A whole bunch of brand new titles named and REVIEWS OF 10 VERY INTERESTING NEW BOOKS (all from Eerdmans) 20% OFF at Hearts & Minds

What a rich fall publishing season it has been – so many great books have come out in the last month or so and there are exceptional releases we are most eagerly awaiting.


Supremely, of course, among those we are anticipating is the long-awaited third volume in the much-discussed, notably influential “Cultural Liturgies” project from our friend James K.A. Smith. Summarized nicely in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Smith’s three biggees are Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom and, being released in early November, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (BakerAcademic; $22.99.)

We’ve had a waiting list for this for more than a year and you can PRE-ORDER it now at our BookNotes 20% off discount. It will be, doubtlessly, the most important book of 2017. That it is about public and political theology makes it all the more needed these days. 

Don’t forget, we have a handy order link below that takes you to our secure order form page. Just tell us what you want and we’ll confirm everything promptly. There is also an “inquire” button which will allow you to send a private email to us here.  Just let us know what you may want to know and we’ll reply promptly.  Thanks for being in touch.

Many of our best publishing partners – publishing houses that we stock most of their new titles – have done great books lately.


For instance, we are thrilled to have all the new releases of InterVarsity Press, such as The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by a different James Smith — James Bryant Smith ($22.00.) We described it when it first came out, here. We’re excited by IVP’s thoughtful little book on “The Walking Dead” called The Zombie Gospel: The Walking Dead and What It Means to Be Human by Danielle Strickland ($13.00) and a lively new book called Empathy for the Devil: Finding Ourselves in the Villains of the Bible by JR Forasteros ($16.00.) Others have explored this material before, but I suspect no-one has done it as well as this new one. There’s some good buzz about it but since we just got it in, I can’t say much. 

We’ve long been fans of the great author Ken Boa – an eloquent and well-read author who writes about the Bible, about spiritual formation, and about apologetics. He has some great devotionals, some prayer books, and some books about the value of literature. I think our H&M friends should know him. 

IVP just shipped to us a new one from Boa: Life in the Presence of God: Practices for Living in Light of Eternity ($17.00) which is brand new in their excellent formatio line. Looks great!

I have to give a shout out to the brand new release in their ongoing ”Studies in Theology and the Arts” series, the stunning work on the breath-taking, Southern Catholic literary figure, Flannery O’Connor called A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by Michael Mears Bruner ($30.00.) Bruner is a professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific, an ordained PC(USA) ministry and a resident scholar at Huntingdon Library. This is good stuff. 

You will recall, I hope, that I gave serious attention last month at BookNotes to four really great recent releases of IVP. See our past reviews of White Awake by Daniel Hill, Vintage Sinners and Saints by Karen Wright Marsh, The God-Soaked Life by Chris Webb and the SPCK/IVP distributed release by N.T. Wright, Spiritual and Religious. There’s a reason we continue to stock nearly every single new book they do. These are exceptional books.


Westminster/John Knox is another publisher whose books we consistently stock. We’ve already announced but are happy to remind you that Walter Brueggemann has a year-long, hardback daily devotional of all new reflections (that happen to follow the Revised Common Lectionary Readings for each day of Year B) called Gift and Task: A Year of Daily Readings and Reflections. It’s a nice hardback and sells for $20.00. WJK just released a new Advent devotional by Brueggemann for this year, too, called Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent ($13.00.) We’re delighted they did a devotional for Year B Advent by N.T Wright, too, not surprisingly called Advent for Everyone: A Journey with the Apostles ($16.00.) We’ll tell you more about those as the holiday season draws closer.

Although I need to give it a fuller review I could hardly put down the WJK title called Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism ($16.00) the moving and important memoir of prolific author and public intellectual, David Gushee. You’ll learn about his early days as a young evangelical, his journey through Christian higher education and becoming a professor within the ethics guild, his relationships with well-known leaders from his Fuller mentor Glen Stassen to Ron Sider to Al Mohler. David describes his own interior life, his marriage, the joys and sorrows of his family’s life, his moves into different quarters within the big tent of evangelicalism, the fallout from some key shifts in his thinking, and his obvious frustrations in recent years as a belligerent and less than intellectually engaging Christian Right has risen in popularity. Stanley Hauerwas says it is a “must read for Christians and non-Christians so both kinds of readers will better understand the challenges of being Christian in this fearful time.” Gushee is now a Professor at Mercer University and a pastor of a small, ordinary congregation near there.

One of the other lead titles from WJK that I’m eager to read is by John Pavlovitzn, apparently a well-known blogger and PC(USA) pastor. His book is nicely called A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Communities ($16.00) and we just got it in a week or two ago. There are a number of good books on hospitality and being a welcoming church and this looks like a big contribution to that field. Pastor Pavlovitz offers four marks of a bigger table community — radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community. 


We stock almost everything released by Abingdon Press and it’s difficult to try to pick just a few to describe. Of course there’s always a new Adam Hamilton book — just recently we’ve been promoting the book and DVD on John, another called Creed: What Christians Believe and Why and his book and DVD on Moses simply called Moses: In the Footsteps of the Reluctant Prophet.  His new seasonal one explores in books and DVD the Christmas story through the eyes of Joseph; it’s called Faithful. A group in our church just worked through his clever book called Half Truths.  For most of these there are stand alone books to read, DVDs, particpant guides, leaders guides, and often youth material, too.  Just send us a note and we can give you good prices for Hamilton.  See what I did there?

Kudos to Abingdon for doing so many books about congregational life, pastoring, church health and the like. We were very glad to see a great new book for those in smaller churches called Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church by a great writer, Lewis A. Parks ($15.99.) We stock almost every book on this topic we can find, and this new one stands out. Rev. Parks is a prof at Wesley Seminary in DC and directs their DMin program there but lives here in Central PA, pastoring a United Methodist congregation. We’ve never met, I don’t think, but I liked his book a lot. If you know anyone in a smaller congregation, do let me know about it.


Broadman + Holman recently released a compact little hardback called Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty ($12.99) whose substantive contemporary hymnody is well loved across much of the church.

There isn’t enough on singing in the church and we are very glad to have this; it would make a good congregational study, an adult ed class book or good for choir members or worship committee members. I hope you know their work.


What a wonderful publishing event it is that Zondervan has offered the reading public two new books by Frederick Buechner!  Yes, two new editions of books by Buechner!

One is a collection of mostly unpublished and previously unknown pieces about finding God in the ordinary and the other is a collection of mostly previously published portions of books around the theme of coping with pain and hurt (although there is some new material there, too.) The first paperback is called The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life ($16.99) and the companion is called A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory ($16.99.) Amazing, huh?

More kudos to Zondervan for releasing a very handsome four volume cloth edition NIV “Reader’s Edition” (that is, nicely type set without any verse numbers for a more seamless reading experience) of the Bible that compares nicely to the exceptionally elegant four volume “Readers Edition” of the ESV that Crossway did last year. (The NIV four volume set, by the way, has the prophets grouped chronologically, making it both classy and helpful, and the New Testament grouped thematically.) It is being called The Sola Scripture Bible Project ($99.99) and there is a handsome hardback one volume edition ($34.99) and two brown imitation leather styles ($49.99) as well. 

Abingdon Press, by the way, just released the large and interesting Storyteller’s Bible in their colorful CEB translation. It is big and thick with lots of storytelling ideas — the Bible is, mostly, a narrative, after all — and it sells in hardback for $39.99.

We have more new Bibles than ever and love the idea of selling handsome editions of God’s Word.  Give us a call if you want more ideas for what translation or edition might be right for you.


Just released is the new Eric Metaxas biography of Luther published by Vicking and even though we protest his unconscionable politics, Eric is a lively and compelling writer and this big fat book called Martin Luther is certainly one of the most interesting reads of the season. It’s a bit pricey at $30.00 (although it is almost 500 pages and there are some full-color plates) but our 20% of helps. We’ll tell you more in our list of other books on Luther and the reformation in a column coming up soon. We’ve got plenty of stellar old ones and a dozen new ones to tell you about, from Crossway’s Reformation ABCs: The People Places and Things of the Reformation from A to Z (by Steve Nichols & Ned Bustard; $16.99) to a new translation of a splendid bestseller from Germany Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life by Volker Leppin (just released by BakerAcademic; $22.99) to the important but critical work by Catholic Reformation scholar Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne; $27.99.) More on all that soon.


I’m always a bit surprised about how fairly conservative, evangelical publishers sometimes released edgy and provocative authors who press helpful theological conversations in new or deeper ways. Most publishers are fairly predictable, but new releases continue to surprise and often delight us.  I am sure some will disagree, but I literally could not put down a marvelous and courageous book called Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News by Brian Zahnd (Waterbrook; $14.99.) He tilts charismatic and doesn’t like the Puritans much; loves and knows the Bible very well and speaks with the tone and passion familiar to Jesusy, Bible-quoting evangelical folks. Zahnd came out as a pacifist a few years back in a must-read book called A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey to the Gospel of Peace (that one surprisingly published by David C. Cook; $14.99) and now has challenged us to always read the Bible Christologically – that is, with a view of who Jesus is and the revelation He brings about the character and ways of God. One doesn’t have to go full-on Girardian or embrace all the progressive evaluations of Brian McClaren, Greg Boyd, or Rob Bell to see that Zahnd is pushing a solid theme from the Word – God is love! (By the way, for those who do want a deeper dive into Girardian insights into Biblical texts, we’ve got the new self-published Anthony W. Bartlett volume, Seven Stories: How to Teach the Nonviolent Bible (Wood Hath Hope; $39.99, presented on nice glossy paper) and the dense little introductory book by Michael Hardin called Mimetic Theory and Biblical Interpretation: Reclaiming the Good News of the Gospel, recently published by Cascade; $18.00.)

Anyways, kudos to Waterbrook for occasionally offering out-side-the-box titles like Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God from their evangelical headquarters in Colorado Springs. 

A quickie overview of the best Fall releases from standard publishers we represent would have to include All Things New: Heaven, Earth, and the Restoration of Everything You Love by John Eldredge ($24.99) and a soon-to-be shipped, edgy memoir by a former punk-rock girl who has been through it all, Lily Burana, called Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith ($22.99) both from Thomas Nelson; Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community is an important book by Brett McCracken offered from Crossway ($15.99); I absolutely must name God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church by Brad Roth ($16.99) — there isn’t much for rural churches and this is brilliant and highly recommended — released from Herald Press; and a brand new, delightful little book on the Book of Common Prayer written by Lauren Winner called A Word to Live By ($12.00) which is volume 7 in the “Church’s Teaching for a Changing World” series by the Episcopal Church’s publishing house called Church Publishing; a new book by Nate Collins called All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions the Intersections of Faith, Gender, & Sexuality ($19.99.) Wesley Hill, who, like Collins, is gay, but holds to a fairly traditional view of what the Bible teaches about ordered sexual desire and marriage, wrote the forward about making space to actually listen to LGBTQ Christians and commends this book beautifully. It is published by Zondervan.

And, although it is a very small press, we are so, so glad to stock everything that is published by the Calvin College Press, such as their brand new book called The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods by Lee Hardy ($16.99.) It is spectacular, another reason this publishing season gives us such encouragement. What interesting, good, edifying stuff.  What a joy to run a bookstore that gets to carry these kinds of titles by such thoughtful, talented writers.  If you can’t find a bookstore that stocks these kinds of items, perhaps we can help. We’re looking for some new loyal customers and book-loving friends.


But what I’m most eager to tell you about today is this: Eerdmans has long been one of our very favorite publishers and while they are respected as perhaps the premier house doing important scholarly Biblical and theological studies, some quite academic, they also do a lot of wonderfully conceived and well-edited volumes that are for what they like to call “the intelligent lay reader.” That is, they have stuff on discipleship or spiritual formation or cultural engagement that is a cut above some of the popular level religious literature and which demands a degree of open-mindedness and thoughtfulness in one’s religious reading.  In other words, Eerdmans remains one of our absolutely favorite publishers, not only for their high-level academic stuff, but for their books aimed at the ordinary but slightly higher-educated bookstore customer.  We think that most likely includes a lot of our best friends. 

For the record, they also have published some of the nicest looking book catalogs that we in the trade (and I suppose libraries and some academics) get to see. There are a few publishers who still do lavish quarterly catalogs (like University of Texas Press whose catalogs are a work of art!) Eerdmans this season wins the award, if there is such an award, for the best-looking book catalog we’ve seen.

They deserve credit too for any number of in-depth on-line interviews they have with their astute and often scholarly authors. Check out their book blog EerdWord, too, if you want to know more. Come back and order from us, though, even if they have dumb amazon links sometimes… they like indie bookstores, even if they don’t say so.

We trust that many of our customers will enjoy hearing about this handful of 10 intriguing and even eccentric recent titles from this marvelous, storied, Grand Rapids publisher.  We’ve got ’em all at 20% off, too.


Love Big Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church Winn Collier (Eerdmans) $16.99  I start with this one because I believe it may be my own personal favorite book of the year. Really — I am that fond of it, and want to push it on everyone who cares about the life of the local church or the local pastor. It certainly is one of the best books I’ve read all year and without a doubt the best book about church and congregational life I’ve read in a long while. I can’t recommend it highly enough, no matter what your own congregational setting or theological context.  It’s worth reading, I promise you.

It is written rather like a novel, a creative approach that unfolds as a series of letters from a new pastor to his small, rather cranky, small-town Presbyterian church. The voice of this seasoned fictional pastor is eloquent and artful; the best way to explain it is to imagine if these really were letters from Eugene Peterson.  This is a huge compliment to author Winn Collier, by the way; he’s a great, great writer.

In fact, Peterson has said of Love Big, Be Well:

This book is a tour de force – an angle on understanding the life of both congregation and pastor that exceeds anything I have ever read. No directions, no programs, just an immersion into what really takes place in the life of a congregation and a pastor. Winn Collier’s writing is alive.

So, this is a beautifully rendered and entertaining story about pastoral theology, about a small town congregation struggling to be real and somewhat faithful, and about how they find God in the middle of the mundane stuff of ordinary life. My only complaint is that I wished for a bit more – but it isn’t a bad thing when you don’t want a book to end.

Four Birds of Noah’s Ark: A Prayer Book from the Time of Shakespeare Thomas Dekker edited with an introduction by Robert Hudson (Eerdmans) $17.99  This is without a doubt one of the most interesting and glorious books of the year, a surprising book that would make a great gift and a useful tool to enhance anyone’s prayer life. It is, in fact, a real, usable prayer book – and before you think it might be too old or weird, just think of the prayers of Thomas Cranmer, the primary author of this little resource called The Book of Common Prayer. This author was more or less contemporary to that era, and his book is considered a timeless but little-known literary classic.  Four Birds of Noah’s Ark has been in print for centuries and then went out of print finally in 1924. Kudos to Robert Hudson (himself an editor and a poet, author of a poetry collection called Kiss the Earth When You Pray) for getting this remarkable book back into print and prepared and annotated in such a lovely, lovely format.

This prayer book – designed very nicely with some color artwork and French folded flaps on the cover  – was first written as the Black Death ravaged London in 1608. Dekker was a playwright and this volume offers fifty-six prayers for the people of London in their time of crisis.

The prayers in Four Birds of Noah’s Ark are inventively organized into categories symbolized by four birds, a Dove, an Eagle, a Pelican, and the Phoenix. So the beautiful prayers in each section are grouped within four major themes, all useful and wise and good.

John Wilson, bookman extraordinaire, formerly of Books & Culture, declares:

Hudson has discovered the literary equivalent of buried treasure – in this case, lying hidden in plain sights – and brought it to light for our instruction and delight. Many thanks!

Karen Swallow Prior writes:

Beautifully crafted, filled with human goodness and biblical truth, these are more than prayers: they are meditations, devotions, and little lessons on what it means to be human and utterly dependent upon God. This is a volume I will return to again and again.

Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Son Chad Bird (Eerdmans) $16.99  When this book arrived I was about a third of the way through the thoroughly enjoyable The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by driver Finn Murphy, which is a pretty gritty memoir of a professional mover and semi-truck driver. I was so enjoying it, captivated by his talk about American roadways (including a fast food place in Colorado I’ve been in and including roads near us here in central Pennsylvania. Besides a good story, I liked Finn’s analysis of the truck driving life and sub-culture, and some of the wild-west myths the truckers promote about themselves.

So when this Eerdmans book came – with endorsements by conservative spiritual writer Elyse Fitzpatrick and Presbyterian pastor John Ortberg – and I learned that the author cohosts a podcast on the Old Testament, I had to do a bit of a double-take. Wait, what? 

Chad Bird is the real deal; a late night, tough-guy, no-bullshit kind of driver. And he loves God, is honest about his need for a Savior, and wants to honor Christ in the “glorious messiness.”

As the Eerdmans’s catalogue puts it,

Journeys that begin in brokenness rarely follow a straight road to healing. There are twists and turns – and setbacks – on the path of repentance.

Night Driving tells the story of a pastor and seminary professor whose moral failures destroyed his marriage and career, left his life in ruins, and sent him spiraling into a decade-long struggle against God. Forced to fight the demons of his past in the cab of the semi-truck he drove at night through the Texas oil fields, Chad Bird slowly began to limp toward grace and healing.

I sort of wish I could get a copy to Finn Murphy.

