“Teaching Beauty” (Square Halo Books) and “Modern Art and the Life of Culture” (IVP) — two new books on the arts. ON SALE at Hearts & Minds

Please feel free to order these from us — we will deduct a complimentary 10% off discount on any item mentioned — by using our secure order form page.  Just click on the link at the bottom. Happy reading.

What a season it has been for excellent, important, passionate interesting books.  

A BookNotes post I did a week ago reviewed four (and mentioned more) very new books about public justice, an example of the shift these days where evangelical Christian thinkers and activists are doing some of the best books about living out faith in a broken and needy world. Look at that post and see if something tugs at your heart — they are important resources for your journey. And let’s affirm those publishers for doing these kinds of books, by making sure they are shared and promoted.

impossible people.jpgIn our last Hearts & Minds post I described (for those who may not know) Os Guinness, a writer that I think is simply a “must read” – serious, mature, elegant and eloquent – who brings warning and insight and analysis and hope about our changing times.  I described a few of the books he did the last few years, and described as best I could the brand new Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization. It is published by InterVarsity Press (regularly priced at $20.00, but on sale from us for our BookNotes freinds.)

Since it is so important, and timely, here’s quick review of my review, for those that didn’t get to it:

After explaining how important Os has been to me personally, and how I admire his many books, I noted that those who know the book (or even know about the book) by James K.A. Smith entitled How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor will find Guinness’s Impossible People an inspiring read. Smith guides us through the dense word of world-class philosopher Charles Taylor to understand not so much what is lost in our secular age, but what has been added, a new way of being in the world and different ways of determining meaning. It is the same Taylor-esque lens, by the way, through which Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson interpret the dystopian, end-of-the-world (or after-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it) shows so popular these days, from the Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Mad Men, in their extraordinary book How to Survive the Apocalypse.

Without citing Taylor, or even Smith, let alone zombies or sci-fi cylons, Guinness teaches us much about the forces of modernity, the pressure points and stresses — sometime intellectual/ ideological, but always material, including technologies, trends, customs, social arrangements, shopping patterns, laws, mores, media, entertainment, attitudes and postures, all which form habits that become what De Tocqueville called “habits of the heart.” If we think debating atheists or fighting rulings in the courts is the primary way to recovery greater good for our fraying society, if we think that faith is primarily lived out as a culture war, then we are fooling ourselves.  Guinness gives us quite a bit more than Sociology 101, but this new book could serve as an overview of why mere anti-atheist apologetics or why mere “cultural engagement” or why just doing “social justice” work isn’t enough, although he is fully committed to each of those aspects of faithful discipleship and has spoken articulately about them all. Obviously, the truth of historic, orthodox faith must be nurtured in our churches as the Word of God is proclaimed with authority and relevance.  As he so beautifully wrote in Renaissance (a companion volume to Impossible People) we can be people of hope as we do God’s work in God’s ways and learn to trust that Christ’s Kingdom comes less through our cultural machinations but through the mysterious work of the Spirit.

In this, Os — although terse in his rebuke of thoroughly revisionist Christian writers, pastors and church leaders who have severed ties with historic, classic orthodoxy — is hopeful and properly ecumenical. Many in various denominations and faith traditions are united in broad hope for church revitalization of the sort that leads by God’s grace to authentic cultural renewal and he is gladly appreciative of Christians of various persuasions and denominations who desire to live boldly for Christ.

Still, we have to be more savvy about how not to capitulate to the ways of living swallowing us up, almost without notice, by the forces of modernity and late modern capitalism. We have to be on guard that our enjoyment of choice and change in our shopping or on-line entertainment, for instance, doesn’t somehow color historic theological truths and spiritual practices, as if we are just shopping for beliefs that suit our wishes that day. (The customer is always right, you know, and how does thinking of ourselves continually as “consumers” effect our self image and our tendencies even as we think about our religion?) Inevitably, though,  resistant as we may be, our imaginations are often too-easily captured by the ways of the world, which is why Romans 12:1-2 calls for radical non-conformity and the renewal of the mind, lived out in our real-world bodies; life as worship. Without directly linking his call in Impossible People to these texts, it is essentially a guide for living out their thrilling vision. If you count those two verses among your favorite, you need this book.  If you don’t know those two pivotal verses, perhaps you really need this book!

Again, it is interesting to compare Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization  and how it pushes us (with a different style and approach) to take seriously what Jamie Smith teaches in his cultural liturgies project (the serious, meaty Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom and the much-discussed, nicely done You Are What You Love.) If you are reading James K.A. Smith, I think you’d benefit from Dr. Os Guinness. If you intend to read Guinness, you will surely want to add in some Jamie Smith. 

Once we learn, or reconsider the urgency of resisting cultural accommodation, even gaining guidance on how to more spiritually discern the impact of the principalities and powers — Guinness cautiously draws on the work of Walter Wink (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers) to remind us of what is at stake in resisting evil’s thrust — we will have to double down in humble submission to the ways of God, learn to be people of trust and obedience, of prayer and spiritual strength.  We simply must be clear about the first things of the gospel.  We must become more Christ-like and courageous, humble but principled, working hard to become people who are so deeply committed that we become the impossible ones of the book’s title. We will be the sort who are unable to be bought off, not concerned with fashion or status, power or privilege. We cannot be beaten down — “unclubbable” is an old fashioned word the vivid writer George Orwell used to describe those who live with such firm resolve.  Guinness’s insights are truly striking, his knowledge tremendous, his concerns important, his writing exceptional, and his new book, even when it is stern, is a blessing. It is one of the most important titles of the year.

Sorry to repeat some of what I said last time. I summarized that last BookNotes post here because I’m told some people missed it last week, and I certainly would be sad if you didn’t consider it – I worked hard to explain it all, earnestly trying to let folks know that Guinness’s book is an important work. I do hope you read my review, long as it was.

But I also review it now because it in some ways sets the table, or offers some sort of framework, for the exceptional importance of the two books I want to tell you about now.

Oh my, this is going to be fun.

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgteaching beauty.jpg

One is a long, serious, study, admittedly not for everyone, but truly a major contribution to the development of a Christian view of modern history – art history, to be precise.  It is called Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan Anderson & William Dyrness (IVP Academic; $24.00) and I hope you enjoy my remarks about it; I am sure you will see the connections to the big picture overview of modernity that Dr. Guinness sketches for us.  I will describe it for you shortly.

The other brand new book is relatively short (159 pages) published from a small set of talks that were given at a conference reflecting on how teachers (in Christian schools) can be more wise and faithful in teaching the fine arts. I loved reading this and am convinced it should be read beyond the obvious audience of teachers. Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education was edited by G. Tyler Fischer & Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books; $24.99) and is a wonderfully enjoyable book, a book that almost anyone can appreciate and which many will want to discuss, debate, and pass on to anyone who has any influence over the education of our children (including, I’d think, parents and youth workers.) It is not well known, but I hope we can change that — it deserves to be known!

The two books are both excellent in their own way, yet both very different. It seems right to mention them together. 

teaching beauty.jpgTeaching Beauty: A Vision for Music & Art in Christian Education edited by G. Tyler Fischer & Ned Bustard (Square Halo Books) $24.99 

Like all of the best books, there is a bit of a story behind Teaching Beauty For what it is worth, these chapters were delivered live in March of 2010 – a few have a lively, chatty tone, while a few were more formal academic papers, complete with great footnotes – at a small conference hosted by the Veritas Academy, a classical Christian school in Lancaster PA. The event from which these chapters were drawn was called The Veritas Academy Fine Arts Symposium and they are great for anyone who likes to think about serious Christian cultural engagement, who enjoys books about the arts, or who likes to hear about renewal happening in educational reforms. I found myself wanting to underline sentence after sentence (and found myself provoked to think, too – why did this or that section annoy me so?) so that I didn’t want to put it down, chapter by chapter drawing me on, reading it almost in two straight sittings. It is an ideal book for many of us as it isn’t too academic or weighty (although it certainly isn’t light-weight) nor too extensive, although one surely gets one’s money’s worth with 11 chapters and a handful of useful appendices.  The chapters are quite motivational and none are too long. Published by a small, craft publisher who cares deeply about all of this, I hope you’d appreciate the indie feel and purchase it soon.  Who knows, maybe there is somebody you could bless by giving it away once you’ve read it.

Some of the contributors to Teaching Beauty are educators themselves and they are all well-schooled in history, philosophy, theology, the flow of ideas, the importance of virtue, and the way the gospel invites us to a nearly sacramental worldview.  Classical educators are nothing if not really smart. What a great gathering of women and men this was with slightly differing views, but in agreement that the Earth is the Lord’s and we can take delight in its bounty. To a person, they value the arts as God’s good gift for God’s good world, and several cite one of my all-time favorite books, Rainbows for a Fallen World, a study of aesthetics by Calvin Seerveld.

After a very fine introductory chapter opening with a line from Dante, written by Veritas Academy Headmaster Ty Fischer (“Art as a Guide to the Sacred”) the next two chapters of Teaching Beauty are spectacular – kudos to Square Halo for bringing these essays to us. And what a treat it all is.

The first chapter is by Ken Myers. Maybe you know Ken Myers who offers the subscription mars hill audio logo.jpgaudio magazine called The Mars Hill Audio Journal. If you read Ken’s pieces that sometimes appear at his fabulous website, or listen to his ruminations with his guests – the show is produced like a set of NPR features, although a bit more intellectual than most – you will know he is very, very interested in the same concerns Os Guinness raises in the above mentioned Impossible People book; that is, how do the forms and styles and habits of a modern consumer society influence our social imaginaries? What does it mean to be “in the world but not of it” as we consider the subtle influences of our 21st century society and up-the-the-minute zeitgeist we breath in?  Ken Myers knows well the work of Jamie Smith – not just his introduction to Charles Taylor (again, named above), but his vibrant You Are What You Love and “cultural liturgies” project  – so many of our customers will love that about him. He appreciates the localism of Wendell Berry; again, this is thoughtful, wise, interesting stuff that I would think many of our customers would enjoy.

Myers is very concerned about how a tradition of practices is transmitted, and how the power of that is eroded in a self-centered (de-centered?) modern culture.  So, his chapter on “Sustaining a Fine Arts Education in a Consumer Society” is astute and very, very important. How can we teach youngsters to submit to a way of learning and a body of wisdom that has come before if they are cut off from all notions of the past, and from any mediating structures that help them experience such embeddedness?  His story tracing who studied under who – starting with an influential high school music teacher he met in his own youth all the way back to Bach!! – was thrilling, and made his point well.

Such a hard-hitting critique of consumerism isn’t what one often hears on the conservative side of evangelicalism, although his profound analysis of capitalism’s dangers aren’t the sort usually spoken by most social justice advocates, either. You see, Myers does much more than lament our materialism, our shopping, as such. He’s exploring what Marx meant when he said that “everything solid melts into air” and what Guinness exposes when he explores the impact of choice and change upon traditions and values. Ken Myers’s overview of how to inform and develop a desire for the good and the beautiful and how doing so is a counter-cultural  practice (given our disinterest in history and our fast-paced embrace of the moment) is brilliant. It is important, I’d say, not just for art and music educators, but for all of us, living as we do in these times. It certainly sets the table well for the feast of papers that follows.  

Myers isn’t too heady, but he is intellectually stimulating. His (brief) critique of Kant’s influence in the high-Enlightenment era – causing us to now think of aesthetics in purely subjective terms – is essential for this whole project and is a painless way to get up to speed on this topic. But he (like Guinness, and one of Guinness’s intellectual mentors, Peter Berger) knows that merely analyzing the influence of bad ideas isn’t an adequate way to analysis our current malaise (in culture, or in arts education, generally.)  Myers not only exposes relativism (from Kant) but how social experience influences us less consciously. He goes after consumerism, like this:

The consumer worldview perceives the world as raw material, not a sacred trust requiring sacrificial stewardship. The consumer worldview regards culture as a series of autonomously selected commodities, not a valuable inheritance. The consumer worldview is an orientation toward creation and toward culture that promotes the modern ideal of the sovereign self.

To see culture as an inheritance which we must steward and contribute to is very different, and offers a different starting point to think about enjoyment of the arts and music, and certainly to think about arts education. Art is not fundamentally about self-expression, a view of the artistic endeavor tied up with Enlightenment views of the autonomous self, and which usually sees emotive expression as a counter to the elevation of reason in the philosophy of Rationalism. 

Myers (like several other authors in the book) does a little philosophical archeology here, but he shows just how important it is by drawing on Christian Smith’s important study of what older teens believe these days, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (popularized in Kenda Creasy Dean’s Oxford University Press hardback, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.) Smith and Dean tell us about how older teens, even those involved in churches, are so thoroughly modern, with little language to talk about truth or goodness or beauty (or even God, for that matter.) Our faith communities have, almost across the board of denominations, their research shows, failed our youth by not successfully transmitting to them giving strong foundations for thinking about and talking about faith and life. The erosion of generation to generation traditions is painfully obvious, and it matters.

It is an arrogant assumption to think that history doesn’t matter, that old stuff can’t be right, the boundaries offered by Biblical truth represses kids, that classic formulations are hindrances to self expression, as if that is the key to the happy, good life. Cue Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” or his pal Sammy Davis Jr’s “I Gotta Be Me” right about here, or for that matters, John Lennon’s rocking “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” or any number of hits playing on the radio this very week.

But this is the way young adults have developed their view of God and culture and purpose and meaning, drifting feebly because for whatever reasons, even good churches haven’t been able to give them strong words to convey a vision of God and the good life other than what Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” or strong enough practices to deeply shape the desires of their hearts.

Ken Myers moves from a succinct but profound critique of secularizing modernity to a vivid Christian vision where creation is a gratuitous epiphany, and submission to the real leads us away from individualism and gnosticism and shallow, feel-good religiosity; his great chapter in Teaching Beauty shows how learning the very forms and structures and ways of ordering life inspired by music and art can enliven us as humans and, of course, deepen us as Christians.

Ken’s reading is wide and sophisticated and his comments so blessedly well-informed that it is almost worth the price of the book to read this one chapter. He moves adeptly from the Canadian philosopher George Grant to Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Reformed theologian Peter Leithart to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, from the Orthodox historian Jaroslav Pelikan to Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, from the lively cultural historian Jackson Lears to the dense, dense, Colin Gunton.

Here Myers cites and tells about Josef Pieper, to help us get at a way of seeing, even a way of knowing, that is deeply human and more than rationalistic. (That he has had Esther Meek and Steve Garber on his audio journal talking about this covenantal way of knowing and appreciates the work of philosopher of science Michael Polanyi doesn’t hurt, either. He’s so good at this…)

The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper has a little book of essays called Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, in which he observes that “to contemplate means first of all to see – and not to think.” This kind of seeing is receptive and open, not just accurate; as practiced by artists, it is not unlike the tradition of contemplative prayer, and is thus another link between worship and the arts.

Despite this amazingly rich way of thinking about knowing and seeing and the task of the artist, I have to say, for what it is worth, that Ken may not be as resistant to the influences of modernity as he thinks he is, and his assumptions about aesthetics might be refined, made more deeply Christian, by adopting the ways in which authors like Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolterstorff, have critiqued the conventional notion of beauty.

(Okay, I’m on a roll, so might I Seerveld books screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 20.42.30.pngsuggest, if you are seriously thinking and teaching about all this — like every author in this book, that is —  you should at least read some of the key pieces in Calvin Seerveld’s Normative Aesthetics [Dordt College Press; $21.00.]) I would read Ken Myers regardless, but besides his seemingly unreformed adaptation of “beauty” as a norm for the arts, there is something that some might call elitist hovering around all this.  I guess the classical schools educators might think this a cheap shot, and I don’t mean it as such.

Such anti-modern assumptions, and the talk about the virtue of “the beautiful” leading to elitist (or, at least, high-culture) approaches, are, in my view, a nearly fatal flaw of the entire classical education movement, no matter how fastidious they are about Reformed theology and proper doctrine; they are too religiously loyal to (pagan) Greek thought — the essays here (many of which share this assumption about the value of “the good, the true and the beautiful” as a faithful umbrella under which to do the Lord’s work) are anti-modernist, happily, but seem nonplussed by their own accommodation to sources and ways of thinking that are, in others ways, perhaps also anti-Biblical.

For instance, I think there is much value in John Mason Hodge’s piece (“Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence”) and commend it to you. I would be glad for anyone saying this sort of thing in any school, Christian or otherwise, as it is so remarkably thoughtful and interesting and important, to raise the stakes of why we should think about music in our culture. Further he is not only a respected scholar but is an experienced symphonic conductor and an esteemed classical musician. Having said that, I still fretted about his drawing on Plato as much as he did, affirming Greek notions of order and harmony – where is that in the Bible, really? – and drawing on peculiar thinkers like Pythagoras and “the music of the spheres.” There’s nothing wrong with studying “The Greek Muses” although it is odd that an evangelical would cite Exodus 31:2 in perfunctory passing, but spend much more energy singing the praises of Calloipe, Clio, Erato, Euterpe and the other offspring of the evil Zeus. What’s going on here? Why does he simply assert the necessity of “unity and diversity” in any good art piece? I actually really like where Hodges ended up with his chapter – writing about a sacramental worldview and the purpose of music (even if I disapprove of his wanting to “relate” matter and spirit, a huge concession to pagan thought which ought to be denounced.)  Read with critical discernment, this stuff is stimulating and well worth pondering.

(And, an important aside: as we think about the very commonly assumed distinctions between high and low culture, I’d suggest a careful study of the groundbreaking, historically informed and deeply insightful Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life by William D. Romanowski of Calvin College [Wipf & Stock; $45.00.])

Ken Myers himself isn’t involved in the “classical education” movement, and says so, and it is to their credit that this group of classical school teachers brought him to Lancaster to kick off their days of reflection.  Still, he’s got this fascinating (and not unimportant) interest in how the harmony and orderedness of art and music reflects the nature of God, a line of thinking that has been rejected by many reformational philosophers of aesthetics. 

For instance, Myers’s cites David Bentley Hart, writing beautifully about the infinite love experienced by the members of the Trinity.  Myers writes,

Hart goes on to suggest that the relationships among the members of the Trinity are not only beautiful, they are beautiful in a way that has analogies with our experience of music…. If Hart is right, then the presence of music in our worship and in our lives is witness to a deep reality of difference and unity in Creation, which itself has its sources in the inner life of the Triune God.

I’m not sure seeing art as pointing us to the attributes of God, rather than the creation itself, is the most faithful way to think about the human calling of doing art or the point of experiencing it.  But that’s an in-house debate about aesthetic theory and I suppose above my own pay grade.  But the practical upshot, for Myers is right on: 

Art provides us with ways of perceiving reality aright, although not all art does this, or does it well.  And not all of us have allowed our imaginations to be disciplined to encourage that perception. 

And that is a major theme of this great little Square Halo book.  In almost all of the essays we have ideas about how schooling can discipline us to perceive reality aright, of how to help shape desire, bending it towards the good, hints of how education can inform and inspire and transform us, how our dispositions can be reformed (what Jamie Smith calls “the recalibration of the heart”) so that we have new tastes, not just more data, more wisdom, not just more information.  Indeed, one great chapter is on the “aesthetics of classical education” by Stephen Richard Turley is called “Redeeming the Senses.” Dr. Turley is a teacher of Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric at Tall Oaks Classical School in Delaware and a professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University. Wow.

So here is what I think: even if I don’t quite appreciate all of the classical fetish with Greco-Roman ways (even when they dress it up with Calvin and Chesterton and quote The Abolition of Man and their Patron Saint Dorothy Sayers and her trivium and love for Latin) and even though I think they are woefully wrong in not adequately seeing “common grace” in the popular culture of rock and pop and rap, they are mostly right in insisting that there is much, much work to be done in thinking faithfully about serious arts education In our schools; they are right in grounding that project not in Romantic self-expression, but in submitting to good traditions and virtuous insights of the past.  I cannot say how glad I am that this Veritas Symposium’s reflections are now available for all of us, maybe especially those of us not connected to the classical schooling movement, who might otherwise not get to read this kind of stuff very often. As I regularly say, agree or not with every sentence, I heartily commend this book.

