A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World by Katelyn Beaty ON SALE NOW

In the last few BookNotes I’ve alerted you to new, important
books about public justice, a wholistic gospel of radical reconciliation
applied to the most burning issues of the day, a punchy set of reflections and
liturgies around the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, and some heavy stuff about
how to live out uncompromised faith in the late modern world of choice and
change and increasingly secularization. A long review about two new books about
the arts rounded out a flurry of what I take to be a truly stellar season of
extraordinary books.

These are themes that are central to our work here.  Justice, Bible study, historical and cultural
analysis, and an attention to books
about aesthetics and the arts.

I do hope you’ve read and shared those columns, helping us
get the word out to churches and book clubs, study groups and classes. These
books are simply too good to read solo. 
Get some friends, a cold drink or two, and turn some pages.

(And, please, if I might: I recently was in a professionally
looking, pleasant Christian bookstore in another town, and they seemed not to
have any of these books. I suppose  you
know that many of the large and most influential Christian bookstores chains
just don’t promote these kind of serious, important, thoughtful books.  For them to get the sales they deserve, caring
 readers concerned about the state of
religious publishing must share the reviews, support those stores that do carry
these sorts of authors, helping them become known and their work
discussed.  We sometimes forget what our
best friends and customers tell us, that the selection we curate here at Hearts
& Minds is a bit unusual and that many bookstores just don’t  sell this stuff. Interestingly, few weeks back, Beth and I
were in one of the nation’s most iconic, wonderful, old, indie bookstores and, surprisingly, their
religion section was pretty bad.  We hate
to pat ourselves on the back, but if you like what you see here, spread the
word, and send us some orders!)

And now, I’m thrilled to tell you about a book that is one
of the very best of the summer, one of the very best of the year, that we have long
awaited, one that is on another theme that we are known for, a topic about
which we have almost too many books: a Christian view of calling and career,
vocation and work.  However, it has a
particular slant, a certain way into the conversation, that makes it nearly

A-Womans-Place.jpgAllow us to tell you about A Woman’s Place: A Christian
Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World
Katelyn Beaty (Howard Books; $22.99.)

As you can tell, it is indeed about the integration of faith
and daily work, informed by a solid and generative view of vocation. The
primary audience of readers, I suppose, is women, as it is a book about the
life of women in our culture, and the need for women to take up places in every
zone of life and society; there is here much wise insight to be found and
oodles of stories of Godly women doing good stuff and the struggles they
uniquely face, but, over and over, I kept thinking that men and women should read this; that is, it is not only a book for
women. Endorsers on the back – folks I really respect like Karen Swallow Prior
and Dave Blanchard and Ed Stetzer  and
John Stackhouse and Tom Nelson – all insist it is for men and women and that,
in the words of Presbyterian pastor Scott Sauls, “it will have a profound
influence on women and men alike.”

Actually, that Scott Sauls blurb actually says that he “prays
that it will have a profound influence on women and men alike.”  We echo that prayer, as this is a matter of
real urgency.  I pray that this book  becomes  known. I sincerely pray it finds a wide readership
within various denominations, various life stages, and among those with
different callings into different stations in the world.  We all need to hear the winsome but profound
message of this finely crafted book.

In fact, the last chapter of A Woman’s Place is called
“Where Do We Go From Here: How All of Us Can Equip Women for Work.”  It is must reading for anyone involved in
faith/work conversations or marketplace ministries, but is also useful for
those within higher education — she has a section for those who work at
colleges or universities (she herself learned about good mentoring from helpful
leaders at Calvin College.) There is a section for “bosses” and a section for
church leaders offering them advice in a portion called “What All Churches Can
Do.” But I’m ahead of myself. 

I will not rehearse here as I have often that our own
bookstore was developed in part to equip Christian people to serve God in their
work and callings, and that we have books that offer faith-based insight about
what some call “public theology” or “Christian perspectives” in science,
business, writing, parenting, art, law, engineering, teaching, architecture, journalism,
and more. But these categories of books are woefully under-appreciated; Ms.
Beaty’s lovely call to serve God well in every area of life and her
documentation of the growing faith and work movement, citing organizations and
ministries (some which we have resourced) will be a fun reminder, a fresh call
to engage, another piece adding up to some tipping point where churches become
known for equipping members to take up a missional vision of work in the
marketplace.  Insofar as this really is
part of our faithful response to the gospel, and insofar as we’ve neglected to
really promote conversations and thinking about work-world discipleship, we
simply must repent.  This is not incidental
or a curious tangent for the few, but central to our living out our faith,
moving from Sunday to Monday, relating worship and work.

Beaty tells of good folks who are doing this well and, since
it is a book about women’s roles and unique obstacles to doing this these days,
naturally, she tells the stories of women. 
She has interviewed dozens of women, led focus groups, researched ladies
doing Kingdom work all over the country. Part of the benefit of A
Woman’s Place
are the occasional two-page inserts, each telling the stories
of this woman here or that one there,  a
teacher, a CEO of a fair trade import company, a stay at home mom, a filmmaker,
a social science researcher, a YA novelist, a Native woman who started a
leadership training organization, and more.

WnKwSiur.jpgMs. Beaty is a great reporter and writer (she is, by the
way, the first woman and youngest ever Senior Editor of the globally-respected Christianity Today) so she has the writerly
skill to artfully bring these mini-stories to life. They will be inspiring for
anyone, I’d think, revealing how folks discern a call, move towards doing good
stuff, and overcome (or at least cope with) hardships along the way. I loved these
sidebar case studies of real women, although, truth be told, she tells even
more stories on almost every other page. 
A Woman’s Place, which is mature and thoughtful theologically
with a fair amount of Biblical study and great quotes from very interesting sources,
is just loaded with real-world examples and helpful case studies. In that
regard, its tone and balance and style is nearly pitch perfect.  I can’t imagine anyone not liking it.

The stories and illustrations give real life heft to the
urgency not only of visions of vocation and the call to be salt and light in
careers and callings, but to the unique ways in which women must rise to these
opportunities.  There is a great chapter
drawing on the best seller Leaning In
called “Why ‘Leaning In’ is Good – But Not
Enough.”  Her survey chapter “Women Have Always Worked” is very
good,  surprisingly informative, and truly
interesting. Her chapter on ambition is
excellent, and, although designed uniquely for women, I think it is useful for
most of us. (Beaty wrote the forward to the wonderful memoir by Jen Pollock
Michel, Teach Us To Want, a full book
on women and ambition and it, too, is fabulously rich, insightful and rewarding
for male readers! Gladly, Jen Michel makes a good appearance here as Beaty
tells her story and offers a few quotes from her book.)  Also happily, Beaty cites the lovely little “Frames”
book by Kate Harris, Wonder Woman:
Navigating the Challenges of Motherhood
, an eloquent and sharp women who
has, as part of that navigation, learned to embrace constraints.

This is brilliant stuff, and nearly revolutionary, for men
and women. What does it mean to be human, to be aware of our creatureliness, by
nature bound by space and time; limited?  We cannot do it all, and men and women fail to
attend to their limits at their own peril. (By the way, Mandy Smith is a female
pastor and writer I greatly admire  who
wrote The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human
Limitations Empower Our Ministry,
a book for pastors about honoring our
God-given constraints. It is beautiful, honest, sobering, and nearly stunning
in both its raw honesty and liberating grace. Zac Eskwine does a similarly good
job ruminating on this topic in The
Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy In Our Limitations through a Daily
Apprenticeship with Jesus
but his book is flawed by the assumption that the
pastor/readers are male.)

Again, Beaty is wise, drawing on healthy, often colorful
writers.  As a good writer herself –
please note the rare Oxford commas in the subtitle on the book cover! – she knows
how to pull a good quote and use it helpfully. 
Her own writing is substantive but full of wit, maybe just a step away
from playful snark a time or two.  It is
not silly or edgy, but she does wisely use film and pop culture and helpful
cultural allusions even as she draws on excellent theologians and serious

I mentioned that this book will be enjoyed by folks in
different stages of life will find it beneficial.  I cannot emphasize this enough.

 Kara Powell, youth
ministry specialist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary says:

Women in all life stages will
benefit from Katelyn Beaty’s holistic and positive theology of work, whether
that work is carpools or corporate board meetings – or both. 

In my favorite and most eloquent book about vocation and
calling, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling
Your Life’s Purpose
by Os Guinness, the famous author notes that the gospel
so decisively transforms us and sends us as salt and light and leaven into the
world so that we have disciples of Jesus serving in every zone of life and
culture. As one chapter succinctly titles puts it, “Everyone, Everywhere, in

gender and grace.jpgI learned decades ago from a book that Beaty does not cite,
but I am sure she has read and absorbed, (Gender
and Grace: Love Work and Parenting in a Changing World 
by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen) that in the
generative Genesis creation narrative
which offers the charter for full humanness, dignity, creativity, work, rest,
and relationships, we learn that humans are made together in the image of God
offers all of this equally to women and men. 
Some misread Genesis 1:26-28 as if it teaches that men are to work (“have
dominion”) and women are to raise families (“be fruitful and multiply.”) Of
course, as Van Leeuwen explained as powerfully as anyone, this is dead wrong.
Men are to be engaged in family life (and it is not normative for males to be
missing from the raising of boys and girls)and women are to be engaged in
social life (and it is not normative for women to be missing from the running
of corporations and governments.)  Together we of different genders image
God. The Genesis cultural mandate – create families and run the world as
culture-makers! – is  given to all. It is
a hurt family that is devoid of men and it is a damaged culture that is devoid
of women’s leadership in social, business, educational, or political institutions.

And so, Beaty helps us think about healthy families and healthy
workplaces and healthy steps towards cultural renewal, especially drawing out
the gifts and strengths of women for home and the wider world both.

As the always interesting John Ortberg puts it: 

Work is an essential part of being
made in God’s image, and women are essential image bearers. Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman’s Place brings reflection on
Scripture and an informed mind to help answer the question implied by the title
– a woman’s place is to be an agent of shalom working with dignity and strength
in all the spheres of God’s redemptive plan for a flourishing creation.

I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine anyone not like this
excellent book.  From those interested in
the doctrines of calling and vocation to those involved in work-place ministry,
those equipping believers to integrate faith and the quotidian things we do day
by day to anyone interested in the role of women in church and world, this is a
grand, delightful, thoughtful work.

But I must admit, there are some who will disapprove.

Beaty tackles head on, with succinct rebuttal and considerable
grace, the wrong-headed views of Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and Owen Strachen
of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who insist that the Bible’s
ideal is that married women are to stay at home and not enter the work-world.
Given the usual high level of scholarship exhibited by these sorts of
conservative leaders, it is bold of this evangelical woman to refute them. 

She is blunt:

Calling work masculine and
relationships and networking feminine, as Mary Kassian has, threatens to keep
women from knowing the good and holy purposes of work, whether inside the home
or outside of it.  Ultimately, such
teachings keep women from understanding a crucial part of bearing God’s image.

I will let readers discover how she handles basic Biblical
matters (although she does draw on part-time Inkling, mystery writer and Oxford
grad Dorothy Sayers, who wrote incisively and enduringly on work, and a small
book called Are Women Human which we
still stock!) The book is not primarily engaged in the work of Scriptural
exegesis, but there is cogent and helpful Bible teaching.

Importantly (once again, possibly drawing somewhat on early
work of Van Leeuwen) Katelyn Beaty looks at the social history of things, as
well.  She observes that:

The Council on Biblical Manhood and
Womanhood was founded in 1991 expressly to counter feminism’s influence in the
evangelical church. But maybe it’s not the Feminist Revolution of the 1960s and
’70s that has undermined the family unity. Maybe it’s the Industrial

What follows, then, is a brief but very helpful overview of
an important bit of analysis with which we should all be familiar.  You will learn a bit about the history of the
division of labor, the rise of jobs away from the home, be inspired by her interesting
observations, and be able to put these profound theological questions in a
bigger context. It may stretch some readers out of their customary assumptions,
but for many, it will be a sure delight.

I like how Amy Sherman – author of the must-read Kingdom Calling:Vocational Stewardship for
the Common Good
(not to mention a fabulous chapter in Serious Dreams: Bold Ideas for the Rest of Your Life) – who describes
not only the importance of Beaty’s invitation for women to think about vocation
and calling in this fresh way, but how she is able to address those who are hindrances
to women.  She suggests that A
Woman’s Place
offers good answers and ways to move forward.

It give us:

Incisive commentary on cultural
mores that have been overlaid on biblical texts should help the Christian community
to pry off those faulty ‘how it is’ assumptions and free us to explore the
reforms needed to get to ‘how it ought to be.’

This is yet another reason we think this is one of the
finest books of the year. It will help rekindle visions and hopes and dreams
for many of us, it will remind us of glorious opportunities and some obstacles
that, with faith and hope, we can overcome. It is a pleasant book to enjoy even
if at times a challenging one. And it will help us get to ‘how it ought to be.’

And who among us wouldn’t  be more sane if we take Beaty’s advice about
shifting our language away from “balancing” home and work and church to the
languages of “integration” of various aspects of our one seamless life? Of
course this is often, in our culture, particularly stressful for women,
especially if there are young children in the home. Beaty is aware of this, of course, and offers  creative ways to think about these complex
lifestyle questions.

On the last pages of A Woman’s Place Beaty tells again of Rev. Tom Nelson,
a pastor we admire whose book Work
Matters: Moving from Sunday Worship to Monday Work
she described earlier.
She helps us draw inspiration from the shifts in Nelson’s church.