Or, for that matter, anybody who has struggled with trying to figure things out, who has seen some hard times, who has fallen and failed. It seems that this book about faith and life is not only raw and real, exploring anger and denial, addiction and grief, but clearly points us to the God who can heal us. As Ortberg says in his blurb, “We are shepherds of darkness and stewards of scars. If you’re having problems finding God in your life, you may find him here.”

Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World Kelley Nikondeha (Eerdmans) $16.99 This book came out just a few weeks ago and has already garnered a bit of a buzz in the reviewing blog-o-spheres. It is beautifully written, covering some material that is on many people’s minds but which hasn’t been written about as widely or deeply as has been needed. It has a beautiful cover, has a great foreword by the colorful wordsmith and activist Shane Claiborne, and is, actually, the lead title in the Eerdmans catalogue. I think they are thinking this is one of the most important books of the year.

Nikondeha’s work is lovely, but a bit complicated to explain. She is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi, and co-founder of Amahoro Africa, an ongoing conversation between theologians and practitioners within the African context. As Brian McLaren says, she “writes with the heart of a poet and theologian.”

Nikondeha has quite a story herself – she is both an adopted child and an adoptive parent, a white woman living in Africa with a bi-cultural and bi-continental family – and she has keen insights about deep and human questions about family, society, belonging. Obviously, she is interested in third world development, social justice, and offers a vivid critique of racism. Her vision of the family is deeply inclusive, generous, hospitable. She gets the “fractured world” part of her title and she wonderfully explains the “sacrament of belonging” which is what the book is really all about.

Adopted is, on the face of it, about real adoption, one family taking in a child as a full member; she also, though, explores the theological notion of salvation as adoption (God adopting us into God’s redemptive family.) Nikondeha’s lovely and dramatic story and passionate insights about reconciliation point us to more deeply understand what it means that we belong to God’s family because of God’s inclusive grace.

I like the blurb by Christena Cleveland (author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart) who raves about it, saying:

Part memoir, part theological exposition, Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World expands our understanding of what it means to be the family of God. As both an adopted person and an interracial adoptive parent, Kelley Nikondeha writes with transparency, tenderness, and racial awareness… This wonderful book will illuminate a path for all people to experience sacred relationships.

Stay in the City: How Christian Faith is Flourishing in an Urban World Mark Gornik & Maria Liu Wong (Eerdmans) $12.00  This is one of those little books that is so important to read – even if you aren’t called to the city, as most of us are not – just to know what is going on in the world, and just to spend a few hours with a theologically astute writer offering good and important news. Mark Gornick, I hope you know, wrote what we consider to be one of the most important contemporary books of social ethics and Christian perspectives in his magisterial and still vital 2002 volume To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City. He also wrote the fabulous Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City.(Both also published by Eerdmans and stocked here at the shop.) Rev. Gornick is the director of City Seminary of New York and Liu Wong is the Dean there; their big city, New Yorker friend Timothy Keller wrote the foreword. Together they’ve offered this lovely little paperback that describes what is happening in the urban church around the world and how, together, many are helping create a more flourishing culture and a better world. 

In fact, this book – besides the good and interesting stories – invites us to be aware of an urgent task for these days, namely “for Christians to think constructively about how to live out their faith in an urban setting.” And to learn to do ministry by paying attention to the local context – an art that we all could use, even if we are in a thriving small town, a decaying rust belt region, an upscale suburb, exurb or distant country plot. I think anyone from any setting or geographic context will resonate with what they say in the introduction:

This book is for those who are living, seeking to live, and hoping to sustain lives of joy and purpose in the city through practices that undergird thriving faith in a 24/7 urban world. Whether in a changing neighborhood where new restaurants and creative businesses are arriving, in a community where lives are always in the balance, or in a place of prime real estate and executive offices, the vocation of urban Christians begins with being and staying present to God in the local context, attending to what is in front of us with all of our sense. Ministry is theology  ‘on the ground,’ asking and answering the complex questions of faith and life, work and home in a dynamic, constantly changing urban world.

Incarnational Ministry: Being With the Church Samuel Wells (Eerdmans) $22.00  I suppose this book is mostly for pastors and those in full-time church work, but I have been deeply moved by a few of the chapters I’ve read so far. I already can’t wait for the sequel next season which will be called Incarnational Mission: Being With the World. Anyway, this new one about ministry in the church explores the significance of what Wells suggests might be the most important word in the Christian faith – with.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, says that Wells is “one of the finest priest-theologians of our time” and notes that he “weaves together deep theology with the practical heart and skill of a pastor.”  Incarnational Ministry: Being With the Church is a beautiful book, including lovely meditations on God being with us, on us being more fully present to God, and, further, what it means to be with self, others (including the troubled, the hurt, the afflicted, and challenged) and creation itself. Wells offers eight dimensions of being with – presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, enjoyment, and glory. These vivid narratives and wise reflections “will challenge readers to deeper discipleship and more vital ministry.” Incarnational Ministry: Being With… is highly recommended for one and all.

Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation throughout Life’s Seasons Kathleen A. Cahalan & Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore (Eerdmans) $20.00  This book came out late this summer and I’ve been wanting to tell you about it. Wow. It fills a real need in the on-going development of the literature on vocation and calling and it compiles thoughtful essays about vocation and calling throughout, as the title says, various ages and stages in life’s journey.  Do infants have a vocation? Do Alzheimer’s patients? What is the calling of the child or the retired worker?  This book really addresses a gap in the work being done in this important field. 

A connecting theme of the thoughtful pieces is that vocation “emerges and evolves over the course of an entire lifetime.” That’s obvious, or should be, but yet we’ve not given much of an account of that and theologically we’ve locked ourselves into language about vocation and calling that excludes those who aren’t “making a difference” or working in a culture-shaping career.  These authors broaden our language and thinking about vocation by covering six of life’s distinct seasons, weaving together personal narrative, developmental theory, case studies, and spiritual practices.

The contributors are Christian educators and theologians from across the theological spectrum, each with insight and wisdom about their particular specialty or ministry context. Dr. Cahalan is a professor of practical theology at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville MN – her most recent Eerdmans title is a small delight called The Stories We Live: Finding God’s Calling All Around Us.(She also did a remarkable work which we stock which explores notions of vocation and calling in each of different world religions and within diverse worldviews. How ‘bout that?!) We’ve met Miller-McLemore, who is a beloved educator and Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at Vanderbilt and she is impressive. I really appreciated her major, thoughtful volume Christian Theology in Practice: Discovering a Discipline. Anyway, these two women are expert thinkers and have this gift of helping offer scholarly theological work to enhance our wisdom for living in the world in faithful ways. Calling All Years Good is a book that will help us all.

Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology Amy Plantinga Pauw (Eerdmans) $20.00  At a recent retreat of small town pastors, lay preachers and down-home congregants of very small and often rural churches (they call it, in good Scottish Presbyterian-ese, the “Wee Kirk” conference) I announced this book and made a dumb quip, suggesting that if you get what a “wisdom ecclesiology” is, then you’ll surely want this book. And if not, just skip it. I regret having said that. Yes, this is as fairly demanding read, and yes, Amy Plantinga Pauw – related to that Plantinga, one of the most respected philosophers in the world! – is one very sharp cookie. She is one of the most brilliant theologians in the PC(USA) and holds the Mobley chair of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.  She wrote The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinity Theology of Jonathan Edwards that Edwards’ scholars are still talking about. But demanding and heavy as this may be, Church in Ordinary Time is a great book and one we should seriously consider. I want to suggest it should be widely read, carefully, slowly. It’s worth it.

Here is how our always-helpful Eerdmans sales rep pitched it to me, and why I ordered a big stack: “Much of Christian theology,” he reminded me, “is focused on the story of Jesus and the promised consummation of all things that Christ will bring – but the church exists in the gap between them.” That reminds me of the line I often cite, saying we live in the “already and not yet.”  Within the last weeks I’ve been with people who announce a Kingdom theology that suggested it was all here, now. And with other folks lamenting with little hope, as if it is all distantly “not yet.”  A balanced view of living well between Christ’s resurrection and the eschaton – which is, generally speaking, the project of N.T. Wright, for instance – takes much improvisation, cultural discernment and faithful patience. In a word, we need wisdom.

Professor Pauw here draws on Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes and argues that “the liturgical season of ordinary time aptly symbolizes the church’s existence as God’s creature in this time between the times.”

Not every book comes with a rave endorsement by brilliant theologians such as Willie James Jennings at Yale. He calls Amy Plantinga Pauw “one of the leading American theologians of our generation” and says to read Ordinary Time to find out why. I hope you do.

In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture David Lyle Jeffrey (Eerdmans) $49.00  This is an amazing book and I suppose it doesn’t fully fit into this list, since we’ve selected titles for your that are accessible for all, thoughtful but approachable and of wide-ranging interest for any educated reader.  This is certainly good for anyone and we might wish that every home would have a book like this on their coffee table. Church libraries and businesses and medical waiting rooms, too, for that matter, could proudly display it somewhere to bless casual browsers. But, alas, we realize it may be a bit specialized – aesthetically-attuned, theological art history maybe isn’t for everyone – and it is expensive.  Still, this is simply glorious and a book of visual theology through wonderful paintings from throughout all of Western culture.

Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey is highly regarded and deeply respected for his astute observations and scholarly writing – he is a Distinguished Professor of Literature and Humanities at Baylor University. This over-sized, weighty book is manufactured with heavy stock glossy paper, richly illustrated and – as Robin Jensen of Notre Dame says – is a “truly learned study of the complex relationship between visual art and Christian theology.” William Dyrness says readers will “come away instructed and inspired by this cornucopia of imagery.” What a beautiful, wondrous, extraordinary volume. Three cheers for Eerdmans and their willingness to bring out such extravagant, beautiful, and wise resources. We hope you consider this, and hope you consider getting it from us.

The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts W. David O. Taylor (with a foreword by John D. Witvliet) (Eerdmans) $30.00  My, oh my, how I wish I could have devoted an entire review to this major work. I have not spent adequate time with it to do so, but I know this much: W. David Taylor is a prof of theology and culture at Fuller and the director of the Brehm Center’s Texas campus, an initiative to revitalize the church through wise use of the arts. (The primary Brehm Center is at Fuller and is directed by Makato Fujimura.) Taylor has edited remarkable books such as the very useful For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts which should be in every church library and pastor’s bookshelf, and has done serious scholarship in works such as co-authoring the much-discussed Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds. In this major new volume the artful thinker Taylor (who once was a TA for J.I. Packer, by the way) explores not only how Calvin thought about God’s good world, with ideas that had the effect of underwriting a vision of the arts that was extraordinary in its impact, but also how we in the broader Reformed tradition might think well about the use of art in worship, or what the title nicely calls “the liturgical arts.”  

There is a rave review from the significant musician, scholar of aesthetics, and theologian, Jeremy Begbie, who notes:

For some, Calvin would be the last theologian from whom we might expect wisdom on the liturgical arts. But David Taylor, with exemplary skill and clarity, shows us otherwise. This is an immensely important study from one of the key leaders in theology and the arts today.

Do you recall what I said at the outset, that Eerdmans is a splendid publisher that, besides doing super serious Biblical commentaries and heavy theology texts for the academic guild, they also do these extraordinary volumes for all sorts of thoughtful readers?

I implied that we really enjoy stocking these kinds of books and that Hearts & Minds fans, who I gather like us for our diverse and intentionally curated selection, should support our efforts to sell these kinds of titles. I’m told that many so-called Christian bookstores simply don’t carry this stuff.  What a shame.

We aren’t doing well stocking them, actually, to be honest, so if you care about this caliber of publishing, help us spread the word. There are great, great books out there, and we have ‘em.  Let’s hope they end up in book clubs and Bible studies and campus ministry libraries and on pastor’s lending shelves, and in the bedrooms and living rooms of many.  Can you help us get the word out?  Might you buy some today and spread this good news around?  Thanks for caring.


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Books for Business People — and other workers. ON SALE

It has been a while since we’ve sent one of our Hearts & Minds newsletters to you.  We’re sorry for any worries this might have caused — we know you need your book updates.  Ha.

We’ve been super busy. Yes, we’re glad for good opportunities to work and to talk books. We’ve been blessed with some nice travels, encouraging friends — special thanks to the warm and enthusiastic dinner company at the fund-raiser for Messiah College Murray Library!  And thanks to those who allow us to set up room full of book tables to enhance your events. Our legs and backs are a bit achy from book lugging and we’re a little punchy from the late hours and juggling these authors, that event, those publishers, them darned deadlines.  Pray for us; seriously, please do.

One of the places I really enjoyed being a few weeks back — sharing thoughts about life and times as a Christian business person and holding out a vivid vision of work as a high and holy calling — was, as I mentioned in the last BookNotes, the Colorado Christian Business Alliance.

Not only did I do a keynote presentation at that stellar event, I got to do two passionate workshops about the importance or reading, learning, thinking Christianly about our life in the world, even work and business and economics.

I wanted to share the handout I did for that seminar, and although not everyone will need the books on just business and the role of profits and reforming capitalism and whatnot, I do think this is a valuable resource. We don’t have time to put in all the book covers, so it’s a bit old-school — an honest to goodness bibliography.  I did annotate it and tried to offer hints at the value of each work chosen. Hope you find it helpful.

(A little disclaimer: I could have, and actually wanted to, list more titles in each category. We only had room for two, two-sided pages to hand-out and with a bit of color printing, it looked pretty nice. But I had to limit it to what I thought might work with this particular gathering. It pains me to skip some important authors and excellent books.  I wonder what you think I missed??)

You know we believe that reading good books can be transforming and we hope this gives a reminder about the sorts of resources we collect and curate here at our Dallastown shop.  Let us know if you want to chat or if we can serve you further — about this, or whatever you’re interested in. And do consider sending this list along to any business people you know.  We’d love to sell some of these important, vital tools for marketplace ministry.

By the way, for more on this topic, see this column and also the links I offered there to older, classic Hearts & Minds lists.  At the CCBA workshop, you may want to know, I also gave a shout-out to the visionary, remarkably artful DVD curriculum For the Life of the World. (A friend from the Acton Institute was doing a workshop on that material in another room.) Aso, I mentioned the fabulous and substantive DVD set (described in that link, above) from Regent College in Vancouver called Reframe: Connecting Faith and Life.  Each are really, really good in their own way.  And, of course, we stock ’em. Good videos to get good conversations started, which might lead to even more serious reading in this field. Let’s hope.


CCBA Conference September 2017

Denver, Colorado


All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel Hugh Whelchel (The Institute on Faith, Work, & Economics) $5.99     This is a six-week Bible study showing the Scriptural story unfolding through creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Nothing like it in print–eye-opening and life-changing.

What Is a Christian Worldview?  Philip Ryken (P&R) $4.99     A short, handsome booklet, perfect to give out. This is the most succinct book on the subject of worldview.

Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God  Michael Wittmer (Zondervan) $16.99     One of our favorite, upbeat, and visionary books about the nature of a Christian worldview and why it matters.  Good discussions questions, too.

Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview Al Wolters (Eerdmans) $15.00     Often cited as the best introduction to a Biblical perspective for all of life. A careful, mature study.

The Transforming Vision: Developing a Christian Worldview Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP) $22.00   One of the classics, an in-depth look at where dualism came from, why the Bible demands a wholistic vision, a critique of the idols of the age, and a call to think deeply about our public lives. Serious, thoughtful, vital; some might call it prophetic.

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling Andy Crouch (IVP) $22.00     One of my all-time favorite books, inviting us to realize we are called to make something of the world in which we live, imaging God by cultivating our gifts and purpose. Brilliant, wise, inspiring.

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power Andy Crouch (IVP) $25.00     If we are culture-formers and history-makers, as he explained in Culture Making, we must eventually grapple with a faithful view of institutions and  how to wisely use power. This is the best book on the subject. Highly recommended.


What Is Vocation? Stephen Nichols (P&R) $4.99     This attractive booklet is the shortest, most lovely little study of this topic in print, perfect to give, showing a Biblical view of calling, vocation, and the dignity of work.

Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Meaning of Being Human John Mark Comer (Zondervan) $16.99     This is an ultra-cool presentation by a hip young pastor who offers extraordinary insight about the nature of our calling to serve God in our work and to realize our deepest reasons for being alive. Fantastic.

The Call: Rediscovering Your Purpose Os Guinness (Word) $17.99     Eloquent, profound, and literary, it may be that this is one of the most important books of our times, setting off a renewed interest in the relationship of faith, vocation, calling, and work. Beautifully written in short chapters, this is an elegant, stimulating, must-read.

Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good Steven Garber (IVP) $17.00     What a rare and richly rewarding book about how to keep on, despite our being implicated in the brokenness of the world. God invites us to long haul, missional discipleship where we care as deeply as God does. Garber tells tender and interesting stories even as he analyzes the culture and calls us to be faithful to our vocations.


Reintegrate Your Life With God’s Mission Bob Robinson (Good Place Publishing) $12.00     There is simply no one book that brings so much together about worldview and creation-restored views of redemption, from visions of vocation to a Biblical view of work, all in short side-bars and pull-quotes. This is a discussion guide designed for small group use in the work-world or in home or church studies. User-friendly, fun, with exceptional content. A one of a kind resource.

How Then Should We Work: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work Hugh Whelchel (The Institute on Faith, Work, & Economics) $10.95     One of the best overviews of a Biblical approach to our callings into the workplace.  This is short, solid, and very helpful.

Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work Tom Nelson (Crossway) $16.99     Tom is a pastor who made a shift in his ministry, intentionally focusing on equipping members to serve God in their jobs and callings in the world. Lots of good stories and case studies of folks in his congregation who related worship and work, Sunday and Monday. A must for pastors, great for all of us.

Every Job a Parable: What Wal-Mart Greeters, Nurses, and Astronauts Tell Us about God John Van Sloten (NavPress) $14.99     One of the best books of 2017, this was inspired by a series of sermons John preached about how various jobs and careers can become parables, teaching us things about God, God’s grace, and our redemption in Christ. What a fun, fun, and truly inspiring book!  There is an index in the back indicating what jobs he refers to, and it is (believe me) a long, fascinating list. Don’t miss it.

A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World  Katelyn Beatty (Howard Books) $14.99     This is the only really good book that encourages women in their work-world service, grounded in a healthy worldview, a deep appreciation for the doctrine of calling, and a Biblical view of work. Good for men or women, it alerts us all to the unique challenges and opportunities facing Christian women today.

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Work To God’s Work Timothy Keller & Katherine Leary Alsdorf (Riverhead) $17.00     Truly one of the seminal books in this field, an excellent, serious study of why our work matters to God, and how to see “every good endeavor” as serving God’s concerns,  offering mature case studies and suggestions for a profound integration of faith and work.

Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good Amy Sherman (IVP) $18.00     This is a meaty, visionary book inviting us to explore why God wants us to serve the common good, and how our jobs and careers can make a difference in the world. Part of the book offers several different models or approaches, from the most basic to more visionary and impactful. There’s an energetic foreword by Reggie McNeal and a moving afterword by Steve Garber. What a book!

Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work Matthew Crawford (Penguin) $17.00     Although not a follower of Christ, Crawford is a mature, serious thinker who left his white-collar job in academics to start his own motorcycle repair shop. This moving, sophisticated book explores what he learned about working with his hands and how, it seems, we are increasingly not training young people for the trades. His next book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, examines the art and craft of a handful of workers who are excellent at their jobs, again, noting the need for specific dispositions and skills and the real-world craft of doing good work.   


Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business Wayne Grudem (Crossway) $16.99     A respected Bible scholar and conservative social thinker offers here a solid introduction to what the Bible says about glorifying God in all we do, including work and business. A short, clear-headed primer.

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed) Jeff Van Duzer (IVP) $20.00     A serious study of business as if it mattered to God and how God’s purposes can be applied to the business setting. Van Duzer is Dean of the School of Business and Economics (and professor of business law) at Seattle Pacific University. This may be my own favorite business book – very highly recommended.

Business Through the Eyes of Faith Richard Chewning, John Eby & Shirley J. Roels (HarperOne) $24.99     This is essentially a Christian college textbook, written by three seasoned thinkers, which offers basic Christian insights on everything from marketing to pricing, employee relations to management, and more. This is a treasure chest full of Christian thinking about things that matter.

Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace  Kenman Wong & Scott Rae (IVP) $26.00  Written to be used as a text for Christian colleges or business ethics courses, this may be the most comprehensive and thoughtful vision for business rooted in an intentional Christian worldview that we know. Excellent for those who want a sophisticated and serious Christian engagement.

Doing God’s Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace  R. Paul Stevens (Eerdmans) $18.00  As one reviewer said of Stevens, who taught at Regent College in Vancouver, “he is a marketplace theology pioneer. He was doing, thinking, and writing on ministry in the marketplace before most of us even realized what the issues were.” This is a comprehensive collection of essays on everything from personal vocation to globalization, from marketplace mission to finding spirituality for the work-world. See also his very helpful book called Taking Your Soul to Work: Overcoming the Nine Deadly Sins of the Workplace or his good collection of Bible reflections showing different kinds of workers in Scripture called Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture.

People Over Profits: Break the System, Live with Purpose, Be More Successful  Dale Partridge (Thomas Nelson) $24.99     A young tech start-up entrepreneur who loves Jesus offers a quick but powerful survey of the cycles towards growth and efficiency, greed and deception, that plague most economies, and most businesses. He calls for an unabashed reformation of capitalist values towards people and quality, service and transparency, which he outlines as seven core beliefs. This is clear, compelling, and challenging. (It is not overtly Christian, making it useful for any work-place study group.) A must-read for every entrepreneur and business leader.

The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders Max Anderson & Peter Escher (Portfolio Business) $24.95     After the banking scandals and financial crisis in 2008, a Christian graduating from Harvard Business School convened a team of students and faculty and created a pledge – similar to the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath – promising to do right by their clients. It was thoughtful and nuanced and, yet, some refused to sign it! That became a news story, and the MBA Oath became a phenomenon and much-discussed document. This book came out of that experience and explores the multi-faceted ways in which corporations and financiers can be honest and do good in the world.

Completing Capitalism: Heal Business to Heal the World Bruno Roche & Jay Jakub (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) $19.95     For several years the family-owned Mars Corporation – the M&M’s people – convened a world-class group of economists (the leaders of which happened to be Biblical Christians) to ask about how the metrics of profit might be expanded to include sustainability and justice for workers and more. This is a studious, thoughtful proposal about corporate responsibility. Peter Block calls it “a major breakthrough…” Their global team uses the language of an “economics of mutuality” to further the research on what it means to do good even as we do well.  Exceptional.

The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Communities Compassion and Capacity Tom Nelson (IVP) $16.00     Many of us admire Tom Nelson for his lovely, inspiring book Work Matters and for his recent leadership resourcing churches and other leaders in the beautiful “Made to Flourish” network. Here he offers a brand new study of Christian views of economics with a balanced, Biblical, practical vision. Tim Keller calls it “a great contribution” and Steve Garber says “it is a book for everyone who cares about the moral meaning of the marketplace.” Wonderful.

The Crisis and the Kingdom: Economics, Scripture and the Global Financial Crisis E. Philip Davis (Cascade Books) $20.00     Few authors are as experienced or qualified to offer a theological assessment of the financial collapse of the late 2000s. Davis is both a world-class economist (with scholarly books on investments on Oxford University Press) and a Baptist pastor. He serves a church in the financial district of London. This is thoughtful and provocative.

The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World Daniel Bell (Baker Academic) $22.00     This is a very serious contrast of capitalism and Christianity, showing that in our postmodern globalized era, Christians should be active in rethinking and reforming the impulses of consumerism that deform desire and erode virtue. The gospel can help us more faithfully and intentionally navigate the global economy.

Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization Brent Waters (WJK) $40.00     This is a substantive and overtly Christian critique of various schools of economics, offering a balanced and nuanced argument for the good of markets (avoiding the tendency to either demonize or idolize them). There are many good books on Christian perspectives on economics, and this is one of the best – even if it annoys many on both the left and the right.

Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture Bob Goudzwaard & Craig Bartholomew (IVP Academic) $30.00     This is heavy (co-written by a Dutch economist and a South African philosopher) on the ideas, ideologies, and institutions that have shaped the modern world. There is much here to learn, to ponder, and be inspired by as they offer a multi-dimensional critique of modern economics, presenting how a Christian social philosophy might offer redirection and renewed hope.

Christian Mission and Economic Systems: A Critical Survey of the Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Economics edited by John Cheong & Eloise Meneses (William Carey Library) $19.99     Although designed as a mission book, or at least for those involved in Business as Mission, this is nonetheless a fascinating overview of global cultural folkways and religious aspects of economics and would help us all see our views of money and money-making from other perspectives.


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Earlier (out of print) books now re-issued by N.T. Wright and Robert Benson ON SALE NOW

Greetings from out West in the great city of Denver Colorado. I was asked to speak at a conference for Christian business people in Colorado and I also got to present two workshops, about the value of reading, the need to develop the Christian mind, and offering a bibliography of titles which contribute to the on-going conversation about faith, work, vocation, calling, and, specifically, business practices and Christian engagement with economics. I regret that I only scratched the surface, and missed saying some important things, but that is what the books are for – to allow people to more slowly, carefully, read for deep formation and to “take every idea captive” for Christ’s Kingdom as we are called to do (Romans 12:1-2, Colossians 2:8, 1 Corinthians 10:5.)

I spoke a lot about rejecting what some call the “sacred vs secular dualism” and invited the workers gathered there to realize their work was holy ground, that what they did matters, and can honor God if done for the common good, stewarding vocational gifts, showing the goodness of God by creating products and services that show love of neighbor. I wish I had a list of the jobs people had, but I know there were big business owners, small -town retailers, building contractors, business lawyers, industry experts, consultants, corporate executives, factory managers, entrepreneurs, mining specialists, realtors, financial advisors, hedge-fund investors, mid-level managers, members of marketplace ministries, and a even few ministers.

I will publish the bibliography I put together for these business professionals soon, here at BookNotes. I have to focus now on this new post, though, which may be dicey, between my jet lag and altitude sickness (yes, it’s a real thing) and spending some time with one of our daughters who lives here and is showing us the artsy side of town (move over Brooklyn, Denver’s River North District, known here as RINO, is the up-and-coming hipster center of the known universe. What a colorful, creative place. And we get to go to House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran faith community where we’ve worshiped before and a place we deeply love.)

In the middle of this important speaking engagement and this bit of family vacation, I still want to tell our Hearts & Minds BookNotes friends about some brand new books. I hope you saw the previous BookNotes blog which listed 20 titles about Jesus. Let’s face it – formational Christian reading must be Christ-centered, so that may be one of the most important BookNotes I’ve done in a while.

The two titles I want to tell you about now are splendid and do tie in to our experience here with the Colorado Christian Business Alliance and will be helpful for any other Christian social action and cultural renewal ministries that long for God’s Kingdom to be seen in every area of life.

My theme today is simple, and I won’t say too much. (Did I mention the altitude sickness? And the cool places our daughter is taking us?) We’re very excited about two books that just came out that are, actually, older previously out of print books now re-issued in somewhat revised and updated editions.


These are two truly favorite books that have been out of print for decades and are now, this week, back in print again. Thanks be to God to the authors and publishers involved, bringing two tried and true (if under-appreciated) volumes back to the reading public. You, friends, should snap these up right away as they are true gifts, and truly vital resources for your life and times. Dare I say they are good for your hearts and minds?

Spiritual and Religious: The Gospel in an Age of Paganism Tom Wright (SPCK) $15.00 This book is worth twice the price and we should rejoice that the sophisticated British publisher, SPCK, is now being distributed into North America by InterVarsity Press. (This is yet another feather in the bright cap of the always thoughtful and relevant IVP, our favorite publisher.) Tom Wright? A re-print by a publisher in the UK? Yep, you figured it out: this author is the world-famous and world-class Anglican theologian and Bible scholar otherwise known to the publishing and reading world as N. T. Wright. Many folks know he goes by Tom, and some of his earliest books were published under his more friendly name, Tom. So, for those who haven’t followed him from the very, very beginning, this is essentially a brand new N.T. Wright book. Come on, people, get on the train – this is gospel good news, solid and still creative, orthodox without being stuffy, Biblical and yet, as serious Bible reading should be, finally, revolutionary. Although published in the very early 1990s, this is for most a brand new N.T. Wright book, and as timely as ever!

Spiritual And Religious was previously published in the U.S. by Bethany House (now part of the Baker Publishing Group) as Bringing the Church to the World and although we were young booksellers in those days, Beth and I loved this book. It had the quintessential look of a late ‘80s/early 1990s pop Christian book and was released by a publisher who in those years was known for some pretty intense deeper life revival writings of the likes of Andrew Murray, Leonard Ravenhill, and Charles Finney, re-publishing the extraordinary Victorian-era, Scottish novels by George MacDonald (CS Lewis’s great literary mentor) and the rather simplistic but hugely popular historical fiction of the likes of Janette Oke. My dear mother and many of our customers loved those pious prairie romances, despite the awful covers. In the middle of a list of Christian fiction and somewhat old-fashioned Christian growth stuff was the first U.S. book by a then unknown British author named Tom Wright.

I understand why that book, Bringing the Church to the World, wasn’t popular in those years. It just fell through the cracks. Serious emerging thinkers in those days, discovering early works of Moltmann and Brueggemann, say, or even the best mainstream evangelical thinkers (reading the first books of Eugene Peterson or Francis Schaeffer and John Stott and Ron Sider and the likes of Lewis, Sproul, and Colson) just weren’t reading books by that publisher with those covers, nicely designed for the popular Christian self-help market. Mainline denominational pastors and thought leaders in United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian circles who didn’t frequent the ubiquitous mom and pop Christian bookstores in those days, simply didn’t know this book existed.

And, it might have been ahead of its time. With the “spiritual but not religious” lingo these days, and this movement of post-Christian spirituality, Tom Wright’s insights about the nature of paganism, true spirituality, the longing for some sense of God’s presence, is, in fact, perfect for these days. The book – missional at its core, culturally-wise in its discernment about the times – was strong and would have been very useful in the midst of what we then called the “new age movement” – wiser, I think, then some of the alarmist over-reactions. In the first Bethany House edition, it had emblazoned on the front, as a long sub-title, “Renewing the Church to Confront the Paganism in Western Culture.”  It carried a great endorsement by J. I. Packer.  And yet it languished.

Now, with the new SPCK edition’s title, Spiritual and Religious… is even more urgent as the goofiness of the worst of that neo-pagan movement has subsided and the best insights (legitimately offering alternatives in medicine and psychology and politics to old-school, Western style materialism based on Enlightenment sorts of rationalistic paganism) have become more mainstream. But with many fine churches — mainline liberal or evangelical mega-church or medium-moderates — still not quite getting where the culture is these days, it is no surprise that so many younger adults (and older ones, too, I might add) see themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” As You Lost Me by David Kinnaman (and several other more scholarly books on the “nones” such as Belief Without Borders by Linda Mercadante or Choosing Our Religion by Elizabeth Drescher) show, not all of the young adult population that don’t attend church are atheists or hostile to faith; some see themselves as deeply spiritual, and some see themselves as truly Christian, avoiding religious institutions that, in their mind, has little to do with Jesus and His ways in the world.

And so, N.T. Wright comes along, digging up this old assessment of the spirit of the times from the new agey 80 and 90s and re-thinks that material, offered in that under-appreciated book, and re-purposes it for missional Kingdom outreach and authentic Biblical spirituality in our 21st century post-Christian, newly pagan culture. What a great idea to re-edit and re-issue that important volume.

Wright’s Spiritual and Religious is arranged in two parts.The first half (less than 100 pages) includes seven short chapters exploring the modern world and offering good prompts for how the church fits into this idolatrous secular worldview. Many of you know that one of my favorite books is The Transforming Vision by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (and that these two were young bucks living in Canada when Tom was at McGill University in Quebec, and they became friends. I happen to see the fingerprints of Transforming Vision all over this book, especially in its potent critique of the gods of the age, including mammon, militarism and the like. However, this is not dry intellectual history or liberal social criticism – although there is some stuff about the history of ideas and a critique of well-accepted idols of our time. But mostly, this is Kingdom theology, a missional vision of the vindicated, Risen Christ and how the church simply must relate the good news to the culture around us.

The second half of Spiritual and Religious: The Gospel in an Age of Paganism looks like a wonderful overview of much of Wright’s best stuff on missional thinking, strategies for engaging the culture and its distorted views and hurtful practices, and how to present the Kingdom alternative to those who remain hungry for meaning, eager for beauty, longing for justice. How can those who are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors of God’s Kingdom related well to those who may not see the message of the church to be life-giving or admirable? How can we be the church for the sake of the world God so loves?

I loved this book when it first came out, although we didn’t then know who Tom Wright was as an evangelically-minded but somewhat socially progressive Anglican priest in the UK, nor what he was working on, offering fresh expressions of the church for the world in those hard years in England, and what he would become – the generative, prolific scholar of prodigious, and sometimes ponderous output making him one of the most important writers of our time. We did not know that he would give reasonable voice to so much that we stood for, explaining in helpful ways our own curious theological influences and the vision of Hearts & Minds as a Christian bookstore. I didn’t realize then that he would eventual become a bit of a friend and supporter and show up to preach in our back yard.

Beth and I loved that book, even if we didn’t sell it well. I might have been biased by not realizing who he was, not “placing” him because of my own assumptions about the theological nature of that US publisher in those years. I don’t know. Nobody else did, either, I guess, as the book languished, unknown, and soon enough went out of print. I have felt badly about it for years. What a joy to now have a second chance, to re-sell this book, to promote it widely, and hope that its message equips churches with visions and strategies to embody a prophetic imagination, learning to say no to the ideologies of the Western, secularized culture, and the oddly-focused, inner spiritualties of the newer generations, and hold out a classic, orthodox, vibrant vision of being deeply spiritual and culturally relevant – the best vision of religion as a way to life well lived.

(And, just to be clear for those that wonder: Wright does not, in his passion for ministering to the world, for being engaged in the struggle for ideas and attitudes that shape our modern lives and institutions and culture, recommend “watering down the distinctives of the faith in order to make it more palatable.” No, no, not at all. He is not an old-school liberal, wanting to accommodate ourselves to the world, in order to unite “Christ and culture” somehow, being like the world to be accepted by it.That is a large misunderstanding, if anyone presumes that. Neither is he a fundamentalist, a crass theocrat as represented by the Christian right in the US, a movement which he finds intolerable (as do, by the way, almost all evangelical Christians around the globe, perplexed and saddened by the odd ways American fundamentalists are so nationalistic.)