The blessedness of this (radical?) way of thinking about good art and teaching it well (and how different it is from more commonly used approaches by too hip art teachers trying their best, untrained in aesthetics, or even art history, as they are) was illustrated in a story told in Gene Edward Veith’s fantastic chapter (another chapter that, even if I quibble a tiny bit, was worth reading twice!)

Veith tells of a Lutheran school in Casper Wyoming where five years olds were being shown and taught about great art. (Of course, most art programs just give little ones paste and crayons and allow them to mess around, which is lovely and fun and valuable in many ways, but a far cry from serious arts education.)  During a field trip to the local art museum, the children were appalled by the museum’s children’s exhibit, that – in some goofy effort to make art appealing to kids – had the Mona Lisa with a cowboy hat. The Lutheran kids were indignant. “She wasn’t a cowgirl!” they exclaimed to the docent. “She was painted by Leonard da Vinci during the Renaissance!”

Veith continued,

Throughout the tour, the children were picking up the styles and genres they were seeing: “That’s impressionism!” “Look at that landscape!”

The docent was astonished at the level of artistic sophistication she saw in these five-year olds. She concluded that since she was not that conversant with art history, being a product of progressive education, some of these little kids knew more about art than she did.


square Halo Books logo.jpgThe manager of Square Halo Books, Ned Bustard, has a chapter in here that is fantastic. With a lighter, clever tone, Ned reminded the conference participants that as they help children and youth come to a deeper appreciate of art and music in God’s world, it could lead to trouble; that is, it is hard to make a living as an artist in our culture, and if even a few respond to a holy sense of vocation, being called into the world of the arts, they must be prepared to be perceived as not as serious as those with more “useful” careers. It is legendary how the arts are viewed as a waste (professionally speaking a least) and yet, Bustard playfully twists that a bit, asking if maybe it is so: there really is a gratuitous, wastefulness to art – it doesn’t do – anything, really.  He draws on Seerveld and tells about interviews with artists and quotes those who have written in books he has edited such as It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God and It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God.  Who knew that Ned started out as a business major and that Francis Schaeffer (Art and the Bible) and Madeline L’Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art) “saved not just my art, but also my soul. Art and the Bible gave me a theology that made room for art and Walking on Water filled that room near to bursting.”  Indeed, there are many wastes we cherish.

I love how Ned weaves together his personal story, his friendship with art historian James Romaine and tells how he has strolled through museums (with his children in tow) with esteemed artists such as Ed Knippers or Mako Fujimura. And, how he cites N.T. Wright, from Simply Christian,

The arts are not pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. There are highways into the center of a reality that cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions.

Ned’s chapter not only makes a delightful case for “knowing beauty” and “art and the kingdom” but he shares the “poetic underpinnings” of their own homeschooling efforts, bringing an awareness of aesthetics and the arts to their own educational work. (Ned, you should know, has recently created for Veritas Press a major art curriculum for children, which we will be reviewing more thoroughly soon.) You will love his call to “put beauty into practice” and his honest report of how he and Leslie did the best they could with the resources they had. Taking time to pursue these things sometimes seems (again) less productive, but after reading this chapter, you, too, will want to evaluate how you can deepen your experience with the aesthetic dimension of daily life, and how you can allow art to play a more intentional part of your life. His practical pointers will make the task seem approachable, and fun.

Bustard’s isn’t the only practical chapter, even if all are framed by a very thoughtful vision of deeper things.  I loved Karen Mulder’s broad and brilliant chapter, “Balancing Binaries: Teaching Appreciation in the Visual Arts”  which named many authors and books indicating her remarkably fluent familiarity with the best of Christian considerations, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical and beyond. Her visionary manifesto was practical in that it invited us to continue the conversation, join professional associations, find a cohort, and nurture others wisely to deepen the general movement of serious Christians in the real world of arts. My hat is off to her!  David Erb, whose own Master’s was from the Westminster College Choir at Princeton,and whose PhD is in Choral Conducting from the University of Wisconsin, is now involved in the choral community in a university town, has a piece called “Sing with Understanding, Play Skillfully: Musical Literacy for All the Saints.”  Speaking of practical, there’s a useful appendix called “How to Hire a Fine Arts Teacher” (one pointer: have him or her make a pledge to be friends with the math teacher) and a set of charts offering curricular objectives for various ages.  What a great little resource for or parents or teachers or church educators.

But, again, I hope I am clear in saying this is not just a book for those working in classical Christian schools, or even for those who are working in Christian schools. In fact, it’s not even just for those who are in schools.  Parents, choir-directors, church school teachers, Christian ed professionals all will all be informed and aided in their efforts to think well about shaping the lives of those God has given them to influence.  Anybody who wants to learn more – maybe not having been schooled in aesthetics all (which, as they document, maybe include even art teachers and many with MFA degrees! – will benefit from listening in to these thinkers and educators about how to teach music and art within a context of learning to love goodness, truth, and beauty.

I truly respect Ken Meyers, and am so excited to see his chapter here. I mentioned that I read Gene Veith’s chapter twice, and it is great. I loved Ned’s chapter – a lot, actually – and I have admired Karen Mulder for years and her piece is exceptionally helpful, a great primer.

I think, though, the chapter that thrilled me most was by Theodore Prescott, a legendary artist and art educator, the former head of the excellent art department at nearby Messiah College.  Ted became a Christian as a college age student and a very young artist.  He has thought as deeply as almost anyone I know about aesthetics and creativity and art and beauty, but he has done so as a working artist and a college teacher and mentor.  He has been a significant leader of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) and has produced much good art, good scholarship, and born fruit  in releasing many serious young artists and art teachers into the world.  I have enjoyed hearing him speak on occasion and respect him immensely.

His chapter cuts to the chase: “Jerusalem, Athens, and the Education of Young Artists.”  I hope you get his allusion to the early church leader, Tertullian, who, even then, pondered deeply the relationship between the Judeo-Christian community (Jerusalem) and the pagan centers of thought, power, and culture (Athens.) This is the question for those of us in mainline denominational circles who seem easily accommodated to the ways of the status quo society in which they are so established. It is the question for the emerging church folks, who seem quite eager to accommodate themselves (albeit missionally) to the hip trends of the postmodern counterculture. It is also the question for the classical educators who seem so unashamed to root their thinking so uncritically in the school of Athens.

But that is my own sense of why Ted’s piece is important – it invites us to ask how to navigate all these complex waters. His presentation at the conference must have been inspiring; the chapter isn’t all that philosophical and not at all pedantic. Ted is a deeply Christian educator and offers great, mature insight from years of experience helping church kids learn to think more deeply about their calling into the vocation of the arts.  It is as concise a manifesto for developing a Christian view of the arts as I’ve seen, and it is a marvelous, deep, joy to be able to commend it to you.

The last, short, chapter of Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music and Art in Christian Education is plain and remarkable and needs to be read and discussed. Matthew L. Clark is a woodcutter and printmaker and his chapter is called “Art and Charity.”  It is a very helpful call to be more generous in our appreciation of art and artists (especially modern art.)  He even uses the Bible word “submission” as a principle which contrasts with what some literary authors have called the cynical “hermeneutic of suspicion.”  Matt is a very good musician and a very talent artist himself; I value his contribution here and the Symposium and the book editors for arranging it. This consideration is a good way to end, on a note not of criticism or concern, or even of zealous cultural transformation, but simply on openness and kindness. 

It is charitable to believe the best about someone and something they have made until you have reasons to believe otherwise. Some artwork is difficult and perhaps it is not immediately accessible. That should not be an insurmountable barrier to appreciation. Many good things are, at first, inaccessible to us. It takes time to develop a taste and to understand why a thing is held in such high regard by so many. It may turn out that many people are simply wrong. Of course, it may turn out that your initial reaction is the one that needs reconsideration. 

teaching beauty.jpgThere is more here. There is a document offered as an appendix which they have called the Lancaster Declaration on Classical Christian Education and the Arts. That their small central Pennsylvania symposium in 2010 drafted this statement may not strike you as all that important, or interesting.  (What even is classical education, you  may be asking?) But I want to sound my bookseller’s/educator’s note again: this is a very rich and stimulating, generative document, curious as it may be. It would be a fun thing to talk about if you are an art or music major in college (or if you are a campus minister serving students in art or music educational programs.) It would be a fabulous to talk about it with friends over coffee. Pastors, youth leaders, anyone wanting to influence others to think about the good, the true, and the beautiful, need to (re)visit these themes from time to time, and this Declaration offers it succinctly. This  bold set of assertion and guidelines for practices would be a great resource to use to generate on-going conversation in your family, fellowship, or church community.  And certainly, if you are connected to a religious school, it is simply a must.

Thanks be to God for these dedicated folks who put these papers together and called this gathering. Thanks be to God for Square Halo, for investing their own finances in order to publish a limited number of this great little book, Teaching Beauty: A Vision for Music and Art in Christian Education.  Order it today!

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgModern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism by Jonathan Anderson & William Dyrness (IVP Academic; $24.00) is nothing short of magisterial, a work years in the making, and I am thrilled to tell you about it, even if I realize not everyone will buy it.

Interestingly, there is a connection to the aforementioned Os Guinness. Modern Art and the Life…  begins with a fabulous, fabulous chapter in tribute to Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, a person who I believe was a friend of Os Guinness. Rookmaaker was a Dutch art historian (who came to Christian faith in a Nazi concentration camp, by the way, led to salvation by a fellow prisoner, a Dutch philosopher.) His impact at L’Abri and elsewhere — offering lectures on American blues and jazz, knowing much about modern art, offering the reformational philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd to other scholars — is legendary. His small book Art Needs No Justification is in print again, and is a vital example of his impact among aspiring  Christian artists at the end of the 20th century. Professor Rookmaaker had a certain pessimistic view of the Enlightenment and consequently a certain critique of modernity (drawing significantly from Abraham Kuyper, who was seriously opposed to the French Revolution) and it informed his particular interpretation of our the story of the West that retains much, much insight.

Grounded in that profound, critical assessment of the eroding forces of the Enlightenment, and the intellectual idolatry pervasive to secular rationalism — think only for yourself said Kant, smash the infamous (Christian church), said Voltaire, tip your hat to no man, Whitman later modern art and the death -original .jpgpreached — Rookmaaker then told the story about his own love for the arts, even the very contemporary arts of his mid-twentieth century world. His book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture remains a very important work for many, many of my peers and heroes. I do recall, before understanding much of it (and understanding how much of it was misunderstood!) a college pal startling me by throwing it across the room. (You know who you are!)  Alas, it ends up that Rookmaaker was a cultural and intellectual genius and a tireless encourager to those who wanted to “engage culture” before that was a phrase, but he failed in some critical points in his analysis of the spirit of much modern art. 

See the difference in the title, his, and the new one? This newly released Modern Art and the Life of a Culture changes one word and it means by that to offer a fully different interpretive approach, shaped by a very different story and different sorts of research that has been done in the nearly fifty years since Rookmaaker first wrote. Bill Dyrness means no disrespect; he studied under Rookmaaker, in fact, and loved the man.  But this is a book that needed to be written, in part so that a new generation of thoughtful Christian artists could grapple with the stuff Rookmaaker brought to us, and so that all of us could move past his errors or mis-readings.

To spell it out in detail would take me longer than you most likely would have patience for, here, but the oversimplified version is that Rookmaaker, as much as he loved modern art, jazz, and more, thought that contemporary art forms in the spirit of modernism were, perhaps trickling down from Romanticism, which reacted to Rationalism, basically were portraying a world bereft of meaning. He was understandably pessimistic about the “line of despair” as Schaeffer put it. Were the painters such as Bacon and the traumatized scream that was on the cover portraying wisely (through tears, even as his friend Francis Schaeffer put it) the loss of meaning in our existential time of crisis? Or were they evangelizing for that world, promoting a worldview that was nihilistic and ultimately harmful? Was it coincidence that a number of modern artists (Jackson Pollack?) took their own lives? How did atonal John Cage fit into that world?  Does art reflect or shape culture? Is it fruitful to even explore the “ideas” or “message” of a painting or sculpture?

H. R. Rookmaaker wasn’t simplistically against modern art — it would be almost intentionally dishonest for anyone to say that — nor did he reduce art to merely conduits of ideas, but he exposed what he thought was the ethos of that world, the spirit of the times, captured in full color by Rothko and Dali and Warhol and Kandinsky and Hopper and Picasso.

art as spiritual perception.jpgart hisitory revisted seerveld.jpgFor the record, one should know a bit about the assumptions and methodologies of Rookmaaker’s approach, the orbit in which he traveled, and the legacy of some of his students. There is a very impressive example of such found in the spectacular, lavish anthology, Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford, edited by James Romaine, with a foreword by Hans Rookmaaker’s active, art historian daughter, Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (Crossway; $40.00, which I reviewed here.) For a similarly impressive approach, drawing on similar Dutch philosophical roots, see this breathtaking collection of art history essays and articles by art and the christian mind.jpgCalvin Seerveld, Art History Revisited (Dordt College Press; $20.00, which I announced, here.)

For a more accessible introduction to the life and work of Rookmaaker himself, see Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H.R. Rookmaaker by Laurel Gasque (Crossway; $16.99.)

We, by the  way, have several of the major hardbacks in the Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker left in stock. Write to us if you want to know more!

Despite the value of his evaluative approach, despite his prophetic warning about the loss of meaning amidst a secularizing modernity — is this were Guinness gets some of his fire for his cultural critique? — maybe something else is going on, and maybe Mr. Rookmaaker’s art historical method lead him somewhat astray.  I think that many in this important world of Christian art historians, and those of us who read them, and the artists who take courage and inspiration from them will agree, it is time for a major reconsideration.

 As Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it,

This is a book we have needed for a long time. The standard story of modern art is that it is the art of secularism and pervaded by nihilism. Anderson and Dyrness tell a very different story. Only those who refuse to read it can ever again think of modern art in the old way.

god in the gallery.jpgwho's afraid of modern art.jpgI await better reviews by those more qualified than myself; there have been other scholars and faith-based artists working on this for years, so I know there are others who will be taking this book very seriously. Dan Siedell has written importantly on this theme, offering his own critique of Rookmaaker and his heirs. See his very important God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Baker; $25.00) and his 2015 collection of essays Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? (Cascade; $23.00.) Siedell wrote an afterword to Modern Art and the Life of a Culture called “So What?” which I actually read right away. Nicely done!

I am glad for much of the tone and approach of this book, as much as I’ve gleaned so far, at least. As associate professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University Taylor Worley says this is “more than a response to the original, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture is an invaluable companion to Rookmaaker.” It pushes back, yes, but it builds upon the major contribution that controversial 1970 volume made. 

I also like that while Dyrness is a theologian and philosopher of culture (he has written widely in the arts) his co-author Jonathan Anderson is a practicing artist. 

The introduction called “Religion and the Discourse of Modernism.” is remarkably interesting — a philosophically astute overview of many of the things many of us care deeply about currently — secularity and modernity, meaning and the common good, cultural engagement and more. Excellent. 

The next major chapter is worth the price of the book to get a bit of the Rookmaaker bio, a survey of his most famous book and its strengths and weaknesses. I think anyone interested in the faith and art conversation these days needs to read it, and I am glad for their balance and grace throughout.

The rest of the book traces the history of modern art in the following chapters, under the rubric of “geographies, histories and encounters.”  And there are encounters aplenty – even full color artwork:

Chapter 3 – France, Britain and the Sacramental Image 

Chapter 4 – Germany, Holland and Northern Romantic Theology 

Chapter 5 – Russian Icons, Dada Liturgies and Rumors of Nihilism 

Chapter 6 – North America and the Expressive Image

Chapter 7 – North America in the Age of Mass-Media

Modern Art and the Life of a Culture- The Religious Impulses of Modernism.jpgThis is a book that should be taken seriously. Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism is the first major release in highly anticipated new series by IVP Academic, “Studies in Theology and the Arts.

Their advisory board is a who’s who in this field, with the likes of Jeremy Begbie, Nic Wolterstorff, Linda Stratford, Judith Wolfe, Makoto Fujimura, Ben Quash and others.

The second volume is due in the Fall of 2016, entitled The Faithful Artist by Cameron J. Anderson, the current President of CIVA.  You can pre-order it from us, also, of course, at a discounted price.  Just use the secure order form link below.




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NEW OS GUINNESS: Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization ON SALE NOW

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public faith in action.jpgreturn to justice.jpgI hope you saw the last BookNotes piece – a ramble through some of my memories of the old (and unbiblical) dichotomy between social action and evangelism, or, more generally, about the importance of justice within the Christian faith, those who had affirmed that, and those who had not.  Scot McKnight in The Kingdom Conspiracy (Brazos Press; $19.99) refers to these differing camps as today’s “pleated pants” crowd and the “skinny jeans” tribe; I’m not so sure such an assessment is fully accurate now, although such a clever description of two sorts of tendencies sure captures much about my own experiences decades ago, even if we all wore bell-bottoms. After hinting a bit at some of my own travels through various groups and movements, rejecting the prevalent split between those who cared about Christ but not much about the world and those who cared about the world but not Christ, I reported with gusto that in recent decades evangelicals have certainly taken up the full-orbed Kingdom call, becoming advocates for social change and the common good. In that sense, it was a very exciting post.

I said that these new books served also as good illustrations of the truth that evangelical publishers are leading the way with the best books about social issues and public justice.  I thought it was a good post and the books worth reading.

If you don’t see yourself as evangelical, but you care about the social implications of the gospel, I am positive you will value these new books. Really — they are very good.  If you are a theologically serious evangelical, you, too, will find these books compelling in many ways, I’m sure of it.  Agree or not about the details of policy, the Biblical call to do justice and to work for the common good — loving mercy, doing justice, walking humbly with God who died to save His own good but ravaged world — is unavoidable, and those four or five books will help us all grapple with Biblical faithfulness in a needy world. They are on sale, and we hope you’d consider sending us an order; it really is something we are passionate about.

A few people, I might note, unsubscribed from receiving BookNotes after that one went out, although I suppose I don’t know why.  In any event, if you want to deepen your awareness of ways to think about social justice and public advocacy, you should order a book or two from that list.  I especially hope that younger evangelicals will stock up on this meaty stuff; it allows you to avoid the wasted time and energy that many of us lost decades ago as this shift was in the making.  And if McKnight is right, that there is a new version of this old split still operative nowadays, it may be that these kinds of books will be just what we need.  Praise the Lord that there are publishers and authors and bookstores helping guide young activists with good resources like these.  


dust of death old cover.jpgI have told the story before about reading in the mid-1970’s a (now out of print) early book by Os Guinness, The Dust of Death. It critiqued both the established technocratic culture of the West and also the East-facing, hippy counterculture of the left and then offered a “third way” of serving God in all of life with robust cultural engagement shaped by deeper Biblical truth. Hearing this stuff changed my life and in a way, my life’s trajectory.

 I discovered Francis and Edith Schaeffer (with whom Os had worked) and other rising evangelical intellectuals (from Richard Mouw to Calvin Seerveld to Ronald Sider to Bob Goudzewaard) and realized that there were thoughtful Christian books that informed and challenged and guided us towards thinking about our social moment and offered an astute analysis of the way of life needed to countered the ethos of the time.  Os Guinness was indispensable in those years, and os .jpgover the last four decades he has done seminal, stimulating, beautifully-written, challenging, books that combine Biblical faith and sociological analysis with glorious erudition that have created for him not only a huge following of fans (folks like me who would read any book he wrote on any topic) but also a major group of people who read him seriously, if critically, wanting to spend adequate time grappling with his mature observations. Agree or not, they know he is a major contributor to religious and cultural discourse in our day and know they should have read his work.

