote and I made a mental note to be sure we had it on order. It came not long ago and, as I expected, it is remarkable. And it has Micah 6:8 printed on the back — the first verse I learned as a kid, my dad’s favorite. There are surprising blurbs on the back from David Wells, a serious-minded, no-nonsense and very careful thinker I great admire, a Distinguished Research Professor at Gordon Conwell, and a long, passionate endorsement by Miroslav Volf. These are impressive signs. Alistair Begg calls Love Kindness “a thought-provoking, heart-stirring challenge to consider kindness as a barometer of a grace-shaped life.” I know some very kind people and admire them. You do too. Maybe we need this book so we can be more like them. The author, by the way, has a PhD in education from Boston College, was a Fulbright scholar and worked with the landless poor in Bangladesh. This looks really, really rich.
Letters to Jacob: Mostly About Prayer Fr. John-Julian (Paraclete Press) $7.99 This is a very, very small book and I intend to read it devotional here in the second half of Lent. Any title that alludes to Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis, and says “ordinary mysticism” on the cover has to be good! And I hear it really is. Desmond Tutu has a rave on the front saying “Wise counsel for all on how to grow in that life of prayer and what pitfalls to avoid.”
Fr. John-Julian is an Episcopal priest who is what they call “semi-enclosed” and has had a wide, wide array of jobs from camp director to TV actor to the dean of an experimental seminary and a social worker — even a bookseller! (If only he’d have logged some time in the circus.) His wide worldly experience, his service as a pastor, and now as an Oblate (Order of Julian of Norwich) gives him a rare place in which to describe contemplative prayer to those of us who are not quite so oriented to stillness and solitude and deeper prayerfulness. It looks like an argument for the contemplative life, but also an invitation to it, written to a young, 21st century seeker. Might even be a slightly deeper version of the lovely Nouwen book called Letters to Marc, which I also loved. Nice.
Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self Chuck DeGroat (Eerdmans) $15.00 We discovered DeGroat a while back, appreciated by many for his helping to found the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, but who is now a prof of pastoral care at the RCA’s Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan and who also has a counseling practice. He wrote the wonderfully interesting and beautiful book called Leaving Egypt: Finding God in WIlderness Places and then a most helpful and very thoughtfulToughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life Including Yourself. This new one looks remarkable — just the footnotes alone show how wide of a reader DeGroat is, citing everybody from evangelical neuroscientist Curt Thompson to poet Mary Oliver, from David Letterman to Thomas Merton.
Wholeheartedness has a beautiful style about it, covers very impressive ground, helping us diagnose our unwholeness, awaken to wholeness, and then experience real wholeness. It seems to me that this is a perfect example of a book that is designed for self-improvement, personal growth, but is mature, sophisticated, beautifully-crafted and nuanced. Steve Brown raves on the back saying how “this came just in time to salvage this old cynical preacher from almost giving up on every finding healing in this busy world” and Ms Mica Boyett (herself a fabulously gifted writer and a bit of a mystic) says the book will “provoke and encourage and push you past the scarcity of anxiety and performance and into a fuller, more beautiful life of faith.” Not bad, eh?
Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things Dale C. Allison, Jr. (Eerdmans) $18.00 A very, very smart friend of mine, a world-travelled, small-church Presbyterian pastor who is remarkably well read, has confided in me that Dale Allison is one of the smartest and most amazing people he’s ever met. Those of us that have heard him or worked with him know this is true: he is an eloquent and interesting writer, luminous at times, even. He has written major scholarly works, and a few probing, moving meditations, too (such as The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep Still Places.) Blurbs on the back of this new book include extravagant endorsements by John Burgess (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), the deeply thoughtful Orthodox scholar and writer David Bentley Hart, and Thomas Long, the well known preacher and prof from Candler. Allison definitely is respected among evangelicals, Orthodox, and more mainline denominational colleagues.
When Dale was 23 years old he almost died in a car accident and we are told that that terrifying experience dramatically changed his ideas about death and the hereafter. As it says on the back, “In Night Comes Allison wrestles with a number of difficult questions concerning last things — such questions as what happens to us after we die? and why does death so often frighten us? He is a first-rate Bible scholar and mystic, and here he engages not only biblical texts but the church fathers and mothers, rabbinic scholars, poets and scientists and philosophers. This is the spiritual and theological guidebook of big questions for the well educated and curious. As Burgess puts it, “Extraordinarily thoughtful and deeply personal, Night Comes makes a profound witness to the ultimate mysteries — and certainties — of religious faith.”
Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss September Vaudrey (Momentum) $15.99 Oh geesh, I got choked up just reading the inside cover. This very handsome book is a beautifully written story of a Christian mom whose young adult daughter, Katie, an artist, died in a car accident at age 19. There are a number of very moving, even profound, memoirs of this sort and I sense that this is one of them. (That the evangelical publisher compared it to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is itself notable.) I read the excellently-drawn several pages of a foreword by Shauna Niequist (a writer who just keeps getting better and better herself) who has known September Vaudrey and her husband, and has admired her her mothering for years. Now, we see how her life changed with this grievous loss. “It’s a story of love and tragedy in tandem; a deeply personal memoir from a life forever changed by one empty place” the promo stuff tells us. I don’t usually like it when there are photos and artwork in books of this sort, but this is very handsomely designed. Kudos to Tyndale for releasing such a rich, meaningful, valuable story.
Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church Benjamin L. Gladd & Matthew S. Harmon (with a hefty introductory chapter by G.K. Beale) (Baker Academic) $19.99 Wow –this just came and it is asking a very, very important question. If we believe — as we’ve written about often, here, even in the last column which introduced the forthcoming James K.A. Smith book — that God’s Kingdom is in some ways now inaugurated, and that the “end times” of “all things new” and “creation restored” is breaking into history now in newness, well, how then shall we pastor? What should the shepherds to do prepare people for “now but not yet” sorts of lifestyles?
As the respected Biblical scholar Michael Bird (of Ridley College in Australia) writes,
We stand in the middle of an old world dying and a new creation already born in our midst through Jesus Christ. How does this sense of living between the ages shape our conception of the church, pastoring, and ministry? In this book two young scholars, with the assistance of Greg Beale, show what it means to be end-times people. They offer some great theological reflections and practical advice on how to lead people who are waiting with patience and purpose for the day when God is all in all.
This book which surely deserves to be called remarkable just arrived today and I’m eager to see how (healthy) eschatology can permeate their views of ministry and what suggestions they might make at the intersection of (forgive the fancy-pants words) “ecclesiology and eschatology. Here is one odd-ball thing, though, that distresses me: they don’t seem to cite Richard Middleton. What?
The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith A.J. Swoboda (Baker) $15.99 Last year about this time I read A.J.s A Glorious Dark which reflects profoundly on the triduum — Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Through his own study and sharing of pain and doubt and darkness and trust, that book moved me deeply and I will re-read it this Holy Week I am sure. (By the way, not only was Glorious Dark one of my favorite books of last year, he also co wrote the significant and commendable Evangelical Ecotheology.)
Now, in this brand new one with this great, allusive title — The Dusty Ones — Swoboda explores wandering, what it means to be a wandering people, why wilderness matters and how hardships of time in the desert might be formative for us. And what it means to “wander well.” On the back it says “If you’re restless, doubtful, or questioning, you will emerge from this journey with the assurance that not all who wander are lost. There’s hope and peace for all those who travel the winding path seeking to experience God in all his glory.” As the upbeat and feisty Jo Saxton puts it, “May we all have the courage to live as one of the dusty ones.”
One Dress. One Year. One Girl’s Stand Against Human Trafficking Bethany Winz with Susanna Foth Aughtmon (Baker) $12.99 Just earlier today I read of the awful slave ships from Thailand that do much of the commercial fishing that sells shrimp to Kroger, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods and Red Lobster. President Obama last month signed a bill to ban all seafood caught with slave labor, which rocked the Thai fishing industry — David Batstone at Not For Sale calls is a “major win against human trafficking.” But the slaves (many of whom are children according to an AP report) are sill on those ships. It is heartbreaking, evil, and solving global injustices is complex. Just recall Gary Haugen’s vital Oxford University Press book called Locust Effective: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. We need big, structural reforms and, obviously, a healthy establishment of the rule of law.
Enter Bethany Winz, who, as a sixteen year old (who is now in college at Trevecca Nazarene University), learned about some of this sort of stuff and just decided she had to do something. She tells us that she processes the world and what she learns by blogging and writing, and this fantastic new book emerged from her one-year experience of writing about a social experiment. Bethany determined to wear the same black dress (that she made, by the way) every day for a year to focus attention on the lack of choices people in modern-day slavery face and to raise money to help end human trafficking. It is fascinating to see what all happened to and through her in that year — her blog really was popular and she’s a fine young writer, so it makes great sense to know this is now out as a book.
Big, global issues must be faced with sophisticated policy and international advocacy. But they also have to be cared about deeply, and each of us can play some small part. This is a beautiful, great example of one person doing what she can, where she is.
Jim Martin (Vice President for spiritual formation at IJM and author of The Just Church) writes,
Raw, witty, and unafraid, One Dress. One Year. is a primer on moving from passion to action that is courageously honest about the inevitable stops at disillusioned and disheartened along the way. This book is a must-read for any young person passionate about justice but unsure where to begin.
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living Rob Bell (HarperOne) 25.99 Again, this is brand new and I haven’t spent more than a few minutes browsing through it. I can tell you two things, at least: even though the advanced buzz on this has been that Rob is seeing his own calling these days (at least in this book project and round of public speaking) as oriented to those outside of the church, doing what some dumbly used to call a “crossover” book, he is still clearly writing as a pastor, a person of faith, a media figure who is drawing people into the story of Jesus as revealed in the Bible. Agree or not with all that he does or says in this good goal getting folks to consider the Bible — how is that working for you in your own life, I’d ask before getting ugly in condemning Bell for sounding less evangelical than he once did, by the way — he does cite the Bible and Christian theologians in this volume. He has not lost his faith or gone “secular” (certainly, not: this is a guy who did a bar and rock venue tour doing a lecture called “Everything is Religious.”) He cites St. Ephraim the Syrian and Dorothy Sayers and Cornelius Plantinga (yes, Engaging God’s World!) and Charles Foster, all right next to Rumi the poet and Abraham Heschel the prophet, Elizabeth Gilbert — he loves, as he should, her recent book on creativity called Big Magic — and the podcast comedian Pete Holmes, not to mention the fun band Jimmy Eats World, who I think he’s quoted before. Who I know he’s quoted before, but I remember stuff like that.