It is fascinating to me that those who see themselves as progressive theologically sometimes think Tom is too conservative and many conservatives find him to be questionable. When one find as author and leader who is blasted by both extreme sides, it may be that that is an author to consider. How wonderful!)

So, again, this short book is about the nature of the modern culture, underscoring its essential idolatries as a form of paganism. The communities of ancient Israel had to struggle to resist the idols of their surrounding cultures, of course, and the early church’s very survival depended on its proper engagement with the pressures of the pagan worldviews. This books helps us do what the church is always called to do.

Tom Wright puts it, plainly, in the introduction:

I believe that our current society presents a new set of challenges to the church. These are significantly different from the challenges that Christians have perceived, and responded to, in recent decades. Fortunately, although these challenges are new to us, they are not totally new in themselves, and we are able to draw on wisdom from the past in addressing them.

This book reminds us, too, that there are many movements of renewal within the churches in recent years that can be wisely harnessed, combined, drawn upon, to empower us for this significant contemporary challenge.

For instance, he says that:

There has been a renewal of Christian interest in ecumenism, in liturgy, in the Holy Spirit, in biblical study, in social and political action, and many other things. Taken by themselves, these movements can become hobbyhorses of single-issue fanatics, while the rest wonders what the fuss is all about. But give the church a new sense of direction, a new vision of the challenges that it now faces, show it that, to meet these challenges, it needs to draw on the best of all these renewal movements have to offer; and instead of being the hobbyhorse of a few they become instead the resource-kit of the many. There are new tasks facing us, and a renewed church can face up to them in the knowledge that, through the wise provision of her Lord, she is in principle equal to them.

“Ultimately, if the church is to be the church for the world,” Wright writes, “it must recapture a vision of the God is the true God.“

His hope in this fine little old book offer afresh is that if the church is going to be prayerful and thoughtful and relevant and missional – that is, if our message is to be effective and hammered out in practice and make sense to the watching world – it will “constantly celebrate and announce the lordship of Jesus in appropriate, constructive and telling ways.” Isn’t that a nice line?  I hope you can see why we here at the bookstore resonate with this classic, pioneering, early vision of N.T.–Tom — Wright.

To make the book more usable, Wright has good discussion questions at the end of each chapter, making it ideal for book groups, Bible studies, adult ed forums and the like. There is a brand new chapter, written as an epilogue, suggesting one particular prayer, a way of praying it, that picks up the major themes of the book. He says, actually, that you might want read that chapter first, allowing it to “pervade and deepen the reading of the rest.”

We – we here at the shop, but other bookstores, reviewers, publishing ministries and book-buyers — blew it last time, not promoting this book enough; it should have been a widely-read, regularly-cited, contemporary classic. Thanks be to God that we have another chance. Let’s make this book known and its hopeful insights applied so that we can, indeed, be a church for the sake of the world.



Venite: A Book of Daily Prayer Robert Benson (Abingdon Press) $18.99 Again, this is a book that almost came and went in a flash, back in the last century. There was a fresh re-issue in 2000, actually, but it didn’t last, either. As with the Tom Wright book above, we feel, personally, badly about this. Why we didn’t sell more of this lovely, meaningful, useful book in those years I cannot say. That the evangelical book world wasn’t ready for a liturgical resource to help people pray the offices or celebrate the liturgical season is an understatement. Like Taking the Church to the World it was ahead of its time. Unlike that one, the title has remained.Venite. I’m glad. The back cover of this handsome paperback explains,

The Latin word is an invitation given to pray the prayers of Christ. It is an invitation to pray the ancient prayer, unlike life becomes prayer without ceasing.

I won’t bore you with the long story of our own coming to appreciate liturgical prayer and my own love-hate relationship with fixed-hour prayers. In my long review a decade ago of Robert’s beautiful book In Constant Prayer I said, very, very sincerely, that I was deeply moved and genuinely blessed by reading about fixed our prayer, using the office as a guide to praying throughout the day. But that I just wasn’t going to do it. I think that is fair enough – I like books about global missions even though I’ve never left the continent and I loved Benson’s book on baseball and his book on gardening and his book on vacationing in the Caribbean, even though I have done known of those things. Still there is something about reading about fixed hour prayer, something about having a resource like the classic Book of Common Prayer, but less cumbersome, to have these litanies and prayers and curated verses and spaces to pause and intercede and praise…. even if I don’t use it strictly as a prayer book as I should.

Two things have happened in this general area since we opened our bookstore almost 35 years ago. The people who protested and boycotted our store because we carried books about contemplative spirituality and Christian books about meditation – what a story! — have either apologized or drifted away. That is, within the evangelical Protestant world there has been a huge re-awakening to the benefits of spiritual disciplines and contemplative, monastic spirituality. When I give presentations on the shifts in religious publishing in recent decades, this is one of the largest we’ve seen, and we can pretty confidently name the writings of Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen as two popularizers of this rich tradition of classic spirituality. Of course both Foster and Nouwen drew deeply on the wells of the medieval traditions, but both popularized the dense stuff about contemplative prayer written by the hugely significant literary and religious figure, Columbia University atheist turned silent monk, Thomas Merton. That I worked for a spell at the mostly Roman Catholic Thomas Merton Center before we opened our bookstore might help you understand why we opened with a then-rare section on contemplative spiritual formation, shelving books old and new on this stuff about our interior lives and the prayerful habits that transform us from the inside out, allowing us to “practice the presence of God.”

In most of his wonderfully written, highly-recommended books – I think of Living Prayer and Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and his most-recent, truly lovely, Punching Holes in the Dark – Robert Benson shares this story that nearly parallels just a bit of my own, except his is more colorful, writ large. He grew up within the heart of American evangelicalism and Southern revival zeal, his grandfather and father being the Benson’s of the famous Benson gospel music record label. (If you’ve heard of the Bill Gaither Trio, you know who I mean.) Robert, as he explains in detail in his lovely book about discerning one’s own vocation, The Echo Within: Finding Your True Calling,realized he wasn’t cut out for the music biz; in fact, he wasn’t part of that evangelical/revivalist tribe anymore, anyway. As much as he deeply, deeply admires his father (who didn’t?) and as much as he appreciates the gospel clarity he was rooted in during those formative years, he is a liberal Episcopalian now, a writer who offers humble retreats about praying and living in the light of God’s gracious mercy. His faith might seem more simple, now, as he lives quietly, writing gentle books, and praying the hours, even as he studies the great spiritual classics of the Western (and, too, some of the non-Western spiritual traditions.) So, anyway, Benson is an example of this shift we’ve mentioned about how evangelical Protestants have discovered the ancient disciplines that the monks and nuns have written about for centuries — contemplation, meditation, mysticism and the like.

However, Benson’s Veniti: A Book of Daily Prayer did not exactly emerge, or only emerge, from his shift away from older school Protestant fundamentalism and embracing a more ecumenical, reflective faith, but it also comes from his discovery of the vital role of liturgy and the joys and rigors and rhythms if fixed hour prayer. Again, about the time in the 1980s when evangelicalism, and, eventually, mainline liberal Protestant churches, dropped their guard about Catholic mysticism and started reading Nouwen, and then Merton, there was also a trend of rigorously orthodox evangelicals who longed for more mystery and ancient connections in their zealous but perhaps shallow faith. There were in those years a few books written (still in print today, by the way) explaining this, such as Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church,which documented conservative non-denominational Christians, many young, leaving their Jesus-movement, Maranatha Music, low-brow worship services and becoming — miraculum — Episcopalian. We see this in the important work of Robert Webber and his “ancient future” project, combing contemporary interests and ancient liturgies, combined in rich aesthetics. We see this trend especially these days as many conservative Reformed folks leave churches like the PCA to become Anglican, a more conservative and evangelical version of the American Episcopalianism.

I do not know this, but I suspect it is the good marketing folks at Abingdon Press who sense that the time is right to re-introduce this lovely,(originally) hand-made Benson prayer book. If it was ahead of its time – the wave of contemplative spirituality and the interest in higher liturgical forms was still growing twenty years ago — but the time couldn’t be better for this very handsome, user-friendly, slim-line prayer book.Those that knew it decades ago will rejoice that it is out again; it was sort of an underground classic., truly cherished among a small, glad crowd. Now it might become a mainstream best-seller. One can hope.

For what it is worth, Benson has two very, very nice introductions to Venite giving you background as to how he came to write this and in his piercing, concise prose, tells you why it matters so to him. He also guides you through using it well, noting some of the helpful features.

I cannot now explain the details but it is nice that somebody like Robert Benson, who obviously uses and is fluent in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer and the conventional Roman Catholic Book of Divine Offices and other odd little prayer books is so willing and able to create a more streamlined and simple-to-use prayer book. There is a glossary in the back explaining often used words (lauds, compline, canticles, remembrances, etc.) He has a short essay on the liturgical calendar. That is, if you need a bit of a guide or mentor into this sacramental worldview and the practices of daily liturgical prayer, If you like the late Phyllis Tickle volumes – she and Benson were pals, naturally – you will love this. If you want a guide to pray which you can use routinely through the day, or just to dip into on occasion (all that my cheating heart can manage) Venite will draw you deeper and wisely guide you towards this fixed-hour sort of habit.

The first large portion of Venite is on saying the Office; that is, praying the fixed hours throughout the day, as people (mostly monks and nuns, but not only them) do throughout the day.

The second major section of Venite is on saying the Prayers of the Seasons; that is, special prayers for the church calendar, from Advent through special holy days, feast days, and well known seasons such as Lent. (And, yes, in the Advent portion he has the O Antiphons, making it nearly the price of the book for that.)

And, so, like with the Tom Wright book, above, Robert Benson remains a favorite author, one whose books we stock and promote as best we can. And, like with Spiritual and Religious by Wright, with Veniti by Benson, we now have chance to introduce to their fans, and to those who don’t know their work, an older, rich, early volume, re-edited and re-shaped for a new audience.

We couldn’t be happier than to have these kinds of books to sell, books by Wright and Benson and others they so maturely draw upon. But these two are special – old classics that maybe didn’t catch on as they should have, given fresh designs and new insights, and, hopefully, new readerships. Will you help us spread the word about these two newly re-issued resources. It is not my altitude sickness speaking here, it is God’s good word, from my heart to yours: these books deserve to be widely known.










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20 GREAT BOOKS ABOUT JESUS CHRIST — and a free book offer! Limited Time Only

To kick off the new Adult Ed program at our church I’m helping with a class I put together on the life, times, person and work, of Jesus. We swiped a title from the wonderful John Ortberg book, Who Is That Man? and we’ve got both of our PC(USA) pastors and another local ordained PCA guy briefly exploring this majestic topic. I’ve been pursuing some old favorites and new titles and have been reminded not only how great it is to read and re-read the gospels (something I don’t do as much as I should) but also how many great books there are about the Christ.

We have often suggested that small groups and Sunday school classes and fellowship retreats take up a study of Jesus. I bet we have over 300 different books about Jesus to choose from.

I have to admit, though, that I’m a little surprised how few books in the field of Biblical studies, generally, and about Jesus, particularly, we sell. Maybe you and yours might be inspired by this list to remedy this. I would suspect that you want your faith to grow, your discipleship to deepen, your spiritual formation to be, truly, in the way of Jesus. I bet you’ve got issues in your life that a re-boot, towards Jesus, would help. Maybe we all should pick up a book or two to help us more faithfully understand the gospels and consider the implications of being a modern day apprentice to Jesus.



** Here is how this works. We have a lot of overstocked books about Jesus. Order any of these that I describe below (at our BookNotes discounted price) and we’ll surprise you with another from our backlog catalog.  For free. Here’s all that you have to do – when you order, just tell us if you want one that is fairly academic or on a more popular level. And, tell us if you prefer one that is more evangelically-minded or perhaps a bit less so. We’ve got scholarly books and less demanding ones from varying perspectives. Or just say “surprise me.” We’ll send something interesting, at no charge. The discount is enduring but the free book offer expires soon.  Order today.

The Jesus Journey: Shattering the Stained Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God: A 40-Day Encounter Trent Sheppard (Nelson) $16.99 This is actually the book I’ve recommended for our class participants to accompany them as they take up the gospel readings this season. It is wonderfully written, clever, curious, interesting, up-beat, honest, a great read on many level. The author is a theologian that draws on the likes of the big scholarly books of N.T. Wright and a boots-on-the-ground pastor who cares about how people learn to live. He starts off telling about how jolly old Saint Nicholas punched a guy during the Council of Chalcedon (talk about “the Santa I never knew” he quips, alluding to the Phil Yancey book.) He is utterly orthodox and believes we should care – if not throw punches – about the divinity and humanity of Christ. This book is reflection on the life and times of Jesus with a view to his humanity. There are many good books on this these days – don’t miss The Jesus We Missed for instance — but this is arranged in 40 short readings. From “Jesus Had an Aunt” to “But Was He Funny?” through to the exquisite telling of Jesus’ last days and a reminder of the dance of the Trinity in the final piece called “In the Beginning” Sheppard will draw you it, give you insight, and create space for real transformation.

At the end of each reading Sheppard invites us into a three-layered process of “Ponder, Pray, Practice.” These are not just mundane or simple summaries, but wise and poignant and useful for your journey. It will help you learn more about the Jesus story and it will help you care. I am sure your relationship with God will be enhanced by this very interesting book.

Sheppard helps to pastor an urban house church called Ekklesia and oversees Alpha’s work with college students in New England. He has read very widely, draws on the best stuff, and is a great storyteller. Most important, he offers these eye-opening reflections by helping us – as the back cover puts it — “”encounter Jesus as if for the first time by experiencing his breathing, heart-beating, body-and-blood, crying-and-laughing humanity.”

Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus John Ortberg (Zondervan) $16.99 In class this week I showed a brief clip from the lively Ortberg DVD curriculum by this same name (that we also carry and it is very cook, very engaging.) I’m not kidding, the first chapter is worth the price of the book where Ortberg highlights the ways in which the person of Jesus – with virtually no followers at his death – became, arguably, the most important person in the history of the world. Not only did he launch a movement of followers that within a generation or two numbered in the hundreds of thousands, they changed the world. From the way in which European culture treated children to innovations in medicine, from literacy and higher education to the very rise of democracy a line – often a straight line – can be drawn from the teachings of Jesus to these revolutionary cultural improvements. Who was this man who as a first century Jew from a rural region of Palestine didn’t try to name any towns after himself, didn’t start a political party, didn’t seem t to organize much of a movement (and in any event, left his followers in disarray after his execution.) Yep, as some say about the resurrection and all the rest: “Well, you didn’t see that coming, did you?”

John Ortberg is a great preacher, storyteller, communicator and clear and interesting writer. I am positive you will learn something new by reading this well-researched book and I’m sure you will have a greater appreciation for the implications of a Christ-centered faith – whether you even believe it or not. In a way, this is a great book to give to someone who sneers at conventional views of Jesus or those who think that the legacy of the Christian religion has been more bad than good. Of course, Ortberg not only looks at this wonderful and fascinating two-thousand year impact of the man from Galilee, but he asks, powerfully and urgently, even, how it was that these early followers staked their lives on the teachings of this man? Of course, the resurrection is at the very heart of that, so the book ends with a dramatic exploration of the Easter accounts and their believability. What a great read. Highly recommended.

The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey (Zondervan) $14.99 It is hard to pick a favorite Philip Yancey book. He is an author we always recommend unreservedly to anyone that is educated as he is eloquent without being exceedingly literary, he is very well read and draws on just the right mix of fascinating sources, and he tells stories of his own evangelical background and his journey through rejecting fundamentalism, legalism, discovering grace, coping with pain and suffering, and not a small bit of doubt. Yet he shines through with humanity and care and always with solidly orthodox Christian faith intact. Don’t you love his book What’s So Amazing About Grace or his several books about suffering (such as Disappointment with God or The Question That Won’t Go Away.) Well, this is one of the great books of the last fifty years – and I’m not alone in saying this. The eloquent and gospel-drenched ethicists Lewis Smedes said, before he died, that this was probably the best book about Jesus written in the whole century!

I like how early on in this very engaging book Yancey talks about varying view of Jesus from different cultures and how various filmmakers have given us different visions of the persona and work and meaning of Jesus. Like him, I was deeply moved in the early 70s when our youth group went to see The Gospel According to Matthew by the Marxist filmmaker Pasolini. There is a reason this book has sold over a million copies; it is remarkable, fascinating, maybe even a bit disturbing. What a book!

The Incomparable Christ John Stott (IVP) $20.00 I have sometimes said that this is my favorite serious book on the person and work of Christ. It is so well researched, so compelling, and so comprehensive. Allow me to simply explain what Stott is doing here – these were the important Langham Lectures that were turned into the book – and you will see its value. I have drawn from it often, and think anyone who teaches or preaches could use it profitably for personal inspiration, of course, but for accumulating stories and illustrations and historical stuff. What a wonderful, mature, thoughtful, educated, and inspiring books this is!

There are four major sections of The Comparable Christ.

The first set of chapters looks at what he calls “The Original Jesus” which is how the New Testament witnesses to Jesus in the Gospels, Acts, and Letters. For anyone that cares about the Bible, this is remarkably inspiring and very wise.

The second section is called “The Ecclesiastical Jesus” which shows how the church has presented Jesus historically – that is, it offers the insights and teachings about Jesus from church leaders, explaining different theologies of Christ, different views of the role of the Cross, different ways to understand his work. Although this is more theological in nature, it draws on representative figures, exploring their historical context and why their particular insights were either helpful or less so in their time and ours. He looks at views of Christ represented by Justin Martyr to Saint Benedict, Anselm to Bernard of Clairvoux, from the early Councils to Luther and more. There are some curious thinkers selected, too, such as Thomas Jefferson, and modern thought leaders such as Gustavo Gutierrez, N.T. Wright, and some in the church workers that represent historic modern missions movements.