I say all this for at least two specific reasons. 

Firstly, you should know that Os Guinness is one of the most important writers in my life, and one of the speakers and authors I consider to be a watershed leader; that is, he helped stem the tide of evangelical shallowness and goofiness, and helped catapult more than a handful of young scholars and pundits to integrate faith into all of life, to think Christianly, and to take up their callings in the world in serious ways.

the-call-by-os-guinness.jpgI still think his book The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (W Publishing Group; $17.99)
is a must, must-read! In all of his books he has made me think, driven me to ponder and to prayer, and is an important figure for our work here.

Secondly, besides his influence as thought leader and long-distance mentor to many of my best friends, Guinness is respected throughout the world as a speaker and teacher, having been led by God into conversations with significant organizations in Western Europe, in China, and within the think-tank world of Washington DC.  Sometimes, when he tells a story of speaking at a banquet with communist leaders in his beloved China (he was born there) or at a strategic think tank in Geneva or Brussels or Oxford or Stanford, I am deeply moved, that God in His providence has allowed for Guinness to be in world-class conversations about the unfolding 21st century with some of the most impressive people in the world. You see, it isn’t just a handful of friends here that have discovered the importance of his books; he is internationally known and very widely respected.

I have highlighted many of Guinness’s other books before – here is a good overview.

free peoples suicide os 10-8.jpgglobal public square os 10 - 8.jpgIn just the last few years Os did two books on religious freedom – one, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (IVP; $17.00) reminding us of the importance of working on first amendment protections of freedom for and from religion in the United States and another on the urgent (if gargantuan) task of creating space for religious freedoms globally entitled The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. (IVP; $17.00.) Both are very interesting and recommended. To understand his broader, structural plan for this kind of civility in US culture, offering evaluations of various “schools of thought” or models of working out the structures of a pluralistic society, see his under-appreciated The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It (published by HarperOne; $23.99.)

foolsTalk.jpgLast year Mr. Guinness released an award-winning hardback on the lost art of civil persuasion called Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (IVP; $22.00) which we are very keen on. (Here is my long review of it.) Perhaps you can see the flow and connections of these books, a bit: Os is passionately committed to the principles and structures that allow for religious freedom for all (including those who practice no religion: it’s freedom for and freedom from as well.)

But as an evangelical, he knows the importance of sharing the good news in a manner which is honest and free of coercion, so he both argues for religious diversity and toleration and he invites us to then learn how to more persuasively talk with each other about the first principles of the faith. He doesn’t want to be pushy or coerce but can’t settle with a “live and let live” approach, either, as if our differences don’t make a difference, or as if the message of salvation in Christ wasn’t of ultimate concern. If we truly believe something to be right and true we should want to share and persuade others about it.  We fight for the freedom for all to believe as they must, but he also wants to learn to speak effectively with and to any and all and whosoever will.

Guinness has, perhaps more than anyone I have ever known, interacted with some of the world’s leading philosophers (Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayers!) and statesmen from several continents. He has talked with leaders in the US Congress and he has worked for the BBC and the Brookings Institution.  From Marxist activists to the biggest captains of industry to ordinary folks who show up at his lectures, he has learned to speak deeply with women and men of substance, all who, like all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, have hurts in their hearts and search for significance, meaning, joy. He embodies well his mentor Francis Schaeffer’s insistence on “honest answers for honest questions.”

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is a book like no other as it takes seriously not only evangelical expectations of sharing faith unashamedly but also studies well the culture in which seekers find themselves.  It is a must-read for anyone who realizes the limits of preaching at people or merely asserting Christian truth claims (let alone bullying or unpleasant debating) but who wants to communicate with wit and passion in order to persuade others to think deeply and consider the truths of the Christian message. Again, within the large shelf of books about evangelism or apologetics or communication, it is a rare, brilliant contribution.

Renaissance -  Os Guinness.jpgIn the middle of these books about the dangers of our times and the desire to speak wisely into the quandaries of our age, Guinness wrote a powerful book called Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (published by IVP; $16.00.) It was a grand little book, eloquent and passionate and true.  Os’s classic theology and deep spirituality came to the fore in that handsome book as he soberly assessed the complex and seeming insurmountable drift in our age towards secularization and social fragmentation.  With the church too often mired in cultural accommodation or trendy programs to remain viable, things could indeed look bleak.  In Renaissance Guinness reminded us – almost in contrast to books like To Change the World or the other popular “cultural engagement” literature and social transformation blogs and think tanks and conferences – that if social change is to take root, it will be because we have cried out to God and Christ is honored through the historic way: churches proclaim Christ as Lord, we wait on the Spirit to work, and we serve with sacrificial commitment to love God and neighbor as we seek renewal and revival.

This approach is absolutely not a step back from his life-time work of intellectual engagement and cultural analysis, but it did shift our attention to the essential truths of Biblical faith: we pick up our crosses and serve the best we can, and let the results to God.  Spiritual and congregational revitalization, social change, cultural renewal, all are gifts from the Sovereign King of the Universe which cannot be fabricated. Renaissance was sobering yet hopeful as he told stories from throughout history of how the gospel itself can transform lives and cultures and societies.

impossible people.jpgGuinness’ brand new release, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization (IVP; $20.00) is a hefty sequel to Renaissance, extraordinary, and vital. The last chapter of Renaissance was called “Our Golden Age Is Ahead” and it was a beautiful illustration of Christian hope. Impossible People, however, will sober us to appreciate what it may take for us to realize that dream of God’s whole-life renaissance breaking into history in our time. Courage and struggle, indeed.

Although it is a stunning survey of the contours of the culture of the late modern world,  the fundamental point so concisely and powerfully explored in Impossible People is that those who are called by God – the church of Jesus Christ, regardless of denomination or theological bias – are to be faithful, no matter what the cost, and that the hope of any cultural renewal in this era of increasing change and choice and secularization and biotechnology and so forth resides most in the ability of Christians to stand apart of the crowd, discern what fidelity looks like, and live in ways that are true to the authority of Christ.  He talks about needing to speak a clear “no” and a hopeful “yes.” It is no cliche for him (as the fate of civilizations lie in the balance) but he insists we must be more intense in our study and more courageous to live out being “in but not of” the world, not in the abstract, but in little, practical, daily ways, even.  I have rarely read a book with such urgency, insisting that the erosion of Biblically-sane views and ways of living (whether from graying mainline liberals or hip, emergent faith communities, or grand evangelical mega-churches) must be reversed. In his view there is way to much cultural accommodation, to much re-configuring classic faith tenets, and way too much sloppy, theological fuzziness.  Although I may differ or want to clarify where I see such problems and how serious the consequences of each are, nuancing the critique in different ways,  I must say I most basically agree with his passion and concern.

As Guinness says repeatedly, there is a price to be paid for those who assert Biblical authority in any age, but it is particularly complex and demanding in an age renowned for creating a “crisis of authority” where nobody gets to assert anything as truly true, since nobody has authority (and there is no true truth to speak, anyway.)  Christians in the past (think of the early church in the age of the brutalities of the Roman Empire) have through God’s grace risen to the occasion to both consider deeply the forces of the culture aligned against them and the ways in which Biblical faithfulness would drive them to resist and reform.  They paid a price.  Can we do it again?

Are we like Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c 1007 – 1073) that Dante had in the highest circle of paradise? He was called an impossible man. St. Peter Damian was “criticized in his time for being fanatical and negative but in fact he was “passionate about the church’s ‘welfare of souls’ and about faithfulness to Jesus and the truth of the gospel.”  Guinness continues,

Yet it was these positive passions that made him sever and unsparing in his denunciation of all forms of corruption and immorality, and in attacking them he could not be swayed by either obstacles or opposition.  

Ever the master of the pithy quote and always informed by great thinkers of the past, reading this book will be a treat for anyone who loves to learn and who likes an informed overview of some of the greatest issues faced by some of the greatest writers ever – on this journey he quotes Hildegarde of Bingen and Karl Marx and Henry Kissinger and Nicholas Berdyaev and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of course the likes of T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and so many more.  Anyone who loves good books — I mean really good books — will treasure this.

Guinness knows his Nietzsche and cites him more often and with more insight than any other Christian author I know.  One need not be a philosopher, though, to appreciate the profundity of his wrestling with the spirit of the great prophet and nihilist. To say Guinness is widely read is an understatement, and to say that he is a joy to learn from – whether you fully agree with his assessments or his conclusions — is nearly to state the obvious.  Just over 200 pages, this new hardcover is not daunting, although it is serious. With his many points and sub-points it may seem nearly Byzantine, but with some close attention, it becomes clear that it is arranged with the expertise of a master craftsman.  You will not get bogged down as you might by a 500 page tome of detailed scholarship, although underlining and bullet pointing while reading will reward readers with greater comprehension. It will take some commitment to read it carefully, perhaps to journal while studying. It is well worth it.

I would never want to trivialize Guinness’ work but I might say, sort of playfully, that this is almost a greatest hits album, with some new tracks and bonus material.  Much of this he has said before – in chapters here, in talks there, in other books, even. (I never tire of his telling how a dear foreign missionary misunderstood an entire talk he gave at Lausanne in the Philippines because she misheard his critique of modernity, thinking he was talking about maternity.  I never tire of his reports of communist leaders asking him off the record about the viability of the Christian worldview to sustain new ideas in their post-Mao era. And I always value hearing a new Winston Churchill quote – has he ever done a book without a fun story of the colorful Churchill?  I laughed right out loud learning about his proclivity to nap and his advice to sit, or better, lie down, whenever possible.)

Even if you’ve read nearly every Guinness book and essay and heard him lecture, you will learn much new as he outlines the forces of modernity (not maternity) and highlights chief threats, key consequences, top obstacles and the like. It is simply amazing stuff.

Some of the ideas and descriptions in Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle… have appeared in early essays and books, which does not imply it is re-treading old stuff, but that it is the maturing of his thought and an indication of his continued passion. He’s not giving up or moving on, but still saying things that really matter. He has brought up some of this in brief books like Time for Truth and Unriddling the Times or the ever-relevant Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity. (Order it from us today!) His Screwtape-like spy novel – first called The Gravedigger File, now expanded and re-titled The Last Christian On Earth — was an early creative attempt to popularize the significant cultural critique found in the pages of Peter Berger, and I highly recommend it.  Beth and I have heard Os offer brilliant and eloquent lectures on these themes, noting how both “the history of ideas” and “the sociology of knowledge” combine to help us understand our times and live faithfully “in but not of” the world of late modern capitalism and what some call hyper-modernity.  

And this is the theme of the new book – what are we to think and do in an age when there are forces causing the West to cut itself off from its obvious Christian roots, leading us  (dangerously) into what he calls a “cut flower civilization.” That is, we still live with a general sense of goodness and beauty and ordered liberty and law and meaning and a desire for justice and a reason to fight evil, but the philosophical basis for that is no longer valued, and will soon no longer exist. How long can the (still lovely) cut flowers live and offer goodness and beauty once they are torn from the soil and their roots cut off?  As he put it once before, we are living off of a shadow of the real thing, perhaps soon a shadow of a shadow. Time is running out.

Although threats to cut ourselves off from our religio-cultural roots come from radical Islam and from progressive secularists, the biggest threat of all is more important, in part because it is less understood and more easily ignored.

As Guinness puts it in the very first paragraph of Impossible People, he worries that we have (mostly unknowingly) caved to the new dark ages that are fast coming and our shameless laxity and compromise has grave consequences.  He writes,

… whether through the general  seductions and distortions of advanced modernity, the tempting thinking behind the sexual revolution, or a failure to understand the significance of the hour and appreciate the implacable hostility of some of the forces against us – and so blunting our witness and betraying the lordship of and authority of Jesus.

Os is a careful and caring person, an astute observer, a man who likes a good joke and a good glass of wine; he is neither fanatical or impossible, in the negative sense. I do not think he is a Jeremiah, although, in this book – it’s been building in recent years, I think – he is sometimes shrill.  I take it that his urgency comes from his reading of the times, his frustrations with how few seem to care about the condition of the world, or how many seem to care but are unable or unwilling to think through the implications of living as truthful, principled people.

We are not very well-schooled in deep cultural criticism, it seems, so it must be frustrating for him (as it is for us here at the shop, I’ll admit) to find those who refuse to take seriously the philosophical and cultural impact on our very way of seeing, imagining, construing and living in the world, not taking seriously the increasingly pluralizing world where nothing is true, or (as Marx put it) “everything that is solid melts into air.”  Sure, some Christians rise up to protest this or that affront to faith, we are riled by that hot button issue or this social concern, right or left, depending. We are concerned about pornography or post rebuttles on Facebook against those who mock Christians. Why haven’t Christians (and especially evangelicals who claim such passion for “winning the world for Christ” and standing for piety and holiness) been more intentional about discerning the deeper and more corrosive ways that modernity has influenced us? How have social and ideological trends left us with a “yawning vacuum, hollowed out…”

What does Os mean by this?

impossible people.jpgJust think of how we’ve absolutized “choice” in our hyper-consumeristic world — literally assumed now in nearly every area of life, embedded in our social imagination by the habit of having so many cereals and soaps and TV channels to choose from — and how that subtly shapes our understanding of “church shopping”  or even conversion and spiritual formation, as if theology is just a whim to be selected based on personal preference.  Just think of how advertising and branding has over-inflated truth claims, and how that erodes trust and builds cynicism – even as our church growth plans and ghost writing and cheesy Christian sub-culture have too often played into that very superficial and finally untruthful way of talking about things.  We wonder why people are cynical about institutions when they are tutored in that habit of heart by the anti-hero stories they absorb on Netflex — made more consumable and influential, in fact, now that people watch Netflix on their pocket phones. With our 24/7 news cycles we learn about the troubles of the world all the time; how can we not be jaded? Or even think of how our proper Christian worldview thinking (and the multi-cultural schooling from the culture at large) has properly led us to appreciate the “social construction of reality” and how we must work hard to understand the perspectives of others but how that same insight can be taken too far to bolster a view that there is no truth whatsoever and that everything – from what constitutes a family to what constitutes a church to what constitutes a just government or a true religion – is just up for grabs.  Or not even up for grabs, in this “whatever” world.  Could it be, too, that our daily experience of the speed of our computers or our on-line shopping habits using cell phones and our mediated experiences of choice and change have helped us experience life —  “see” and “know” what we think we see and know — in this new way almost subconsciously? It is sort of obvious that our souls are in trouble more these days, say, lacking the virtue of patience, since we are used to high-speed internet and “do” waiting differently than anyone before us in all of history; that is, our very understanding and experience of time is mediated by our habits with gadgets so we don’t have a clue about what is going on in so many Bible texts that call us to wait.  As James K.A. Smith has said in his extraordinary You Are What You Love, we must learn to ask what tools we use do to us.

This is not new ground for Os but this is an excellent and deepening and passionate study of it all, explaining how we got into our accommodating coziness with the forces of modernity. He helps us be critical about our own patterns and concerns — have we been distracted by fighting smaller battles, failing to look at the deepest and most root causes of our cultural malaise, our deforming ideologies and idols and how they have influenced us unawares? Might we deserve the rebuke Jesus gave to the Pharisees who “strained out the gnat but swallowed the camel?”  Do we even know what that means?

One fascinating case study of this may be how some of us have insisted on doing intellectual battle with the new atheists, publishing books of apologetics, rebuttal, setting up debates and such.  Guinness clearly does not oppose that, but he is brilliant in his chapter on atheism – some of it will be of interest to those who read him more fully on this in Fool’s Talk – but he is very quick to explain that modernism as a set of ideas (given full voice by the loudly hostile new atheists) is not the same as the subtle influence of cultural ethos modernity, which may be more damaging in the long run.  One is a set of ideas, which must be debated and countered, but the other is more subtle and more comprehensive, sucking us all into a post-Christian zeitgeist and practices and pattern of cultural assumptions. In this regard, it could be that debating atheism with the few loud critics of faith is not the primary or most foundational matter at hand. Maybe literally (re)thinking through the role of computers in our lives, say, or how we approach time or speed or sex or food or money or suffering or work might be more fruitful for lasting cultural reformation.

In a powerful illustration, he compares the legendary example the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, stopping the leak, and a more devastating and difficult task to stop the force of a mudslide. With a mudslide, there is no silver bullet, nothing one person can do alone, no easy answer, and thinking otherwise is itself a capitulation to the forces of expertise and bureaucracy and power.  Modernity itself actually teaches us to think like that – find the fast fix, the technical solution – and our secular age in late modernity has so captured our imaginations that we even think of reformation and revival in terms like this with quick, easy, church growth plans, or political advocacy, as if a new program or outreach or website or policy could stop the mudslide.


In this study of the intellectual and material and cultural influences of the modern era, Impossible People would be a very good read alongside James K.A. Smith’s essential overview of the dense The Secular Age by Charles Taylor. (I have told some who are not terribly familiar with this kind of serious how not to be secular.jpgphilosophical work that if Smith’s intro to reading Charles Taylor — called How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans; $16.00) — is a bit much, there is one brilliant chapter which summarizes Taylor in Tim Keller’s small book called Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking; $19.95) insisting as he does that familiarity with Taylor is crucial for relevant teaching and preaching a proclamation to those living at the heart of our modern age.)  At any rate, Taylor’s thesis about the seemingly disenchanted era in which we live – the quandary of finding meaning and purpose within the still-God-haunted post Christian secular age – runs in some ways parallel to Guinness’s, and reading Guinness (while serious and sophisticated) will be an easier and more engaging experience for many than Taylor or even Smith. 

If you’ve read either of those and are familiar with Taylor you will surely want to pick up Impossible People.  If you have not, this is a great way into that broad conversation about our secular age, what it is and isn’t, and what we might do about it. Not only does Guinness go out of his way to explain what he means by words like pluralizing or routinization or postmodernism or globalization, he offers overt Bible teaching, a closing prayer after each chapter, and reflection questions along the way, making it less arcane and more obviously helpful for most Christian readers. If you have read this sort of stuff, I think you will value Guinness and learn more, or learn to think more knowingly about what it means to be more deeply Christian in this world. Again, even if you have only heard of those books – Charles Taylor or Jamie Smith or Tim Keller’s adaption – this new one by Guinness might be a great start, even though he curiously doesn’t site Taylor or Smith at all. 

Just to be clear, allow me this long quote:

Let me be clear. If modernity is a deadly challenge to the church, it is not a frontal challenge in the way the hostile ideologies are. The new atheists, for example, are like the communists earlier. They are implacably opposed to the Christian faith and make no bones about their opposition to the Christian faith and their exclusion of Christians. (In the much-quoted words of the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, “we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.”) “No faith wanted here” they say in effect, separating out people of faith as Nazi guards did certain Jews on their arrival at Auschwizt-Birkenau.

That crude, open kind of opposition is certainly the sort of challenge posed by certain modernists such as the new atheists, but it is not the challenge of modernity. After all, there is a vital difference between secularism (as a personal philosophy), seperationism (as a legal and political policy advocating strict   religion and public life) and secularization (as a process that is part and parcel of modernization. These three terms are commonly confused and while they overlap in having the same end result, they are entirely different ways to getting there, and the differences are crucial. The first is a philosophy, the second a political philosophy and the third is a process.

Guinness continues, importantly,

Modernism as a philosophy may oppose faith outright but modernity does not. Its damage is not through opposition but through seduction and distortion. It doesn’t say, for example, “No faith allowed here” but “No faith is needed here.” Contrary to Jesus and the Torah, modernity claims that man can now live “by bread alone,” or rather by science, technology, management, and marketing alone. Secularists do not want God, whereas the secularized have no need of God, and that is only one of the many seductions and distortions of modernity.