Beaty writes:

After a major theological shift around the eternal value of work, Tom noticed
that Christ Community Church’s “cultural icons and cultural language” began to
shift. They began commissioning different individuals and different vocations,
and they began using prayers to honor and bless labor. One of their regular
benedictions – the prayer of blessing over worshippers at the end of a service –
is Psalm 90:17:


May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;

Establish the work of our hands for us –

Yes, establish the words of our hands.

God made us rulers over the works
of his hands. As we go about our work he is mindful of us; he cares for us (Ps.
8). When we recover this vision for all Christians, I imagine that more and
more women will find God’s favor resting upon them.

This is the sort of lovely and truthful and faithful stories
and implicit suggestions made within A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your
Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World.  
It is not just for women, and although
it may mostly be read by individual women or their book clubs and reading
circles – certainly it would make a great gift to young adult women, maybe a
recent college grad —  it will be
informative for older church leaders and anyone wanting to be reminded about
gender justice, opportunities for both women and men to serve the coming of God’s
Kingdom, or for those who want to advance the growing conversation around the
meaning of vocation and calling. We couldn’t be happier with this wonderful new
book, and hope you consider reading it. Do help us spread the word.  Sadly, this one wasn’t in that other shop I
visited the other day, and I doubt it is as widely available as it ought to

Let’s go, Hearts & Minds
friends: this is one of the best books of the year. Send us your orders today!




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Join us for the Fifth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture featuring Lisa Sharon Harper — author of “The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right”

You are warmly invited to spend an evening with nationally-known author and Hearts & MindsFifth Annual Pittsburgh Summer Lecture.jpg friend Lisa Sharon Harper at our Fifth Annual Hearts & Minds Pittsburgh Summer Lecture, Tuesday evening, July 26th starting at 7:00.

We will host this public lecture, conversation and author reception at Robert Morris University, in their lovely Sewall Center – they are located in Moon Township, right off the main drag there, out near the Pittsburgh airport.  We are thrilled to have Lisa presenting on themes from her book The Very Good Gospel: How Everything That Is Wrong Can Be Made Right (recently released by Waterbrook Press; $19.99; on sale for 20% OFF; $15.99.)

There is no charge to attend, we’ll have some snacks, a time for her to autograph books, maybe even a few other surprises along the way.

If you know anyone in Eastern Ohio or Northern West Virginia, or anywhere in Western Pennsylvania we hope you will share this invitation with them.

Or, if you want an autographed book but cannot join us, you can let us know and we’ll get one for you.

Beth and I view this as a way to say thank you to our many Western Pennsylvania-area customers and our friends there; in a way it is a Hearts & Minds party, with friends from churches, the CCO, camps and conference centers, denominational folk, nonprofits and para-church ministries, regional seminaries and schools, Christian radio, and friends in the publishing world, joining up to hang out a bit, shop at a huge book display we’ll have set up, and meet an author we truly esteem.

It really would mean a lot to see y’all.  And you’ll love hearing Lisa Sharon Harper.

A portion of our bookstore business is mail order and while we aren’t as faceless as some
on-line providers, we still long to truly greet our supporters. 
this summer lecture series we’ve connected face-to-face with some of
our mail order customers who we’ve never actually met. What joy!

Some of our business involves doing off-site events — Wee Kirk, Presby
stuff, APCE staff, college talks, UCC clergy gatherings, Lutheran
Synods — and, again, we value seeing our “on the road” supporters. We
cherish our diverse and ecumenical friendships, customers from
throughout the area.




The Very Good Gospel.jpg


Most of our friends know that we used to live in what was then a gritty East Liberty neighborhood and worked in Pittsburgh – Beth for a while in the CCO home office and in a residential home for persons with special needs, I with the Thomas Merton Center, in a Christian bookstore in Monroeville, and on staff at a Presbyterian church in McKeesport, just outside of the ‘burgh. We were born and raised in Central PA and have lived here now for going on 35 years, but our time in the Steel City was formative.

When we started underwriting this annual Pittsburgh event part of our dream was to honor a theological truth we learned through CCO, through an itinerant Christian philosopher and Abraham Kuyper scholar with whom we studied named Pete Steen, and from friends who had studied with Francis & Edith Schaeffer: God cares about all of life, about every sphere of life; it is this world Christ is redeeming, and therefore we need to “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5) in order to not only “think Christianly” but to live faithfully, working out with redemptive practices the implications of God’s gift of salvation for every zone of culture. The life of the mind and the project of cultural renewal are part and parcel of any mature vision of Christian spirituality.  Sometimes we called it “whole life discipleship.”  According to Colossians 1, the old song is wrong: the “things of earth” do not “grow strangely dim” but are illuminated, made more important and lovely as they are being redeemed by their rightful King. As Colossians 1:18 puts it, Christ is to be preeminent in “all things.”

But, we’ve learned, that not everyone has learned to think about “all things” — or even most things — as the servants of the Lord Psalm 119 says they are.  From rocks to rockets, from city streets to science labs to laws to recipes to films to all manner to technological gizmos, the Bible says “all things are they servants, Lord.” What in the world does that mean?  It seems to me we need Christian thinkers to help us learn to think like the writers of the Bible did.

So our years in Western Pennsylvania were significant, raising life long questions for me, even as they are farther away in the rear view mirror these days. It is one of the reasons we enjoy hosting an author appearance with a lecture like this every summer (at the same time our friends at the CCO are having their own staff training gathering there at Robert Morris University.) It honors our past and celebrates what we are trying to do by curating the sort of book selection we do.

We do hope you can join us, or at least help us spread the word.

Also in those years, significantly, we learned from the CCO about the importance of racial reconciliation; even in the 1970s they regularly featured conversations about what was later called “diversity” by the culture at large. The leader of the CCO in those years (Robert Long) had done urban ministry in Harlem and introduced us to radical followers of Jesus like Bill Milliken – who is still showing God’s love for urban kids as a nationally-known advocate for educational reform in high-risk schools. (For the few that recall that name from late 60s Western PA you John-Perkins.jpgmay enjoy knowing that Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC hosted him not long ago at an event where we were selling books — it was such fun to re-connect with him, talking with Milliken about Bob Long and Reid Carpenter and Mon Valley urban Young Life guys and reformational thinkers like Pete Steen.) In those years CCO introduced us to black leaders such as Bill Panell, Tom Skinner, Barbara Williams-Skinner, Carl Ellis, Elwood Ellis, John Perkins (whose connections in PIttsburgh even figures nicely in one of the biographies about him.)

The awful state of race and urban justice in our land — from Alton Sterling, Philado Castile and the snipers who killed Dallas police officers to the systemic disorder of mass incarceration documented so powerfully in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption — is something we’ve been talking about, and selling books about, for decades.  It is, sadly, as pressing now as ever in my memory.

martin luther dates.jpgI recall a quote by Martin Luther that I used often in our Pittsburgh years – Lutheran scholars might tell me if it is apocryphal. He is said to have said something about relating the gospel to “the burning issues of the day” or, in another version, “where the battle most rages” and that to fail to do so is to fail the gospel itself. 

Christ is Lord, the gospel of grace is true good news of a Kingdom breaking into human history; if Christianity offers a message of salvation coming via incarnation, then we must, we simply must, relate God’s grace and the teachings of Jesus not just to human hearts but to human hurts, not just to abstract spiritual things but to real life in the real world, including debates about politics, economics, structures and systems, ideas and initiatives. Social concerns and cultural engagement are not incidental or tangential to the work of the church but are its end-point: we proclaim God’s redeeming work in the cross of Christ and with Holy Spirited resurrection power we bear witness to the substantial healing and surprising hope seen as we erect signposts pointing to God’s renewed creation. Evangelism is a recruitment effort for the rightful King’s epic rescue project and we invite people to experience God’s mercy and enjoy eternal life, which starts now, as we take up citizenship in His Kingdom, “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

This is why we do the annual summer lectureship, to remind those of us who have been talking and living out these things for decades that it is true, and that it matters, even if sometimes our own churches don’t always proclaim such a down-to-Earth, fully Biblical, Kingdom vision.  As C.S. Lewis reminded us, we sometimes settle for lesser visions, content with other stuff, mere mudpies.

We must learn to live “in the world but not of it” as it says near the end of the Gospel of John.  As the famous fourth century African bishop put it, we live in the tension of inhabiting both the city of man and the city of God. 

I like what Calvin Seerveld wrote in Rainbows for the Fallen World, his dense book about aesthetics, when he said “culture is not optional.”  That is, we can’t decide not to “engage culture” because it is something we always do as humans made in the image of the creator God — one way or another. Even the monks and the Amish, in their rejection of culture, are, in their own way, being social creatures and interacting in some manner with the world. We are all always either serving the true God in ways that are coherent and proper or we are serving some kinds of idols, living disordered lives, “worldly” and tainted by idols. This is the only world we’ve got, and live in it we must, for better or worse. The question is how our understanding of the gospel informs us, transforms us, and what that means for our daily living, our insight about the world, and the nature of faithful lifestyles in the deformed society in which God has placed us. 

As that Pete Steen character used to ask, do we assume a dualism between the so-called sacred churchy and spiritual parts of life and the secular, seemingly profane parts of life? If so, we are “functional atheists” living mostly as if God didn’t really matter much in the rough and tumble of the real world of daily life. If Jesus is Lord, we are to be His ambassadors in all of life, being impossible people.jpgsalt and light and leaven, as Jesus Himself put it.  We are to seek first God’s reign, Christ’s Kingdom, His glory.  There is much wrong with the world to which we must say “no!” (Perhaps you recall the long review I did recently of the challenging new book by Os Guinness called Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization; he helps us think this through in necessarily serious ways.) And there is much good, or course, to which we may say “yes!”

We need discernment, insight, wisdom for, as the old hymn puts it, “the living of these days.”

To do this, or so it seems to us, we need books.

Please allow me to write that line again.

To do all this, we simply must be readers. We need books and helpful booksellers.

Reading for the Common Good.jpgAs C. Christopher Smith argues in Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish books can be transforming for us as we slow down, think about important things, take in new ideas, allowing the cadences and insights to shape us as we form bonds that reading together can create.
(Read a short piece Chris just published in Sojo making a lovely case for reading and talking together. Yes!)

I know you reading this realize that good readers become the best leaders. Heaven calls us to think well, care deeply, get involved. Reading matters, and meeting authors of good books is a very special treat. It is one reason why organizations like the CCO hold their big Jubilee conference, so good content from wise leaders can be passed on, face to face.  We hope you agree.

The Christian church has long seen books as tools for discipleship – of course the solas and the new catechisms of the Protestant reformation were promoted by the newly invented printing press; Luther himself nearly became a celebrity for his prolific writings, distributed widely by the antecedents of pamphleteers and Christian literacy campaigns and modern day religious booksellers. Methodist John Wesley’s “method” was to form reading groups, of course, small bands of folks reading and talking and praying together. This gave rise to groups of readers such as the ones formed by William Wilberforce in their efforts to reform morals and stop slavery in eighteenth century England. Did you know that US pilgrims brought a printing press along on the Mayflower as they set out to create a culture in the new world?  Books are important for anyone wanting to make a difference, anyone seeking to love their neighbors and engage culture well.

Serious Dreams cover.jpgThe authors in my own little collection of essays for young adults, Serious Dreams: Big Ideas for the Rest of Your Life say this over and over: we need a Christian mind, we need to take up our vocations with intentional consideration; African American leader John Perkins in his chapter congratulated college graduates for learning to develop their personal libraries — this from a man who only went to third grade! My own chapter, delivered to graduates of the graduate programs at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, drew on I Chronicles 12:32 which mentions those who “understood the times and knew what God’s people should do.”  Oh how we need books today, to inform and guide issachar poster.pngand provoke us to deep conversations about “what God’s people should do.”

And so we offer books for world changers, Kingdom of God citizens, I Chronicles 12:32 people, dreamers of dreams. We describe important titles to make us think, authors to help us along the way, resources to enlarge the heart and stimulate the mind, to help us relate Sunday worship and Monday work, as we sometimes say.  Books to help us relate prayer and politics. 

When we get a chance to honor authors by bringing our customers and friends into live conversation with them, we feel like we’re doing our good part of our job.  Or, conversely put, when we bless our customers by giving them a chance to meet a real, live, nationally-known author, we think we’re doing a good part of our job.

We love selling books, but there is something pretty wonderful about introducing our customers to those who write the books.

lisa head shot real.jpgLisa Sharon Harper is one of those authors we want our friends to meet.

She is, in the language of 1 Chronicles 12:32, a “daughter of Issachar.”

Lisa has co-written two books, one with a point/counter-point approach, done in collaboration with a conservative political thinker and OP pastor, D.C. Innes (Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, recently revised and re-issued by Elevate Books) and the powerful, multi-authored Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith on which, by the way, I have a long endorsing blurb. It was nicely published by Zondervan.  We will have them both there the night of the 26th.

The Very Good Gospel.jpgHer brand new book, which I’ve mentioned before, is The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (Waterbrook; $19.99.) We have it at at special sale price, too — 20% off, making it just $15.99.

list sharon harper talking.jpgLisa Sharon Harper is the sort of author who writes with a fire in her bones, a deep desire to tell her story, a passion to get us to think, to raise questions and point a way forward.  As a black woman who now works for our old friends at Sojourners – Jim Wallis did the first author appearance we ever did, I think, offering a talk at our store for 25 people in the early 1980s – she has a lot to say about “the burning issues of the day.” She has a remarkable amount of experience — she has organized in Ferguson and preached at national racial justice events these past months; she has prayed on the streets with environmental activists and she has gone on pilgrimage along the infamous “Trail of Tears.” She believes deeply that God’s grace shown in Christ Jesus is the key to the mysteries of human life, from the most personal poignant matters to the most complex public affairs, and that the gospel offers the truest vision of hope for a very broken world. 