The third section is fascinating as it explores what Stott calls “The Influential Jesus.” Here he shows how people from St. Francis to Tolstoy, from Gandhi to Roland Allen, from Father Damien to William Wilberforce have taken inspiration from him. Talk about a lot of sermon illustrations or teaching examples. This is different than the broader sweet and more systematic exploration of Who Is This Man by Ortberg because it focuses on these individuals who, as Christians or in some cases not, were decisively shaped by the person of Jesus.

The fourth part of this great book is what Stott explores under the title “The Eternal Jesus.” Here he invites us to consider how we ourselves are continually challenged by him today through ten visions of Christ from the Book of Revelation. To be honest, I thought I might find this section less interesting but I assure you that in Stott’s balanced, impeccable hands, this material comes alive and is a big ending to an already very strong work.

As the publisher said The Incomparable Christ offers “an enriching vision of Jesus that defies measurement.”  “Uncle John” Stott died in 2011 and some of my favorite people in the world knew him well and still point to him as the most influential Christian leader in their lives. You should read his

What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus: A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History Rabbi Evan Moffic (Abingdon) $16.99 How Jewish clergy have viewed Jesus has been a fascinating topic of study for millennia, and I suppose interest in the question heightened with the awareness of anti-Semitism in the years following the Holocaust. Mainline denominational folks (and, eventually, Roman Catholics) started renewed dialogue and with new vigor in the middle of the 20th century. Some evangelicals have also joined this sort of conversation and it has been renewed in recent years – for reasons of justice, for reasons of mission, and for reasons theological in nature. Be that as it may, one of the specific questions is how we should at the very least understand our Lord and Savior as the Jewish rabbi that he was. What does it mean to explore Jesus’ life and ministry through the lens of his Jewishness? Why has it been so often overlooked?

It is good to have a contemporary Rabbi teach us this stuff, and this recent book was a delight to read. Rabbi Moffic is a popular speaker and an advocate for uncovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible for people of all faiths so he ends up in conversations with church folks a lot. (He is the Senior Rabbi of Congregational Solel in suburban Chicago and the author of What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover.)

Scot McKnight (quite a good Jesus scholar himself and a prolific author) opens his comments about Rabbi Moffic and his book reminding us of the need to listen well to one another, especially in conversations between Jews and Christians. And he says, “Christians will not agree with everything Moffic says, but they will say he has listened well. For that alone, I am immensely grateful for this book.

“Immensely grateful.” How’s that for an endorsement? Why not put it in your church library or donate one to your own public library?

Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $24.99 This medium sized, solid hardback is a very nice introduction to what Wright says about Jesus and I highly recommend it.

You probably know that Wright has done what may be the most talked about Biblical and theological project of our lifetime, the large four volume series called “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” The first three volumes are each hundreds of pages (at least they aren’t, like volume four on Paul, itself two volumes, 800-some pages each) and they are all on Jesus. These fat volumes are The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God and of course we have them. There are books about these books, now, including a brand new one, on a sub-theme of Wright’s, his important view of how first century Jews and Jesus understood the exile era, and whether it was still ongoing for them and what role it played in Jesus’ own mission. This is a major new work – a sure to be discussed collection by New Testament scholars, early Judaism scholars, and theologians, and with Wright replying. It is called Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright edited by James J. Scott (IVP Academic; $40.00.) It is brilliant!

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is N.T. Wright ( IVP Academic) $16.00. For a good accessible summary of the first three volumes of that hefty “Christian Origins” series referred to above, by the way, see this excellent paperback The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. It was published as the third big one was was coming out in the late1990s — given as lecture’s explaining about his big project. A new introduction was written by Wright for the paperback edition a few years ago. It’s a great resource.

Yep, as you most likely know, Rev. Dr. Wright has written much on the Christ. But here, in Simply Jesus he attempts to summarize his main thesis for beginners or seekers, naming the “perfect storm” of ancient Israel under the boot heel of Roman imperialism and Jesus showing up with his own unique identity and calling. It argues for Jesus’ own identity as the One to liberate God’s people from exile, restore the Kingdom (in an unusual, subversive way that they didn’t quite understand) and put the world to rights, as he puts it, through his sacrificial death and resurrection. It isn’t as simple as I’d wish and it is still hardcover, so I read it again this last week to see if I really should list it here. And, yes, I was utterly taken with it. I’ll admit that I’ve thought his easier collection of sermons called Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship and the one more directly about Christ’s Kingdom-vision (How God Became King) were better, more succinct and compelling, especially for those unfamiliar with historical scholarship about Jesus. I am so glad to have become re-acquainted with this one as I am now convinced that it is a must-read for Wright fans and a fascinating, substantive introduction to Jesus for those who want a basic but solid resource like this.

How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $14.99 This is the red one, that goes with that blue one… they both came out about the same time but it is this one that first captured my attention – I’ve always wanted a really solid book explaining the Kingdom of God and its centrality in the life and teaching and work of Jesus. And it is the one he preached on in our backyard when he came here several years ago. (Yeah, you read that right. Go Dallastown!)   For what it is worth, this may be one of my favorite Biblical-studies books ever and is my favorite Tom Wright book. You should get it. Simple as that.


The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited Scot McKnight (Zondervan) $16.99 I could get worked up about any number of books that are so useful to help us understand the way Jesus himself explained his gospel and how it is best described by using the rubric of the Kingdom. I think Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is one of the must-reads, as well. There are two stellar introductions to this little book – one by N.T. Wright and one by Dallas Willard. That’s really something, indicating the importance of this volume. Don’t miss it.



Jesus: A Pilgrimage James Martin, SJ (HarperOne) $17.99 When Mary Karr, the exquisite, captivating memoirist and author of The Liars Club, Cherry, and Lit, said of this book that it is “One of the best books I’ve read in years – on any subject,” I took notice. Reviewers have talked about this memoir and travelogue in glowing terms (as they do about most of Father Martin’s many captivating books.) When Archbishop Tutu calls it “refreshingly innovative” and Scott Hahn says, “This book isn’t about pilgrimage. It is a pilgrimage. I didn’t want the pilgrimage to end,” when it gets raves endorsements from conservatives like Archbishop Charles Chaput and liberationists like Orbis editor Robert Ellsberg, from Protestant liberal theologian Harvey Cox and the literary contemplative Presbyterian Kathleen Norris, you know you have something very, very interesting. This really is a travelogue, a journey throughout the Holy Land to discover more about the person of Jesus. The Tablet says it is “Infectious. Travelogue, spirituality, and theological reflection combine with wit and wisdom and human insight.” You will learn a lot about Jesus, about the Holy Land (then and now) and perhaps discover yourself wanting to be more seriously committed to “the first-century Jewish radical that Martin has devoted his life to following.” It may not mean much to many BookNotes fans, but Jesus: A Pilgrimage is dedicated to a very important Catholic New Testament scholar, Daniel Harrington, SJ, of whom Martin says, he “taught Jesus in his classes, his books, and his life.”

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels Kenneth E. Bailey (IVP Academic) $32.00 I can hardly think of a Biblical scholar who is as widely respected, even admired, as this fine, good man was, this quiet teacher who lived most of his life in the Middle East, from Cairo to Syria, Lebanon to Jerusalem. His decades of service as a Presbyterian Bible scholar is well documented – his widow told us this summer in a lovely conversation that his papers and correspondence and academic articles are now being curated in the world-renowned missions library at Harvard Divinity School. Ken’s legendary service to the unchurched world, especially the Arab world, is only rivaled by his tireless service to the church, helping us understand our Bibles better. He has published widely and is respected ecumenically. Here we suggest this great-looking fat paperback which is a recent collection of a bunch of his excellent work, articles and classes and essays that hold together well, starting with the birth of Jesus and exploring various aspects of his life and ministry.  Throughout Bailey shows how knowing a bit about first century Middle Eastern culture illumines what Jesus did and taught and how He would have been understood by his listeners and followers; he helps us discard our typical Western worldview and see what is really going on in the gospel accounts. What a book!

His other must-read titles include Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story (IVP Academic; $22.00) and The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament (IVP; $24.00.) We always promote his “two books in one” early volume called Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Eerdmans; $34.00.) They aren’t simple but repay careful study – guaranteed. (For what it is worth, one of the last books Ken did before his death a year ago was a thick, major work called Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes which has a lovely cover that sits as an obvious companion to Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. It offers his insightful cultural and literary study of 1 Corinthians.)

Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of The Son of God Timothy Keller (Riverhead Books) $17.00  Tim Keller is known as a thoughtful, theologically conservative, Reformed theologian but more, perhaps, as a winsome apologist, writing intellectually mature and very interesting books for skeptics and seekers. (See, for instance, his Reason for God or the heavier Making Sense of God.) At the heart of his church work and his justice preaching and his culturally-engaged dialogues with seekers, is his classic, solid, insightful preaching of the Bible. He has a book on Judges and a small two-volume set on Romans, one on Galatians, a lovely year-long devotional using the Psalms (and a similarly formatted one coming in November on Proverbs which you can pre-order, btw.) Even his topical books – on suffering, or prayer, on justice, are very rooted in Scripture. This book, Jesus the King, was previously released in hardcover as Kings Cross — he admits it a line early one that it is a nod to Harry Potter – but when the paperback was released they changed the title. Curiously, Keller does see that the energetic book of Mark is arranged in essentially two parts: the first half of the gospel makes the claim that Jesus is the King and the second half is all about the Cross of the King.

As the back cover explains it:

…the man the New York Times called “a C. S. Lewis for the twenty first century,” unlocks new insights into the life of Jesus Christ as he explores how Jesus came as a king, but as a king who had to bear the greatest burden anyone ever has… Keller shows how the story of Jesus is at once cosmic, historical, and personal, calling each of us to look anew at our relationship with God. It is an unforgettable look at Jesus Christ, and on that will leave an indelible imprint on every reader.

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions Timothy Keller (Penguin Books) $16.00 We have referred to this often at BookNotes – it is a compact sized paperback (like his book on idolatry, on the one on justice, or the one on preaching) and it packs a wallop more than you might think. It is a lovely, winsome, but powerful study of the encounters Jesus had with people in the gospel of John. Keller tells us that the first half of the book were talks he did at a public gathering in England – not necessarily among the religiously minded, by the way, public meetings at Oxford University The second half are talks he gave, Bible lessons among a business group at the secular-minded Harvard Club in mid-town Manhattan. So in both cases, these explorations of these remarkable encounters people had with Jesus are explained in ways that are interesting, intellectually sharp, not presuming any previous knowledge of the text, with the result of these Bible re-tellings being almost evangelistic in nature. This is a very, very nice book.

Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee Mark Strauss (IVP) $16.00 A few weeks ago the Revised Common Lectionary gave us the text of Jesus calling a woman a dog, and she pushed back – wow. Every time I hear or read that story I wonder, “what was Jesus thinking?” I trust you do too. Well, as it ends up, for honest readers, there are other pretty difficult sayings of Jesus, things that were judgmental and provocative, things that seemed chauvinistic and some might say unkind. He was angry, cursed an innocent fig tree, seemed on occasion to be sexist.   Geesh, I thought everybody like Jesus. Well, this upbeat and interesting book takes a hard look at the hard stuff found in the teachings or sayings of Jesus. It reckons well with the real Jesus, not a straw man or caricature, and that is both good and harder than it sounds. I agree with Walter Wink who said if we were making up a person like Jesus, we wouldn’t in a thousand years come up with this one. The real Jesus is unpredictable and sometimes a bit odd. Strauss is a fine evangelical scholar (and served as an associate editor of the huge and balanced NIV Study Bible.) This book is worth having on hand – you never know when the Lectionary is going to give us one of those hard-to-understand texts again.

Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder Richard A. Horsley (Fortress) $17.00 There are numerous books that open up the relationship of the violent empire of ancient Rome and the subversive practices of the early Jesus community – you may have read of John Dominic Crossan who gets some of this pretty right, or Marcus Borg who was attentive to the political themes we often miss in our readings of the life of Jesus. (See, for instance, his early book Jesus: A New Vision.) My favorite exploration of this, by far, is Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat (IVP Academic; $24.00) which, admittedly, is about Paul and the early church’s experiences, less directly about Jesus, but it is still essential reading.) For a mind-blowing study along these lines that is directly about Jesus, see the hefty and unforgettable Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus by Ched Meyers (Orbis; $28.00)

I list this older Horsley one, though, as an important and representative title, if a bit academic. It is worth working through. A critique of some of the possible excesses of this approach can be found in a book edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica called Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic; $22.00) and I suspect they are on to something in bringing a bit of balance to this important new genre of early Christ You really should be acquainted with this socially-potent approach that is significant in the cutting edge research these days—some might say to miss it would be a to miss a key to Jesus and He really was and how we really are to respond to his counter-cultural reign.

A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion Gary Burge (IVP Academic) $17.00 I just had to list this as it is a fun, fun, creative way to get into the background culture of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus. Gary Burge is an astute Bible scholar, a leader of remarkable holy land tours, and a bit of a peace and justice activist for those in the middle of intractable difficulties in Palestine. He’s a Wheaton College prof and we think he is very, very reliable as a scholar and teacher within the broader church. So this is nice, an easy way in to some important cultural background.

By the way, this follows on the heals of a similar novel written by the extraordinary New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III called A Week in the Life of Corinth, obviously about the early church, and the brand new, imaginative and I think very helpful one, also by Ben Witherington, called A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem which explores how that seismic event scattered the members of the persecuted local church in Jerusalem in 70 AD. As the plot unfolds and Jews and Christians escape the terror, we travel with some of them “through an imagined week of flight and faith.” A scribe heads for Galilee in search of records of Jesus’ life and teachings. And a company of women makes its way to a new life in the village of Pella. But, of course, the …Roman Centurion one is most germane for those studying the life and times of Jesus in occupied Galilee, who shows up in the fictionalized account as an itinerant Jewish teacher.

The Upside Down Kingdom Donald Kraybill (Herald Press) $16.99 . There are many, many good books on the Sermon on the Mount or that otherwise invite us into the harder teachings of Jesus, what some call “radical discipleship.” I didn’t want to get too far afield in offering books on contemporary discipleship but this classic walks an excellent path between serious Biblical scholarship and practical lifestyle questions for today’s living. Kraybill is a Mennonite  (and, as a sociologists a leading expert on the Amish) and so naturally takes seriously the call to live counter-culturally. Not only does he show the contemporary relevance of Christ’s teachings, he shows what these teachings meant in the socio-political setting of the first century. He explains who the Pharisees and Zealots where, for instance, and explains much about the Temple piety and the like.  I know a number of people who have said this is one of the most important books they have ever read in their lives; it endures because it is so interesting, informative, and yet pushes us towards resisting the domination systems of today with Christ-like goodness and grace.  A must-read.

Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked And The 3 He Answered Martin B. Copenhaver (Abingdon) $15.99  Do you read Copenhaver ever in The Christian Century, maybe? Or know of his several devotionals or his fascinating co-authored book about the lives of mainline clergy?  He’s a thoughtful UCC pastor, now a seminary President, and this fine bit of popular level Bible research is so intriguing and interesting and has proven so helpful to Bible study groups and classes I had to at least mention it here. It is, as you can tell, a study of each of the many questions Jesus asked.  I suppose others have done books like this, but this is the stand-out.  Nothing like it.  Includes a lovely foreword by Lauren Winner.

Man Myth Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question Rice Brooks (Thomas Nelson) $16.99 We have in our store dozens of books about apologetics, defending the core doctrines of the faith, and many are quite compelling. Most are fairly broad as they respond to the sorts of questions that skeptics have these days. We have several books that are specifically about this one constellation of questions: is Jesus who he says he was? How did the gospels get written? Are those New Testament documents reliable? What non-canonical evidence do we have –minimal historically agreed upon facts as some might call it – that Jesus existed and that his followers believed he rose from the dead? Write to us if you have deeper questions (or are counseling those who have these tough questions) or want more or less scholarly treatments of these questions — there’s good stuff from a variety of scholarly quarters these days. You will notice that this book is written by the writer of the God’s Not Dead movie, which I have seen some less than stellar reviews of that but I thought this book was really interesting and well informed — a great gift to give to one that might be curious or cynical.

The Dawn of Christianity: How God Used Simple Fisherman, Soldiers, and Prostitute to Transform the World Robert J. Hutchinson (Nelson) $24.99 This book could sell for considerably more as it is a great, thick hardback with pictures and illustrations, not exactly lavish, but certainly handsome, chock-full of historical stuff, things I hadn’t heard before, good information about how Christianity came to be. It tells the story of how the first followers of Jesus survive the terror of those first years (Jesus’ death, the persecutions and more.) Hutchinson is a great popularizer of the recent research on the first century culture and has given us a book that is both useful for those interested in Christian origins and for anyone needing to learn more so they can offer good responses to critics or skeptics. This really does offer a compelling argument for the plausibility of faith and how the first followers of Christ were drawn to deeper life by the eyewitness accounts not only of his life but of his resurrection.

Granted, The Dawn of Christianity covers how the faith unfolded and thrived in places like Antioch, Damascus, Rome and Athens so is actually more than an introduction to the life of Jesus. But it sure does depend on the reality of a risen Lord and is a perfect follow up to any of the books mentioned above.