After these kinds of astute explanations of terms and illustrations of how our secularizing age has eroded the influence of the Christian faith in the West – and will, increasingly, in the modernizing world, which, he predicts, could follow Europe and the US in leaving behind the principles and truths and values derived from a Jewish and Christian past – Os tells clarifying stories and offers prayers and Biblical reflection to put into focus the task at hand.  In this, it is quintessential Os, incisive social and cultural critique and inspiring Biblical preacher.  His take on Scriptural stories – contrasting the “Samuel moment” and the “Moses moment” in the powerful Epilogue – are themselves worth the price of the book. 

I mentioned that Dr. Guinness has spoken and written widely about these forces and trends and influences and challenges – each listed nicely, outlined, explained in orderly fashion – for most of his career.  Indeed, this brings his prophetic “no” and his plea for a classic, theological “yes” to the fore in a way that is nearly a capstone.

But I also said that besides being a greatest hits review, there are new insights (fresh as this year’s news, vital as ever) and some brand new material.


Guinness has raised this before at least in passing more than once, but he has a great section looking at the role of generations in the Bible and how that might inform our too-casual acceptance of “generational” thinking. Are all born in the baby boom really all alike? Besides the obvious fact that millennials have all been raised post 9-11 and with digital gizmos, are they, as a generation, easily generalized? Os thinks this is sociologically sloppy and on most days, I agree with him.  It’s in a chapter well worth pondering as a larger piece of his case of how we’ve bought into the current ethos uncritically, absorbing language which shapes understandings and drives us to practices (even in the church, with Gen X congregations or tween worship services and the like.) Os is brilliant at exposing the history of philosophical ideas and showing the social forces that have aligned to cause certain sociological shifts, and then pokes at our easy Christian accommodation to these popularly accepted trends.  Again, he doesn’t cite Charles Taylor’s previous work on “social imaginaries” but he could have. And his study of “generational” stereotypes is important in it’s own right, but also another great case study of our cultural captivity.

There is one topic I’ve not heard him speak about before and it is very important to him in this book.  Readers will have to judge if he is right, but it is an exceptionally vital contribution, if he is correct.


He has two chapters in Impossible People on what is sometimes called spiritual warfare.  If we are to be Biblical people, fully using Scripture as our framing narrative and guide to thinking about all life and times then we cannot allow our embarrassment of how some within the church have trivialized or been oddly spooky about demons and evil spirits to cause us to ignore the possibility that there are, indeed, spiritual forces and demonic influences.  In this he draws significantly – although with valuable criticism, I think – of the late Walter Wink.  I only know of one other book that takes his study of principalities and powers seriously, and that is Marva Dawn’s remarkable, appreciative, but critical engagement with Wink (in her Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God)   Guinness notices certain Biblical stories and teachings and cites Oxford-trained theologians of this topic such as Derek Prince.  

osguinness-feature-med.jpgHis study of “three tools” to discern and engage the advanced modern world, include a wise exploration of the weapons of spiritual warfare.   His rumination on assumptions about power, prayer, humility, doing God’s work in Christ’s own ways (he is not a pacifist, I am sure, but takes seriously the call to love even enemies and be gracious to all by following the way of the cross) are rich.  In a way, this part especially feels like a companion to Renaissance, reminding us that even in our cultural analysis and discernment about the pressures and seductions of modernity as a way of being in the world, we must always be prayerful and spiritually-aware.  (In fact, our assumption that there aren’t demons and powers is itself an indication of our odd modern ways — what other culture in the history of the world is so ignorant, indeed prides itself in its ignorance, about the invisible and mysterious aspects of reality?)

 Is Guinness correct to hint that there are demonic forces behind the intractable influence of modernity? Is he correct in suggesting that evils like the horrors of Hiroshima are indications of demonic idols in the land? Do the current culture wars and their painfully nasty spirit indicate some ugly evil spirits in high places that are doing their dark work?  He is not too explicit and he is not sanguine about this; his line of thought, though, is genuine and generative.  What do you make of it? It could be a fruitful conversation to have. Or are we too locked into what Max Weber called our “iron cage” and what the Bible refers to as “brass heavens.”

Another thing that must be mentioned: Os is relentless – as he always has been —  about the dangerous of revisionist views of the Bible, inadequate views of the core teachings as presented in the creeds and councils of the historic church.  In Impossible People…  he is more bluntly outspoken than ever, or so it seems to me. In this regard he is resolute in offering rebuke. (Could it be that his own experience of seeing doctrinal laxity and corruption in his local denominational judicatory has been influential? It surely is more than that, and he has long been critical of fuzzy emergent or post-evangelical leaders who seem to abandon conventional theology and views of truth, not to mention his regular admonishment of sloppy liberalism within mainline Protestant traditions.)

Still, I am less sure that most mainline churches are so theologically bankrupt and that there is not still much value in a “big tent” approach to the broader church, liberal, mainline, evangelical , fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Catholic and Orthodox, global and local than this book seems to accept.  Os seems to believe that the mainline Protestant churches have decisively reneged on historic orthodoxy and that those committed to greater marriage rights for GLTB folks are necessarily shallow and scandalous in their disconnection from historic Biblical views.  I am less sure of that, and wished he has been more characteristically generous with his non-evangelical and revisionist brothers and sisters, some of whom would not see themselves as unfaithful as Os implies. This may not be the place to explore how blunt and confident one needs to be in denouncing the extremes of Biblical infidelity, and how best to more civilly describe and engage the motivations and intentions of those with whom we disagree, but I will note that I was disappointed by the tone of a few paragraphs here. It is understandable, and certainly is a cri de coeur, but anguishing to read nonetheless. I sincerely hope that those with whom he takes exception in this call to be unstoppably faithful, uncompromising people, will not disregard his call to truth and fidelity in these complicated times, even though he is simplistic in his assessment of their positions.

And so, like any book written by anyone, most readers should be careful to think critically, even as we are open to the insight of the author.  I suspect you will be offended by something in this book, and you will be deeply glad for much. You will scratch your head and perhaps commit to really think things through a bit more on your own, teasing out the implications for your family and community and church. You will learn much about history, philosophy, culture, sociology and the state of our current world from Guinness. Life-long learners simply must have it, and will be grateful for the vast amount of information, profoundly framed and urgently expressed.

But you will also be challenged, exhorted to be the sort of person who pleases God among all else — to live before Guinness’s famously put “Audience of One.” Will Christ someday say “found faithful”?  This phrase means very much to Os, and it was a tender revelation to hear of it, not maudlin, but nonetheless exceptionally moving. I will let you read it yourself and discover it’s meaning for him, but it is remarkable. May we all have such gumption and devotion, perhaps learned during times of great difficulty, perhaps learned through cultural analysis like the bulk of this book, or directly from the relentless teaching of the Old and New Testaments.  I am sure this book will help.  It is important.  As Guinness reminds us, after a moving meditation on the “show me your glory” theme, and how it must be our own urgent prayer,

“Only those who know God in unmistakable reality can stand the test of the reality of the world in our day.”

os quote - hope.png


impossible people.jpgI read and write with a view of telling others about books they might enjoy, from which they would benefit. I, with Guinness, am deeply interested in the texture of Christian fidelity in this compromising age of change and choice and relativism.  So I think of other ways to connect the dots, other resources, other ways into the deepest conversations that matter the most. Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization is surely one of the most important books of the year, one of the most anticipated books of the summer. I hope you order it at our discounted price, using the secure link below.

But, also, think of these, all 10% off the shown price:

Renaissance -  Os Guinness.jpgRenaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times Os Guinness (IVP) $16.00  I described this book above; it is hopeful and inspiring volume which is a prelude to the new Impossible People. Read it before or after, but read it, please. A wonder, a true gift. Listen to what Becky Pippert says:

“This is a profound, realistic and hopeful book that reminds us that
even in the darkest times the power of the gospel can change the world….Guinness
calls for renewal: in our confidence in God, in the power of the gospel
and in the great truths of Scripture, even as we engage with the world
around us. No other writer I know offers such a rich background of
astute cultural analysis combined with a deep understanding of history. I
finished this book feeling a deep sense of hope, which was fortified by
his powerful prayers at the end of each chapter. If we heed the wisdom
in this marvelous book, we could well become effective agents for Christ
for such a time as this.”

DVD The Problem of Evil - Os.jpgDVD The Problem of Evil: Why Do Bad Things Happen? Os
Guinness (Discovery House) $19.99 I have said here, as many, many have
before me, that Guinness is a brilliant communicator, a masterful
speaker and a wonderful preacher. Here is a chance to spend time with
him as he passionately and carefully tries to offer us tools for
understanding the nature of evil, respond to the intellectual demands
upon us when faced with great suffering, and learn how to offer
profound, Biblical answers to this nearly insurmountable human issue,
mysterious but essential for anyone wanting to live an examined life.
 These six sessions are informal but nonetheless eloquent, inspired by his major paperback book Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Problem of Evil (HarperOne; $14.99) written after his speaking in New York on Wall Street right after 9-11.  This offers mature insight, all kinds of thoughtful reflections, and is fabulous for personal learning and certainly great for small groups or classes.

how not to be secular.jpgHow (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans) $16.00  I have reviewed at BookNotes this at great length when it first came out and continue to mention this from time to time (including above.) We were so impressed, we sponsored Smith to lecture on it two years ago at our annual Pittsburgh Summer Lecture, and although it is dense, Smith is always a lively writer; this an important, significant work for anyone wanting to get inside the head of those raised in these times. Seriously.  Taylor, and Smith’s take on Taylor, compliment Guinness’s large sociological insights and overtly evangelical virtues.

A Wilderness of Mirrors- Trusting Again in a Cynical World.jpgA Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World  Mark Meynell (Zondervan) $18.99  This is an amazingly rich, thoughtful, interesting book by a young writer that deserves your attention. I’ve mentioned it before and it came to mind while reading Guinness. Here is how reviewer described it: 

In A Wilderness of Mirrors Mark Meynell explores the roots of the discord and alienation that mark our society, but he also outlines a gospel-based reason for hope. An astute social observer with a pastor s spiritual sensitivity, Meynell grounds his antidote on four bedrocks of the Christian faith: human nature, Jesus, the church, and the story of God’s action in the world. Ultimately hopeful, A Wilderness of Mirrors calls Christians to rediscover the radical implications of Jesus s life and message for a disillusioned world, a world more than ever in need of his trustworthy goodness.

The Fractured Republic- Renewing America's Social Contract.jpgThe Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism Yuval Levin (Basic Books) $27.50  I hope that you have seen this reviewed and cited on the internet or in significant journals — I cannot wait to read this yet this summer as it has been promoted across the political spectrum as substantive and thoughtful. Left-leaning Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) says “this is the book American most needs in 2016” and Paul Ryan says “Yuval Levin is one of the most insightful and original thinkers of our time.” Weaknesses? Strengths? Partisanship? We are dangerously fragmented in this “age of individualism” which is to say Guinness’s call to radically rethink our embeddedness in the ways of modernity are played out here. George Packer says of his humane and good writing that “His work gives the sense that our future needn’t be as grimly divided and dysfunctional as the present seems.” Don’t skip Guinness’s bigger picture for this, but this will make even that much more sense once you’ve gotten Guinness’s work in view.

 Christian Practical Wisdom- What It Is, Why It Matters .jpgChristian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters Dorothy Bass et al (Eerdmans) $30.00  You may be surprised to see this listed here, but I think their semi-scholarly study of the role of wisdom in modern life will resonate with those interested in Guinness’s theme that our battle is not only against the ideas of modernism but the patterns of modernity. Here, they resist the abstraction of the modern world — the very way we’ve been taught to think about knowing — and restore insights about living wisely.  Many of their grand, serious essays are about “the modern world” and how embodying daily practices discerning in light of spiritual truths from the Bible can offer restored and redemptive counter-voices to the way things are. As I’ve explained before, these pieces are written beautifully by astute theological educators from mainline circles and I think it is generative in inviting us to (as Mary Boys says of it) “ponder deeply and live with great intentionality…”

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgHow to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World Robert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans) $16.00  Okay, maybe you want to follow up Guinness’s nearly magisterial overview of secularization, the forces of modernity, and the call to live faithfully within but sometimes against the culture, discerningly and bravely.  Want to follow Christ even in the details of life, like, say, your entertainment?  Do you watch The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or House of Cards? Did you like the Academy Award winning Her? As I have said before, these two brilliant young social critics offer half of their remarkable book as an introduction to Charles Taylor (and yes, they draw on James K.A. Smith.) The second half wonders how we can be impossible people, if you will — resolute as followers of King Jesus, people of grace and wisdom, caring about the common good — even as the culture is awash in apocalyptic pessimism and anti-heroes. As they say in the first paragraph: “The world is going to hell. Just turn on the television — no, not the news. Flip over to the prestige dramas and sci-fi epics and political dramas.” But why? And how then shall we live?  Read Guinness, please. But read this, too. It is serious and seriously fun.

Good Faith- Being a Christian When Society Thinks You're Irrelevant and Extreme.jpgGood Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons (Baker Books) $19.99  I have announced this previously and mentioned it often. It seems perfect to list here, as a read for those who aren’t up to the big story stuff as Guinness walks us through the rise of modernity and the forces of liquid modernity as it is sometimes now called. His call to be uncompromising and diligent in our faithfulness is powerful and sophisticated but it is a bit heady. This quite readable book follows on similar tracks, inviting us to know the research (developed by the respected Barna Group) and consider how to respond to the increasing hostility about faith from the progressive secularist movement and others who, it seems, are more and more convinced that faith is just irrelevant, at best, and extremist dangerous, at worst. Guinness’s book is more profound — Gabe Lyon’s himself has a rave blurb on Impossible People — but this “cuts to the chase” as they say. It speaks (as  human rights activist Christine Caine puts it) “prophetically to the church by diagnosing our condition and prescribing a course of powerful treatment.” Those with conventional Christian views or connections to churches are no longer part of the majority of the West. How we live out “good faith” in our generation will make a huge difference for the future of America. It is “an accessible guide” as one sharp reviewer put it.  Again, agree or not with all their assumptions and conclusions, it is a very helpful, practical, useful resource to learn from and to talk about.




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FOUR BRAND NEW BOOKS ON EVANGELICAL SOCIAL ACTION (and some personal ruminations and remembrances on a long-held concern.) ALL ON SALE NOW

The four new books I am about to tell you about are each excellent, truly worthy of your support, and so very interesting and helpful, but I want to accomplish two things in these reviews.  

First, of course, I want to alert you to these brand new titles, to affirm these publishers and authors, and to – yes – actually have you consider using these books in some kind of way.  Obviously, I hope you consider buying and reading them for yourself. (That would be buying them from us, that is: shame on you if you read my recommendations and go elsewhere!)  Maybe you could help get these books into wider circles. From a church library or small group to an Adult Ed forum or a campus ministry project, these books are useful as educational resources and we would be thrilled to be able to sell some to you or your group.

Just use the links to our secure order form page found at the end of this newsletter.


When we opened our bookstore we distinguished ourselves as a rare Christian bookstore that emphasized social justice topics, authors involved in faith-based social concern; we dreamed of making a living resourcing those who were making a difference and inspiring many to get involved in activisms of various sorts, from urban renewal to global peacemaking, from criminal justice reform to legislative concerns around poverty, hunger, and agriculture.  To be honest, we really don’t sell many of those kinds of books and over the years it has raised a number of eyebrows, and cost us a number of customers. 

Which leads to the second thing I want to underscore here once again, a point I’ve made a lot in the last fifteen years or so.  I don’t know if other Christian bookstores carry much social justice stuff (I’ve heard that they do not) or if the books I’m highlighting are found at the mainstream chains or ABA indie shops (again, I gather that they mostly are not.) But there is no doubt that evangelical Christian publishers are leading the way in releasing powerful, useful, insightful books for activists – academic books, semi-scholarly, serious ones, and popular handbooks for beginners.  The four books listed below that have been released in the last week or so are Exhibit A to show that evangelicals are much more interested in social justice than ever before.  These are some of the best books on this topic I’ve seen in years.

Justice Calling Where Passion Meets P.jpgSlow Kingdom Coming- Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly.jpg(I hope you saw my shout outs in the previous post about the must-read The Justice Calling by Bethany Hanke Hoang & Kristen Deede Johnson (Brazos Press) and the beautifully-written spiritual guide Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan (IVP) which are both further indications of the prevalence and quality of these kinds of gospel-centered, Biblically-grounded resources.)

(And I hope you recall that we are promoting Lisa Sharon The Very Good Gospel.jpgHarper’s fine introduction to the social implications of gospel reconciliation in her marvelous, new The Very Good Gospel, published by the evangelical publishing house Waterbrook; $19.99. Did you see our review of it a few weeks back, and recall that we’re hosting her out in Pittsburgh on July 26th? More on that later, but, again, it illustrates my point.)


I became aware of religious-based social activists while a high school kid – one of the trials of the radical Berrigan brothers was in nearby Harrisburg (for the record, a nutty trumped-up case cooked up by J. Edgar, alleging that these pacifist priests were going to kidnap Henry Kissinger and plant bombs in the Pentagon, a claim so ludicrous that even other hard line prosecutors and public policy hawks had to distance themselves from the show.) I met a few radical priests myself, read gay Episcopal poet Malcolm Boyd and the erudite William Sloan Coffin, got involved with Caesar Chavez’s campaign for justice for farmworkers, and found that I was often very, very lonely.  By and large, many mainline denominational books I came across (a Harvey Cox book that looked like Sgt. Pepper, as I recall) were religiously weird, or arcane, but the more overtly Christ-centered, gospel-based authors and ministries had very little interest in social change. I sometimes characterize those days in my life as hanging around with people who wanted to change the world, but didn’t care about salvation through Jesus and hanging around with people who loved Jesus but didn’t care on whit about the world. I hardly knew anybody who really wanted to do both.

Most people, I suppose, were just sort of nothing, socially and politically speaking, though, and the status quo reigned supreme. These were the days when Catholic Bishops would literally bless the bombs heading to civilian targets in Viet Nam and Billy Graham would naively hang out with Richard Nixon, but it wasn’t terribly pushy and it wasn’t a thing; it just was.  This was before the creation of the Religious Right – an overtly Christian (and, in some circles, very well-intended) effort to link a Biblical worldview to public life, which ended up supporting crass right wing politics; before that it was just sort of a given that church folks would mostly be conservative but un-involved, or, in reaction, would be into the “social gospel” which, in my experience, was a sincere but not particularly Biblical blend of lefty ideals and counter-cultural  goofiness.   At one earnest church retreat about changing the world we took “communion” with Pepsi because, as the ad slogan back then went, we’d “come alive.” Or was it Coke and that hillside “I want to teach the world to sing” thing? Whatever.

Apathetic conservatism propping up the status quo or radical weirdness dis-connected to the first things of the gospel?  Even as a teen I knew this was fishy, but I didn’t quite know why.

(And then, for me at least, I would catch hints of a more integral, faith-based, gospel-centered, church-related movement coming from the Black churches and the civil rights movement down South and the writings of Dr. King and his associates. It would be years until I’d read up and eventually even met folks in that tradition.)


In November 1973, I came to later learn, there was an era-defining weekend conference held at an inner-city YMCA in Chicago that came up with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.  Convened in part by the distinguished Carl F.H. Henry, people who later became friends and mentors – Richard Mouw, John Perkins, Bill Pannell, Ron Sider, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the founders of The Other Side magazine and, of course, The Post American (that later was renamed Sojourners) were all  there, playing a part.  By the mid-70s Beth was visiting Koinonia, the famously inter-racial communal farm founded by Clarence Jordan in Americus, Georgia, I was wondering why I hadn’t heard more of this robust, evangelical vision for wholistic Kingdom ministry, and recruiting people for Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) and the anti-hunger citizen’s lobby, Bread for the World (BFW) and the early version of what is now the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) then called the National Association for Christian Political Action founded by Jim Skillen.  

moral minority.jpgSome of this story (and so much more), by the way, is told in historian David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press; we have the expensive hardback on sale for the paperback price = $24.95.) One of my dearest friends from Pittsburgh was one of the folks he interviewed for first-hand recollections.