The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right is a splendid book, easy to read, full of stories as well as profound analysis of the way the gospel relates to the world in which we live. At some parts it is simply glorious.

Given that Ms. Harper is known for speaking about racial justice and being an advocate for the poor and marginalized, it is a delight to hear so much here about her own inner life, her struggles and personal faith journey.

She talks about her girlhood, her joys and fears and sadnesses (she went to an almost all-white school, so there are the not-uncommon experiences of being teased, concerns about her hair, her skin tone, etc. etc. etc.) Lisa bravely shares how Christ befriended her and yet how she struggled – she writes about her anxieties about weight and some subsequent eating disorders and about coping with the anguish of a broken home. She is vulnerable, sharing her longing to be deeply loved and truly accepted. I was moved to tears at one point as she tells of praying for healing, of her inner anguishing and how she learned to increasingly trust the God who loves her so, who wants her. Issues of shame circle around and around, it seems, and even though she is a national leader for a progressive sort of social action, her deeply felt, evangelical faith is, time and again, her balm in Gilead. Citing Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5, she writes, “The whole of our lives is a journey to return home.”  Oh, if we all felt such homecoming assurance that we are the beloved of God with a place at Christ’s table.

Near the end of the book she is led in nearly miraculous ways to minister to a dying friend, to share in a ritual of grieving with others in their time of bereavement.  When Lisa talks about God’s real presence and leading in daily life, about the way Christ’s gospel is the basis for renewal and hope, she isn’t just spouting a cheap social gospel or trendy liberation theology. She walks with the God who loves her, she serves the King who claims her, and she brings a candor and clarity about how hard it is to live into these promises of God’s presence and peace. She beautifully reminds us that we can experience the occasional miracle and know the in-breaking of spiritual renewal.

lisa praying on the street.jpgHarper is admittedly a professional organizer, equipping church folks to be more intentionally involved in matters of peace and justice, environmental stewardship and multi-ethnic ministry, but The Very Good Gospel is more than a handbook to social change. It is a testimony of one woman’s journey, a story of God’s healing, of the Spirit’s presence and power, even as it guides us into confrontation with the principalities and powers.  This is full gospel ministry!

very good gospel partial cover .jpgLisa’s book is largely arranged in two major sections.

The first part is her systematic telling of the overview of the Biblical story, drawing much on Genesis 1 – 3, talking about a good, good creation, blessed and well-ordered with God’s shalom, managed by humans made in God’s image; a torn and vandalized shalom, cursed by the fall, and a promise of redemption, offered in mercy and hope by a covenant making God.  Some of us talk about the “chapters” of the unfolding drama of redemption, naming them creation/fall/redemption/restoration, and she does this with close attention to the Biblical text.  She does this with lively and fresh language.  She highlights the gift of shalom and the gospel of reconciliation.

In a great foreword, Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes,

Lisa Sharon Harper has written a bracing, generative exposition of the elemental narrative of gospel faith. She has done so by sharing the sequence of the “very good” of creation, “the wreckage of the fall,” and the “very good” of the gospel of reconciliation and restoration.

There are lovely reflection questions at the end of each of the chapters in Very Good Gospel, making it an ideal book for small groups or adult Bible classes or campus ministry studies. She asks us to enter the story of creation, marveling in the wonders of God’s good world, be honest about our sin and brokenness, and embrace the deepest questions Jesus himself asked.  She asks us to ponder how we have said “yes” to God’s invitation, to consider the resurrection, to do an exercise to help us experience the gift of living water.  I do hope this book is taken up by small groups and classes – it is well worth talking about.

These opening chapters – taking us from a good garden to a new City — provide the strong and essential framework for the rest of the book which works out some of the implications of God’s plan for restoration and healing in every area of life.

Very-Good-Gospel-720x470.jpgAs the book unfolds, Lisa wisely and insightfully offers ways to apply the goodness of this grand narrative and the gospel to the complexities of modern life. Each chapter draws on the image of restoring shalom, of embracing and living into God’s work of reconciliation.  For instance, there is a chapter called “Shalom with Self: Shame and Freedom” and another on shalom between genders. 

Her study of Paul’s writing on women is insightful, a moderate sort of Biblical feminism; she draws on Carolyn Custis James and her recent book Malestrom  who “marvels at Paul’s conversion and its impact on how he engaged with women. She points out,” Lisa tells us, “that not only did Paul’s conversion catapult him across ethnic barriers into ministry with gentiles, but also across gender barriers into equal partnership with women.”

In a powerful section called “Restoring Ezer” she tells us:

All the way back to the days of slavery in America, every women in my mother’s direct line of ancestry suffered sexual violence. This include me. My great aunt died in the woods after being raped by her uncle. My third great grandmother, the last adult slave in our family, bore seventeen children by five “husbands.” Family lore says her husbands kept dying or being sold away. It also is possible that she was forced to breed children on a plantation in South Carolina. She herself was half-white, likely the product of a rape. Most of the women in our family suffered in silence, and some suffered again when they raised their voices to name their perpetrators. Fathers, cousins, even sisters and pastors minimized the pain and chastised the crushed ones for disturbing the peace.

Later, when she talks about God’s empowerment after she rejected her evangelical leaders forbidding her to teach (because she was a woman) and God’s healing when she attended to her own sexual molestation, most readers will want to cheer! It is always good to see folks move away from toxic faith towards empowerment and health.  This is an honest book, but one with much gladness as the gospel of Christ over and over offers transformation, new chances, fresh starts, real hope.


There is a good chapter on shalom restored in our relationship with the Earth. It is very, very good.

There is a chapter about shalom restored among broken families, there is a powerful chapter on race. As I might say regarding the other chapters, these are worth the price of the whole book – well worth reading carefully and talking about together.


In yet another she shows Christian principles for creating international policies that could enhance national security and global peace. Her views on Godly governance and principles for good citizenship are themselves very helpful  these days; her telling of being on a learning tour to the Balkan war zones and visiting the Nazi death camps is moving although most of this chapter is Bible study without venturing much about policy.

Her chapter on how to be witnesses to this kind of Biblical vision of peace is generative for anyone wondering about how to do full-orbed evangelism in these modern days.  Her stories of public justice work done faithfully by local churches are inspiring, helping us relate word and deeds.  Again, the discussion questions are useful.

Lisa Sharon Harper’s final chapter on death and dying offers a wonderful, moving close to this grand telling of God’s work in the world and the Spirit’s presence in our most tender, deepest moments. But, again, even here, she doesn’t miss the public and social consequences of thinking about life and death.  Her linking the “small deaths” of change – letting go of death-dealing ways and “choosing life” is extraordinary.

fix our eyes on jesus.jpgMs Harper’s reminder to turn to Jesus (she cites Hebrews 12:1-2) and the need to embrace a humility that leads to repentance and  renewed trust in God – as risky as it may feel–is beautiful.  For some of us, we can “hear” this evangelical truth and spiritual counsel because she has shown us how relevant and real it all is. These are no pious bromides or cliches, offered abstractly away from the context of our raw world of injustice and idols. Lisa brings together the best of  social justice thinking, lots of Biblical exegesis and theological reflection, and classic spiritual formation practices to bring us to this very place where we choose life.  We have genuine hope because alienation and brokenness and separation does not win. Christ reigns and this is very good news indeed.

Her closing words, after another fine set of reflection questions to help us ponder and process all these inspiring words and challenging insights, are these:

There is a way back to shalom. It is the way of God, demonstrated through the person of Jesus and made possible through his death and resurrection.

This is the good news. This is the very good gospel.

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To show that we are not alone in thinking this to be a very wonderful book, please read these very impressive endorsements by some very impressive leaders.

Lisa Sharon Harper has presented the gospel, the good news, as it was meant to be whole and complete. Our world has compromised so many elements of the good news that we are left with a divided gospel. We need to recover the whole Christian gospel, the wholeness of the church, the wholeness of relationships. Lisa has unleashed the whole-ism of shalom. Her application of the good news for America, for our culture, in the world, reminds us that God is bigger than our problems. My wish is that Christians and non-Christians alike read this book. 

Dr. John Perkins, co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association, founder of the John   and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi, and author of many books, including Let Justice Roll Down

One can scan across the landscape of the church and not find a better articulator of the essence of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Lisa Sharon Harper follows a rich tradition of reformers and iconoclast theological practitioners who deeply love the gospel and God’s people. She has made it her life’s project to challenge lethargic and cynical people to live love and practice justice. Our world is richer and more vibrant because of her compassionate and strong voice. 

Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ and author of Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World 

Lisa Sharon Harper is so smart and interesting she s a wonderful leader. I respect her immensely and am passionate about the message of this book. 

Jen Hatmaker, speaker and best-selling author of  7 and For the Love

Part mountaineer, part miner, Lisa Sharon Harper has somehow ascended the mountain of Scripture to survey its entirety while also digging deep into its core to extract raw truth of immense implication and conviction. Lisa s revealing stories, scriptural depth, and prophetic voice make The Very Good Gospel a very good read one you won t want to miss. 

David Drury, chief of staff for the Wesleyan Church World Headquarters and author of nine books including Transforming Presence

In a world that has legitimate reasons to question the possibility of a good God, Lisa Sharon Harper reminds us what is in fact not only good but beautiful about the God who loves us more than we want to be loved. Her winsome words wash over the reader with gentleness, while simultaneously striking out with a fierce love that is corrective and healing. “The Very Good Gospel “is more than just a social activist s field guide; it is a road map to a better world one marked by faith, hope, and love.

Christopher L. Heuertz, author, activist, and founding partner of Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism”

To speak of the gospel as good news, it has to be good news for the oppressed, the impoverished, the brokenhearted. To embody God s shalom is to embrace and restore the image of God in all humanity no matter who or where they are. Chapter by chapter Lisa Sharon Harper builds the case for reading, understanding, and living the gospel as the life-giving, freedom-bringing, shalom-infused reality it really is. There are new, exciting voices coming from a new, younger generation of evangelicals, and they are turning the traditional meaning of that word around. Lisa Sharon Harper is such a voice and well worth hearing. 

Allan Boesak, South African human-rights activist and the Desmond Tutu Chair of Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary

Lisa Sharon Harper writes in a fresh and personal way, combining rich theology with deep experience working with contemporary issues to inspire us not to settle for a thin gospel but a thick gospel the fullness of the good news of God s reconciliation and shalom that touches all aspects of life. “The Very Good Gospel “is for all of us struggling with how the good news of Jesus should impact not just our own lives but also speak to the injustices in our world. This book brings all the threads together and weaves a glorious picture of God s redemptive work in creation. 

Ken Wytsma, President of Kilns College, author of Pursuing Justice and Create vs. Copy

The Very Good Gospel big.jpg




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Habakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament, and Hope by Brian Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast Community (and ten others listed.) ON SALE NOW

Habakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament, and Hope by Brian J. Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast community (Books Before Breakfast) $14.00

How should I begin this review of a book we are so excited to tell you about?

brian walsh.jpgThe-Transforming-Vision-9780877849735.jpgBeyond Homelessness.jpgShould I tell you about the author, my friend Brian J. Walsh, a former professor at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies and now CRC campus minister at the University of Toronto, who has co-written a handful of books that have been among my all time favorites? Should I remind you of some of his other titles such as the earnestly recommended The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview and Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age or the extraordinary, hefty and wide-ranging social and Biblical analysis called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement released in 2008 and as germane as ever, and many others, including the really, really interesting Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire? I treasure his books and maybe you do to. (Whew, I could work up a head of steam just listing his important books!)  Walsh’s work has been provocative, stimulating, important. I should be able to sell any book he wrote, because he’s that kind of author. I could start there.

St John Before big.jpgOr, should I tell you about the context of this project, the Wine Before Breakfast community, a weekly, early-morning group of students and others gathering around a creatively-curated liturgy and Eucharist in the heart of the University of Toronto?  Want to know about that — young adults doing creative liturgy, campus ministry, folks worshiping together  before 7:30 am? Who does that?  That ought to draw you to this book, wanting to learn about these kinds of practices for renewal. 

Brian and his comrades put together a year or so ago a previous book of reflections, litanies, homilies and prayers, walking through the gospel of John that also came out of their morning WBB Eucharists called Saint John Before Breakfast. That’s a way to start, saying this new one is like that one, that a lot of folks loved. Most reviews of sequels tell about the first one, and, man, that John Before Breakfast was something.

Maybe, I thought, I’d start off the review with a little meditation on the role of prophets. This new one is, after all, essentially a six week journey through the book of the Bible called Habakkuk, one of the more minor of the minor prophets.  Of course, they are called that not let justice roll graphic.jpgbecause of their meager message – au contraire – but because they are short. Jewish readers call all of them together The Book of the Twelve.  I could start off talking about how studying Amos in college rocked my world, how seeing verses like Micah 6:8 drawn in early 70s calligraphy spoke to me, about how just last week I got to introduce young Christians to Isaiah 58. I’d say how years ago Walter Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination became so vital for so many of us., Walsh, too. I like that line from Malcolm Boyd, saying that often in church groups we study the prophets but we wouldn’t know one if one sat down next to us. He’s right, I’m afraid, about our general lack of prophetic discernment, but he’s mostly wrong that we study the prophets. I could start there.