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ON SALE NOW “The Magnificent Story” by James Bryan Smith, “Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith” by Karen Wright Marsh, and “Love Heals” by Becca Stephens

In the last BookNotes post I reviewed Practices of Love by Kyle David Bennet. It is a book about practicing the spiritual disciplines for the sake of the world. I also noted two other books that remind us of this connection between our inner and outer lives, so to speak, between spirituality and social concerns. John Armstrong has just given us a profound study of the nature of love in his long-awaited Costly Love and a wonderful, Anglican pastor, Chris Webb, wrote what has become one of my favorite recent books on formation called God Soaked Life. These are good guides, walking with us into a richer and more faithful religious life.

Bennett summarizes helpfully much of his Practices of Love book in the last chapter called “Who’s Afraid of Love?” which I wanted to share, here:

In this little book, I have tried to show that there is a horizontal dimension to spiritual disciplines, which we tend to overlook, ignore, or avoid. I have suggested that looking at spiritual disciplines from the side us how these practices capitalize on the everyday activities that we already do and remedy and renew the malformed ways we perform these daily deeds. When we step back and look at the big picture, we see that spiritual disciplines impact more than simply our individual habits and practices. We are whole persons who are interconnected with so many other people and things, so as these disciplines correct the habits and practices of our minds and bodies, they inevitably impact the livelihoods of others.

Along with impacting individual people and their lifestyles, our changed behavior influences the dynamics of the community of which both of us are a part. Changing routines and daily deeds cultivates a certain kind of social mind-set and an awareness of shared spaces with others. A change in our habits and practices as lovers, friends, parents, neighbors, citizens, and colleagues leads to a change in shared spaces where we take up these roles, such as our home, workspace, restaurants, parks, and schools. When we step back and look at the disciplines from this perspective, we see them as a way of living. When we do this we can fully register the impact they have in and on our world.

There are so many theologically-rich lines in this last chapter. He reminds us of the theme of the book beautifully and carefully.

For instance:

Spiritual disciplines play a central part in our sanctification as believers and in God’s renewal of all things. When seen from the side, spiritual disciplines are concrete and essential ways that God renews and revitalizes our lives and our life in society with others. God changes you and me here and now through what we do here and now. And the most basic and forceful way this happens is through the little things we do every day – our daily deeds.

Of course we can never fully register the impact a transformed way of being in the world will impact it but I suspect he meant that as we ponder this, we can more fully register the impact. We can, by thinking sideways as this book teaches us to do, at least begin to imagine the ways the practices of love will ripple out across the culture. In fact the good professor looks at a few of the ripples: he says that spiritual disciplines will reform malformed habits, they will help reconcile broken relationships, intentional practice of spiritual disciplines will help us renew distorted cultural practices in society and they might even help restore corrupt intuitions.

That’s some big ticket items right there; a lot to promise from classic Christian piety, lived out in little ways as explained afresh in a small book. But that is what is at stake and why I commend this book to you – it matters!  For the sake of the world, it matters!

You might ask how all this will happen, how being shaped by prayer and Sabbath-keeping and fasting will bear fruit for the healing of lives, the renewal of workplaces, and the mending of fractured institutions. Care for the common good — a substantive, rich, and what he calls “wieldy” view of the public in a pluralistic society — develops best, he explains, by those who love. We dare not underestimate “ being people who live lives of love.”

You can see why we love this book so (and why authors like James K.A. Smith and Richard Mouw have commended it so heartily.)  And I hope you can see why we offered that “buy all three for 30% off” deal, because Armstrong on love will help us understand this essential Christian notion and Webb on everyday spirituality will help us find God everywhere and – as he says in his final few chapters – push us towards “a politics of love.”

Still this is a lot to grasp, meaty, good stuff, and I wanted to offer a few more resources that might capture your attention or tickle your fancy, as you ponder resources that might inspire you further. If you just don’t want the Bennett – I can’t imagine, but I’ll try not to judge – maybe these books will scratch where it itches for you. We are trying to help form the virtues and habits and practices and witness of our readers, deepening us all through these assists from authors in the ways of God as seen in Christ. Love really does win, after all, so we would do well to study this stuff, to get on board that gospel train. Here’s some more ideas to dig deeper into God’s call and live more graciously this fall.

We have them all on sale, too.  Like the last time, we’ll do extra discounts increasing as you select one, two, or all three.  Mix and match this deal even with the three from last time. We hope this makes it good for you, selecting just what you need.


BUY ANY TWO —   get 20% OFF

BUY ANY ONE —   get 10% OFF

The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness & Truth James Bryan Smith (IVP/formatio) 22.00 I do hope you know the first three of the “Apprenticeship” series by this prolific author. Those are wonderful hardbacks with great experiences included to help us process the sanctifying material and we very highly recommend them. They were called The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community. Spiritual-formation resources are sometimes so mystical and allusive that ordinary folks can hardly imagine what they mean; sometimes they are so formulaic and rigid that only a few warm up to them. These, however, just sing – they are clear and beautiful, nicely written and loaded with transforming content. I know they have been used fruitfully in mainline denominational churches like Lutherans and United Methodists and Presbyterians congregations and I know they are beloved by para-church campus ministries and independent community churches and house fellowships. We love resources that we can so confidently recommend to almost anyone.

Well, in this first volume of a new trilogy that will unfold over the next few years, James Bryan Smith (who teaches at the Friends University in Wichita, Kansas) offers a vision of life that is storied, that is shaped by a vision of the good, the beautiful, and the true. I know, and he knows, that these traits themselves have a storied past, and to write an evangelical book about them is itself a major project. And to make the call to live this better story winsome and useful for ordinary folks is going to take considerable effort; that is, I am sure he is trying hard to balanced profound substance with approachable writing – not too heavy, not to simple. This first volume, The Magnificent Story, succeeds marvelously and, as expected, I will be promoting it as vigorously as we did his Apprenticeship series.

I mention this book not only because it is surely one of the lead titles of this new season of great books but because I think it is, in many ways, a prefect follow-up to Bennett’s call to practice spiritual disciplines so that God can use us in the redemptive project of the renewal of all things. This big, cosmic, creation-regained vision that Bennett presumes is explore in The Magnificent Story from a somewhat different theological tradition (although James Bryan Smith seems to appreciate his Kierkegaard, too.) And Smith – like Bennett and his mentor the other James Smith, James K.A. Smith – seriously appreciates the narrative nature of Biblical religion. God is working out God’s purposes in Christ and that comes to us in a long story in the Bible, from creation, through Israel and exile, in the incarnation and resurrection, in the letters and stories of the early church and onward throughout the ups and downs of church history. That is, we stand amidst a story, and we take up our place being decisively shaped by it.

We have hardly seen a book this year that has so many rave reviews on it, one that so many authors (from across the theological spectrum) have recommended. From contemplative teacher Jan Johnson to pacifist activist preacher Brian Zahnd, from neuro-science therapist Curt Thompson to N.T. scholar Scot McKnight, from home-making mother and memoirist Jen Pollock Michel to Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter, it seems so many folks are saying how much this book means to them.

Listen to Gordon T. Smith, now president of Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta:

If Dostoevsky is right in making the observation that ‘beauty will save the world,’ then James Bryan Smith has provided us with an exquisite exposition of what this means and how beauty is revealed in the God story. And he does so without in any way downplaying the deep fragmentation of our world; to the contrary, Smith demonstrates that it is precisely against the backdrop of this deep pain that we see and know the beauty of God and thus the salvation of God.

Here is what it says on the back cover, which I found a compelling introduction to the book:

What story have you been told about the gospel? About Jesus? About the Christian life? About yourself? Your answers to these questions will form a story that will determine how your life will go. The answers reveal your ability to trust, to love, to hope – and even your capacity for joy. Uncover the true story of beauty, goodness, and truth that will satisfy the ultimate longings of your heart.

The life story we live is often too cramped and anxious. The alternative counter-narrative we get in the Bible and church is sometimes less than what it might be – so ends up not really capturing our imagination, not really providing a counter-narrative to the American dream or whatever story we’re living for.  We all know, and this books helps us see, vividly, that the gospel is a bigger, better, story, and it is true and good and beautiful. We know in our hearts (and from our appreciation of great art, good novels, engaging TV and movies) that we long for something bigger, an epic adventure, even. This very handsome hardback is thoughtful and inviting and helps us want to live into that good adventure, the beautiful fight. The Magnificent Story: Recovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness & Truth by James Bryan Smith  is very highly recommended.

Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith Karen Wright Marsh (IVP) $20.00 There is so much to love about this book I hardly know where to begin. It is handsomely designed, from the cover to the matching inside flyleaves. It is well written – so far, we are all very impressed as we’ve each dipped into it. It teaches about saints we’ve heard of and some we haven’t. (In fact, one that none of knew caught our eye in the Table of Contents and as front line staffer Amy examined that chapter she quickly realized that Amanda Berry Smith, a freed slave and underground railroad activist, lived in York Pennsylvania! Wow, it isn’t every day that a local Yorker (albeit from the mid-19th century) ends up in a collection of 25 great Christian leaders you should know.

Another thing to love — there is a stellar, wonderfully-written foreword by Lauren Winner. I’ve read the whole introduction twice and just have to share this paragraph, that heads off at the pass a concern some of us may have about a book of hagiography:

In part because saints live in weird relation to the world, inviting saints into your life can be tricky. Indeed, reading about a saint can occasionally induce despair. I read about the heroism of Sophie Scholl, and the demons who accompany me on my daily rounds perk up and say, “If the standard is staring down Hitler and being guillotined on treason charges, why not admit that you’re not really trying to live like Jesus at all? You can even consistently remember to bring canned goods to church on the first Sunday of the month.” And then the demons are off to the races, explaining that I’m a pathetic excuse for a Christian and suggesting that instead of praying Evening Prayer, I rewatch the second season of House of Cards.

And then Winner says, in a move that surprised and helped me:

Here’s the thing to say to those demons (I manage to say it about one-third of the time.): I don’t read the saints in order to imitate them. I read about the saints because they show me something about myself.

Winner advises that we read Marsh’s Vintage Saints and Sinners while noticing what saints hold your attention. Some will intrigue you, some might repel you. Winner suggests that the Holy Spirit is involved in adjudicating this process. She says, “I suspect that over our lives, each of us is given two or three or four saints with whom to live in particular intimacy. Your three or four will be different from mine because you’re gifted in ways I’m not, and because you’re damaged in ways I’m not. Which saints is God offering you, to help illumine and burnish your particular gifts, and to help illumine and heal your particular damages?”

Well, Karen Wright Marsh is a perfect guide for helping you learn about and find some saints to accompany you. She is an excellent writer and a fine historian and has been working on this book, it seems, for a long time, learning and growing into these varying visions of a life well lived for God. Marsh herself has a philosophy degree from Wheaton College and a in linguistics from the University of Virginia. She is the cofounder and director of Theological Horizons, a university ministry that has promoted theological scholarship at the intersection of faith, thought, and life since 1991. Her husband is Charles Marsh, himself a Bonhoeffer scholar and a vibrant historian of the civil rights movement. They are both involved in the UVA “lived theology” projects.

One of the things I love about this book is that it isn’t just a collection of short biographies, as good as that would be. More, this is a story of Karen Marsh’s own journey. In fact, the publisher describes it as “Narrating her own winding pilgrimage through faith.” Nice, eh?
Further, IVP writes: “Karen Marsh reveals surprising lessons in everyday spirituality from these “saints”–folks who lived and breathed, and failed and followed God. Told with humor and vulnerability, Vintage Saints and Sinners introduces us afresh to twenty-five brothers and sisters who challenge and inspire us with their honest faith. Join Karen on her journey with the likes of Augustine, Brother Lawrence, and Saint Francis, as well as Amanda Berry Smith, Soren Kierkegaard, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Flannery O’Conner, and many more. Let their lives and their wisdom be an invitation to authentic life in Christ.”

Again, like the other books we’ve recommended of late, Vintage Saints and Sinners has endorsements by great writers, public intellectuals and spiritual leaders well worth listening to. I’m smiling as I note that on the back cover we see very compelling endorsements by James K.A. Smith, Diana Butler Bass, David Dark, Soong-Chan Rah and Steven Garber. I like that Christopher L. Heuertz (who has served the poor the world over and now directs Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism) calls Marsh’s writing “winsome brilliants” which highlights men and women who teach us about “vocational fidelity.”

Listen carefully to Curt Thompson, who wonderfully writes:

There are few things in this world that more ably transform us than our encounters with real stories. Stories that tell of joy and shame. Of hope and anguish. Of the very hard work that leads to a world of goodness, beauty, and redemption – but not without the honest rendition of all the stumbling in the dark that necessarily accompanies such godly liberation. These are the stories that we so desperately need to hear, and they are the very stories that Karen Marsh has so thoughtfully give us… and also the story that is her own, the one that ties all the others – the reader’s not the least – into the grand narrative into which God is writing all who are willing to be included. If you want your hope to be strengthened, if you want your mind to be renewed, if you want your story to be changed, look no further: this collection of stories is for you.

Love Heals Becca Stevens (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 This book just arrived and we are thrilled to offer it here, now. Becca Stevens has written a lot lately, and we are glad – she has a remarkable story, a respected, good ministry (Thistle Farm which is run by sexual and abuse survivors) and an real gift of creating artful, moving writing.

We were moved by her own gripping memoir Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-telling published by Jericho Books (and carrying a lovely endorsement by her friend the late Phyllis Tickle.) She has grappled with her own abuse and complex life journey and her call into the Episcopalian priesthood and allows us into her story. Stevens has become a respected social entrepreneur and earned two honorary doctorates and has been named “Humanitarian of the Year” more than once. She was designated a “Champion of Change” by the White House for her work against domestic violence. Stevens has several small books of meditations and Scriptural reflection which we carry and which many folks enjoy. Her Funeral for a Stranger is very moving, well written ruminations, short essays and stories. The subtitle “Thoughts on Life and Love” doesn’t do it justice. We certainly appreciated her book about Thistle Farms (and the search for sustainably-grown and fairly-traded tea) called The Way of Tea and Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage from Its Violent History.

You can learn more about Thistle Farms HERE.

Love Heals is a beautiful book, and for the price, may be the best book bargain of the year – there are full color pages on heavy stock paper, making it almost a smaller sized coffee table book. The artwork and design is beautiful in a conventional sort of way — that is, it has the lovely look more of Simple than, say, Shane Claiborne’s colorfully edgy Jesus for President.

The warm, colorful photographs work well to supplement the warm text, the stories of love, of grace, of beauty, of goodness. Stevens opens the book with a power-house story of the day she was in the hospital having a miscarriage while her mother was in ICU with an undiagnosed terminal brain disease. “I felt lost and broken,” she writes, understandably. Through a twist of fate of God’s gracious providence, a nurse who was caring for her mother realized that Becca’s mom was, in fact, the widow of a man who as a pastor who was killed in a car wreck driving home from a pastoral visit with her, years ago.   Becca’s father “had only served in that community for only one years. I didn’t think anyone in Nashville remembered him. Except, apparently, this woman.”

The story unfolds that when she was a girl, that pastoral visit by Becca’s father, killed right after visiting their home, had saved her mom and dad’s marriage. The nurse said to Becca, “I am honored to take care of your mom.”
A peace that passes understanding washed over me. I am not lost; I am found. The love my father had offered decades before was surrounding my mother and me now. I knew that even in the midst of death and brokenness, love heals.

Love heals has been the tag line of Thistle Farms for nearly twenty years. “That simple phrase holds the essence of hope and the deepest truth,” she writes.

This is essential a collection of beautifully written devotionals, showing how love heals as we attend to God’s goodness and beauty and care in various aspects of life. For instance, she invites us to realize that “Love Heals Through Creation – Recognizing God’s Love in nature” and “Love Heals with Daily Rituals – Practicing Healing Throughout Our Day.” Another chapter is “Love Heals Besides Still Waters – Learning to Find Peace.”

There are fourteen such chapters in this almost 200-page hardback, and while some are sweet and tender “Love Heals with Compassion – Nourishing Connections Between Us”, others move us into harder spaces. She calls us to global solidarity in “Love Heals Across the World: Branching into New Territory” and through hard issues in our own lives in “Love Heals on the Edges of Our Hearts—Growing Through Painful Spaces.” There are chapters about finding God’s love in grief, and during the act of forgiving. Sometimes healing happens “over the bridge of time” and sometimes love can “Heal Past Our Fears” as we walk through anxiety. She helps us let go of what weighs us down and helps us accepting God’s greatest gift of grace—God’s mercy — in gratitude.

This is a beautiful book, visually (certainly) and in terms of the writing and in the good, good, news it offers. It isn’t as culturally engaged as the thoughtful Kyle Bennett or as academically rigorous as John Armstrong’s Costly Love and it doesn’t tell the sorts of stories Karen Wright Marsh offers in Vintage Saints and Sinners. It captures the “gospel of beauty, goodness and truth” as explained by James Bryan Smith in The Magnificent Story but, unlike any of those, it is very plainly, very sweetly done, and hits the heart immediately.

Her friend and admirer Amy Grant writes nicely about Becca,

In her, I see a truly old soul in this incredibly modern package, and any conversation with Becca feels like an invitation to experience history, poetry, nature, God…When I’m reading her words, I feel like I’m tapping into this rich, ancient wisdom delivered by someone who I could just as easily spend hours chatting and laughing together with over coffee –or tea, in her case!