The wonderful relief organization World Vision was getting to be better known and we had their President Stanley Mooneyham – he had written What Do You Say to a Hungry World? [now long out of print, but important in those years] – at one of our Pittsburgh CCO conferences, the precursor of Jubilee.  At the first Jubilee conference we hosted Senator Mark Hatfield, a rare anti-war Republican and vibrantly Christ-centered evangelical.  Because of my interest in some of this kind of stuff one friend seriously wondered if I was possessed by a demon which she named “the spirit of politics.”  That’s how anti-social concern some of my friends in my college fellowship group were, fearing evil in a matter as benign as raising money for the hungry.

Soon enough, I’d be wondering that myself, though, as it seemed like Screwtape himself was behind the 1980s rise of religious involvement in society as former evangelists known for preaching the gospel and the blood of Christ like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson began to twist the message to fit their nearly bizarre far right agenda, spewing all kinds of toxic stuff on the body politic in the name of Jesus. Do you recall Robertson raising money for military helicopters (the Boland Amendment make it illegal for the US government to do so directly) which sprayed death on civilians in Guatemala and Nicaragua?  Do you recall when Falwell said Dutch Reformed theologian Alan Boesak was a communist as he fought for the end of apartheid amidst savage mass murders in South Africa?  Do you recall the Nightline show when Falwell said Jim Wallis didn’t really believe in the gospel?  (I do, and I debated him personally about it later that week!)  

Almost out of nowhere Falwell et al ranted against homosexuality and secular humanism – school prayer became an issue, as did abortion.  (Those of us on the front lines of crisis pregnancy work  — I was at the first National Right to Life Conference, and help start a Birthright crisis pregnancy center at our college in 1973 and served our local CPC in the 80s and 90s — found the harshness of the fundamentalists, new to the cause, counterproductive and more than a little annoying.) The evangelical  ministry of gospel-based leaders like Ron Sider saying we should affirm a mildly liberal view of economic reform  inspired by the Bible’s teachings or John Perkins saying we needed to address racism as a sin, not just a social problem, were drowned out by sinfully stupid things being said in the national media by Pat Robertson and others of his ilk. (I’ll never forget a David Brooks column in The New York Times lamenting that Falwell and his food fighting style was often selected by the media as a voice of evangelicalism. Brooks wondered why they never contacted somebody like John Stott.)

Yet, in a matter of a few decades, the Christian Right seemed to fizzle, the Moral Majority collapsed, some leaders (like Ed Dodson) emerged sobered, and young adult evangelicals increasingly identified themselves as caring about peace and justice, creation-care and race relations.  Shane Claiborn was published by Zondervan, quoting my old acquaintance Phil Berrigan and the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day. How did this happen? Why and when was the tipping point?  It used to be rare to find Bible-based, grace-filled, evangelical books on social justice and most publishers in the CBA world were reluctant to release much about public justice that wasn’t linked to some super-star preacher or some far right agenda. (Although they’d publish Ollie North in hardcover!)

Now, even the most theologically traditional evangelical publishers – Multnomah, Tyndale, Moody, Cook, NavPress, Waterbook, Crossway, Kregal, Zondervan, Nelson, IVP, Baker – all do inspiring books about fighting sexual trafficking, about creation-care, about racial reconciliation, about God’s passion for the poor, about orphan justice, mass incarceration, and more; a few even dare to publish books on Biblical pacifism, the kind of thing formerly only available from the Mennonites (or the publishers of the Catholic Left.) On almost any social topic, evangelical publishers in recent years have done more (and, in most cases, better) books than mainline denominational publishers have. While there isn’t an evangelical consensus on policy — there are brilliant conservative scholars, moderate, Biblical, fair-minded, and there are feisty and passionate leaders who tilt left —  but most evangelicals are desiring to be faithful, relevant, and compassionate in the world, not ideological or fighting the culture wars. (Most true evangelicals, let us be clear, do not favor Donald Trump.) This broader worldview which embraces concern for the common good is, I believe, one of the great shifts of recent years, and certainly one of the top two or three religious publishing trends in our lifetime, that social awareness and concern for the poor, for racial justice, fair trade, human rights and the like, are on the agenda, even if we don’t always agree on how to pursue those goals.

When and how and why did this happen?

One of the fabulously interesting (and, I think, really important) books I am about to list tries to answer this very question, or at least paint a backstory of how it began to happen, in my lifetime. When did this shift happen, and why?  All four of the titles we’re listing are indicative of this large shift and are great examples of the best social justice stuff coming out of thoughtful evangelical publishing houses today.

I think we can thank the pioneering work by Ron Sider and John Perkins and Jim Skillen and John Stott and even Francis Schaeffer, and, after his time in prison, Chuck Colson, names you most likely know (especially if you follow BookNotes.)  And, we should thank Gary Haugen. (Read on to find out why.)

 Anyway, in the words of the Dylan song I used to play at youth group so many decades ago, “the times, they are a-changin’.”  Thanks be to God.

return to justice.jpgReturn to Justice: Six Movements That Reignited Our Contemporary Evangelical Conscious Soong-Chan Rah & Gary Vanderpol (Brazos) $19.99 sale price = $17.99  As I’ve said, the resurgence of interest in social justice among evangelicals – even among organizations such as Cru or at flagship evangelicals seminaries like Gordon-Conwell  or at megachurches like Willow Creek or Saddle Back – is one of the grand shifts of faith (and within religious publishing) in our lifetime. Beyond the religious right and left, there is now an increasingly mainstream acceptance of Bible-based teaching about justice among those with a high regard for orthodox readings of the Bible, who feel called to share their faith, hoping to see others come to a personal, saving faith, and who express their spirituality often in deeply personal ways. (I myself am doing two workshops on Biblical justice for evangelical groups in the next few weeks!)  

Those who follow these things like to note that the earliest roots of the American evangelicalism were socially progressive. Finney preached against slavery, many evangelical colleges were quick to admit women, preachers like D.L. Moody cared deeply about the human suffering in the urban slums; of course, William Wilberforce (whose story is so wonderfully told in the must-see film Amazing Grace based on Eric Metaxas’ book of that title) was part of a very wholistic movement of social and cultural renewal affiliated with the Methodist revival in England in the late 1700s.  So, evangelism and social concern, orthodox theological pietism and politics are actually old bedfellows, oddly eroded by the retreat from society with the rise of fundamentalism in the early 1900s, the middle class status quo liberal Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century  and then again by right wing political fundamentalism in the late 20th century.   Now, it seems evangelicalism is recovering its storied history. Hence the “reignited” in the subtitle here.

In Return to Justice, six key movements are described that have been influential in setting the stage for rising generations of young evangelicals and their return to wholistic, justice-oriented Christian social concern. 

I have not adequately studied Return… so am not sure which issues and personalities to which the authors attribute the most weight, but it seems as if it is doing good, rich, history from earlier decades, those which set the stage and built momentum. For sheer impact,  I vote for Gary Haugen, whose breathtaking story and valiant work exposing the horrific problem of child slavery and sexual trafficking in the late 1990s was one of the big, tide-turning influences that not only caught the attention of idealistic youth but also transcended partisanship.  Right or left-wing views didn’t seem to matter much in the pitches given all over the land by Gary and his staff of the International Justice Mission (IJM.)  Who doesn’t oppose sexual trafficking?

I believe that the current passion for social reform and the ethos of making a difference owes much to the tireless, funny, passionate, storytelling of Baptist preacher Tony Campolo, traveling around the country for decades, sowing seeds among those who are now middle-aged evangelical leaders. (Campolo ran for Congress in the mid 1970s as an anti-war, pro-justice, consistently pro-life Democrat.)

Agree or not with all of Tony’s flamboyant one-liners on issues, one cannot miss that he is an almost-old-school evangelist, inviting people to accept God’s grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ; his call to radical discipleship and socially-engaged commitment always emerges from his invitation to be embraced by the love of God shown in the gospel of Christ. (Interestingly, in two different co-authored books – Adventures in Missing the Point with his friend Brian McLaren and Red Letter Christians with his now famous former student Shane Claiborne – Tony is the more traditional of the two, sounding concerns when their views seem to verge on drifting away from evangelical truisms.)  I write all this to note that Rah and Vanderpol do not give much attention to Campolo as a seminal figure in this shift that is coming to fruition before our eyes.  Interesting.

Other folks have been at it a long time – John Perkins telling his story of being beat by racist cops and still promoting racial reconciliation, say, or World Vision promoting child sponsorship – but by the new millennium, momentum seemed to accumulate, some tipping point was reached, perhaps when Compassion International starting going to the major evangelical Christian rock festivals like Creation.  The impact of hearing first-hand accounts of the needs of starving children offered place after place, year after year, accumulated, and high school kids grew up knowing something about global development issues.  Liberation theologians were debating complex nuances in nomenclature in mainline seminaries but evangelicals were organizing massive fund-raising campaigns among youth, and their WWJD bracelets reminded them to think about the needy. Old conferences for evangelical young adults like CCO’s Jubilee and IVCF’s Urbana, and more recently, the Passion Conference, have naturally integrated social concerns into their display areas and messages; this simply wouldn’t have happened without controversy 30 or 40 years ago.

So, Return to Justice really is helpful, giving us a glimpse of the Spirit’s work in the generation that informed the resurgence within the last decades, and documenting how some of this extraordinary shift has happened, and how lasting education can happen around these key issues.

Besides a fantastic introduction and a solid and hopeful conclusion, here is an overview of this marvelous book:

In Part 1 (“Justice Is Personal and Relational“) they explore the power of personal story by looking at John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association and the power of personal connection by exploring child sponsorship as a window into global poverty.

Part 2 is called “Justice Is Public and Prophetic” and this explores World Vision’s work of prophetic advocacy and Sojourner’s as a prophetic voice for those on the margins.

In Part 3, “Justice Confronts Power in Community“, Rah and Vanderpol explore African American evangelicals and what true racial reconciliation needs to be; it draws on narratives about Bill Pannell and Tom Skinner (and the historic, tense Urbana 70 conference) and Carl Ellis and Clarence Hillard and others who pressed these issues in the 1970s within mostly white evangelical organizations, paving the way for ongoing conversations even this very season. The last chapter explores Rene Padilla’s and Samuel Escobar’s influence and the “The Fraternidad Teologica Latinoamericana. (Oh, what an honor it was once when Rene Padilla visited our Dallastown store!) Can power be shared in the 2/3’s world? How has our global Christian world changed in our lifetime and how might that influence the experiences of rising generations? Soong-Chan Rah has an entire book on this (The Next Evangelicalism) and he knows his stuff.

Here are some of the rave reviews Return to Justice has gotten.  

I know Rah and VanderPol personally and highly respect them and cherish that they have done an excellent job in articulating the history of the return of justice to the evangelical church. I am blessed we can participate in that return as we find ourselves at a wonderful crossroads. I wish that the church community worldwide could read this book, particularly those who are a part of this new multicultural church planting and post-racial generation.

John M. Perkins, founder, John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation; author of Leadership Revolution

The resurgence of concern for justice emerges from deep wells in the evangelical tradition, and the story needs to be told–and in fact has now been told in Return to Justice.

Scot McKnight, Northern Seminary, author The Kingdom Conspiracy 

Return to Justice tells the story of an evangelical history that must not be forgotten. This book examines several influential evangelical movements that have shaped our understanding of service, compassion, and justice, including contributions from the African American and Latino evangelical communities. It provides valuable insights that both inspire individual growth and compel us toward an authentic return to God’s heart for justice.

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World

This carefully researched book shines a spotlight on modern evangelical movements that expound the gospel message as a mandate for social justice as well as eternal salvation. While the authors’ recommendation of these groups includes some critique of their aims and actions, they want other evangelicals to realize how thoroughly evangelical the activities of John Perkins, World Vision, the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana, and other groups have been. They make a persuasive case.

Mark Noll, historian, author of Turning Points


advocating for (better).jpgAdvocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures Stephen Offutt, F. David Bronkema, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Robb Davis, Gregg Okesson (Baker Academic) $22.99  sale price = $20.69 Well, again, that a book like this even exists – with such a blunt title and such serious content — and is promoted as a major release from an evangelical publishing house is further indication that something is afoot in our times.  That Stephan Bauman (President of World Relief and author of the inspiring Possible about how we can make a difference in the world) calls it “a watershed book” is perhaps another way of noting how important it is.  Wow.

Yet, this is a hard-hitting critique, and a needed one, I’m afraid.  It is suggesting that despite all the talk about justice and the great move of social concern that seems to be prevalent in our evangelical churches — and, our mainline ones, too, I’d say – we really are pretty unaware of how the world really works, who has power and how power does or doesn’t serve the common good.  Advocating for Justice is a book that is pushing us to complete the journey from a empathy and charity to a broader social vision to a uniquely Christian advocacy for institutional change.

Miriam Adeney (former missionary and now of Seattle Pacific University) writes of it,

This stellar book asserts that evangelicals are anemic with regard to structural evil. We don’t know how to think about power, so we settle for strategies that are too simple. Yet we are animated by the God who both creates and conquers the powers. Clear, orderly, theoretically rich, theologically vibrant, and full of examples, this book is a must-read.

These authors themselves are another fine illustration of the maturing of the mind and cultural sophistication within evangelicalism, not to mention the ecumenical flavoring of many within theologically evangelical institutions.  For instance, in this collaborative effort, one author has a PhD from Boston University but teaches development studies at Asbury, an evangelical Christian college. Another has a PhD from Yale and teaches at the Baptist-related Eastern University. Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy has a degree from Weston (a Jesuit school of theology) and works as an evangelical church outreach organizer with Bread for the World, the ecumenical anti-hunger citizen lobby group.  One author is an elected official – yay! – and Gregg Okesson (himself with a PhD from the University of Leeds) is dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary.  

What does it mean to truly be advocates for lasting social change? What are Biblically-informed and theologically substantive views of power and institutions?  For many of us, Ron Sider’s must-read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is still one of the best books on all this, but this takes these concerns about structural readjustment to a new, thoughtful, and necessary level.  It isn’t about politics exclusively, although there are some great case studies about the details of funding debates on things such as AIDS/HIV research or immigration reform,  but it is trying to help us understand longer-term structural change, lasting institutional reform, and being advocates, as citizens and in other spheres where we can do more than “come alongside” the marginalized, but learn effective advocacy practices.  This isn’t the final word on all of this, I’m sure, but it is an essential, nearly stunning, next step. Kudos. 

public faith in action.jpgPublic Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity Miroslav Volf & Ryan McAnnally-Linz (Brazos Press) $21.00 sale price = $18.90  I can hardly contain my enthusiasm for this and hesitated listing it along with these others for fear it would get lost in the list. This is a book that deserves to be very, very widely read and discussed, and is needed during this election cycle so very badly. Not only because we need to counter a thoughtlessness and knee-jerk response from various quarters, but also because this not only affirms a careful and wise approach, but because in it’s graciousness about prudential judgements about which we can disagree it is — as James K.A. Smith observes — “an anti-dote to polarization.”

And we can’t get enough of that right now, can we?

If the first book I listed above (Return to Justice) offers some historical background and some fairly contemporary case studies of those recovering an evangelical commitment to public justice and the second (Advocating for Justice) is a serious study of how power works and why we need to think carefully about structures and institutions as we advocate for social transformation on behalf of the poor, then Public Faith in Action is a handbook to living this out in this exact time. It is a guide to being a better informed citizen, guided by integrity and fidelity to our best principles.  It is, as Ron Sider himself says,

A concise, readable, theologically-informed guide for Christian political engagement, this book deftly integrates relevant biblical principles and contemporary data, summarized the key issues at stake, and points to important additional reading. An excellent contribution to the rapidly growing body of work on how Christina can engage politics in a faith way. 

I sort of wish this wasn’t a hardback, as it ought to be promoted widely and used in classes and study groups, especially this summer and fall.  It isn’t just a quickie manual, as it is profound — what else would you expect from the likes of Volf, a theological scholar from Croatia, now at Yale (both teaching theology and directing the esteemed Yale Center on Faith & Culture) who is respected around the world? His Exclusion and Embrace was voted by Christianity Today as one of the best 100 religious books of the 20th century.  (And I have a blurb on the cover of his very impressive A Public Faith; just saying.)

Listen to these impressive endorsements from advanced reviews of Public Faith in Action:

The question isn’t whether you’ll live out a public faith but how. In this wise, measured, and refreshingly concrete discussion, Volf and McAnnally-Linz encourage Christians to be active, thoughtful contributors to the ‘life together’ that is society. The book is unapologetically convicted, but it makes room for the global realities that demand different responses and creates space for Christians to come to different prudential conclusions. Here is an antidote to polarization.

–James K. A. Smith, Calvin College; author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit; editor of Comment magazine

Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz’s volume achieves its aims: opening up a series of serious questions that are a matter of public debate in a pluralistic society, while exhorting Christians to responsibly explore the answers through the lens of faith.

–Stephanie Summers, CEO, Center for Public Justice

The world needs our active Christian faith more now, perhaps, than ever. Public Faith in Action provides a deeply thoughtful model for how we as Christians might work out our faith for the glory of God and the flourishing of communities and people. One needn’t agree with every application here in order to be instructed, challenged, and inspired by this call to commitment, conviction, and character as we strive to serve a suffering world faithfully and well.

–Karen Swallow Prior, author of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More–Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist

vegangelical.jpgVegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith Sarah Withrow King (Zondervan) $16.99 sale price = $15.29  Sarah King starts off this short book telling about her growing up with good family devotions, becoming born again, the purity ring she wore as a younger Christian girl, and her wholesome recollections of being raised in a Godly, evangelical Christian family. She’s been a vegan for years, has been an animal rights activist as an evangelical (talking about Christ with her colleagues in PETA) and now offers this, her second book on the topic — published by perhaps the quintessential evangelical publisher. Do I really need to say “I rest my case” regarding the shifts within evangelical publishing?

animals are not ours.jpgI list this book (alongside her other recent, somewhat more scholarly one, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really They Are Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology) published by Cascade; $25.00; sale price = $22.50) not only because it is truly fascinating and important, but because it does indeed, again, illustrate the point that there is something remarkable happening when the theologically traditionalist evangelicals at this storied, mostly conservative publishing house thinks they can publish a book on why Bible-believing Christians should consider becoming totally vegan.

I am not at this point myself, by the way, and I must admit I wish Sarah would have gone the route of just protesting the abuses of factory farms and proclaiming an ethic which insists on treating all creatures with dignity and care — with what Joel Salatin in his new book calls “the marvelous pigness of pigs.” I think more folks would have given her a hearing. 

But she will have none of my wish to tone down her convictions: she critiques (kindly, in footnotes) much of the rapidly-growing evangelical creation-care literature for how it misses or confuses what she says in a key aspect of Biblical and theological creational ethics: radical animal welfare.  This book really is one-of-a-kind; few, if any, of the other such books on this topic are as accessible or so particularly evangelical in tone about this blind spot in our thinking and practices.

We here at the shop have a large selection on animal welfare — one Christian woman was so struck by seeing our selection she broke down in tears, realizing she was not alone in her passions.  But, really, this is ground-breaking as it offers such grace-filled, Bible-based, evangelical insights with wit and without compromise.  Agree or not, you have to appreciate a book like that.  