But I have to start with the cover.  It may be the first thing you notice.

It looks a little hand-drawn, doesn’t it – actually, not quite the classy and professional cover design look one expects from serious books these days.  New York book designer Chipp Kidd wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, unless maybe it was considered an ironic look, a sketchy booze bottle for some noir novel, done old school.

But this isn’t ironic. And I’ve grown to love it.

The cover choice speaks volume about this book and the community that gave rise to it.

habakkuk before.jpgThe cover of Habakkuk Before Breakfast shows a portion of a painting done by a First Nations artist who hung around the University of Toronto Wine Before Breakfast community, to whom the book is dedicated.  Gregory “Iggy” Spoon died as the sermons and prayers and liturgies and reflections that became this book were being prepared and experienced.  I recall reading a message from Brian about their pain and lament and anguish upon Iggy’s unexpected death in March 2015. Iggy’s death impacted their community (as did a few other deaths and tragedies that season) and Brian and the WBB community honored him as they mourned their loss.  As the Hebrew prophet three millennia ago railed about a pious religious establishment that seemed to have little room for humility and care for the outsider, Iggy stood in their midst as a suffering brother, with gifts and goodness and insight and pain, like anyone, but with a past that seemed to make evident, I gather, much that is wrong with a formal religion that doesn’t understand hospitality, inclusion, or justice. Mostly, I guess, he was a beloved friend.

The painting Iggy made for them ended up on the altar as they celebrated communion, and, week by week as Iggy was in the hospital, someone in the community would receive the elements on his behalf: “The body of Christ, broken for Iggy.” “The blood of Christ, shed for our brother Iggy.”  

Brian continues:

Iggy's WBB painting.jpgHe had seen some pretty bad times in his life. And for some reason he kind of adopted Wine Before Breakfast as part of his extended community. Iggy would sometimes show up at the back of the chapel, or sometimes he’d be downstairs waiting for us when we came from worship to breakfast. And Iggy was a very fine artist. One day he showed me a picture that he was making for the community. A bottle of wine, a chalice, a loaf of bread, some fruit, an open book, a music staff with the name of our community written on it, and … a butterfly, a symbol of transformation. This was his gift to the community. But it wasn’t finished yet. He didn’t know what to write on the bottle. What vintage of wine? Or might he put the time and place of our services? Or might he (reaching into his satchel for the bottle) put “Kelly’s” on the bottle? Kelly’s is the cheapest and most potent wine that homeless folks drink. “I don’t know, should we put Kelly’s on that bottle?” Iggy asked. Yes, I replied. That’s exactly what should go on that bottle. If Wine Before Breakfast is about anything then surely we should be about taking such a terrible wine, a wine of such heartbreak and sorrow, and asking Jesus to make that a holy wine, a sacramental wine, the wine of the new covenant in his blood.

And so, the cover; the odd-shaped Kelly’s wine bottle poured into a broken chalice.  In a way, it is precious just to own such a book, not mass produced, with no focus groups determining the viability of the cover art. This, my friends, is the real deal. This is a book that can help Jesus transform the terrible drink of “heartbreak and sorrow” into holy wine.

The book is great. It is arranged quite nicely.  You’ll want to spend time with it, pondering deeply its often heavy message, maybe even with a group, it isn’t complicated or too long or dense.

It really is a glimpse into the weekly Wine Before Breakfast worship services held at the University of Toronto at 7:22 AM; the book reproduces some of the insight and pathos and beauty of that small community, and it not only has the brilliant and passionate reflections and homilies (not all by Walsh) but the prayers of the people and the prayers after communion and such; in this sense, it is very much like their much-appreciated first book, Saint John Before Breakfast. Besides good exegesis and powerful preaching, it is a glimpse into a worshiping body, mostly young adults, graduate students, professors and friends, and some who, I think, feel disenfranchised from the conventional church. There’s a lot written about that, but this is a ministry doing something about it.

Habakkuk Before Breakfast: Liturgy, Lament, and Hope is laid out on the page in such as way that it seems just a bit cleaner and clearer (with each section clearly designated) that their previous John one. Another difference, I think, is how interestingly it explains their music choices.  Deb Whalen-Blaize is the music director and her section in each chapter is nearly brilliant as she allows us in to her thought process and discernment about what music–pop, folk, rock, alongside Taize and standard hymns – they use to underscore and develop the theme of the service.  It is a really, really good portion of each chapter and hearing her so maturely interact with the Biblical content and Brian’s pastoral leadership to find just the right songs is very impressive.

Each chapter is a fully collaborative project, and although different people take turns doing different parts (except Whalen-Blaize who does the music portion each time) they are all mature, consistently thoughtful, raw, real, as they share their particular portions of the Wine Before Breakfast Eucharist.

Each chapter opens with a long reflection from Walsh which was, in fact, sent out to the core members of the community before the service. It invites them – through his own spiritual discernment, as he’s own dwelt with the Biblical text, informed, too, by things that were happening in their lives – to be prayerful and intentional about what is going to happen as they gather at their next fellowship meeting/worship service/Eucharist/communal breakfast. Hey, ya gotta love a group that has to have a “Bread Guild.”

I think this practice of sending out a communication prior to the service is one that some churches or fellowship groups might borrow, offering a pre-service reflection, a warm-up to the service.  Walsh is powerful and poignant and his emailed epistles are themselves well worth pondering.  In each case, they really do set the stage for the communal reading of the chapter from Habakkuk they are about to encounter.

Here is how Brian describes this piece:

This is sort of a spiritual priming of the pump; a beginning reflection on the biblical text that invites the community both into the world of the text and to a worship shaped by the text.

It is after that opening reflection that Deb Whalen-Blaize works her magic. Having her write about false starts and final choices, inspired by a careful reading of the Biblical portion, is like watching a great chef cook up a fancy meal.  She tells us what songs worked, what lyrics she appreciated and why she chose them. For instance, she draws on Springsteen (what else but “My City in Ruins” when reading about the horror of a destroyed Jerusalem and the violence of Empire) and Leonard Cohen and the lovely “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Marketa. 

An old blues song or two make an appearance, even an outtake of Van Morrison wailing out “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” which surely worked well alongside great hymns and praise choruses.  Okay, not too many praise choruses.  But you’ve got to give props to a worship planner that uses Joe Pug and “It Is Well With My Soul” and “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less…”  or Counting Crows and “Be Thou My Vision.” Naturally, Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” suggested itself for reading  Habakkuk 2. In fact, her reflection on the classic Dylan song is itself marvelous. (She is obviously a lover of all kinds of music, and her sophisticate and gift for picking stuff is a blessing. I wonder if her style of doing lyrical criticism was itself informed by Brian, who has always used music in his lectures and sermons. Heck, he wrote a whole book about it, Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination which some people read just to see his brilliant interplay of lyrics and Bible, even if one doesn’t love Cockburn as he does.)  Anyway, Deb Whalen-Blaize is doing good work to keep this thing lively and poignant.

I mentioned how good her bit on “All Along the Watchtower” was. Very astute. Brian’s pre-service reflection that week – “Standing on the Watchtower… With Habakkuk, Dylan, and Hendrix” is fantastic, as he reflects on Hendrix’s re-tooling of Dylan’s acoustic bit of apocalyptic fervor, even as he deftly relates Habakkuk 2 and Isaiah 21. The dude knows his rock music, and he knows his Bible – a lot better than most.

In his sermon, then, he goes farther, reflecting on Paul’s use of Habakkuk in Romans. For those who follow New Testament studies, you’ll realize that Walsh’s quips and poetic lines in his homily that week are, in fact, informed by very serious study of the varying interpretations of what is meant by God’s righteousness, and what it means that the just live by faith.  It’s a hugely significant connection, and it’s good. 

Anyway, as he says:

“All I got is a red guitar,

Three chords and the truth.

All I got is a red guitar,

The rest is up to you.” 

So adds Bono to Dylan’s’ “All Along the Watchtower.”
All I’ve got is an ancient text,

That has the ring of truth.

All I’ve got is an ancient text,

The rest is up to you.

Or, perhaps, the rest is up to us.

Here we are, three weeks  into Habakkuk, 

up to our necks in it seems.

Here we are, deep into the burden that this prophet saw.

And seeing through his eyes has had some terrible resonances…

He continues, after having named some of the unexpected hard stuff that has come up in the culture and world,

So we have taken our stand with Habakkuk on the watchtower.

We have resolved to not talk falsely,

to tell the truth,

and to put our complaint in the only place where it might get 

a response:

at the very throne of God.

Walsh and students.jpgAnd so it goes from each of the members of the community who preached and prayed, sang and read, honest, raw, free-verse homilies befitting the sort of oracles they are pondering there together and the sober setting in which they find themselves. These are not academic lectures or preacherly pronouncements from a big elevated pulpit, they are punchy, poetic, but right to the heart, in gritty, common language. It is rare to hear this blunt, Bible talk, offering lament and outrage and zeal for justice, honest about pain and confusion. It’s what we need.

Week by week, they gathered in the cold (and dark) of winter and go through this somewhat similar habit-forming liturgy. A reflection, a reading of the text. Music, prayers, responses, bread and wine, more music.  The prayers and poems and reflective litanies in response to the homily each time are very, very good.  

These responsive litanies and powerful prayers in HBB are not designed or offered here just for you to use — it’s not that kind of a book — although I am sure you could be inspire to craft your own informed by their process.  And some really could be swiped – they are that good!  (You can see some of the creative liturgies they’ve done in other settings, here. They invite you to use them with due acknowledgment, so no “swiping” is necessary.)

A few readers may wonder if this Wine Before Breakfast community is adequately orthodox, with proper emphasis on proper doctrine.  Maybe not, I don’t know those details, although, let me assure you, they are committed to being shaped by the Word, in this case, the good news of the gospel of Habbakkuk, who is scary and hard and weird and somehow God’s truth.  For what it is worth, here is a wonderful reflection Brian offered after being surprised for a party celebrating his 20th anniversary of doing ministry in that setting.  (They sure do like to party, and, in that regard, they are like their Master, who had a reputation for such things, you know…)

The subtitle of Habakkuk Before Breakfast, though, you will recall, is “Liturgy, Lament, and Hope.”

As in other Biblical studies Walsh has done — say, his marvelous book co-written with his wife, Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed or the densely succinct set of Advent devotionals co-written with three other colleagues, The Advent of Justice, or the spectacularly interesting Bible monologues in Beyond Homelessness (a high-point of the book for many) — Walsh Is very, very committed to the authority of the Bible as the very Word of God.  But the life-giving revelation comes alive in community, and that is why he wasn’t kidding when he said, that third week, riffing on that Bono quip, that “the rest is up to us.”  We must grapple with the text, with understanding it, with hearing it, with living with it, and with living its gospel out in our own places. 

These litanies and prayers and liturgical forms are not incidental, by the way, they are key to framing the gathering community before God, in the Spirit, as they hear God’s Word in the text.  Some of us may wish they’d just be done with the responsive readings and litanies and prayers, no matter how heart-felt and filled with yearning they may be; just get to the good Bible teaching, man!  No, this won’t do.  These are curated short worship experiences, gatherings around the Word and sacrament, in an edgy sort of blend of contemporary and ancient worship. The Word of the Lord in Habakkuk comes to us in this real world context, and we are privileged to listen in on the preparation and the prayers and the homilies and their hopes of living into the text.  The Bible study is amazing, but it’s not the only piece.

(I wish there was a closing section of each — what in the heck did they talk about over muffins? How was the message received? In the next one, I hope they add just a little bit more to bring us into the lived community after the prayers and the songs and the Word.)

Here are the six chapter titles: of Habakkuk Before Breakfast.

habakkuk before.jpg1. Violence and Destruction: How Long?

2. Of Fish Hooks, Judgement, and Watchtowers

3. The Righteous Live by Faith, But Wealth is Treacherous

4. Idols, Glory, and Silence

5. Drinking Songs and Remembering

6. The Liberating Yet.

You just have to read these for yourselves, but just a quick few shout outs to alert you that this is pretty creative stuff, no matter who was speaking, praying, preaching. 

WEEK ONE  Here they make use of Tennyson’s awesome poem “In Memoriam” which is perfect for the start of a New Year. One section of this sermon, by the way, explains a bit of what to expect, asking, “Habakkuk in Epiphany?”  Walsh had shared earlier how he had this holy hunch that this was the book the community needed for this upcoming season, and  about his risky decision to use it as they journeyed through the Toronto winter heading towards Lent.  Speaking of the “no holds barred spiritual honesty” of the “rich covenantal tradition” of the prophets, Walsh wrote, earlier,

Is there a particular text we need to hear? A word from God that might be calling us? A biblical author who will lead us more deeply in our ongoing wrestling match with God? Is there a certain place that seems to be an entry into the Story for us at this time? A biblical book that might serve to shape our imaginations, give voice to our longings, resonate with our lament, and engender hope in the midst of it all? 

So in the first full chapter (their first chapter back after Christmas holiday) he explains the violence and judgement in the texts they are about to gather around.  Whew. The prayers and litanies are perfect.