Grant continues: “Even things that are scary have their place in the exquisite order of the world that Becca celebrates. Love Heals is true. And in this book I’ve found a beautiful place of encouragement and hope – a meeting point for us all to experience community, healing, and love.”



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Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World by Kyle David Bennett (Baker) $16.99



Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus by John H. Armstrong (New City Press) $15.95



God Soaked Life: Discovering Kingdom Spirituality Chris Webb (IVP) $16.00



In our last BookNotes we mentioned why we love talking about books on integrating faith and work. Christian faith is all-encompassing, not just about going to church once a week, not just about worship or prayer or Bible reading, but is a full-orbed worldview and way of life. The Bible repeatedly reminds us that “The Earth is the Lords” and that God “so loved the world” and that Christ calls us to be “in the world” (if, granted, not “of” it.)

Some college students I was teaching this past summer teased me about getting a tattoo and I said if I ever did it would be some manifestation (following one of our daughters) of Romans 12:1-2 which invites us to fully-embodied worship in the world, non-conformed, with a renewed mind, in truly down-to-Earth spiritual service. And as anyone who knows Romans 12 knows, this includes showing love to others, even enemies.  We show in our very bodies what God’s perfect will is, and it’s clear in Romans that that includes the call to love.

(And, as we will see in one of the books described below, Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus by John Armstrong, this is always and everywhere central to our faith and, yes, it is demanding; costly, even.)

Talking religiously about down-to-Earth stuff like work (or gardening or art or science or sex or cooking or city planning) reminds us, in the immortal works of the hokey-pokey, that’s what it’s all about. We glorify God by bearing God’s image well in the world that is so loved.  We are glad that the stunningly creative and colorful, fun and insightful, DVD curriculum about a sacramental worldview where all of life is to be explored called For the Life of the World asks what our salvation is for. The answer, alluding to Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s book of the same title, is “for the life of the world.”

Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World Kyle David Bennett (Baker) $16.99

Kyle David Bennett ‘s brand new book has that same phrase in the sub-title, which is in a sideways kind of way, about practicing spiritual disciplines. It is a truly ground breaking book, or at least it seems to present itself that way. (He is not the first to explore the social and cultural implications of a rich interior life, but he does seem to be the first to explore it in the manner he does, working out an approach to spiritual practices, informed, it seems, by James K.A. Smith’s writing about loves and habits and practices.  In this regard – although it is a very different sort of book – Practices of Love has certain similarities to the wonderful Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. If you liked that book – which we loved, as did many of our customers – you have to get this new one!)

Bennett bluntly reminds us that classic spiritual disciplines are not to be viewed like a drug to get us high (even if intimacy with God, union with Christ, and even spiritual ecstasy are commendable) but are better understood as training tools to help us love our neighbors.  And that is both more urgent and a bit more complex than it sounds.

Drawing powerfully on Isaiah 58 — I assume you know it – Kyle Bennett boldly implies that if our spiritual formation disciplines don’t bear fruit in real love for others they are not only distorted but fraudulent. Isaiah 58 isn’t the only passage in the Scriptures that speaks of the hypocrisy of those who enjoy rigorous worship but are complicit in social injustice. Bennett comes on strong on a few pages here, reminding us that our lifestyles of consumerism may be vicious and that we often oppress others; he is more blunt than even some outspoken justice activists in saying this and I was almost taken aback in a few rebuking paragraphs.  He takes it as a given that in our modern world we are implicated in unjust social structures, global economic systems, hurtful policies and even personal habits that are demeaning to others.  Can prayer and fasting and meditation and solitude and Sabbath-keeping equip us to live “in the world but not of it”? Can we be formed to be people who are more caring, more compassionate, more astute in our stewardship, more just in the actual things we do? That is the question; otherwise our spirituality will be indicted by the God of the law and the prophets, the God seen in the Christ who wants a seamless integrity flowing between Sunday and Monday, worship and work, prayer and politics, spirituality and society. (And we know that Jesus teaches that mercy and justice are “the weightier matters” as Matthew 23:23 puts it.) How to re-figure our views of and expectations about and actual experience of historic spiritual disciplines so we might be shaped into people with new desires and habits and ways of being in and for the world – that’s what Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World is all about.

Bennett’s friend and mentor James K.A. Smith explains the theological substance of this book (naming Bennett’s influences in a way that Bennett himself does not) in a fabulously positive foreword:

Imagine a unique tree – one that grows in the soil of church fathers such as John Cassian and Gregory the Great, with roots that trace back to “old vines” in Abraham Kuyper and Soren Kierkegaard, and branches grafted from Dallas Willard and Richard Mouw.  The fruit of such a tree is this book: a vision for how to do “life in the Spirit.”

Jamie then says something that nearly any thoughtful contemporary author would be proud to have said about his or her work:

If I could, I’d insert Practices of Love as volume 1.5 in my Cultural Liturgies trilogy.


Smith continues:

Giants such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster showed us the significance of the spiritual disciplines for sanctification: Jesus invites us to follow him by doing what he does not just thinking God’s thoughts after him. In Desiring the Kingdom (and You Are What You Love), I tried to provide an “ecclesiological assist” to their spiritual disciplines project, arguing for communal, gathered practices of worship as the hub for those other spiritual disciplines – that sacramental worship is the heart of discipleship. But in Practices of Love, Kyle Bennett expands the frame and shows us another part of the picture: all these disciplines are undertaken not just for our own relationship to God but also as a way to love our neighbor.

[An aside: the third volume of this magisterial, pioneering, much-discussed Cultural Liturgies trilogy by James K.A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, will be out this November.  I’ve been working through an advance version of the manuscript – yes, I do love this part of my job, thank you very much – and you can PRE-ORDER it at 20% off from us if you’d like.  It follows the influential and much-discussed  Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom and for a while had the tentative title Embodying the Kingdom. The official title now is Awaiting the King. It is very much about public theology.  No wonder he likes Kyle David Bennett’s little book.]

Bennett, like Smith, is a philosophy prof with a PhD. For those few among our readership that would remember, he did his undergrad work at Geneva College under the late, beloved philosophy professor Dr. Byron Bitar, who, alongside the “every square inch being redeemed” worldview of the Dutchman Abraham Kuyper gave him a love for the Dane, Soren Kierkegaard.  In fact, some will notice that Bennett’s book has a title close to Kierkegaard’s famous Works of Love.

There are indications in the book, easy to read as it is, that Bennett is pretty philosophically minded, and it makes the book very interesting: he asks what things actually mean, what they should look like, how they fit together, how they work. He asks this about spiritual disciplines – what’s really going on when we fast or feast? what is the relationship between solitude and socializing? how does meditation help us prevent mal-formed thinking? what really is silence? what is the point of work? Without being scholarly or arcane he asks pretty foundational questions and this is good; rare, even.

Kyle is obviously a gifted teacher, too, so he introduces useful words to help us further understand our mal-formed ways and to think and speak better about what others might call virtues and vices. For instance, in a section on fasting and food he not only talks about our “tummies” but “gormandization” which is another word for gluttonous eating. He also talks about “miserly” eating, which is a helpful way to think about certain distorted practices. He is a thinker, a teacher, and has a colorful, practical, even humorous side.

And he tells some really entertaining (admittedly brief) stories of philosophers, explaining cool stuff about how people thought Diogenes was a mad-man because he wanted to live a better quality (and less materialistic) life. He tells some informative bits about Socrates’ life, quotes Thomas Aquinas and, in a footnote, at least, cites postmodern philosopher Merleau-Ponty and an often-repeated line from Simone Weil.  He’s a smart dude.

But don’t let this propensity to introduce some colorful vocabulary and quote heady scholars and a few big words fool you.  In fact, Jamie Smith tells us not to worry:

Bennett’s lively prose and passionate verve will make you forget every caricature of the tweedy, elbow-patched philosopher. This is feisty Christian thinking with wit and wisdom and both eyes fixed squarely on the nitty-gritty realities of the proverbial ‘real world.’ Above all, this book is a thoughtful invitation to live like the new creatures that we are.

Smith could have pushed this point more: Kyle really, really is down-to-Earth, in a blue-collar everyman/everywoman kind of way. He talks about a fight he had with his wife, describes how he felt as a youth when his dad’s dad was killed in a car wreck, mentions often his love of basketball and Little League baseball, even counsels about how to better use time in the bathroom. (I know, you didn’t see that coming.) And he quotes movies – and not just high-brow ones, either. (He mentioned Elf! He mentioned Elf!) He quotes rural Wendell Berry novels and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. He draws on the children’s books of Roger Hargreaves, like Little Miss Chatterbox. It isn’t every book that has a heavy line from Nicholas Wolterstorff about the relationship of justice and liturgy and a long footnote about Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck even as he is talking about TV shows like the British detective drama Luther and the intriguing question his daughter asked of what animal is the laziest of all. He encourages us to love our neighbors in the “itty bitty” things and asks how we feel when we “veg out” all weekend. He talks about working (not very successfully) as a bricklayer and having a crummy time working at “slapping meat on stale bread” at Subway.

So, again, passionate and broad-minded and fun-to-read and down-to Earth raw as it is, Practices of Love is asking readers to rethink our assumptions about spirituality. Faith-formation doesn’t just happen in church and it just doesn’t happen in quietude and daily devotional times. In fact, he wants to see all of life as deeply spiritual, all human endeavors as related. Spiritual disciplines aren’t to be compartmentalized as discreet activities, really, since all that we do is spiritual (see — I started off with that Romans 12:1 verse for a reason! In a way, this book is asking what does spirituality look like if Romans 12:1 about all of life, what Eugene Peterson calls “our everyday walking around life” being worship is really true.)

Bennett’s approach assumes a view of the human person that is obviously embodied, cultural, social, and multi-faceted and that all the dimensions of our lives – feeling, thinking, spending, consuming, talking, working, resting, and the like – are all uniquely unfolded before God. (He even has a few illustrations making the point.)  We should not consider spiritual disciplines as some eccentric, monkish formational habits for the super-pious or introverts who just want to get away to work on their so-called “spiritual life.” Our methods of coming more deeply to know God are embodied in various dimensions of our God-ordained creatureliness.

In fact, the book challenges what most of us think about the practices of spiritual disciplines because he insists (over and over) that they are not something other than what we ordinarily do as humans.  It becomes a refrain that we aren’t being invited to do new or different things, but to do ordinary things differently. We are mal-formed in each side of life and we need to be re-formed, re-calibrated, re-directed away from self and idols and towards love of others.  In this approach we don’t so much adopt esoteric spiritual techniques to gain spiritual feelings but just enter into ordinary life in a new way, inspired by the transformed heart and habits nurtured within us, making us more Christ-like. With attentive practice, the image of the Triune God more powerfully is reflected in our walk through the world. Bennett implies that the early church fathers and mothers knew this – he avoids those mystics that focused on esoteric encounters or who sought after ecstasy — and that we can take their ancient pastoral advice to heart, even in our modern times.  For instance, he writes, after a clever string of apparent differences between a modern and an ancient person,

What hath fourth-century Egypt to do with twenty-first century El Paso? Our lives may take different shapes and twists and turns but the cashier and the cenobite, the hedge fund investor and the hermit, the nun and the nurse are not so different.

After all, the commonplace human experiences of the ancients – their joys and temptations – are similar to ours.  Bennett continues,

Like them, we do basic, ordinary activities every day. We get dressed, we buy things and take them home, we think, we eat, we hang out with friends, we talk (a lot), we work (a lot), and we rest.

In fact, he uses some version of a long phrase several times (and as the chapters unfold you see why) to explore these universal human experiences. He writes about how we all think, eat, socialize, talk, own things, work and rest. Each of these things can be transformed into acts of true love and grace as they are infused with new spiritual energy and virtue.  For instance, the discipline of practicing silence helps us speak better; the ethic of service infuses how we work; the attitudes of simplicity helps us steward better those things we do own, fasting helps us feast well. You get the picture, I’m sure, but he helps you connect the dots.  The helpful insight he has as we learn about this is remarkable.

I suspect that if you are at all like me, you will find some things to disagree with in this provocative book.  A few sentences made me stop reading to ponder why a word was chosen or an attitude conveyed. I frankly think that some of it might have been edited a bit differently – I’m sure when he talks about the public square and the common good and mentions “blankets to be shared in common” he doesn’t mean what is sounds like.  And why sound so glib in saying “Dying for another person is quite easy compared to living for another person.” An easy martyrdom? Weird.

As much as I agree with the stellar blurbs on the back – from remarkably thoughtful folks like Dennis Ockholm, John Wilson, Rebecca Konynkyk DeYoung, Vincent Bacote, and Gideon Strauss – I need to struggle more with the first few chapters where he doesn’t offer the sort of clear definitions that I wished for. I found his logic a bit convoluted, even though some of the writing was powerful. I really like his energy and all the major points he makes. But I really have to ponder his meaning a bit more.

The heart of the book is comprised of a set of chapters each showing how a certain spiritual discipline can reform our habits and practices in that side of life (again, meditation helps us think, solitude helps us socialize, and the like.) These are brilliant, wise, curious, fascinating, each making the case that spiritual formation is about love. He reminds us in creative and compelling ways that while there is a “vertical” dimension to spiritual disciplines, we should explore with equal vigor the “horizontal” or “sideways” implications of how our spirituality shapes how we relate to others, from strangers and neighbors to co-workers and enemies.  In this he is not dissimilar to others who have invited us to find God in the ordinary, to consider uniquely Christian practices, doing typically human endeavors in distinctively Christian ways, being intentional about how they help build a better world by loving others properly.  As David Naugle puts it in his brilliant book, we need Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives. 

Or as John Ortberg writes in The Life You Always Wanted, spiritual training through contemplative discipline isn’t about our  (so-called) “spiritual life” but is just about our life. Our real world life.

But yet, as I say, I have to ponder more about what Bennett really means as he conflates spiritual disciplines and Christianly animated human practices.

If he had consistently used the language of how our spiritual disciplines – fasting, practicing times of silence, meditation, worship, and the like – shapes and fuels and reforms our ordinary activities of daily living, then I’d fully understand and would offer an easy “Amen!”

But he only puts it that way some of the time. More often (especially in the first few chapters) he says it is not that way at all: the spiritual disciplines are not discrete activities (that have an impact upon other things we do) but are disclosed within the ordinary things we do themselves.  I suspect he is trying to give some nod to the brilliant chapter of Al Wolter’s seminal Creation Regained that differentiates between “structure and direction.” He surely wants to offer a non-dualistic view of spirituality — there is no “sacred” part that “informs” our “secular” activities.  So it isn’t that we (first) pray for inner guidance, say, and then we vote or work well; we don’t sit in solitude and then go out and socialize better, but, rather, he suggests that our prayerfulness is expressed in voting or working justly and our inner strength of solitude is practiced and nurtured as we love others well. (This curious resistance to conventional approaches to the spiritual disciplines is suggested in the very first page when he tells a story of talking a guy out of fasting.) Bennett really is offering a new vision of spiritual disciplines, it seems to me, even if he seems less than consistent in how he explains it.  Anybody interested in this field or who has been involved in spiritual formation projects or spiritual direction really should ponder this book.

Of course, I appreciate any move towards integrated and seamless coherence, practicing the presence of God in the mundane and all, but it still seems to me that he minimizes – or just doesn’t concede — that we do need to do certain disciplines, alone, in a point in time. (We practice scales, sometimes, and we perform concertos, sometimes, even though, technically, both are playing the instrument, for real.) Sure my prayerfulness follows me throughout the day, but only if I have actually prayed. My learning about silence helps me be a better listener to others, but only if I’ve actually spent some real time working on the habits of keeping quiet.  In other words, I think Kyle is wrong about the spiritual disciplines just being ordinary life done “in the Spirit” and re-formed. I think those are the results or fruit of practicing conventionally understood spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster – just to name one classic writer – described spiritual disciplines (in his classic Celebration of Discipline) under the rubric of those that were directed God-ward, those that were centered inward, and those that moved us outward. New ways of actual living for the sake of others, including the poor and oppressed and the Earth itself, is certainly central to all of Foster’s contemplative writing.

In insisting that spirituality is about formation for life, It’s not like Bennett is saying something fully novel – Ruth Haley Barton, James Bryan Smith, David Benner, Jan Johnson, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, Marlena Graves, Richard Rohr, Donald Whitney, Gary Thomas, Joan Chittister, Ronald Rolheiser, Gordon Smith, Marjorie Thompson, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Robert Mulholland, Howard Thurman, James Houston, Eugene Peterson, and nearly any other respected spiritual writer these days insists that our deep experience of God results in new ways of being in the world, attentive to God’s creation and equipped to be passionate agents of social change. (I thought of of this, I must say, when early in the book Bennett caricatured one who does spiritual disciplines in some sort of self-pleasing, self-absorbed gnosticism, and, although I’ve mocked such straw men myself probably more than he has, it didn’t ring quite true. Nobody I know well approaches spirituality in such utterly interior, selfish ways and few contemplative authors or spiritual directors guide others in such inappropriate ways.)

That is, Bennett is adding a good voice — admittedly construed in some pretty interesting ways — to the on-going conversation about spiritual formation and an intregal way of responsible living before God in the real world, accompanied by Spirit.  He can take his place in this on-going conversation, but he isn’t utterly novel.