So, let’s be clear. Nope, her children do not drink milk and have never been to a McDonalds (obviously.) She doesn’t go to the zoo. She agrees with C.S. Lewis that animal testing (vivisection) is cruel and wrong.  She doesn’t wear leather and she’s trying to live as fully by her principles as she can.  But, delightfully and surprisingly to some, she is not angry or judgmental or trivial. She is playful, deeply Christian, and invites us to consider a whole lot of stuff that we really ought to consider so that we honor God and live in ways that are consistent with the best practices of new life in Christ.  There are good study questions to ponder and it would be fascinating to discuss together (if your group can hold in tension a lot of disagreements and perhaps painful conflict about it.) Both books really are commendable, and I’m happy to tell you about them.

I love these blurbs about Sarah and her book — especially the first by a guy who isn’t even a consistent vegetarian, let alone vegan. Listen up:

I love animals. I also love eating them. This book isn’t a self-righteous rant. It’s a provocative, funny, spiritual manifesto about how precious life is. It’s easy to forget that God’s original plan was to hang out with a couple of naked vegetarians in a garden. Our McDonalds-and-Chipotle-loving fast-food world has come a long way from the ole Garden of Eden. Sarah’s book is an invitation to step back and consider how God really intended for us to relate to all these wonderful creatures. — Shane Claiborne (backsliding vegetarian)

A significant introduction to the important but too-long neglected topic of a solidly Christian approach to the (mis)treatment of animals. One need not agree with every argument to realize this book presents an urgent challenge that biblical Christians dare no longer ignore. King’s chilling stories, extensive statistics, and probing biblical arguments offer a great place to begin. — Ronald J. Sider

And, please, consider these wonderful assessments by two sharp, Godly women I admire greatly:

Sarah King’s book about how to love Jesus and love animals was overwhelming. Overwhelmingly fun – with her quick wit and accessible writing style. Overwhelmingly challenging – in that she suggests some ideas I honestly don’t know how to integrate into my own evangelical practice and spiritual life. And overwhelmingly good – she asks critical questions the 21st century evangelical church has yet to wrestle with and entertain. May Vegangelical be a guide for us who choose to follow Jesus and seek to honor and love His creation and the human-animal relationships that are a part of it. — Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, , author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World

An articulate, sincere introduction to Bible-based social and environmental justice, opening the conversation to how God forms us through our interactions with the created world. A must-read for protectors of all creatures, great and small. — Nancy Sleeth, , co-founder of Blessed Earth




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Home Again, Home Again, BIG BLOW OUT SALE — 5 DAYS ONLY —

It has been a while since our last post and that has been both intentional and by necessity.  We wanted to allow time for everyone to see that last review of Chris Smith’s spectacular new book Reading for Reading for the Common Good.jpgthe Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish – I asked you to re-send my reflections, and almost begged you to buy the book.  If you haven’t yet read that review I hope you do as it shared much of dearest things to our hearts (the role of reading, learning, Kingdom vision and missional outreach) and explained why Reading for…  is such a great book to enjoy and from which to gain missional energy and vision and quite a bit of helpful insight.  I don’t mind featuring a quintessentially Hearts & Minds-ish column for a while, hoping many read it.  I think it’s one you should save and send, discuss and hopefully act upon.  That is, buy the book!

But, also, we’ve been out on the road at a string of complicated set-ups, traveling to three out-of-town locations to create three different displays (and doing workshops at two of the events.)  Beth and I have relied on the kindness of others to help lug some heavy boxes after midnight and some hard-working staff back at the store to order and compile, box and re-box, carry and stack, lug and load, box after box after box.  And don’t even ask about our spooky encounter with bad brakes in the big green van heading North on Route 15.  We are grateful for God’s protection and rejoiced when we at last pulled into Dallastown in the middle of a very late night.


So, here’s a bit of a tribute to those trips – we’re told people like to hear this kind of summary of some of the places we go and the books we sell here and there. Setting things out on display tables with our crates and shelves in special pop-up book rooms does remind us of some of our favorite books to promote, or special books that some groups need.

Ergo, here we go: a FIVE DAY SALE, ANY BOOK MENTIONED, 30% OFF while supplies last.  This sale expires at end of day Sunday, June 19. 2016.


ELCA.jpgOur first big set-up last week was with our good friends at the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.)  This is the denomination in which Beth grew up and her home church has produced a number of active lay delegates, folks doing dedicated social service, and a few ministers of Word and Sacrament and it is fabulous to see old friends.  We respect so much of what they do and the space to set up at Messiah College is grand.  It took four of us 12 hours to do the big display (just to give you a sense of how much and how good we try to make it.)  It was a good event – they did their denominational business, worshiped well – ah, our local Lutherans know how to worship well – and there was a good spirit in the place, busy as they were.  They don’t push books much at their event, so not many particular titles sold well.  I don’t do any stand-up book announcements (I know, they don’t know what their missing) so sales are sort of smattered all over the room, from spiritual formation to congregational revitalization, from memoirs and light-hearted stuff to a few books of Biblical and theological studies, social concern and children’s books.  We even sold a silly board book Dancing With Jesus which (features a host of miraculous moves) and includes dance steps.

One book they did announce, though, is for a project they call One Synod One Book – yep, they attempt to get every parish on board reading together.  How cool is that? In past seasons they’ve used the lovely God in a Bag of Groceries and the important The New Jim Crow; last season they read the new edition of Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. Although the Synod invites folks to buy them at a discount from us, we suspect most parishes either don’t do the program or they get the books elsewhere. Still, it is exciting to think of even a handful of churches with reading groups and book clubs, learning to deepen their love for God, their hunger for justice, through talking together around the printed page.  I wonder if your own church might take a lesson from their good idea?

Telling Tales About Jesus- An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels .jpgAt the Synod gathering they announced next season’s One Synod One Book selection, a meaty study of the gospels, Telling Tales About Jesus: An Introduction to the New Testament Gospels by Warren Carter (Fortress Press; $39.00.)  We sold a good handful at the event, and hope that others will buy multiple copies soon.  It’s a fascinating introduction to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bringing together contemporary critical scholarship and a high regard for the power of the Jesus stories for daily life and discipleship and for faith communities in their mission in the world.  His explanation of much about the nature of the political background of the Roman Empire is informative and his showing the different purposes of the four different accounts is helpful.

We’ve got plenty here, still, so if you are interested, right now is a time to order it at this extra 30% discount.  When this sale ends, we will continue to sell it to ELCA book groups at 20% off, but for the next few days we offer this extra BookNotes savings.

October 31, 1517- Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World.jpgThe biggest seller at the Lutheran gathering was, not surprisingly, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World by Martin E. Marty (Paraclete; $19.99.) Dr. Marty is one of the preeminent Christian writers and leaders of the last 50 years so a new book by him is a treat and a treasure. He’s a Lutheran, so a new Martin Marty book was perfect to feature – it was greatly appreciated (by those who saw it, at least.) With the upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the eve of the Protestant reformation, this is a great first salvo of what I suspect will be a big topic in religious publishing this year.  I thought it was fantastic, and funny, even, that a Jesuit (James Martin) wrote the forward.  Another Catholic has a blurb on the back and Richard Mouw (a Presbyterian) offers a lovely endorsement.  I have to admit not everybody understood my comments about the curiosity of Catholics endorsing this book; perhaps our Protestant churches, for better or worse, don’t know much about what happened in October 1517.  Yikes!

Anotated Luther.jpgAn important Lutheran scholar, Timothy Wengert (who has his own book on Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses) has been doing a major project, leading a team doing annotated editions – big, expensive, glorious, hardbacks with Fortress Press – of the complete works of Martin Luther.  We didn’t sell any of those (even though we were told a Fortress Press editor was around who might have pushed them, but I gather never visited the large book room, a great disappointment.)

But what we really hoped we would have sold were the brilliant paperbacks, oversized, handsomely done, excerpts of the big annotated hardback texts.  We had four of Luther’s must-read volumes in these good translations with lots of helpful study notes and annotations in the big margins: The Freedom of the Christian, Treatise on Good Works, The Bondage of the Will, and The Larger Catechism. We commend these classics of the Protestant reformation, these brilliant writings from this legendary Christian leader. The annotations help and the handsome feel of these study editions makes these really nice to have and useful for groups.

These regularly sell for just $14.99 each but we have them on sale, now, at 30% OFF – until June 16, 2016. There will be more released in this series.

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Mercer2.jpgWe boxed up these books at the end after midnight in the muggy, soft rain, and struggled to stay awake heading home.  Early the next morning we repacked and selected a different array of titles to set up – again, lugging in during a crazy downpour – at Lancaster Theological Seminary at their annual Mercersburg Society Conference.

Now is not the time to explain all of the fascinating fascination with the “mediating theologians” of 19th century Germany and how they influenced the likes of Pennsylvania German Reformed folks like Nevin and Schaff – who taught at Mercersburg, PA, before they moved their seminary to what lancaster theo.jpgbecame the now-Ivy League Franklin & Marshall, and the beautiful, small, UCC seminary across the street.  Suffice it to say that these “high Eucharistic Calvinists” are of interest to UCC friends seeking substantive theological discourse and renewal within their own denomination, and that there is a growing interest within conservative PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) folks. To have Dr. Annette Aubert from Westminster Theological Seminary lecturing about her sophisticated, scholarly book, The German Roots of Nineteenth-Century The German Roots of Nineteenth Century Aubery.jpgAmerican Theology (Oxford University Press; $78.00) at an admittedly pluralistic/liberal seminary like Lancaster, with rigorous conversations with Barthians (and, for instance, Church History professor Dr Anne Thayer, with her PhD from Harvard — and a degree in science! –who edited Christ, Creeds and Life and Dr. Lee Barrett, who wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard and Augustine, Eros and Self-Emptying) was tremendous. You should pick up on sale, now, his great, contemporary translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, published by Pilgrim Press; it is usually $9.99 but on sale it is only $6.99, until Sunday, or as long as we have some left.

You can read my ruminations about and book ideas from last year’s Mercersburg Society conference here.  My daughter Stephanie and I were delighted to again serve this feisty, fun, interesting academic conference.  To be invited to do three workshops about books was a real honor that I did not take lightly.  And what a joy to again be with the Right Reverend Dr. Nathan Baxter (former dean of the National Cathedral) and other ecumenical participants.  Kudos to Mercersburg Society President Dr. Carol Lytch for hosting such a curious and (let us pray) consequential event.

he Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity.jpgIf you want to come up to speed about this revival of Mercersburg theology, we invite you to buy The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity by Brad Littlejohn (Pickwick Publications; $25.00) Brad is a young and brilliant participant who has served as general editor of a set of Nevin and Schaeff’s stuff in an ongoing study series published by Wipf & Stock.  Brad’s own book may be the best intro to this of which we know — substantive and important. Get it now at 30% OFF, while supplies last, until June 19, 2016.

We have every  major book we could find about Mercersburg, although we have now on sale a few of the big Mercersburg Society study volumes in extra quantities so we can sell them now at 30% OFF, too. (Yes, why supplies last, up until Sunday.)

Consider these:

  • The Mystical Presence: The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper by John Williamson Nevin, edited by Linden J. DeBie ($44.00)
  • Coena Mystica: Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology John Williamson Nevin & Charles Hodge edited by Linden J. DeBie ($29.00)
  • The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology John Williamson Nevin edited by William B. Evans ($34.00)

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We were thrilled to finally get to meet and hear Peter J. Leithart, a rock star of sorts in some neo-Reformed circles. (See his very cool Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies HERE.) As was no surprise for those that knew his work, even his blogged column at First Things, Leithart was provocative, thoughtful, learned, eloquent, and kind.  He has studied Mercersburg stuff well, even as his he stands on different ground to appropriate it than the UCC and RCA folk there at the Society gathering.

Dr. Leithart has written bunches of books – from Deep Comedy to a small biography of Jane Austin, from a collection of wedding sermons to his justly famous Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom and several Bible commentaries.  We stock them all, and offer them even now at 30% OFF, this week only.

Might we most heartily suggest these two, though, all offered this week at our 30% OFF sale:

Traces of the Trinity- Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience.jpgTraces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience (Brazos Press) $20.00   This is brilliant, nothing quite like it in print. I love books about the spirituality of the ordinary, and believe strongly that reading about the doctrine of creation — the reality of God’s good world, here and now, as a created order upheld by God’s own Word — is vital.  This is neither a straight, typical study of the Trinity, although you will learn about that anew, nor a standard affirmation of God’s presence in the daily, although it gets at that “creation regained” worldview and the nearness of God in the world quite nicely. But it is more.. It does just what is says in the title. 

Listen to what the brilliant John Frame writes:

This is the most delightful book I have read in a long time. One of its
delights is its clear, gracefully written prose, which easily engages
the reader. The book presents a cogent case for a highly significant
point: the whole created world images the divine Trinity. Leithart
argues this thesis comprehensively, demonstrating that the divine
perichoresis–the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the
Trinity–is reflected in every area of human life, including perception,
thought, language, sex, time, space, music, and imagination. Leithart’s
argument has the potential, therefore, to bring major change to our
study of all these areas of reality, and thus to all the ways we live in
the world.”

Delivered from the Elements of the World.jpgDelivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission (InterVarsity Press) $30.00  This is his latest and perhaps his most significant yet. If you buy serious theology books at all, this is one to add to your collection. And if you don’t, it is one that may still fascinate you.

I simply can’t improve upon the learned consideration of James K.A. Smith, who calls it “monumental” and writes:

When you read Peter Leithart, you suddenly realize how timid most Christian theologians are, tepidly offering us a few ‘insights’ to edify our comfort with the status quo. Leithart is like a lightning strike from a more ancient, more courageous Christian past, his flaming pen fueled by biblical acuity and scholarly rigor. In this book, he does it again? Here is the City of God written afresh for our age, asking a question you didn’t know to ask but now can’t avoid: Why is the cross the center of human history? Couldn’t God have found another way? Leithart’s answer — this book — is a monumental achievement.

 Matthew Levering of Mundelein Seminary offers a rave analysis, and then says,

Leithart’s dazzling biblical and ecumenical manifesto merits the closest attention and engagement.


Reformational philosopher and theologian Craig Bartholomew says,

Peter Leithart is one of our best and most creative theologians. In this wide-ranging book Leithart shows that doctrine is not some abstract entity disconnected from contemporary life but is in fact deeply relevant and pregnant with social and political insights. Leithart is biblically, theologically and culturally literate — a rare combination — and thus able to produce the sort of work we so badly need today.


The next leg of our Hearts & Minds book-selling road trip was to the lovely Susquehanna University – where I bumped into a sharp grad student from Taylor University who heard me speak at their leadership conference last February — to serve the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ at their annual gathering.  They are a fun and pleasant group, their convention more leisurely then some, with good workshops and book announcements and time to browse.  It’s a lot of work setting up these huge displays, and to be welcomed with such care is lovely.  It was funny, too, seeing some clergy there who had been at Mercersburg event the day before, from an academic conference with papers mostly about the 19th century to the progressive ethos of this small denomination who says “God is Still Speaking…”

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We thought you might like to see a few of the titles we sold well there, random stuff that we promoted at my workshops, or things that – frankly – we didn’t sell so well and have an abundance of now, overstock in the retail lingo.  We offer these now at 30% OFF, while supplies last.  As we’ve said above, this sale lasts through the end of day June 19, 2016.

Strong and Weak- Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing.jpgStrong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing Andy Crouch (IVP) $20.00  Once again, this is a must-read, exceptionally well-done book, a personal favorite and one I am committed to promoting.  It seems easy enough to explain — the four quadrant balance of vulnerability and power, and the need to understand how we can be strong and weak, culturally influential by taking meaningful risk in the world. But it doesn’t seem to grab most people, and it’s harder to sell then it should be. I have even said I’d give people their money back if they don’t think this is wise and thoughtful and good and important.

At the UCC event I even played this video clip to illustrate how articulate Andy is and how interesting and important his book is.  Please, get this now, on sale, as it is surely one of the best books of the year.  By the way, the theme for the Penn Central UCC tribe this year is “risking the new.” So there ya go.

[And, as an aside, some of you will be glad to know that in my workshop on reading, I suggested that for many of us the most “new” thing we could do would be to read old books.  I cited C.S. Lewis, naturally, even though I don’t fully agree with his formula of reading two old books for every new one. It was fun poking around that whole business a bit, using phrases like “chronological snobbery” and “ancient future.” My Mercersburg Society friends — at least one who was friends with Karl Barth so many decades ago — would have been proud.]

You Are What You Love- The Spiritual Power of Habit.jpgYou Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit James K.A. Smith (Brazos) $19.99 Yes, once again, I said this is the Book of the Year, incredibly important, potent, needed. I don’t know who needs this more, independent, evangelical community churches with their general distaste for sophisticated liturgy and seeker-sensitive piety or stodgy but often theologically fuzzy mainline churches.  Across the spectrum, I hear no one saying this sort of stuff with such power and clarity and conviction and urgency.  This is a readable and practical version of his heavier, serious works, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. You need this book, and I urge you to get a few. I’m not kidding.

Watch this great talk he gave at Bioloa University for an example of the stuff he’s talking about.  You want the book, then, for sure!

slow church.jpgSlow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus  C. Christopher Smith (IVP) $17.00  Needless to say, I promoted Smith’s Reading for the Common Good but to do so had to set up the story with his previous, remarkable, very good 2015 book, Slow Church.  I’m thrilled to offer it now, at this deep discount. Hey, talk about risking something new: how about reading a book calling us away from speed, efficiency, success, growth?  How about this counter-cultural call to pay attention to our place, to care for community, for taking the notions of the “slow food movement” and applying them to church life, living out congregational life and mission in slower, more authentic, more Christ-like ways?  What an amazing book, now with a study guide.  We’ll do the discount even on that if you want.

at-the-still-point-a-literary-guide-to-prayer-in-ordinary-time-26.jpgAt the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time compiled by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete) $17.99  We sold a nice number of her earlier works by this thoughtful Wheaton College grad — Between Midnight and Dawn was her literary prayer book for Lent and Holy Week and her Light Upon Light is her literary guide to prayer for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.  This one, At the Still Point, like the others, brings together all sorts of poets, writers, and literary works, but this one arranged for daily devotional reading during the long weeks of what some churches call ordinary time. It has beautiful endorsing blurbs by Leland Ryken and Kathleen Norris. (Pretty great, eh?)  You should get this now, while we have some left at this bargain price.  Kudos to Paraclete Press for doing such handsome volumes.

Revelation- A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World .jpgRevelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World Dennis Covington (Little Brown) $26.00  I can’t tell you how moving this book was, full of spunk and adventure and pathos and brilliant sentences and haunting episodes. I trust you know his 1995 American Book Award winner, Salvation on Sand Mountain, to this day one of the most unforgettable books I’ve ever read. What a great writer, her exploring through first hand memoir how violence and faith and hope and goodness can flourish, even as he wanders around war zones, crossing borders in the Middle East, and bringing back reports that are harrowing and humane and, hinting at hope.

As Ron Rash writes, “In his newest book, Dennis Covington addresses questions of doubt,
faith, and belief with the same uncondescending and unflinching manner
as in Salvation on Sand Mountain, but his scope is larger now, venturing into some of the world’s most brutal places in a search for faith, and hope. Revelation is a marvel.”