WEEK TWO:  Heads up: Walsh does something with the “fishers of men” line from Jesus.  I don’t know if he’s right, and I’ve not heard anybody say this before, but he linked it to the prophet and a typical use of fishhooks in judgement.  Check that out, but don’t get distracted.  This is quintessential Walsh, explaining how Habakkuk is crying out in protest to God.  He draws on a WBB singer-songwriter friend, Martyn Joseph, and a song called “Not a Good Time for God” as well as “Apres Moi” by the powerful Regina Spektor. Wow.

WEEK THREE: I’ve already noted his use of Paul; it is brief but potent.  Here he draws us toward the deepest thing of all —  faith, God’s faithfulness, our faithfulness.  Trust God, he says.  Wealth is treacherous, after all, and we know what is coming…. Heavy, good stuff, highlighted beautifully by the description of the music choices.

WEEK FOUR: This is wonderful, again, offering  solid exegesis and moving, creative reading of the Biblical passage, bringing together sharp observations about idols, economic growth, empire, and the need for a subversive imagination to stand firm against such corrupt ways.  That transforming vision is still on the horizon, though, and he preaches:

Glory replaces shame.

Intimate knowing replaces objectified control.

Silence overtakes the cacophony of empire.

WEEK FIVE: I don’t want to spoil it, but they use a song by Bill Mallonee and VOL, and it involves drinking. As does the Biblical text. Walsh is honest, here, blunt, even. Who couldn’t use a stiff one after all this stuff from the throne of God taking on the horrors of the world and our own need to lament and repent?   His take on drinking songs and what sort of memory comes from them is brilliant, although I’ll admit I don’t really know about that. But it sure sounded right. I doubt if you’d hear this kind of stuff in your local Presbyterian or Methodist church these days…

WEEK SIX: A young woman in the community preaches this week and brings it, naming her own inner sin even as she protests the violence and injustice of the world. I had to fight back tears, and you might too. And what does Habakkuk tell them to do?  This you’ve got to see. Again, the prayers and songs and litanies, and a closing pray by Philip Newell is very helpful.

This book is a gift to us all, and it is a fundraiser for the work Brian does there at the U of T. I hope you consider getting it.  

Just to remind you how urgent and important this is — this community is, as I said, the real deal — you may want to know that the launch party in Toronto to celebrate this book happened a day or so after the Pulse Nightclub murders.  Brian said he didn’t intend to preach that night, but it seemed that, even before the book party that evening, they needed to pray and weep and think together. There are hurting students in their community, LGBTQ friends, naturally.  So in some ways, pastor Brian summarized the book and the things they experienced together in their series on Habakkuk. Here is a link to that sermon, preached just a few weeks ago and published in their Empire Remixed website. 

Here is what N.T. Wright says about the new book:

Habakkuk Before Breakfast is like no other book on the prophet. That’s because it is, itself, prophecy — and poetry, and preaching, and prayer, and liturgy, and lament, and a dozen other things melded together into a powerful, and powerfully disturbing book. A book to shake us up and make us realize that God’s loving justice is the only firm ground on which anyone — or any society — can stand.

I like the blurb on the back by Karen Pascal, the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society & Legacy Trust. (Nouwen lived in Toronto, you may recall.) She writes:

Habakkuk Before Breakfast will both disarm you and make you thirsty with its honesty. It will meet you, refine you, and call you onward. A deep sense of community is woven into the pages of this genuine collaboration of the prophets and poets of the Wine Before Breakfast community. As a reader, you are engaged not just by the ideas but by the community. As they stand on the wall and wait, this book offers us a relentless wrestling with God who is ultimately and forever faithful.

And, listen to this, from Mark Wallace of the Christian Reformed Church:

Once again, the Wine Before Breakfast community invites us to join them at their table of gathered worship. These liturgies, written in the language of longing and lament, in the voices of this community, call us to engage with the works of Habakkuk, and with the prophets and poets of our time. These words, forged in shared experience, in joy and pain, call us to join in the radical resistance of sitting and eating in the midst of a bewildering age. Be warned, this is not comfort food, yet you will be longing for more.


St John Before big.jpgSt. John Before Breakfast Brian J. Walsh and the Wine Before Breakfast community (Books Before Breakfast) $18.00  I mentioned this several times above — I did a larger review when it first came out. What a great idea, sharing these Biblical studies and homilies and liturgies with us all.  By the way, this was to be a fund-raiser for them, so if you buy ’em from us, we’ll have to order more from them (no publisher or distributor.) Get it?  If you want to support this kind of indie book publishing and serious Biblical study in a real community of young adults, this is a book you should purchase. Plus, it’s darn good stuff, studying John in a way that will blow you away.

subversive 2nd.jpgSubversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time
(2nd edition)  Brian J. Walsh (Wipf & Stock) $17.00  I’ve mentioned this often, and really hope you’d consider it. I’ve read these essays/sermons/talks/chapters over and over during the last decade and they are sustaining, powerful, significant. After The Transforming Vision but before Truth Is Stranger, as I recall, Walsh gave some of these talks furthering this worldviewish critique of modernity, capitalism, the idols and ideologies of economic growth, scientism, technocism, all bearing fruit in technologies of war and environmental abuse. How can we learn to name these things? What does it mean to image God in modern day Babylon? How does our dis-ease and confusion about our culture effect our faith?  What would it take to have faith truly be subversive of the idols of the dominant culture?  This is a power-house of a book, with a new chapter added a couple of years ago when it was re-issued. A must-read!

colossians remixed.jpgColossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Brian J. Walsh & Sylvia C. Keesmaat (IVP Academic) $24.00  I’ve mentioned this above, indicating it shows mature Scriptural scholarship applied in exceptionally serious ways. I thought I should list it here. This really is an audacious, brilliant bit of work, with more than one viewpoint offered as a conversation occurs on the meaning of the text and as they bring the early church experiences to us in creative storytelling and powerful cultural analysis. This is solid Biblical exegesis, a specific book studied not only in it’s own context, but within it’s own place in the unfolding redemptive plan revealed in Scripture. They see echos of the Old in this letter of Paul’s and they see within the struggles of these early Christ-followers hints of how we can live out our faith today. Endorsements include rave reviews from Tom Wright, Marva Dawn, Andrew Lincoln, Walt Brueggemann, Frank Thielman and other top notch Biblical scholars. And some bookseller guy from Dallastown who’s stuck in there raving among the big names.  I still love this book and highly recommend it — hold on to your hat, though. Colossians Remixed will challenge how you read the Bible, how you think about discipleship and church, and how you see the world.  

Prophetic Lament- Call for Justice in Troubled Times.jpgProphetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times Soong-Chan Rah (IVP) $17.00  I have mentioned this often; it is a lively and moving commentary on the Old Testament book of Lamentations.  If you resonate with Habakkuk’s call to big picture stuff, global concerns, justice and our corporate brokenness, this could be really useful. If you like the way Walsh weave lament into his sermons about justice and hope, then you will realize the value in this sort of prophetic imagination, shaped by the Word and by modern day injustices. We need books like this, for sure. 

Reality,  Grief, Hope- Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.jpgReality, Grief, Hope  Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $15.00  This is, in many ways, the book decades in the making, a simple and passionate follow up to The Prophetic Imagination. Like Walsh, Brueggemann highlights lament, drawing on the prophets own denunciation of ancient Israel, calling a remnant community to stand in covenantal fidelity, seeing thinks as God does, even if it puts us at odds with church and state.  Brueggemann does really help us see that what happened in 587 BCE is somehow generative for us now, after 9-11 and with the collapse of so many ways of doing things.  This is a great little book.

Saving the Bible From Ourselves Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well.jpgSaving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well Glenn R. Paauw (IVP) $18.00  I am quite taken with this and can’t wait to really dive in.  Each chapter explains a posture or tendency that we have to make the Bible harder than it needs to be, or more confusing, or readings that are prone to cause us to miss the meaning of the text.  For each error, Paauw gives an alternative approach, fresh ways to save the Bible — not because the Bible needs saving, but because we’ve learned bad habits of reading it wrongly.  I get it. This is good, good stuff. Endorsements on the back from Walter Brueggemann He calls it “puckish” but series. Another endorsement rings out from Mark Noll.

free for all rediscovering the bible.pngFree for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community Tim Condor & Daniel Rhodes (Baker) $16.99  This was a splendid, generative book that came out of the “emergent village” imprint a number of years ago. It’s out of print but we have a few left. I know Walsh liked it — it’s main point being that we must unleash the Scriptures among us, allow us all to share our thoughts, and struggle hard for a fair and communal reflection on the meaning of it all.  I think this is a strong resource, for those who understand that we need a communal reading and interpretation of Scripture and for those who have been hurt by more didactic and authoritarian teaching.  It seemed right to name it here. It had been rigorously endorsed with nice blurbs from Walsh, Will Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Phylllis TIckle, and John Franke.

called tocommunity EN.jpgCalled to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for H
is People
 edited by Charles Moore (Plough Publishing) $18.00 This is a stunning new anthology of beauitful excerpts of books, essays, articles, Bible studies and sermons on the themes of community. This is a 52-week study, a great resource for anyone needing more insight about living together amidst our own foibles and the culture’s pressures. Hear from Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier and John Perkins, Joan Chittister and Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Betty O’Connor, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Andy Crouch, Gerhard Lohfink, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and others.  So glad to see Plough publishing again. This is a treasure-chest!

slow church.jpgSlow Church Study Guide.jpgSlow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus  C Christopher Smith & John Pattison (VIP) $17.00  I have said over and over that this is one of the most significant books on the church I’ve read in decades. It brings a Walsh-like critique to the idols and ideologies of growth and status and efficiency and invites us to slow down, build community, learn patience and through God’s grace, gather a human-scale sort of missional energy for our own neighborhoods. Learning a sense of place, having an eye for injustice, but enjoying the good things in our areas is all part of what it means to be followers of Jesus in a slower church. There’s a good study guide for it, now, too.  

Subversive Jesus Craig Greenfield.jpgSubversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy & Faithfulness in a Broken World Craig Greenfield (Zondervan) $15.99  I wasn’t sure this was going to be all that profound  — the word “subversive” is over-used and not every hip book about doing cool justice work is that good — until an old CCO friend told me they knew this guy and assured me he was doing great work, and that we’d love his forthcoming book. And, wow, what a book — I could hardly put it down. It is conversational but mature, and he is obviously involved in doing inspiring work. And Greenfield has some fun, too. His antics protesting cruise ship injustices by getting a group to dress like pirates was hilarious — sort of a cross between Shane Claiborne and Bob Goff. (And they didn’t just act up once, but entered into longer-term relationships with third world workers on these ships who are terribly abused. Who knew?)

His years of experience in Cambodian, his journey to serve the poorest of the poor, and how that mission involvement effected his own faith development was beautiful. When Jesus’s teaching of love for enemies struck him, he and his wife baked cookies for local drug dealers (and none of them showed up — our gestures of faithfulness don’t always “work.”) This is an upbeat, adventurous book, although the story of him getting cancer was grueling. If you like Walsh and this kind of lived out, joyful sort of mission in the, this will be a good read.  Great work, Zondervan, for offering this inspiring, healthy story about learning to weep at injustice, and do something about it. I hope they keep doing books like this, and I hope we keep hearing from Craig Greenfield.

habakkuk before.jpg




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A Reflection on Patriotism and a review of “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty” (by Eric Metaxas) and five more ALL ON – SALE 20% OFF

Please see the link to our secure website order form page, shown below. We love doing these ruminations on books and making our suggested lists of important titles, but, of course, we make our living selling the books. Thanks for your consideration.  Happy book buying, and happy reading! 

this Fourth of July holiday weekend, I want to tell you about a book that I
very much enjoyed, one that I can say even deeply moved me. There are layers of
complicated backstory around the topic of the book that I mostly won’t go into, but you should know that I
found this book to be a surprisingly gripping read for me.

I like the author’s
previous writing, enjoy reading about history, but have an allergy to books
about patriotism. I’ve reviewed books on the endlessly interesting history of the Founding Fathers
here at BookNotes before, and enjoy telling people about this genre about civic life, the common good, public
faith and the ideas and virtues that have given shape to our North American
culture, and our United States, particularly.

how I love the kind of patriotism that cares about a land and a place and a
country, honoring one’s own heritage and history – the good and the bad –
without necessarily demeaning others. These lines written by Lloyd Stone after
WW I, sung to the achingly gorgeous tune of Finlandia
always choke me up:

is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.


may not be in the majority, I am aware, although I know I am not alone, to say
I worry about over-stated patriotism, both the cheap kind where people with
flag-themed beer cozies think they are being honorable yelling slogans about
American being Number One or the kind that insists we must be strong in
military might and global influence as if we are an Empire that measures worth in sheer fire power.