This is a book for ordinary folks about finding a life of meaning and perhaps destiny, about honing one’s craft and getting good at stuff and being more open to being more connected to people God brings into your life. It’s about being present, attentive, aware in a too busy life. Like others in this hip, recent genre (designers and artists and cultural creatives as motivational speakers) he is known as a person who can help readers wake up to live “more inspired, vibrant, and complete lives.” As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers writes, Rob Bell is “a great storyteller, easily making the most complex theories understandable and ideas more fascinating… ” I agree.
By the way, I recently re-read most of Jesus Wants to Save Christians and his little book on grief, Drops Like Stars and found them to be once again very, very powerful and well worth considering. And, come on — who doesn’t like Velvet Elvis? Okay, maybe not everybody, but it’s under-rated, I think, not only fun, but an important little book. I’m looking forward to this new one.
Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World Dennis Covington (Little Brown) $26.00 Okay, I announced this a week ago in a listing, not unlike this one, of brand new titles I wanted to tell you about but had not yet read. I stayed glued to a chair or a bed or another chair for hours on end over the weekend and finished this in one huge gulp or two. As I expected it blew me away and I now really want to tell you about it.
As I noted the other day, Covington is renowned for his American Book Award winner Salvation on Sand Mountain which included quite a bit about his own faith journey, a story of his reporting on, and then being befriended by, Appalachian snake handlers. He has a penchant for the hard and weird and violent, and this has apparently again drawn him to ask what could possible be among the hardest questions: how does religion help people hold on in times of war and genocide, violence and gross injustice? And, perhaps even harder, how does religion sometimes fuel such awfulness. This is a not an astute, profound study such as Os Guinness’s essential Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil or Tom Wright’s excellent, even inspiring, Evil and the Justice of God or a tirade like the eloquent War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by the righteous former war correspondent Chris Hedges, let alone a testimony of good medical mission worker organized by peace-maker Jeremy Courtney (Preemptive Love) although I wish I could send all four to brother Dennis.
This book, though, with the allusive title Revelation — or should he have used a similar word Apocalypse — is more of a travelogue, a mystery, a memoir of a guy who is driven, haunted (and at times, nearly hunted) as he tries to unravel personal questions about contacts he has along the Syrian -Turkish border. If you want to know what it is like doing journalistic investigation among refugees and revolutionaries, bribing border guards, hanging out with possible terrorists, fearing for one’s safety — in cabs driven by crazy Middle Eastern drivers or because of the proximity to bombs falling or because one is trying to understand members of what we now call ISIS — this book is for you.
I was hooked by the first amazing pages, by his foray into the violence of the drug cartels (and the grace of those who minister among them) in an intense chapter set in Juarez, Mexico., one of the deadliest places on Earth. (He had spent time among the death squads in El Salvador decades ago so this kind of danger and this kind of evil felt somewhat familiar to him.
The book takes a turn to the Middle East, though, and he’s off to Turkey, wondering around places (such as Antioch, that town where Christians were first called Christians, he notes) that I had to get out an atlas to look up. What a story of intrigue, of passion, of great interest. Did I say I couldn’t put it down?
Through it all — perhaps not unlike his foray into Pentecostal snake handling so well told in Sand Mountain — Covington is searching to determine, to find, or re-find his own (lapsed? unconvinced?) faith. He narrates other portions of his life (including his sad divorce from Vickie Covington, already hinted at in the beautifully done, dazzlingly raw co-written memoir, Cleaving: A Story of a Marriage) and their stint as church leaders doing well-drilling mission trips.
One episode doesn’t leave me. In his excursions exploring religious violence he necessarily writes about his growing up in the racist south, in Birmingham, where a otherwise proper Methodist Sunday School teacher was a Klansman. He tells of being on a bus in 1963 with other kids in the school band, and how a white classmate had her arm hanging out the window. A black youth passing by cut her with a razor or knife, the news of which inspired the awful bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Wow.
As the book’s emotional momentum seems to grow, Covington’s travels and his research pushes him towards his final goal — meeting with the parents of a US hostage being held by ISIS terrorists (without it being made public) — he makes his way to the parents home in Arizona, doubting if they would even trust him to speak with him. Other journalists have been kidnapped and then brutally beheaded; no one takes this stuff the least bit lightly. The US doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. He isn’t even supposed to know about this situation and doesn’t trust the guy he met who gave him a message. You know, you can hardly make this stuff up. It is grim and beautiful, what one reviewer called “a harrowing pleasure” by “one of the most honest and interesting human beings writing today.”
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