 Christian Practical Wisdom- What It Is, Why It Matters .jpgChristian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters Dorothy C. Bass, Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, James R. Nieman, Christian B. Scharen (Eerdmans) $30.00  Wow, what a book, what an amazing contribution to the conversation about practices and uniquely Christian lifestyles, ways of being in the world. This focuses on wisdom, and, as the subtitle promises, “what it is and why it matters.”  This is well worth every dollar, with over 300 pages in what Stephanie Paulsell (of Harvard Divinity School) calls “A beautifully written and much needed exploration of Christian practical wisdom.” This asks what (in the words of reviewer Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung of Calvin College) “dancing, imagining, and collaboration have to do with ‘gaining a heart of wisdom’ in what Charles Taylor calls ‘our secular age’? This creative and compelling case for Christian practical wisdom practices what it preaches. The authors “show” and “tell” how a more holistic kind of knowing — beyond academic expertise — is essential to an authentic and living theology.”   This collaborative work by five distinguished scholars of Christian education invite us to really understand why wisdom matters and how we can renew an interest in it, in the academy and in our churches. As esteemed Christian educator Mary Boys says, “This substantive and beautifully composed book deserves to be read slowly, allowing the authors insights to take root and germinate.”  Want to ponder deeply and live well?  This is a very impressive book.

The Way of Love- Recovering the Heart of Christianity .gifWay of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity  Norman Wirzba (HarperOne) $25.99  I was surprised this didn’t sell well – it’s Norman Wirzba, people, theological voice of the land and place, friend of Wendell Berry, author of lovely radical books like Keeping the Sabbath and Making Peace with the Land and, recently, the brilliant From Nature to Creation. A book by a localist, a mainline theologian (he teaches at Duke) on love, and on how love is truly the heart of the Christian faith. Mainline folks who have generally been less hung up on proper doctrine have had this as their mantra, and this articulates it as well as anything, with good theological insight. I have before quoted this blurb by Eugene Peterson:

 Love is one of the most hackneyed and trivialized words in our language. Wirzba wants to rescue this essential word from the dust bin of the everyday and restore it to usefulness. Connecting love and the hope of heaven, he provides a most satisfying and convincing conclusion.

 Buy it today at our limited time 30% off deal and live with it for the summer. You won’t regret it.

.jpgThe Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs Peter Enns (HarperOne) $25.99 Well, just the hard-hitting title is enough to make you ponder, eh?  I’ve met Enns a time or two and enjoyed him a lot, and have appreciated his previous books. So, I enjoyed plugging this, with a tiny bit of trepidation and some personal pathos, I’ll admit, as Enns is on a journey away from his creedal emphasis (he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary which subscribes rigorously to the details of the Westminster Confession) to a view that has earned kudos from writers and leaders such as Brian MClaren, Rachel Held Evans, and Richard Rohr all who have knowingly crossed conventional theological boundaries. Still, I think he is mostly right — many seriously Reformed thinkers have rejected as inconsistent with the best of Christian thinking the scholasticism behind Westminster — and his story of doubt and a painful exit from his previous faith community to a new home in more mainline circles is not tragic, but it is hard, and a bit worrisome. This is all indicative of much going on in evangelicalism and what some call post-evangelicalism in our time. It’s a worthwhile book in its own right; it is also valuable as an important glimpse into a recent movement.

Becoming Wise- An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living .jpgBecoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living Krista Tippett (Penguin Press) $28.00 This was naturally of interest among our mainline friends, and we are happy to commend it to you here. This beautifully written book emerges from Tippett’s acclaimed NPR show, “On Meaning” and expresses much she has learned from these many years of interviewing deep, good people.

This isn’t just a collection of Ms Tippett’s fabulous interviews (although that in itself would be great) but this is her reflection upon all she learned and pieced together from the remarkable people she interviewed over the years. She arranges the book somewhat as a memoir, dipping into her own childhood, but comes back to five main themes: words, the body, love, faith, and hope.  

Becoming Wise is surely a beautiful, gentle, grand book.

Grace in Practice- A Theology of Everyday Life .jpgGrace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life Paul F. M. Zahl (Eerdmans) $18.00 This is an older book that we really appreciate, and sometimes  we bring to events where folks need a thoughtful, grace-filled theological vision for their ordinary lives. He looks at grace in every zone of life, from family life to international affairs, from one’s deepest faith convictions to public and social concerns. The great Peter Gomes, chaplain at Harvard, had a blurb on the back  — who called the book itself an “act of grace” — as did Ligon Duncan III, who called Rev. Zahl  “a formidable scholar, an admired colleague, and a courageous churchman.” This is a passionate, witty, important work, and we are glad to have a few copies left. Does the word theology maybe scare people away? It shouldn’t — this is just wonderful reading!  By the way, we have this at a lesser expensive price to begin with (it now sells for $23.00, I believe) so with our 30% OFF deal, it’s quite affordable.

Paul Debate (Baylor U).jpgThe Paul Debate: Critical Questions for Understanding the Apostle  N.T. Wright (Baylor University Press) $34.95  I’ll admit I didn’t succeed in convincing folks to take this (perhaps because of it’s salty price – I still think it is brilliant and very useful.  We’re willing to sell them at this good discount to get a few into reader’s hand — it is the best deal for new copies you will find anywhere. I don’t like putting it like this, but some say that Tom is too conservative for most  liberals and too liberal for most conservatives, which means all camps should read him. At any rate, this clearly organized book summarizes 5 key issues in Pauline studies and clarifies where he stands, in response to the questions of critics and recent reviewers. Yes, it’s Wright’s clear response to these chief questions, but it is equally a wonderful overview of the current discussion about the New Testament. You could read a chapter a day for a week and quickly accomplish nearly a semester’s worth of a fine course on Paul. Fantastic.

Justice Calling Where Passion Meets P.jpgThe Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance Bethany Hoang & Kristen Deede Johnson (Brazos Press) $19.99  Once again, Brazos Press gives us a truly remarkable book, nicely bound, with great writing, rooted in solid Biblical commitments, but with relevant, urgent vision. This introduction to the Bible’s story of justice and its exploration of how we can be people who persevere with hope is perhaps the best thing I’ve seen on the subject. There are a lot of good books like this and this one surely deserves to be widely read. We’re sad it didn’t sell better among our mainline friends — perhaps they don’t know the stellar work of IJM with whom these women work. It is a groundbreaking book in some ways, and we’ll gladly sell it here on sale now just to move a few out the door. If you know anyone interested in the way God desires justice or how we can be people who respond to God’s call to do justice, don’t hesitate getting this as a great resource.  Kudos to Brazos and the wonderful, gifted, passionate authors.

Slow Kingdom Coming- Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly.jpgSlow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World Kent Annan (IVP) $16.00  I hope you may recall our telling of two other books by Kent over the years (Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle and After Shock, both set in amidst his hard and redemptive work in Haiti.  This book steps back a bit to look at the deep stuff underneath the activism — “truthfully and beautifully rendered”as one review put it. What kind of people do we need to be to take up God’s suffering in the world, to take up the work of serving the hurting, to take up the Micah 6:8 challenge, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.  If his other books have been, in a way, about mercy and justice, this one is about walking with God. What does that look like? What kind of practices allow us to be loving and kind? Can our spirituality form in us a “long obedience in the same direction” so we can sustain our passions and cares?  This would make an excellent follow up to the above mentioned one by Bethany Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson, or, a great prelude to it. It’s a gem, a holy book about a holy project. Highly recommended.

Executing Grace.jpgExecuting Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us Shane Claiborne (HarperOne) $17.99  This is hot off the press and I so wish I could have promoted it more at these events. Books sometimes take some time to become known and few even knew this was coming.  We were taking pre-orders a month ago, and we thank those who bought it early.  For the next few days we will again offer this at a deep 30% discount – what a tender, careful, important book.  Shane told me how hard he worked on this, how much research and conversation and heartbreak went into it, and I think it is a very readable, valuable resource.  Please order it today!

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgHow to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World Robert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans) $16.00 My super smart friends at the Mercersburg Society conference snapped this up, realizing it drew on the seminal work of Charles Taylor, using his secularization theory as a lens through which to view pop culture stuff from The Walking Dead to Mad Men, Game of Thrones to House of Cards. How do we live in hope when the cultural malaise in our times is deepened by stories of dread?  What a brilliant, serious, interesting work — I hope you saw my short review of it previously.  This is amazing, rich, mature. Get it cheaper than usual, now, before the end times hit.  You snooze, you lose.

Reality,  Grief, Hope- Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.jpgReality,  Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox) $15.00  Walt Brueggemann sells a bit at these sorts of events, and we take his stuff anywhere we take Biblical studies.  This is one of Brueggy’s books published last year and we feature it often. His newer one is the short and helpful Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (WJK; $14.00) but as the Reality Grief Hope one is a sequel to his 1980s classic The Prophetic Imagination we really think it is important.  I think his call to lament and grieve as a prelude to subversive hope is nothing short of a necessity in our time.  If your pastor hasn’t read this yet, buy it for him or her immediately. And get one for yourself, too. By the way, folks love his Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No the Culture of Now (WJK; $14.00) and it very readable. Yay.

silence and beauty.jpgSilence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering Makoto Fujimura (IVP) $26.00  I have reviewed this at great length here at BookNotes before and hoped it would catch the attention of those seeing the big stack at our three different book displays. Yes, we took it to each, and proudly explained that we know Mako and have heard him talk about this book, his friendship with Martin Scorsese who is making a film — has been wanting to for over 30 years — of the Japanese novel Silence about which this book is an extended meditation. As it says on the beautiful back cover, in koan-like cadence,

In this world of pain and suffering,

God often seems silent. 

But light is yet present in the darkness. 

And silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth.

Talking the Walk- Let the Language of Theology Live Again.jpgTalking the Walk: Let the Language of Theology Live Again Marva Dawn (Marva Dawn) $26.99  The local Lutherans brought Marva in to speak to them early this past Spring and we were delighted to connect with her again, if only briefly.  (She is one of the great, great Christian writers of our time, and we are so honored that she once went out of our way to visit our bookstore in Dallastown!)  This is a nearly unknown book of hers, originally published by Brazos, in a handsome hardback. It offers short mentions on various theological terms and why they are important for our faith and practice, in our lives and in our congregations.  What a great book!  Marva is one of the short list of authors that I will read anything she writes.  This is one I bet you didn’t know about, eh?  Get it from us, on sale, while supplies last.

songs of jesus.jpgThe Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms Timothy Keller & Kathy Keller (Viking) $19.95  I would hope that most BookNotes fans know that we esteemed the exceptionally intelligent Presbyterian church leader from NYC, and appreciate his no-nonsense, thoughtful, but always applicable Bible teaching. In this often tender year-long devotional, he and his wife ruminate on the Psalms, known as the Bible’s songbook (and a prayerbook Jesus surely would have known and used.) Two decades ago Keller began reading the entire Book of Psalms every month and these insights are drawn from his accumulated years of study (and, with important input from his wife who herself uses the Psalms, including during times battling a chronic illness.) Mainline parishioners often don’t buy as many serious books as do those in more evangelical churches its seems, but folks always like to hear about a good devotional. It was nice to be able to share these with those seeking a way into the practice of daily quiet time and Bible reading.

Jesus Freak- Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead  .jpgJesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead  Sara Miles (Jossey-Bass) $21.95  As you might guess, the edgy and beautiful writer Sara Miles – she is coming to the Welcome Table, an O and A congregation near Lancaster Seminary in late July – is popular among mainline folks these days. Her remarkable story, stunningly told in Take This Bread, of her conversion to Christ after receiving communion for the first time and her subsequent desire to start a food pantry in the sacred space of her San Fran Episcopal church, is well worth reading whether you agree with her opinions or not. This sequel to that book is oddly named, has a less than appealing cover, and is hardback, so it doesn’t sell as well, but I’ll tell you it is every bit as powerful and moving and inspiring as her first one.  It is, doubtlessly, one of the most stimulating books I’ve read in years, and we were eager to promote it at our recent gigs.  Alas, it languishes. Why o why?  Folks, read this book!  Again, agree or not with all of her radically inclusive theology and lefty politics, it is a very moving memoir and a delirious call to action in the world of hurt and need.  If you like Anne Lamott or Nadia Bolz-Weber, you should read Sarah Miles.

Read these reviews to hear of how movingly it is written:

“Sara Miles is amazing, a wild, unique, funny Christian who puts her lack-of-money where her mouth is, which is in loving Jesus and taking care of God’s children. I love her work.”
–Anne Lamott

“One of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read.”
–Rob Bell

“When Jesus calls, Sara Miles follows him into the beautiful and messy diversity of human life, where people long to be fed, healed, and forgiven, and discovers the vibrancy of Christian faith that often eludes the institutional church. If this is what it means to be a ‘Jesus freak, ‘ sign me up!”
–Diana Butler Bass

“This is a love story unabashedly, a love story between one woman and Jesus. It is also the toughest, tenderest, most textured, poignant, and substantial love story I have ever read.”
–Phyllis Tickle

“Sara Miles writes gorgeous prose . . . She’s way too wound up for toned-down liberals, and way too out-of-the-shrink-wrap for straight-laced conservatives, and she calls both of them to a new vantage point. She has actually experienced something, and Someone, and by hearing her story, you start to catch what she’s caught: which includes a sense of being caught, and caught up, and fed, and empowered to feed others. A beautiful, joyful, raucous, reverent book.”
–Brian McLaren

“Oh, what a wonderful book! Its exciting and dynamic Christianity would have put me completely to shame were it not for the glowing warm-heartedness with which Sara encourages us into the faith life, the Church, of the future. Instead of shaming us it offers us a witness at once solid and tantalizing of what it is to be hooked into the Gospel.”
–James Alison, Catholic priest and theologian

Accidental Saints- Finding God in All the Wrong People.jpgAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People Nadia Bolz-Weber (Convergent Books)$23.00  Oh my, what a book.  Again, like Sara Mile’s three books, Nadia is a popular voice that is edgy and radical and all about God’s grace, being inclusive and caring and creative in reaching out to and within a carnivalesque, postmodern world. I suppose you’ve heard of her tatted up sleeves and chest, shown well on the cover of her memoir Pastrix, and her colorful cussing, which makes for a really interesting read(Hey, she’s in the tribe of Martin Luther, so don’t start on the cussing bit.) This second book is better than her first, sharing much about her church (House of All Sinners and Saints), her passion for the lost and marginalized, and how her goofy congregation navigated all manner of surprising changes in their church plant.  They were okay, naturally, with the trannys and addicts and underground hipsters who they hoped to reach, folks similar to their own style from their own scene. When fairly white-bread, middle age guys in slacks from the suburbs began to show up, it challenged them profoundly.  How ironic — they had to stretch themselves around God’s grace to be welcoming to those people, so not like themselves. Can we do the same, show grace to those we would rather avoid? Ha – what a book!  Thank you, Nadia, for your honesty and color.  Why not buy this for your next book club – and hold on!  You will be surprised by its sheer beauty and admittedly provocative stories.

Live Like You Give a Damn! Join the Changemaking Celebration.jpgLive Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changemaking Celebration Tom Sine (Cascade Books) $24.00  I have mentioned this before and I can hardly express how many heros and leaders I admit have endorsed it — pages and pages of celebrations for this feisty book collecting great stories of young social entrepreneurs who are making a difference. In some ways this is a long-time sequel to his famous Mustard Seed Conspiracy or the great The New Conspirators, but this time showing how even those outside the churches can teach us much. This lifts up a new generation (and in some ways new kinds) of activists and invites us to join God in Christ as He is “bringing heaven to Earth.” Can we allow the Spirit to ignite our imaginations? Can we be innovative in solving today’s pressing problems? This is good stuff.  We are glad to offer it now at this discounted price, just this week. It’s a winner, written by a friend and conversation partner, so do check it out, please!

The Spirituality of Wine  Gisela H. jpgThe Spirituality of Wine Gisela H. Kreglinger (Eerdmans) $24.00  This is another book I was so happy to tell about, a book to promote among foodies and wine connoisseurs, but also to theologians, sustainable agriculture workers, Bible teachers and more. This is a thorough, lovely book which carefully explores the connection between Sunday worship and Monday work, between field and faith, that studies wine in the Bible and in the vineyard. The author works in a family vineyard which goes back hundreds of years (in Germany) and has given us here a book unlike any now in print.

The story and theology behind this book makes great sense, and it is endorsed by all kinds of readers. I suggested in one of my workshop that it has as delightfully diverse a bunch of endorsers as I rarely see on a book. Raves come from Alice Waters (famous food and sustainability activist, cookbook writers, and founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley) and heady theologian from Tubingen, Jurgen Moltmann. Add a blurb from Carol Petrini, founder of the international Slow Food Movement and a lovely forward by Presbyterian Eugene Peterson, and you can see what I mean.  What a great book!  Buy it now on sale, while supplies last.




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Hearts & Minds BookNotes review: Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish ON SALE




ONE WEEK ONLY (offer expires June 10, 2016) 

Otherwise, please enjoy the special BookNotes 10% off discount.

Okay, sports fans, get excited, because this is going to be like a world class championship game, right here.

Get ready to rock, dudes, this is going to be one world tour arena show, right here, right now.

This review is your Great White Whale, your big game trophy, the movie you’ve been waiting for.

To use an over-used metaphor in book reviewing, this a sumptuous report of a five star meal.

I really mean it.

This. Is. The. One. 

I’m talking about Reading for the Common Good:  How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith (IVP – regularly $16.00.)  And I’m talking about why you should buy two and get a third one free.  We have to get this book out there.

Look, I even know that good friends have already said that I should have written this book.  While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I am quite sure that C. Christopher Smith is certainly the best man in all of America to write a book like this, and the time couldn’t be better.  Although I have said repeatedly that James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is the Book of the Year, this one sort of dovetails with it.  I now have to seriously consider adjusting that assessment.  Can I award them both — Smith and Smith?

Reading for the Common Good.jpgReading for the Common Good is the book I’ve been waiting for.

For like 40 years.

And, yes, other than the one I already did called Serious Dreams, this really is the book I might have tried to write.  But I am so glad I didn’t as Smith 2 – that’s C. Christopher Smith of the Englewood Review of Books in Indianapolis – did the job marvelously. It is a book you simply must buy, and book you will really appreciate and I’d say you should probably buy a bunch.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of how Beth and I used to work in campus ministry out near Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, before Hearts & Minds, before Dallastown, before BookNotes.  We learned about the world of thoughtful Christian literature as we used books to learn about the real relevance of Christian faith, how a Biblically-based view of all of life being redeemed could guide us into relating, as we sometimes said it, the Bible and life, connecting Sunday worship and Monday work, prayer and politics.  A whole new world opened up as we read widely, talked about big ideas gleaned from good books.  We read old books – C.S. Lewis insisted that we do – and new brand new stuff.  We read novels (although not enough) and theology, spirituality and public affairs. Christ and culture, as they say.  

Literally – was it this way for you? – reading those kinds of books changed my life.  As I wrote in a column about the power of books a few years ago, page by page, authors invited us to see the world differently, to live differently.  Sometimes lightening bolt type epiphanies came on a certain page or from a certain chapter; more often it just crept up on you, small changes in perspective, new imaginations, different desires, transformed habits as we learned to live into the new creations the Bible said we were.

I hope it is for you as it was for us: we read in community.  We read with other friends, with book sellers and reviewers, within networks of friends at church, colleagues in ministry, idealistic kids almost as young as we were and older ones, teachers, mentors, pastors, parents.  

We have been told that we here at the bookstore serve that purpose for some of you and what a honor it is. Reading BookNotes maybe puts you more knowingly in the great tradition, the great conversation. By being aware of and sometimes engaging with good authors and good books, and talking about them together, we increasingly broaden our horizons.  Books, we often say, can enlarge our hearts and deepen our discipleship.

It is why nearly any good book on spiritual formation and almost every book on leadership reminds us to be readers.  

One of the chapters that helped me really appreciate this notion that reading is a spiritual discipline and an act of faithful discipleship came in Richard Foster’s now classic, nearly seminal contemporary work of ancient spirituality, The Celebration of Discipline where he explains in chapter 5 that reading carefully is a tool not unlike prayer and worship and meditation and service, gifts from God to help us grow. 