I was raised in a very patriotic home –
my family has lost loved ones in wars. The three older men I care about most
(my father, my brother, and my father-in-law) all served in the military,
proudly, as officers. (See, I have this reflex to say that because in my
experience to say one is critical of unadulterated patriotism will surely be
criticized, as if I don’t care about vets. I don’t know anyone who “blames
America first” or fits the description of an “America hater” but so many right
wing talk show hosts and conservative pundits tar us all with that inaccurate
accusation. It offends me. Do you know what I mean?)

in part because of my own father’s wisdom as a good conservative, I came to believe that too much misguided and
uncritical patriotism is inappropriate, foolhardy, even, especially for Christians.  To use the language of Saint Augustine,
perhaps channeled afresh through Davey Naugle’s beautiful Reordered Love, Reordered Lives or James K.A. Smith’s must-read
You Are What You Love, it is
distorted affection and perhaps idolatrous to love a government too much, or in
the wrong way. We should give all things their due and love the right things to
a proper degree, and each thing properly; love of state isn’t a bad thing, and
the Bible calls us to honor the proper authorities. In a good
world, at least, it would be disordered not
to love your land and government, somewhat, somehow.

mindless saying “My Country Right or Wrong” suggesting that one dare not
criticize one’s own land was not promoted in my Christian home, but it was in
the air everywhere in the late 60s and 70s when I was coming of age and
thinking about politics, citizenship and the role of protest (in the Bible and
in contemporary society.)  Large
matters of public policy (the Viet Nam war, the nuclear arms race, America’s
role in propping up corrupt regimes from the Philippines to Iran to nearly
every oppressive banana republic in Central America) were being debated.  I cannot tell you how many times I was
told I should move to communist Russia for daring to say that my beloved land
was doing evil in the Third world, or that we had issues like race and poverty
and justice for migrant workers or corporate shysters polluting our air and
water without consequence to deal with here at home.  Those stupid replies to legitimate social criticism still
weigh heavy on my heart, decades later.

unclesam-god-229x300.jpgCivil religion became the phrase scholars used to
explain the nearly religious way faith in one’s own government, with no
tolerance for critique, functions. Again, think of James K.A. Smith’s analysis
of “cultural liturgies” in You Are What
You Love.
Hand over heart pledges of allegiance and using Bible language of
heaven (“alabaster cities gleam, untouched by human tears”) to describe any temporal
nation should give us pause. It is dangerous to allow the faith of the church to be used as window dressing for the secular state.

I shouldn’t have to remind you that this
kind of story of our own country as called and exceptional and somehow nearer
to God than others is commonplace, but for Biblical people, unacceptable.  Biblical scholars and some brave
pastors use the analysis of civil religion as they draw upon the Old Testament
prophets who offered solemn rebuke to ancient Israel when the injustices of the
land were legitimized by implying God was on their side, no matter what. “The
temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” they would chant, and Jeremiah, for
one, would insist that even God’s covenant people couldn’t get away with murder
by claiming to be exceptional.  Every
nation will be judged by the sovereign of history, and no nation should be
loved inordinately; patriotic sentiment or national loyalty ought never to allow
us to overlook injustices or a lack of public righteousness. We must be careful
that care for our nation doesn’t turn into the idol of nationalism. Pride still goeth before a fall.

Jeremiah 22 the prophet extolled a former king for doing justice and taking the
side of the oppressed and hurting; liberal justice advocacy for the powerless
caused it to be “well” with him and indicated authentic spirituality (“for is
that not what it means to know me, says the Lord” v.16.)

Jeremiah confronts the King.jpgThen the prophet bluntly condemned the new king for building
a fancy palace without paying fair wages, for living high on the hog and
thinking his legitimacy was based on his profitable international business
dealings (see v. 14-15a, although the NIV misses the market aspect of it, “competing in Cedar.”) Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, take note! It isn’t the point of this column to
document the vast amount of Biblical material that calls us to be critical of
our own beloved land and to resist civil religion, but it is important to at
least recall the dangers of quasi-religious, overly sentimental and uncritical
faith in one’s own country, or its founding mythologies, a sin that is as old as Sodom and Gomorrah (see
Isaiah 1: 10-17 or Ezekiel 16:49 to see how the prophets used the economic injustice
in those cities as emblematic of the sins of Israel) and as recent as any
belligerent political debate where U-S-A, U-S-A becomes a chant for greatness, without
proper humility.

say all of this on the fourth of July, to tell you that I am not one
who generally likes the “God Bless America” cantatas or other
red-white-and-blue celebrations that seem to me to smack of civil
religion.  I detest “my country
right or wrong” thinking and I believe, generally speaking, we have too much
patriotism, or at least too much that isn’t critically engaged in the realities
of both the true goodness and evident evil of our blessed but broken land.

If You Can Keep It.jpgAnd,
then, yet — surprise — to say this: I loved Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers of
American Liberty
(Viking; $26.00; 20% off sale price = $20.80.)  Mr. Metaxas is a born storyteller, a
great communicator, and a fine writer. I was worried about this book, to be
honest (see the aforementioned fear of civil religion and my concern as a
Biblical person that no one nation should be honored with religious-sounding
absolutes which closes off an possibility of critique and repentance.)

despite a few small quibbles, I loved it. And I commend it to those who, like
me, maybe wouldn’t be apt to pick it up. 
Really, you should send us an order for this book – it’s a great read, even if you want to push back on some points. It’s a great time to read such a book.

suppose many of you don’t resonate with my concerns about misguided patriotism.

eric with book.jpgYou might be quite likely to buy this book and we would be delighted if you
ordered it from us. I don’t have to convince you that Eric is an amazingly
sharp guy, a talk show host and pundit who seems to bring the wit and depth
(well, almost) of a William F. Buckley and the gritty evangelical faith of
Chuck Colson, and the interest in talking to intellectuals and thought-leaders
about big questions as might, say, Os Guinness or Nancy Pearcey. Eric is a gifted writer, a funny,
funny, guy, and agree or not with all of his views (or like his jokes)
expressed on his daily radio show, he is an author I suspect you appreciate.

amazing grace metaxas.jpgIf
you read even somewhat in conservative evangelical circles, you know his
wonderfully-written and fascinating Bonhoeffer biography (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) and his best-selling book
about William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace:
William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
from which they
made the must-see, very moving film of the same title.

I hope you bonhoeffer.jpgknow his great pair of recent paperbacks,
Seven Men: Seven Women And The Secret of Their Greatness.jpgseven men.jpgThe Secret of Their Greatness and
Seven Women: The Secret of Their Greatness.
He has a real knack for getting important things said by way of telling the
tales of historical figures. 
Without being didactic about it, he allows pretty conservative values
and political tendencies to bubble up naturally as he tells us about this
courageous freedom fighter or that justice advocate or that
culturally-important poet or leader, telling us about folks from Jackie
Robinson to Hannah More, from Mother Theresa to Eric Lidell. If you’ve read his
books, you know he’s got a knack for this and that his books are enjoyable and

If You Can Keep It.jpgIt
is the readers who might not want to read Eric Metaxas, or who aren’t drawn
to read about the Founding Fathers, that I want to persuade to consider giving If You Can Keep It a try.  It is a fast-paced book, serious but
not dense, and, as I’ve said, I enjoyed it very, very much. Like reading David McCullough’s
1776 or watching the TV adaptation of
John Adams, it properly shamed me a
bit, making me ask myself why I am reluctant to be clear about my appreciation
of American ideals and the principles at the heart of the Republic. There
really was a lot in here that I learned and a lot that made me feel some things
pretty deeply.  I hope you’ll
appreciate my remarks about it; they are heart felt, and writing this out is
better for me than grilling hot dogs on this national day of honoring a
brilliant revolution.


you’ve read the books on civility and the public square by Os Guinness (most notably
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future) one of the
central teachings of If You Can Keep It
will be familiar. Guinness has made explicit the three-fold flow of traits that
are central to keeping America vibrant and healthy.

There is the constitutional
assertion of freedom of and from religion that is a building block to American
culture. Religion, Metaxas reminds us, channeling Guinness’s own reading of the
framers and founders, must not be coerced. Only a freely chosen faith can be
sustainable and profound enough to guide and inform and bolster civil goodness
in the public square. So religious liberty was a huge matter, freedom of
conscience, for everyone, regardless of conviction. Ahh, but how does one
maintain such religious liberty? Only a truly religious people can step up and
live out such religious freedom (again: a coerced faith or state church or
civil religion simply won’t do.) So there is this significant interplay between
freedom of and from forced religion and a robust, lived faith that offers a
solid grounding for public virtue.

as he makes clear, virtue is needed. 
Otherwise, things fall apart.

is, by the way, one of the great insights in de Tocqueville, the mid-nineteenth century Frenchman who wrote his amazing memoir of his journey to and impressions
of America, called Democracy in
He wondered, a century after the great colonial revolution, how
the States were faring, what made America what it was. He famously found a deep
religiosity at the heart of the culture, everywhere he went. He concluded that
“liberty cannot be established without morality nor without faith.”

Ponder it a minute: if we are free to do what we want but we are not moral
people, then, inevitably, everyone will, in fact, do what they want — for
themselves, probably, disregarding the common good.  The founders were seriously well-read in moral philosophy, and
somewhat in theology, and were deeply aware (more than any of our contemporary
public leaders) of a realistic perception about the nature of the human
person. The human condition is, among other things, that we are sinful, disordered, often selfish, and such an insight must inform how we think
about social arrangements and our view of power and the rule of law and political theory and the like. (Yes, too, the famous “checks and
balances.”) This is heavy stuff and the brilliant leaders of the Constitutional
Convention (sometimes called the Federal Convention) in the summer of 1787 were
serious thinkers, debating well this kind of thing. I suppose you know of The
Federalist Papers,
written the following year, just for an example of the depth of their discourse, which Metaxas cites on occasion.

the question looms: what makes people want to be good, or at least good citizens, thinking of the
commonwealth over their own individual needs and wishes? Great sacrifice for
the commons comes from people who have a moral compass pointing them to care
about others, and, it seems almost empirically obvious, that this most naturally
happens when people are guided by a religious faith that teaches the golden
rule and the like.

golden triangle.pngSo
there you have it, for starters, the bold claim that the Founding Fathers
presumed a certain sort of worldview, if you will, and at least three things that
they wrote about endlessly, but never quite so directly as when Guinness or
Metaxas spells it out as the “golden triangle.”

Requires Virtue

Requires Faith

Requires Freedom

notes that in recent years, this idea of the significance of faith and
religious liberty for our public life is virtually unheard, at least in intellectual circles, and
when it is, it is often dismissed if not mocked. The religious freedoms for mediating institutions and faith-based associations are woefully neglected (although Metaxas doesn’t write about contemporary policy or court rulings much regarding this up-to-the-week topic.) Regarding his own education (his degree is from Yale)
and the lack of awareness of the interplay of this necessary golden triangle of
freedom, virtue, and faith, he writes, “Virtually no one seemed to understand
what the founders had taken for granted as the secret center of their novel
idea of self-government…”

as we might say today, the “secret sauce.”


If America was indeed a country created not
because of ethnic or tribal boundaries but instead because a people had come to
believe – and therefore embody – as a set of ideas, how could America be said
to exist if almost no one anymore knew what those ideas were? If these ideas
had essentially evaporated from our national consciousness for forty years or
more, weren’t we unwittingly but unavoidable becoming Americans in name only…

If You Can Keep It:
The Forgotten Powers of American Liberty
draws easy-to-understand images,
is chock full of illustrations and stories and episodes, offers primary source
excerpts from speeches and letters, providing good summaries, (if a bit too
sweeping at times) and gives mostly very solid insights about the nature of the
ideas behind the Constitutional Convention and the framing of our founding documents.
His point is that these genius thinkers – Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John
Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and the others – despite
faults great and small – came up with a truly new and previously untried experiment
in self-government. This was a remarkably new idea, and they were deeply
committed to this new set of ideas, itself a remarkably new notion.


a matter of small detail, a number of these great thinkers who were deputies at
the convention did not sign the Constitution; Jefferson, whose influence was
significant, was in France. Some of the gentleman, such as George Mason, and
the interestingly named Catholic from Baltimore, Luther Martin, refused to sign
on principle. Some awaiting a “Bill of Rights.” Some had just gone home or fell ill.

that were sown through the centuries were taken up from the Greeks and Romans,
through the Magna Carta, the Enlightenment, the Protestant reformation and the
British revolutions, but no-where on the planet, ever, did anyone every come up
with such audacious claims, and make such a bold and daring move to create a
Republic such as ours.

know this is often said, but it is nearly breathtaking to read of it again, and
in Metaxas’s hands, the radical and daring nature of this project (less, it
seems, the Declaration of Independence, itself amazing, and the revolt from the
King, dramatic as that was, but more so the new ideas to create a new form of
government, rejecting monarchs or kings out of a whole new paradigm, so to
speak) is utterly exciting. This book should be used in high school civics
classes and study groups from sea to shining sea!

could quote page after inspiring page of Metaxas writing about this stuff, but
if you are a history buff, I don’t have to tell you — these eighteenth century revolutionaries were brilliant and eloquent, and even the small bits of
their writings offered here are fabulous to read and ponder.  I appreciate how Metaxas not only quotes
them liberally but gives background and color, as a fine storyteller and
popularizer should. 

appreciate how he surveys how old-timers have written about these assertions;
his long and important chapter on the brilliance of the best Longfellow poem
(on Paul Revere) and how it was written for deep social purposes on the eve of
the Civil War, drawing on a sense of unity and the common good from the
Revolutionary era, was tremendous!


has a chapter called “Venerating Our Heroes” which I thought was fabulous – I
didn’t know much about Nathan Hale, that’s for sure.  I would want to add a few other heroes that Eric might not,
but his vision (or is it a strategy?) to keep virtue alive by telling the
stories of virtuous leaders, is so, so necessary. (It is, by the way, the
project behind his Seven Men and Seven Women books, each showing the “secret
to their greatness” as a heroic sort of courage and integrity.) There is a lot to think about in this
chapter, and it strikes me as urgent in our age of anti-heroes and sex-driven consumerism.
(When will we grow tired of Kim Kardashians’ boobs or Beyoncé’s butt? And how
bad has it gotten when even fundamentalist spokespeople like Jerry Falwell, Jr.
happily pose giving a thumbs-up in front of Donald Trump and his framed Playboy cover?)

How to Survive The Apocalypse- Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the end of the World .jpgFor
a more sophisticated treatment of the role of anti-heroes as an indication of
the gloomy secularized times, by the way, see the book I’ve been raving about in the
previous BookNotes posts, How To Survive the
Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics
at the End of the World
by political theorist Robert Joustra and
film critic Alissa Wilkinson (Eerdmans; $16.00.) The point, again, is that
Metaxas reminds us in that good chapter about the role of virtue in leaders,
and the need to tell the stories of heroism, a practice that has fallen on hard times (amidst the coming zombie apocalypse and whatnot.)

reminds us that,

self-government entails far more than obeying
laws. Tocqueville refers to something he calls the “habits of the heart” and
the “mores” of the American people. He says that it is these things that are
really at the center of keeping our republic. Going to church and obeying laws
are important, but there are other things that also deserve to be mentioned and
examined as central to keeping our freedoms…  we need to keep in mind that all of these things reinforce
one another. We cannot pretend that one or another of these alone is
sufficient. They are all part of a larger mind-set.

so, he looks at the notion of the heroic in general, and the specific practice
of venerating heroes.  Again, I
think of Smith’s “cultural liturgies” project, thinking about the formative
influence of cultural practices; who and how we honor the heroic is
fascinating, and Metaxas invites us to think about that, from storytelling to
parades, from  public statues to how history is taught.

(And, yes, he addresses fairly, if not with quite enough gusto for my tastes, the important matter of
hagiography, and of how to be honest about the large failings of past heroes.
He is blunt about that, saying, “of course it is true that people can venerate
heroes so much that they overlook important flaws” and he mentions, as
examples, JFK, St. Patrick, and of course (given his expertise and passion for
telling the tales of the abolitionists) the terrible irony that some of the
framers were themselves slave holders.

In any case, in latter decades we have swung so
far in the other direction that venerating heroes, which used to be part of our
common vocabulary, is no longer a language we speak or really understand. But
this has served to undermine the very idea of greatness and the idea of the heroic,
which is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society
like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a
large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably. Denigrating heroes,
or simply failing to venerate them, has a cynical and toxic effect on the young
generation, and we have now had fifty years in which we have neglected this “habit
of the heart” so vital to our free way of life.

think he is on to something, don’t you?


further illustrates how moderns have treated these things more generally — our
views of liberty and such — sometimes with illustrations so vividly weird that
one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, as when Joy Behar, one of the hosts
of ABC’s The View suggested after
9-11 that we should resist the Taliban by dropping blow-up sex dolls and Pamela
Anderson videos over Afghanistan. 
Yep, that’s it – notice: freedom is
most fundamentally understood as freedom from
restraints of any sort, and, in the contemporary hyper-modern culture, that is
most understood as freedom from sexual restraint. Eric notes, “It was a
classically Freudian idea of the problem at the center of human life, and as
far as she was concerned, that was what our American freedom existed to wipe


This suggestion that raining pornography and sex
toys might pointedly express American freedom was an important and bracing
moment in television history, because the divide between the founder’s view of “liberty”
and the current misunderstanding of it had never before been more perfectly
contrasted. But what happened in the centuries since the ideas based on
Montesquieu and Locke and Jesus had devolved into what amounted to an
airdropped “kiss off” to the medieval coelacanths in their Afghani caves?
During previous wars we might have thought to drop Bibles or copies of our Constitution
because we knew that these contained the ideological dynamite to free those
cultures of their oppressive bindings.


is very interesting and helpful that Metaxas has good pages exploring this,
what he calls the “liberal” misunderstanding of freedom.  We should pay heed of this somewhat philosophical question. But it is to his credit that he then
also has pages looking at what he terms a “conservative” misunderstanding of
freedom, where he is hard on the neo-con hopes that capitalism and economic
growth will naturally bring about renewal and liberty and justice for all. The free market, he notes, “delivers
what people want” and in that sense it is amoral, or at least deeply connected
to what the people stand for, shaped by the values and desires of the culture.

to him on this:

Gekko-the-Great-cvr-2-300.jpgNeither in voting nor in finance is pure self-interest
always in the best interest of the nation. You may recall Michael Douglas’s
character’s infamous statement in the movie Wall
With his slick-back hair, Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good.”
In fact it is not. It’s not only not good, it is evil. But it is not only evil
and morally wrong, it will in the end lead to the debasement and destruction of
the free market, just as naked and selfish self interest in voting will lead to
the debasement and destruction of democratic government.

is clear about the problems with the typical liberal and typical conservative
tendencies and errors – and the “golden triangle” comes to the rescue.  You see, the government cannot force us
to be good. As people made in God’s image with certain inherent dignity, we must
have freedom, but for freedom to be sustained, to allow a culture that is
healthy and a government “for” the people — the common good, as Catholics tend
to say —  we need good people, who
will put common concerns above their own greed. And so we need religion to underscore morality, but we
cannot have authentic religion without religious freedom.  It really is an endless, inter-related triangle.

this supposes is that we may not be able to sustain our ordered sense of
liberty, our structures for democratic freedom, for being a republic, given our current greeds and ideologies and markets. (Decades ago, Francis Schaeffer, a popularizer of intellectual history and a
wide-as-life worldview of Christ’s care for every square inch of His world,
predicted that by the early twenty-first century people may become so committed
to their own “personal peace and affluence” that they will permit a national
security state, accepting too much law and order to protect their own suburban
pleasures. Wow!)


can we sustain our forms of government, our freedoms?   Can we keep it?

you may know, there is a historical conversation from which the book gets its

that summer of 1787, when those most brilliant men met to devise a new
constitution – cited for centuries later, by leaders from Lincoln to Martin
Luther King (who called it “a promissory note to which every American was to
fall heir”) to idealistic reformers all over the globe – they understood that “American
would not flourish without great help from all Americans.”  We must take up that “promissory note”
and be good Americans.

is the key take-away from the book.

Americans depend on present-day Americans doing their duty in this,” Metaxas
writes, wisely.

the way, this was part of my approach in a recent Op Ed piece in our local York
Sunday News
paper criticizing a local knucklehead school board member making
gross anti-Muslim comments and harassing a church that was reaching out in
kindness to Muslim neighbors here in Dallastown. It was anti-American, I said,
to be so ugly about fellow citizens’ deepest beliefs, as if religious freedom
is not for all or as if the common courtesy of wishing another well is somehow
bad. I implied, sincerely, that this GOP delegate was a bad conservative and a
bad American.)

we sustain the insight and virtue and freedoms dreamed about by the framers and
founders? Can we be good stewards of these ideas and practices that have been handed down over time?

do you know about the brief conversation between Benjamin Franklin and a Mrs.
Powell, as recorded by Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, the last
day of the long, long convention in Philadelphia?  Metaxas tells it well:

Benjamin Franklin was 81 that summer, described
by Metaxas as “the oldest delegate, the eminence
who for his part in those hallowed proceedings came to be known as
the “sage of the Constitution.” Franklin had by that time lived in Philadelphia
sixty four years since arriving there in 1723, aged seventeen, so for all we
know, he knew this now mythical and otherwise forgotten Mrs. Powell, who has
come to stand for all of American since that day when she spoke to Franklin in
a tone that seemed to bespeak some degree of familiarity.

According to McHenry, Mrs. Powell put her
question to Franklin direction: “Well, doctor,” she asked him, “what have we
got? A republic or a monarch?”

Franklin, who was rarely short of words or wit,
shot back: “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.”

eric pink shirt.jpgKeeping
American constitutional freedoms, through careful attention to sustainable
structures of freedom of religion and a robust, common-good sort of public
morality, bolstered by sincere, lively faith, is not the only thing Metaxas
writes about in If You Can Keep It. It
is a good, good start, and worth reading this summer even if you know a bit
about the Constitution and have interest in questions of public justice and
religious freedom and the like. (And it is important to read if you tend not to read much along those lines –
this is a lesson in patriotism unlike the simplistic and jingoistic stuff that
sometimes passes for civic lessons and may inspire some of the jaded among us
to take up this work of forging a healthy view of citizenship.)

I was struck by how vital all this feels while reading Metaxas’s energetic
writing — even when he overstates a few things. (He waxes eloquent noting how many
good things have come from the United States, listing inspirational stuff from
the invention of baseball and basketball to jazz to the invention of the
computer and the internet, saying these things were made possible by “that one
document written in that hot room in Philadelphia over the course of one
hundred days  — that promise to
the future of the world.” Okay, so he makes the point with some purple
passages. Let it go – he’s mostly
right on most of this, and it is good to be reminded.)


readers may find a few chapters to seem incidental, but I hope not, as I
believe they are fully integral. There is a chapter, for instance, on George
Whitefield. I thought I knew a bit about him, but this was a spectacularly
interesting chapter. There are major historical biographies of the great
evangelist, but for most of us, this will give us a helpful picture of his
immense popularity in the colonies, and his unique friendship with Ben Franklin
(even though they differed considerably on religious matters.)

george whitefield 1714 - 1771.jpgWhitefield
could speak out loud, outdoors of course, to up to 30,000 people — ever the
science guy, Ben Franklin measured it out.  That up to 80% of the population of the colonies in the
mid-1700s had heard him preach is extraordinary.  His sermons were published on the front page of the Pennsylvania Gazette. He was, in fact, what today we
would call a major celebrity. Metaxas may be overstating things (I don’t know)
but he insists that in many ways, Whitefield was one of the most important
persons in the whole founding of America. 
He almost single-handedly spurred a great religious awakening (begun, of course, by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards a decade earlier) – creating
fertile ground upon which the new ideas of self-government and self-restraint
for the sake of the common good could flourish.

Whitefield’s own story, from poverty to Oxford, and his consequential concern for
the poor and the underclass (hence his unconventional outdoor preaching)
created an social ethos later called by historians democratization; that is, there was a populist sort of leveling –
all people of all classes and stations are equally loved as created by God, all
are equally guilty before God and all are equally redeemed by God in Christ.  All had access to the throne-room of the
God of the universe, only a prayer away. He loved the native peoples, preached
to black settlements, and was respected by the rich and poor, the powerful and
the weak, the learned and the unschooled.  The vivid revival preaching and renewal of faith promoted by
the Wesleys shaped the gifted Mr. Whitefield and his own tireless travels and
inspired speaking informed the North American continent in ways no one had
previously, ever.


is a chapter in If You Can… that is ever and always important, one that helped clarify things
for me, called “The Importance of Moral Leaders.”  He tells of a particular speech given by George Washington on
March 16, 1783 in the middle of a very dramatic part of the war. I was moved by
Metaxas’s telling of it, what he calls “Washington’s Finest Hour.”

part way through the speech, “reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out
a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He had been using them for some time, but
never in front of his officers, so the gesture must have taken them aback. And
then came the famous line: ‘Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in
your service and now find myself growing blind.'”

With these words, the mood of the room changed
dramatically. There is no question that many of the angry, battle-hardened
officers had been softened and moved by his speech, but now, seeing their noble
leader in this unprecedented moment of weakness, they were undone. As
Washington read the congressman’s letter, many of them actually wept.

longer speech of Washington is filled with value-laden words, words Metaxas suggests
we do not hear much anymore, “sacred honor” and “dignity” and “glory” and such.  I am not so sure that we do not hear
them – they are perhaps tossed around too often or too brazenly to mean much.
But I appreciate his concern, that we too often affirm leaders who are
pragmatists, or who seem to have know-how and skills, but are short of deep
virtue, both public and private. We need leaders of integrity, and we need to
be people who care about virtue and goodness and integrity.

writes, “One of the most fragile parts of our fragile system of ordered
liberties is the necessity of a basic trust between the people and their

recommend this chapter for careful consideration this election season. Methinks
even Mr. Metaxas and those he has on his radio show would benefit from a good
re-read. Can he make everybody read a chapter of his own book before their
interview?  Maybe not.

deepens his good argument for leaders being those who can “make goodness
fashionable” by drawing on familiar ground for him, the wonderful and complex story
of William Wilberforce.  This
section is thrilling and beautifully compelling.  I am sure you will value it – and perhaps it will draw you
to read or re-read his earlier work on the great British parliamentarian who
fought to not only abolish the slave trade but to create a larger culture where
“morals and manners” were reformed.


the thorniest chapter of the book is called “The Almost Chosen People” (a line
from Lincoln) on “American exceptionalism” which Mr. Metaxas admits is “rightly
Interestingly, it seems that the phrase itself comes from that nineteenth
century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, in his landmark book.

is clear that American exceptionalism “should have nothing to do with excesses
of nationalistic chest-beating and jingoistic hubris.” (“We may take some real
comfort,” he suggests, “in knowing it was in its first appearance a foreigner’s
cold-eyed analysis and subsequent wonderment at this country, when she was

believe this stuff is complicated and it is a chapter with which I take
exception, as it isn’t exceptional enough. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

would suggest you read it, perhaps even with a group, and think this through
for yourself. What a salon or coffee conversation you could have on any of
these chapters, but especially this one. (Maybe over some tea, in honor the
Brits, or some French wine, in honor of de Tocqueville.)

the summer of 1630 when a fleet of ships, including the Arbella, set sail from England, we have the story of John Winthrop
and the “shining city upon a hill” sermon. Metaxas says that Winthrop (the man
chosen to be the new Massachusetts Bay Colony governor) “was making clear to
them that what they were about to do was a tremendous burden, that they bore a
responsibility to all other peoples then living and to history – and to the

were not just, in Metaxas’s telling,

merely running from religious persecution, which
was considerable…but this trip was not merely about finding a place where they
might live their lives in peace. For them, living their lives in peace meant
they would have the opportunity to fulfill their responsibility to do something
important for God. They understood that freedom was not merely the freedom to
be left alone; it was the freedom to do what was right. Freedom was a gift from
God and they must use it for his purposes.