I still treasure and recommend books like Discipleship of the Mind and Habits of Mind by James Sire or the lovely, compact A Mind for God by James Emery White – his stories of reading are so inspiring and I’ve re-read it several times. As a grand opening gift the day we opened 33 years ago we passed out the potent little book by John Stott called Your Mind Matters — still in print, and still timely. When Eerdmans released in the late 1990s a collection of miscellaneous essays by Eugene Peterson called Subversive Spirituality, I nearly memorized certain stories about how reading novels was important to him, and his own advocacy for Christians reading broadly. His 2009 book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading is an extended meditation on slow, meditative reading, mostly about reading the Bible deeply, but is a must for any loyalists to the printed page.

It is a tad dense for some, but we love the brilliant Oxford University Press title The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by the splendid Alan Jacobs. For deeper thinkers, I sometimes tell about The Love of Learning and the Love of God by Jean LeClercq, a study of learning and reading within medieval monastic culture.  Nurturing the heart and mind by being in a community of bookish discourse is nothing new; I sometimes joke (maybe by reminding listeners about the book reading regimen of Charles Wesley and his Methodists or the impact of books on the likes of world-changers like William Wilberforce) that Oprah didn’t invent the idea of book clubs. Ha. In our bookstore we have a whole section of “books about books” and we gladly offer resources about the ups and downs of a bookish life.

If you are a pastor and you’ve heard me at any number of clergy events where I’ve given talks about books I have probably tried to press you into buying Reading for Preaching by Cornelius Plantinga. It is one of my all time favorite books about books, with the great title The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists. Although it is preachers, firstly, anyone who teaches or is a public speaker will appreciate it, showing as it does how books can influence our moral imagination, our rhetoric and vocabulary and cadence and more. I have sometimes sold it paired with another all-time favorite, the truly wondrous, insightful, oddly powerful Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, a writer I very greatly admire. 

I am not the first and certainly not the most knowledgeable or eloquent to say that books matter and that the art of slow reading and even “caring for words” is of huge importance not only for personal health and maturity but for the culture at large. McEntyre makes the case rather allusively, with great charm.  Smith brings his gifts of cultural analysis and helps us understand the times.  Please not the subtitle on the new Chris Smith book — the end-goal isn’t just personal enrichment or reading for personal pleasure, but for human flourishing. 

 Anyone who has heard me in workshops on all this know I often draw on Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and Nicholas Carr’s must-read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, both which bring a sober warning about what happens when we allow our fast paced e-culture of zip zip zip to erode our commitments to real reading, to reading a lot and reading well.

Our enthusiasm for learning and growing, for using books as tools for spiritual growth and public discipleship, for book clubs and book conversations and book budgets and church libraries are all under threat.  We need reminded – often and urgently – that books matter and that our culture is not as friendly to reading well as it perhaps once was.

And we have found our prophet, we have found a voice, we’ve got the book that can help us consider and reconsider why all this matters. 

I’m obviously talking about Mr. Smith and his brand new Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish published by IVP.


This new book by my friend Chris Smith is a wonder, and he gets it just about pitch perfect, bringing a passionate love of books, telling some tender tales of his own love of reading, explaining why it matters, how it has worked out in his life and his own church and its presence in their neighborhood. (For what it is worth, unlike Chris, I was not particularly bitten by the book-loving bug as a youth. We went to the library often, but I wasn’t as keen on reading as being outside playing with my pals.)

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help… reminds us why books matter, and Smith uses some great devices, on-ramps to the conversation, so to speak, that will thrill the true book lover, and will convince those who are less passionate about their love of reading. He even helps us understand a bit about the obstacles facing us these days, although that isn’t his main focus. He knows it isn’t easy, but he knows what is at stake. Unlike Postman and Carr, say, he doesn’t mostly moan about how little people read these days or how much time we spend on the internet; Chris spends a lot of time on the internet. He mostly invites us into a better story. Pun intended.


chris smith smiling.jpgFor instance, unlike nearly any other book about Christian learning and reading, Smith invites us to read with and for our neighbors.  That is, this is decidedly a missional book; “read for the Kingdom” I used to exclaim at youth conferences or events like Jubilee and Smith and his gang really do so.  Smith takes us beyond sloganeering and walks us through the complex matter of being attentive to our locale, our communities, our world, and explains how books help us do that. (The chapter called “Hope for Our Interconnected Creation” is just splendid!)  The subtitle about public flourishing is no mere add on, but is at the heart of Smith’s project.  He tells us about his own urban congregation and how reading and talking and learning together as a faith community within their own neighborhood has helped them bear witness to God’s work in their city, among their friends. (Some of this includes literacy classes, God bless ’em.) Reading rightly can truly be an act of mission, and this book explains that better than anything I’ve ever seen. Bar none, this book helps us appreciate a missional approach to books.

I hate to sound prideful by even bringing it up, but for those who wonder, I am positive, quite literally, that I could not have said it better myself. Smith has a gift, and he’s done so much as a missional reader, a church leader, an applied theologian, a down-in-the-trenches practitioner, albeit always with a few books under his arm. My hat is off to him and his family and his community.  Yours should be too!

In fact, this marvelously-written book is all about being attentive.  Novels and poets and any serious work of literature when carefully engaged slows us down and helps us attend to the details and nuances of the writing, and almost unknowingly schools us in paying attention, of thinking in terms of story, of plots and nuances, of seeing our own role as agents within a story.  Smith explains the quiet impact of books on our “social imaginary” and how good readers become more humanly engaged in the world around them. Maybe they even gather some skills at self-awareness, seeing how they see, perhaps.  Books can do that. 


slow church.jpgDo you recall our BookNotes review of Smith’s co-authored first IVP release, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus? It has an incisive social critique, looking at the dangers of doing church within a superficial culture that erodes quality for the sake of quantity and speed and efficiency.  Think of the dangers of fast food, and, as an alternative, the famous slow food movement with its values of authentic and local ingredients, care, community, scale.  In a way, that book was Smith and Pattison’s cry against the McDonaldization of the church. 

In some significant ways, Reading for the Common Good is a sequel, a how-to, next-steps kind of book.  Do you want to “cultivate community in the patient ways of Jesus” that counteracts the toxic influences of fast-paced, hot-wired, disembodied lifestyles?  Read.  Read slowly. Read together. Read with a view of how what you are reading impacts your world. Read about your world.  I think that Chris and John wouldn’t have written Slow Church, or at least it wouldn’t have had such wise depth, if they themselves weren’t readers. (Did you know that they worked together several years ago with a third guy to release a book called Besides the Bible which included 100 book reviews of books most often suggested “besides the Bible, of course.” I even had a chapter in there, a huge privilege to get to describe one key title. That book was one indication of Chris’s gift of being a bibliographer and curator of book lists.) Reading is key to being alive and well in this crazy culture, and is a marker of church health. It can make a difference, as these gents showed.  Books matter.

Think this is idealist?  Don’t believe me?


Smith told us a bit in Slow Church but he tells us even more in Reading for the Common Good about his Englewood neighborhood in the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and he explains how his church started a little bookstore, a book review journal, and how very small groups of folks grapple with books together.  He obviously loves the decent, lovely writing of “sense of place” authors like Scott Russell Sanders (who has a blurb on the back), Wendell Berry, Norman Wirzba, and Parker Palmer; he is very fluent in the new urbanism conversation and his bibliography in the back offers all kinds of great suggestions for those wanting to deepen their own awareness of this strain of nonfiction literature.  From fun fiction (including science fiction) and poetry to astute social analysis and cultural studies, Smith guides us through books that can help us see and care anew. His breadth of reading and depth of understanding amazes me.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, explaining that Reading… is truly about civic flourishing, guiding us towards books that might help us understand even the politics and economics of our neighborhoods and towns; I’m getting ahead of myself when I say this truly about missional reading. It is the moral center and passionate vision of the book (notice the map on the cover) but it isn’t where Smith begins.


Quite properly, Smith reminds us that before we read for the Kingdom, read with our neighbors, read about our communities, enjoy books that will broaden our understanding of our place in God’s world and God’s story of redemption, before all that we must be the church. His Anabaptistism gives him particular theological resources to strengthen his analysis of the local church as alternative community, but all of us should agree that the local church needs strengthened, that we cannot give ourselves to innovative, social entrepreneurship within our region if our own worshiping and spiritual formation practices are thin or ill-conceived.  (This, by the way, is a great strength of the other Smith’s You Are What You Love, which ends up “every square inch” comprehensive in scope – we serve Christ as Lord in all of life – but is mostly about renewing the worship practices of the local congregation, realizing that good liturgy is transforming in ways that form us for service in the world.)  For both Smith’s the local congregation is of supreme importance.

Chris Smith’s Reading for the Common Good starts with a must-read, tremendous and energetic introduction called “The Local Church as Learning Organization” drawing on the insights of Peter Senge.  It is sound and insightful in how it describes the context and foibles of local faith communities, how to understand the culture of an organization. It is thrilling to hear how his own church sees itself as based upon good relationships, relationships forged around engagement with Scripture.  The act of reading – primarily the Bible! – forms us in new kinds of relationships and gives us practice in the art of conversation (including the skills of civil discussion, dialogue, and disagreement.)  Books help in significant ways, and these few pages are worth the price of the book.

Wonderfully, in that introduction, Smith lists a few ways books help us learn, Christianly, even. He uses a line from Parker Palmer’s To Know as We Are Known (that has been influential for other writers, perhaps most notably for many of us, our friend Steve Garber, seen in his mature and thoughtful Fabric of Faithfulness.) Smith says,

Reading carefully and attentively is an essential part of a journey into knowledge that is rooted in love. “[A] knowledge that springs from love,” notes Parker Palmer, “will implicate us in the web of life; it will wrap the knower and the known in compassion, in a bond of awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy; it will call us to involvement, mutuality, accountability.”


I love that he reminds us how books can help give shape and direction to our impulse to get involved, the “just do something” reflex.  Yes, we need to care about the issues of the day, and the needs of our community, and, as he notes, “to ignore this reflex is to be hardhearted.”  But, “we must be attentive not only to what is to be done but also to how and why the work gets done.”

That is, to be church, and to be faithfully missional, means knowing what the heck we are to do once we show up. Books – and the very habits of heart that reading and discussing them nurtures – help us discern, help us learn to discern.  In a way, Smith is saying that reading helps us become motivated to action, but only the wide and studious reader will have deep wisdom to know what to do and how to do it.  Ahh, yes, books become conduits of wisdom.

Anyway, this opening chapter is worth its weight in gold, and I hope you read it, talk about it, wonder with your own church family how you can be more intentional about learning, about the ethos within your community, as learners, as readers. Is your congregation and your circle of friends interested in books and reading?

The upbeat foreword by Scot McKnight nearly made me cry as he told of being at a party with church members, and they chatted with enthusiasm about the books they were reading. In what order should we read Marilyn Robinson’s three related novels? What do you make of the differences in the faith/science conversation between authors such as Francis Collins and Michael Behe? How can our congregations embody Godly unity within diversity if we all read the same thing? What if we don’t read much at all, or have little common vocabulary about what books are important? 

McKnight says,

Our unity at Church of the Redeemer is of the Spirit and in Christ through the Father’s deep grace, but at work in that unity is a fellowship of shared ideas and beliefs and associations and joys and images and metaphors because we read similar books and talk about them with one another.

I do not have this kind of experience in my life, and certainly not in my own fairly large church.  Do you? Do you hunger for that, long for that, wish for conversation partners and shared assumptions about faith and the Bible, nurtured in part because of shared familiarity with the same sort of authors, the same formative influences?  If so, Chris Smith’s Reading for the Common Good is for you.


It starts, as I’ve noted, with the local church understood as a learning community.  There is an amazing chapter called “Reading and Our Congregational Identity” where Smith explores this more deeply, with wonderful insights.  In it, he uses a bit of a case study, drawing significantly on a book called Reading in Community where theology profs Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones explore the process of reading a Bible passage (and allowing the text to read us, as it is sometimes said.)

After this rigorous study of how we engage the Biblical text, Chris uses the insights of Fowl and Jones to guide us to a process of reading other books, also in community, for the sake of the world.  

He reminds us,

Once again, contemporary poetry and fiction can she needed light on the times in which we live, often helping us to see connections in ways that narrow, siloed genres of nonfiction – politics, economics, and the like – cannot.

I should emphasis that we need to be ever attentive to why we are reading and not just what we are reading. Our end it not to make a successful life for ourselves and our family or to navigate the turbulent waters of our times successfully. Rather, our end is to understand our times in order that our church communities might be able to live faithfully in them.

Reading is essential for the work of understanding our identity as churches that are seeking to embody Christ in our places. And our identity is interwoven with our vocation, and reading likewise is essential for discerning and maturing in our vocation…


Which is exactly the topic of his next good chapter, “Discerning Our Call.” It offers new insight (and believe me, I’ve read a number of books on this topic– calling, vocation, work.)  He again suggests we orchestrate much of this process of reading and discerning in the local congregation and delightfully cites authors as diverse as Dorothy Day and James K.A. Smith, quoting from Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak to Thomas Merton’s classic No Man Is An Island. I have written before about using books to help young adults think faithfully about their own vocations (have I mentioned Serious Dreams? Ha.) More could be said, but Smith’s chapter here is right on. It will be profitable, maybe provocative, for you.  

If you want to be renewed in your own intellectual journey, need a reminder of the joys of learning and the value of reading, this new book should certainly be on the top of your list. What a wonderful, delightful, stimulating read this is, reminding us that books can change lives, and that reading together can change communities. Aren’t you just thrilled to be reminded of that, to have a book not only to convince you, but that you can share with others. I think some of you will want to be evangelists of the book, sharing this one, to help others renew their own commitments to reading. As I’ve noted, his commitment to localism and a sense of his own place, has informed his reading so this is – if I may inelegantly use the phrase, “pay off.” The ripple effect is going to be seen, I just know it.  


Walter Brueggemann weighs in on the book, saying, nicely, that it is “a fresh, rich and quite unfamiliar proposal concerning human renewal and church regeneration.”  That someone who gets around as much as Walt (and who reads as much, fiction, social science, Biblical studies, history) it is fascinating that he suggests this proposal is not only “fresh” but “quite unfamiliar.”  Wow. Is he right?  I don’t know any book quite like this, come to think of it.

Maybe some of us have been saying this for years, but, yet, in Smith’s hands, this invitation and his almost programmatic agenda does, indeed, seem new.  Listen to the uber-creative Ken Wystma (founder of The Justice Conference) when he states that Reading for the Common Good

…is a paradigm-altering book and one that is sure to enrich and inspire as we seek to find meaningful ways to think about and engage our communities, cities, and the world.

Karen Swallow Prior (who wrote a tremendous memoir-by-way-of-book-reviews called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me) assures us that Reading for the Common Good will motivate “anyone who cares one whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church.”  Let us pray that it is so.  Won’t you please order some today?  I’m serious!

 I simply cannot say enough about this fresh take on an old practice: reading widely and well so that we might be equipped to be better people, better Christians, within better churches, for the sake of the world.  It is the best case I’ve ever seen for why we need to promote books in our congregations, why books are important for robust and lively faith lived out in the culture, locally and down to earth.

Reading for… will surely appeal to serious book lovers but also those who maybe are more practically-minded, wanting just to get on with things.  It will be of use to those who want to be thoughtful about forging a faithful sort of life in the world, and will be inspiring to those who aren’t that worried about such things, but just love reading novels and short stories.  From heady theology, Bible study, and cultural philosophy (yes, he cites Charles Taylor) to crazy fiction and memoir, kids books and fantasy, Chris Smith reads really widely and he has stories of how he and his comrades have together been shaped by talking about these books.  For the most astute reader to those still young in learning how and what to read this book is a winner. It brings together “two interwoven threads: learning and action.”

It helps us read for the Kingdom.


And, it ends where it begins, in the local congregation. In a lovely chapter called “Becoming a Reading Congregation” he takes on the questions of how to make this happen within your own church. He talks about Godly Play as one method of Christian education (do you know Jerome Berryman’s Montessori-influenced work, inviting children to slow, meditative engagement with Bible stories?) He talks about ways we read throughout our shared lives, he advises on how to curate book lists and how to more effectively promote reading (even slow reading in our “accelerated age.”) His Slow Church is part of the background here, but his book-lovin’ ways and his wide familiarity with authors of note on display here is just wonderful to see. And so, so valuable.  I hope you agree.


(One criticism here, which I have to get off my chest. Chris and I have talked about this, and I would rail with greater might about it if I didn’t love the book and the author so much:  there is a positive passing reference to Amazon, which I find reprehensible since they are corporate bullies, are under investigation for anti-trust violations and tax fraud, are well known for abusing their workers, remain one of the larger porno dealers in the land, and by selling below cost with little regard for the common good they have damaged our civil society, the health of our mainstreets, and, some think, our book buying habits in ways that a localist like Smith surely knows. To order under-priced books from them is flatly an act of huge compromise with a dysfunctional and unstewardly economy. For a book about economic faithfulness learned by reading good books curated by a trusted community to not distance itself from their amoral algorithms and well-documented injustices is ironic, if not shocking.  Did not the good editors at his publisher even note this? I suspect not, which is terribly disappointing.  Further, that there is very little discussion about finding and supporting good bookstores as partners in forming a reading culture in our families and churches and neighborhood organizations is unfortunate.)

Despite this oddity, and with my self-righteous opposition duly noted, Reading for the Common Good: How Books not bought from Amazon, I’ll add — Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish will be, if bought and read and discussed and shared, the most important missional church book in years. It is visionary and practical, fun and serious, attentive to our virtue and formation as well as our social imagination and worldview. Smith helps us realize how books can help us in the journey inward and the journey outward, so to speak. Smith himself is obviously interested in beauty and justice, in delights and hard service. It surely is one of the best books that is most dear to me, one of the most interesting and valuable that I’ve read in my entire life.


Let me say that again, more simply: Reading for the Common Good is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

So I’m pulling out the stops here, charging you with all the muster I can, to buy this book.  I have tons of other books to tell you about yet this year, but I’m saying it now: if you only buy one more book this year, let it be this one.


Or, better: take us up on our buy two get one free offer.  Three’s a perfect number to make stuff happen (says Andy Crouch at the end of Culture Making as he’s  prompting us to take fresh steps to “recover our creative calling” by getting busy thinking and doing something new.) Buy a couple of these and give ’em away. Sow seeds that will help us be better readers, more fluent in the best books for missional living. For the glory and reputation of God who cares so much about the life of the world, read Reading for the Common Good and share it widely. 


A closing reminder: although I tend mostly to review non fiction books at BookNotes, and Chris is himself a very well-read reviewer of good non-fiction works – and what an education we get just by paying attention to the books he cites here. He is a fan and connoisseur of good novels. In a great chapter where he draws on Charles Taylor explaining what “social imaginaries” are and how these worldviewish assumptions work, he draws nicely on Madeline L’Engle, a little known novel called Flatland, and then, in a splendid few pages, explores “Reading and the Social Imagination.” His quick name-dropping foray into novels from across the centuries and across the world is, again, nearly worth the price of the book, as he tells us how this or that author can help us.  But where does it all lead, these references to everything from Oliver Twist and Uncle Toms Cabin to the Hunger Games trilogy, from Shusaku Endo’s Silence and Geraldine Brooks Caleb’s Crossing to the poetry of John O’Donohue and Robert Frost?

That chapter ends with a section called “The Transformative Power of Conversation.” That is an important phrase, and it carries a deeply help assumption for Smith and his Englewood Christian Church. Reading good books will enhance your own commitments to the conversational arts.  Readers, it ends up, don’t just become leaders. They become listeners. They become more empathetic. They become better people. And maybe there is a key to changing the world, to Christ-honoring missional living.


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Reading for the Common Good
C. Christopher Smith




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