Metaxas insists,

This idea of freedom as something to be used in
the service of others is at the very heart of the Jewish and Christian
Scriptures; through Winthrop and the Puritans of Massachusetts it became an
important idea at the heart of the American project in the seventeenth century
and in the centuries after.

think this book, and even this chapter, is balanced and fair.  Mostly. I wish he would have questioned
the too common misuse of the Bible’s references and promises to the covenant
people of ancient Israel applying them to any secular nation-state or people
group. That’s a hermeneutical matter for those who study the Bible, but utterly
germane when talking about God’s blessings upon any nation.

In this chapter of If You Can… there are lines that are grossly overstated, inexplicably
failing to omit the dark side of how the pilgrims and Puritans acted, the
mistreatment of indigenous peoples (perhaps in those years not as bad as some
think, and not nearly as evil as the great genocides committed by the Spanish
in Central and South America.) Metaxas is a scholar of the abolitionist
movement and outspoken about contemporary slavery today, so he is not
disinterested in the evils of injustice and racism, even those perpetrated in
those colonials years. To not name them, though, in the appropriate passages in
this chapter when he is talking about “the idea of living for others – of
showing them a new way of living – that was at the heart of America” is either disingenuous
or incredibly naïve. Either way, it’s bad.

statue of liberty.jpgI love that
throughout the book (even on the cover) Metaxas is genuinely taken with the
spirit of Lady Liberty.  He talks
about the great statue, and quotes at length the beautifully powerful poem by
the famous Emma Lazarus (“The New Colossus.”) For a strong conservative
pundit, he is surprisingly critical of those who are disinterested in the
plight of the immigrant and he waxes eloquent on the goodness of our general
openness to immigrants in our past. He tells of his own family’s rigorous
journey from Greece, and has emmas-poem.jpgobvious reasons to be sympathetic to the cause of
immigration. Yet, in his framing of this, as he offers a positive spin on
those who are anti-immigration, implying they aren’t that unreasonable or
uncaring. I scribbled in the margins, “One would wish. His naiveté is
breathtaking.” He then says “Very few are foolish enough to say that we don’t
want immigrants at all. They are widely considered to be our strength.”  I wrote in the margins, “I wish!”

I suppose I should appreciate his optimism, but it struck me as almost willfully in denial about the harshness of some our fellow citizen’s attitudes these days. I know one person who said “I think it’s about time they took that statue down.” So, there’s that.

wondered who was fact-checking this portion, for instance when he says that
America has been “by a wide margin the most generous nation in the wrong  Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpgworld.” That statement is, as I thought nearly
everyone who studies such things knows, not so.  If measured in terms of the percentage of our GNP going to
foreign aid, the United States is woefully low, with all sorts of countries
offering a much more generous portion of oda-chart.pngtheir GDP to elevate world hunger and
the like.  Yes, many Americans are
generous, and because we are wealthy, even a meager gift is a lot. I suppose it
is true that we are first in line to send medicine and the like, but, again,
this factoid about our generosity is glaringly wrong – we, as a nation, when
talking about foreign aid other than military aid – are woefully not generous. And
often, our foreign aid is tied to demands for policies which we craft, often
coercing capitulation (perhaps through the IMF, say, serving our business
interests.) Again, is Metaxas just ill-informed about these things? Is he not a
member of the citizens anti-hunger group Bread for the World or has he never
seen those charts listing our relative status compared to others, or hasn’t he
read Rich Christians in an Age of
which documents this so carefully?  One would think his
editors, at least, would have caught that.

as I’ve said repeatedly, this is a fine book with remarkably interesting
stories, and much to ponder. There is stuff in here that I bet you’ve never
heard.  For instance, if you haven’t
read Metaxas’ children’s story Squanto: A
squanto-560x595-560x595.jpgFriend of Pilgrims
you most likely don’t know his nearly unbelievable
story.  He was called Squanto but
also Tisquantum.  He had been
captured by Englishmen with evil intent in or around 1608, and taken to
England.  He became a Christian and
years later returned to his native homeland in what we now call New England and
served as an interpreter; he played a major role in the famous Thanksgiving
drama of the pilgrims of the Mayflower
being taught to survive when he walked out of the woods to greet them in the spring
of 1621.

Squanto helped the Pilgrims establish a peace
with the local Native Americans that lasted fifty years, a stunning
accomplishment considering the troubles the settlers would have with native
tribes in the centuries following. Sadly, Squanto died not long after this, but
Bradford wrote that Squanto “desired the Governor to pray for him…Squanto even
bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims “as remembrances of his love.”

is virtually impossible for us to fully appreciate today,” Metaxas observes,
how innovative the creating of this was, this drafting of the Constitution, and
how nearly it came to falling through. The men who struggled that long summer
to write it were themselves in deep disagreement and it is nearly miraculous
that they came to an agreement. (Alexander Hamilton, for instance, believed the
President and senators should be chosen for life, just as Supreme Court
justices are appointed for life.) From the remarkable Articles of Confederation
(written in six months near us here in York, PA, by the way) to the
ratification process, to the breathtaking drama of these brilliant thinkers
confined to Philadelphia then tasked with hammering out this brave new document
(including debates and compromises about slavery and slave holding states)
Metaxas describes it in such an interesting way, and helps us see why it
matters so much.

whole book is not exclusively about the founding fathers, as he spends
considerably time with Lincoln, including excerpting some of a speech given to
the New Jersey State Senate that is brilliantly worded, expressing “Lincoln’s
own sense of history and his place in it.” He ponders what Lincoln meant by
that evocative phrase “the mystic chords of memory.”  He wonders how we can reform our own sense of God’s ways for
our land, and how we might appropriately and effectively share that with the

critiques the contested idea of “Manifest Destiny” and he insists we have much
work to be done. He often mentions the sin of slavery – sounding like Lincoln,
at times, himself, struggling to help us see how we must become the sorts of
citizens and faithful people who love our land and resist its greatest
injustices and threats.

I said, I am not one who usually appreciates books calling us to be more patriotic,
to love America more, to get all cozy with what is often cheap sentiment or
theologically dangerous civil religion. 
And this one, like others in that genre, has its blind spots and
misstatements.  But it is generous,
it is interesting and enjoyable, it is mostly balanced. Importantly it reflects
on the meaning of love, of love of country, of the virtues of knowing what is
good to love. If You Can Keep It
invites us to not love our land “in exclusion to the goodness in other things.”
He warns against making our goodness a false idol which, he says, is actually
a posture which “hates real goodness.”


If we are loving what is properly good and true
and beautiful, we are ordering our affections against tribalism and jingoism;
we are ordering our affections so that they are in line with God’s affections,
because the selfishness of tribalism and nationalism are the very enemies of
what God loves.

to overstate our own goodness can be idolatry! And to fail to honor the
goodness of Canada or Congo, Belgium or Bangladash, is “hating real goodness”?
I think that is what he means. Once we learn to love and honor global public square os 10 - 8.jpgand value and
work for the good, true good, we will obviously care about our land, but we
will love the good elsewhere, as well. 
As those who are committed to the habits of heart of a democracy, we
should be well-placed and well-equipped to be good global citizens.  It is, in fact, a deep truth behind his
friend Os Guinness’s book applying these American principles of religious
toleration and deep pluralism to the global scale in a book called The Global
Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity
This illustrates a healthy way in which ideas and ideals from America’s own revolution can inform and shape ideas about how we can make peace in the complex global world of the twentyfirst century. It’s worth reading!  And Metaxas would agree, I’m sure.

If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Powers
of American Liberty
proposes a sort of patriotism that seems right to me, and If You Can Keep It is a book inviting us
to live into that properly ordered, modest virtue of loving our nation well.

It isn’t perfect and most readers will find something to ponder, maybe something to contest. But I do think it is a very good read, and hope you consider it, for a book group, a study class, to send as a gift to someone who might need a bit of civic education, or to ponder yourself in this increasingly contested political season.  Agree or not with all of Eric’s conclusions, I still think it is a good book, worthy of your twenty bucks. We’re happy to suggest it; add one from the following list, below, and you’ll be set for some holiday fire-works that matter.  

If You Can Keep It.jpg


Was-America-Founded-as-a-Christian-Nation.jpgWas America
Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction

John Fea (Westminster/John Knox) $30.00
I have previously reviewed this highly regarded and significantly awarded book
and mention it from time to time here at BookNotes.  I cannot say more clearly that this is a must-read for all of
us, at any time, but surely now when there is much public conversation about
this very topic. It would be a great supplement to Metaxas who is more
storyteller and American evangelist than trained historian. (By the way, Metaxas is not making a
claim that America is “a Christian country” the way some do, at least not in
his book about the virtues of American patriotism and the centrality of religious
freedom, If You Can Keep It. I do not mean to suggest Fea’s book is an alternative approach, as the two books have two different intentions.)

Dr. Fea has poured over countless primary
source documents, has spent his time at Mt. Vernon (where he has been a scholar
in residence) and has created a balanced and thoughtful book – “with a calm and
analytical clarity and profound knowledge” one reviewer said – that claries
much about the complex matter of religion and the founding fathers. This is a
conscientious and informed book, and his case studies of the faith and
religious practices of seven key founding fathers is the best stuff I’ve ever
seen on the topic.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion- Reassessing .jpgAmerican Exceptionalism
and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
John D. Wilsey (IVP Academic) $22.00
This is a major, recent work by a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist
Theological Seminary who has written widely on the evangelical critique of the
notion of a “Christian America.” There are numerous raves reviews by serious
historians and public intellectuals, such as this from Robert Tracy McKenzie, a
Wheaton College professor (and author of the excellent The First Thanksgiving) who says, “Any thinking Christian who
aspires to patriotism without idolatry would benefit from reading this fine

noted that I had some issues with Metaxas’s rendering of this topic in the
fascinating chapter in If You Can Keep
This would be a more scholarly, detailed study of the topic, and I
commend it to you.

babel-and-beast.jpgBetween Babel
and the Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective
Peter J. Leithart (Cascade Books) $24.00
This is a stunning bit of heavy scholarship and a powerful polemic in the
publisher’s “Theopolitical Visions” series. Listen to James K.A. Smith, who

When I read a critique of the heresy of
‘Americanism’ from someone who nonetheless ‘loves America,’ I take notice: this
is not the usual predictable boilerplate. In this important book, Leithart
brings his usual verve, erudition, and nuance to bear on one of the central
idolatries of our age.”

listen to Princeton professor Eric Gregory:

Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American
political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial
‘Americanism.’ But Leithart’s distinctive analysis provides a more complex–and
potentially more constructive–biblical perspective on international politics
than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued
and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart
is one of the most interesting voices in theology today.

god of liberty.jpgGod Of
Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
Thomas S. Kidd (Basic Books) $26.95 We
only have one of these gems left in hardback and aficionados of the
topic will want in their collection. Kidd is a well respected historian and a
Senior Fellow at an institute at Baylor University. The blurbs and reviews on
this volume are remarkable – impeccable scholars such as Rodney Stark and
Wilfred McClay, George Marsden and Mark Noll each offer fabulous
endorsements.  Peter Lillback (a
popular author who writes about George Washington) says God of Liberty offers “an important critique of the mainstream
interpretations of the American Revolution…the surprising partnership of devout
believers and deistic doubters to secure America’s victory makes for
fascinating reading.”

The Christian Century’s review noted,

One of the many virtues of this book is that
Kidd is a careful and judicious historian… He points out–correctly–the
errors of both present-day secularists on the left, who insist that the
founders barred religious voices from political discourse, and the church-state
separation deniers on the right. The lesson of American history is that
although church and state are institutionally separate, morality and freedom
are seldom at odds and that, in fact, they are mutually reinforcing.”

forgive us.jpgForgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith edited by Elise Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon
Harper,Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah (Zondervan) $22.99

do not think that Mr. Metaxas is unaware of the gross history of how even
church-leaders authorized and legitimized exceptional evil in our nation’s
history.  The mistreatment of
Native peoples, blacks, immigrants and more are well documented and simply
essential to understand. Of course, he was not writing a history of our nation,
so it wasn’t in his purview to talk about the massacre of Indian peoples in the
1800s in the West or the abuse of Asian railway workers and the like. But he
was naming the goodness of our land, even arguing for an exceptional calling,
so it needed to be address.

understand that some think we have over-emphasized these injustices, and that
wallowing in past social sin erodes legitimate national pride and keeps us from
“moving on.” I protest. It is a weakness in Eric’s book that he didn’t name
more of these egregious sins (although he named some, and occasionally reminded us that
we should never minimize our nation’s faults and failings.) This book is a
counter-weight to cheap patriotism, a necessary reminder of the sad stuff of
our history and no celebration is legitimate without attending adequately to
this need for pubic confession and serous repentance. I applaud these brave
authors and this evangelical publisher for giving us this resource to know and
lament these tragic moments and awful patterns of our past.

As Metaxas says,
without vital virtue, the republic is doomed.  Without repentance of these affronts to God and neighbor and
the earth itself, it could be argued our virtue is wanting. This book is a




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