Which brings me to a final small critique of Bennett’s Practices of Love. I noted that he is bold in citing Isaiah 58 and insisting that the Bible calls us love our neighbors in ways that are concrete, seeking justice, resisting violence, being agents of reconciliation and the like. He offers powerful cultural criticism and incisive prophetic denunciations of the idols of the age.  But yet, as much as he brings us to the point of seeing spiritual formation as the fuel to fire our love for others, as much as he wants us to pursue a life with God that has social implications, he doesn’t give many pointers about social and political change.

He cites the Biblical material about justice, he cares for the poor, and tells us to share our food; he gives obvious advice like how we should visit shut ins with a good meal and how we should have integrity at work and how our buying habits should be more conscientious.  But at some point we have to dig a bit deeper and if our dispositions have been changed and we truly “desire the Kingdom” and want to be used by God to bring help and restoration to the poor and the Earth itself, we have to work out ways to shop ethically and invest in local businesses, support nonviolent start-ups, resist the military industrial complex, alter our energy usage, resisting complicity in the principalities and powers that so damage our commonwealth. Perhaps I was hoping for some engagement with the kind of piety expressed so beautifully in The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnection Ancient Spiritual Practice, Evangelism and Justice by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling and to connect with the missional energy of books like To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities by Michael Frost and Christiana Rice.

I know the heart of this book is to re-construe how we think about spirituality and to particularly show the connections between spiritual practices that can transform our daily habits. But if these ordinary habits are going to be reformed for the purposes Kyle says he wants — love and mercy and stewardship and public justice — it would be helpful to list practical titles that show what it looks like and how to navigate the contemporary counter-pressures once one’s habits are newly re-directed towards love and service and the work of shalom. I just itched for some citation of books such as Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most by Mark & Lisa Scandrette or Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy by Douglas Hicks or Julie Clawson’s informative, faith-based buyer’s guide, Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. I think we would all do well to revisit Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger if we want to think about the spirituality of loving our neighbors in this needy, needy world.

I think of the stunning ways Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat creatively explore resisting the idols of the culture and the forces of destruction in their close contemporary reading of Colossians in Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and how Richard Rohr teaches about the relationship of prayer and political protest in A Lever and a Place to Stand.  Heck, Martin Luther King has a book called Strength To Love that could have been held up as a useful guide.

And as most BookNotes reader’s know, we think Steve Garber’s mature and eloquent book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good asks how we can “for love’s sake” live in the messy world, implicated as we are, showing God’s faithful, covenantal love for the world.  I see some of Garber’s deep insights in Kyle’s approach, in fact. I think you might, too.

Perhaps I am stretching a bit here, but it might have been good to have some engagement with something like Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit which, in a spirit of gentleness and grace, invites citizens to deep conversations about the common good and the reclamation of local citizenship. If we are shaped into practices that guide our hearts to want to care for the common good, then how do we express that love in our contested political spaces?  Geesh, you’d think Kyle at least would have given a shout-out to one of the lovely little books of another of his mentors, Dr. Richard Mouw, who wrote so wisely about the inner disposition of civility that could make us better neighbors and citizens and conversation partners in society. Bennett’s Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World seems to be moving in the same direction as Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. 

I hope Practices of Love make us better citizens for the life of the world, better neighbors to the immigrant and the outcast, more loving and compassionate as we contend with those with whom we disagree, so full of Christ-shaped love that we are intentional about our social practices, resisting the idols of the age, working for fair public policies for the hungry and needful and excluded.  But if it does help us in this way — what next?  I’d say we will need books like the great anthology about all sorts of social issues edited by David Gushee, A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good or the inspiring Live Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changing Making Celebration by our old friend Tom Sine or maybe the brand new The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action by Michelle Ferrigno Warren.  As we practice “practices of love” and see our formation “for the life of the world” it will surely lead us to grapple with what it means to be a peacemaker in these hard times. Perhaps a great follow-up to these three books I’m reviewing in this BookNotes column will be the brand new Mending the Divides: Creative Love in a Conflicted World by Jon Huckins & Jer Swigart of The Global Immersion Project, a peacemaking training organization.  Jon is the author of Thin Places that — not unlike Bennett — ruminates on spiritual practices and postures that can create missional communities that care for the world.

To the book’s great credit, every chapter in Practices of Love has a prayer included at the end – meaty and beautiful and formative – and a bunch of “side steps” (a phrase playing off his horizontal or “sideways” look at the disciplines. Cool, eh?) These are practical steps to take, things to do, ways to work out these generative insights about the relationship of a certain spiritual practice and renewed, restorative, daily living. If we danced into even some of those steps our lives would be richer, our world would be served, and God – just like in the promises at the end of Isaiah 58 — would be near and present to us.  If and when people of faith are better known for presenting a new reconciled way of life in and for the world, based on this rich sort of Christ-like maturity and compassionate character in service of the broken world, as described by Kyle David Bennett, God will be glorified (Matthew 5:16, Ephesians 2:10) and this book will be part of the story.  It is very highly recommended, with much hope.


Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus John H. Armstrong (New City Press) $15.95  I will tell you more about this later, I hope, but I truly wanted to list it here. This is one of the most provocative and thoughtful and thorough studies of the Biblical teaching about love I have yet seen. It is serious and well researched, drawing on writers both ancient and new, from across the theological spectrum.  John is a big supporter of our bookish effort, an old Wheaton College grad, a former super-strict Puritan-esque Reformed scholar and revival preacher. I liked him even when he came on a bit too stridently with his overly confident theology.  Since those days, John has shifted considerably – in part motivated by studying and taking to heart a profound essay on the rightness of ecumenism by conservative Anglican J. I. Packer — and wrote one of my all-time favorite studies of this topic, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. Under the auspices of his ACT3 Network, John has been advocating, preaching, praying, writing, and networking others for more gracious and fruitful inter-denominational conversations. It is rare to find one with such conventionally evangelical theology so robustly engaged in collegial conversations and partnerships with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, with Pentecostals and the Eastern Orthodox, with Mennonites and Methodists.   John knows all kinds of people and meets with everybody, even though it sometimes breaks his heart that others don’t share his enthusiasm for learning to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or political/cultural tendencies.

Such relationships has softened him, so to speak (or toughed him up, since he no longer only hangs out with those like himself.)  He has learned to be civil and gracious and recognize the good stuff God is doing in communions and ministries unlike his own.

It is a longer story to share another time but John has come to very deeply understand – he feels it in his bones as much as anyone I know – that for Christian community to develop and for something even approximating Godly unity (of the sort he calls “missional ecumenism”) will take a lot of healing, a lot of honest conversations, a lot of humility, a lot of grace extended. We desperately need to understand, encounter, and manifest God’s love. John 13 couldn’t be clearer about the urgency of Christians loving others – see Francis Schaeffer’s lovely little The Mark of the Christian or Art Lindsley’s Love: The Final Apologetic for starters on this extraordinary truth – but it seems we are ill-equipped to live out that kind of Christian love for one another.  And, oddly, those who seem to know the most about the Bible and about theology are often themselves the most stubborn and hurtful when it comes to resisting efforts to tear down the dividing walls.

Surely the answer to this broken situation, this tragic violation of the new commandment of John 13:34, is love. God is love, after all. As Kyle David Bennett so creatively spells out in his book Practices of Love, our spirituality must yield the fruit of love.  Out of Armstrong’s own frustrations and eagerness to press towards greater conversations and shared ministry, he set out to study love. It is the essential mark of the Christian disciple, of course, so it is important for any and all of us.  But it was especially urgent for him and his new call into ecumenical, missional fidelity.  It seems odd that so little of much depth has been written directly on this topic.

And so, Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus is the fruit of several years of study and several years of writing. John is a studious scholar, and a fine, upbeat writer. This book is – I don’t say this cheaply – a true labor of love.

I had the great privilege of writing an early endorsement of Costly Love, and I hope to describe it for you in greater detail, later. For now, please know of its good back-story, its semi-scholarly tone, its great, great worth. I hope you consider buying this from us – it is published by a fine Roman Catholic publisher, and the beloved Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin wrote the foreword. (It’s not every day that an evangelical like John ends up on a Roman Catholic press, but that, too, is a sign, it seems of how special this book is and what it represents.) This book needs to be better known in our (mostly Protestant) circles and I commend it to you.

There are many solid endorsements of this book from a wide variety of important women and men, theological and church voices.  For instance:

Good books make you think, great books provoke you to change John Armstrong has given us a great book that has the potential to transform churches and leaders. Costly Love presents a vision of life that is biblically faithful and consistently congruent with reality. This is as timely a work on this subject as any I have read. This is surely a book we all need for our divided times.                                                                                                                Rev. Tyler Johnson, Lead Pastor, Redemption Church, Phoenix, AZ

Love is the best thing we have – and yet we struggle to describe it, let alone live into it. That’s because love is a cross and an empty tomb; love is knitting the church back together and saving the world. John Armstrong is perfectly placed to write about love – with evangelical zeal, catholic wisdom, and erudition without obscurity.                                            Dr. Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology and Duke Divinity School


God Soaked Life: Discovering Kingdom Spirituality Chris Webb (IVP) $16.00  I can only hint about this now as I have not yet read it in full., but I am confident it fits in well with this column. In fact, I think it may be an absolutely perfect companion volume for Bennett’s Practices of Love as it ends up (and I suspect is pervaded by throughout) with a strong section on the politics of love. It draws on the literature and stories of those who have lived well in the public square inspired by deep spirituality and God-given love.  In some ways it gives examples of the sorts of neighbor-loving, creation-caring, justice-seeking humble saints that Bennett’s construal of spiritual practices hope to evoke.

This final set of chapters in God Soaked Life, in fact, are vital, since this is a central part of the vision of “Kingdom spirituality” as described by Webb. That is, like with Bennett and Armstrong, above, we are called to live out daily lives of great love, shown forth in concrete practices and a lifestyle of compassion and grace. We are citizens of a Kingdom of Love, bearing the image of a God who is Love. Here, in fact, are the evocative final chapter titles in God Soaked Life all offered in this final section called “The Politics of Love.”

Against the Darkness

Glorious Possibilities

The Kingdom Today

There are seven such units in God Soaked Life with three chapters under each (and an “over to you” section which includes conversation questions, reflection pieces and other good stuff to process the material.) The sections include chapters about a “God Soaked Creation” and an invitation to life in God’s delight; there are moving chapters about “heart renewal” and it seems that Webb is particularly honest about our hurts, our brokenness and the need for what he calls “soul healing” with several such chapters on our hurting human condition.  This leads to some good chapters on “Fearless Honesty” and then what it means to be “Close to the Father’s Heart.” These short chapters all look beautiful and rich — perhaps not uncommon insights, but really, really nice. Our journey to God needs these kinds of promptings and guides and I think even the discussion parts are themselves so very, very good.  Webb is a very good writer and I personally look forward to reading this slowly (and putting it into conversation with Bennett, as well.)

Webb reminds us that spirituality isn’t a solo project and has several chapters under the heading “Creating Community” and, gladly, shows how all this is lived out in the quotidian, with chapters about attentiveness and “learning to see.”  Yes, yes, God is in all things – Webb reminds us of beauty, wonder, joy, and the gospel-based redemption of all things! But there is this hard fact that we live in a damaged world; things are not as they are supposed to be.  So we truly need God, we need community, we need eyes to see and then we need those final chapters, “The Politics of Love” because we must be agents of this God-drenched goodness into the world.  We must “learn to love in gentleness” he writes, and I think as a Benedictine Anglican priest – and former president of the Richard Foster-founded Renovare USA – he knows what he’s talking about.

Do you know his previous book, The Fire of the Word: Meeting God on Holy Ground which was about reading the Bible with an eye to spiritual formation? In a way it was an extended introduction to lectio divina and was a beautiful, helpful book beloved by many of our customers. This brand new one similarly proclaims that God is near.  It is “written with verve, depth, and uncontainable joy.” This invitation to “live in the reality of God’s presence in everyday lives” is so nice, and so needed.

Barry Hill, an Anglican rector colleague of Webb’s in Leicester, UK, says:

Chris Webb models God’s beautiful call to grow as a disciple with our head and our heart, our whole bodies and our whole lives, without division or separation.

Gary Moon – director of the Dallas Willard Center at Westmont College – agrees, saying That God Soaked Life is  “a beautifully written and immensely important book about living life with God.”  He continues, saying it “sets aglow everyday life with the light of Kingdom living.”

Yep, that’s what love can do.  Bennett, Armstrong and Webb can help you live love


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Reintegrate Your Vocation with God’s Mission by Bob Robinson AND four other key resources on faith, work, and economic life.

I don’t know how your work week is going but mine – despite some fabulous customers and fabulous co-workers (not to mention the joy of working with my wife each day) – is, well, you know. I won’t report the stuff that has gone wrong, the stuff that has broken my heart, the failures of our supply chain and my own bad attitude. When the Bible says that work is both good and cursed, I get it. Don’t you?

Of course one of the reasons we started our store almost 35 year ago was to help ordinary Christian people learn about and live into a wholistic vision of faith that naturally integrates faith and life, spirituality and society, worship and work.

Happily there has been a renaissance in the last few years of Christian folks – more within the serious evangelical world than within mainline denominations, it seems – wanting to read about a Christian view of vocation and call, to form study groups around career areas (law, medicine, business, tech, the arts, and the like.) And there are numerous conferences about faith and work. In fact, I’m excited to be a keynote speaker at the Colorado Christian Business Alliance annual gathering in Denver (see here) on September 22, 2017.  I’ll be doing something different there, but here’s a little clip of a presentation I did in St. Barthlomew’s Cathedral in New York City when Redeemer Presbyterian’s Center for Faith and Work had me share briefly about my work as a small town bookstore retailer. I spoke right after Richard Mouw so referenced some of his books and I made some dumb quip about Tim Keller’s (good) books while he was in the audience. You might enjoy hearing me talk about our work, blessed and sin-struck as it is, as we all are.

Which all again makes we wonder what prayers will be prayed this up-coming Sunday, or, perhaps at least on Labor Day weekend, honoring those of us who spend most of our days in the work-world. (Or those who are unemployed or underemployed and struggle with this question of making a living, let alone discerning a call to any particular vocation.) The Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer has some prayers for such occasions as do other books of prayers and worship resources that we stock.  I wonder how many churches will make any connections to the historic national holiday and our own theology of work?

I know that some congregations make a habit of praying, throughout the year, for their members in their various callings. They pray for teachers, for health care providers, for public servants, blue-collar workers, state employees, artists and students and more.

Of course we pray for our church leaders, for missionaries we know by name, and, as the Bible commands, our elected officials and our enemies.  But when we pray for business folk, for farmers or engineers or journalists or factory workers or nurses it sends a big message, truly invoking God’s blessing suggested that ordinary workers need God’s help and power and wisdom because what they do matters to God’s Kingdom as does the work of the minister or missionary. Friends, that’s huge.

If this is somewhat new to you, I’d invite you to read a few of the other essays and book review columns I’ve done on this topic at BookNotes.

See for instance, HERE (a massive list of books about vocation, calling and work), HERE (a recent review of John Van Sloten’s Every Job a Parable which names other books and lists), HERE (where I write about Timothy Keller’s important Every Good Endeavor book and offer a James Taylor song), or HERE (where I share a review of two wonderful books, The Invisibles: Celebrating Unsung Heroes of the Workplace and the beautiful Finding Livilihood by Nancy Nordenson.) You might like my review of the captivating and inspiring Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – And Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy which I reviewed HERE. Maybe you’d be kind enough to share some of them with folks in your circles who might appreciate my lists and suggestions.  I don’t know, frankly, any other bookstore who does this kind of work, and we’re hoping you find it helpful.

We would like to congratulate our good friend Bob Robinson for his new edition of a book we have had available for a while and have talked about for several months now, but which has been given a new official release this week, Reintegrate Your Vocation with God’s Mission (Good Place Publishing) $12.00. It is truly one of the best little books of its kind, an easy read, a provocative read, a good study with bunches of questions and learning exercises (and a good leaders guide in the back.) As you can see from the above links, there are plenty of books of varying sizes and sophistication about the Christian call to think faithfully about the work-world. But there is nothing like this, a substantive but relatively brief study. There are seven chapters and each has Bible verses to consider, good quotes and excerpts from other writers (set aside nicely in helpful sidebar boxes) and wonderful, practical application type questions.

Just so you are aware, this book is good even for those that don’t have traditional jobs – retired folks or students or the self-employed, or those called to be the primary homemakers and caretakers of children.   I know it has been used in job-site lunchtime studies and it does have a few questions inviting folks to talk about things going on at work, but I am confident that almost anyone would enjoy it. And almost anyone will be surprised to see how we really do need to be more intentional about re-integrating our lives so they all aspects of our lives are more inter-related, more coherent, less fragments and more seamless.

In fact, on the opening pages, Bob writes:

This Bible study has been created to give God’s people the biblical foundation for reintegrating their faith back into every facet of life, especially in that aspect of life in which we invest a huge amount of time and energy: our work. Work is central to our purpose as we participate with the mission of God. As Steven Garber says, “Vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei – the mission of God in the world.”

After explaining just a bit about God’s original harmony – shalom is the Hebrew word, a word he comes back to in greater, very helpful detail – he notes that “we need to move our lives back into that original integration that God wants for us.”

But, this unique set of studies presumes the vision of an integrated, coherent life. These studies “do not try to help us ‘bring our faith into the workplace’ or ‘created balance in our lives.’ Instead, we will learn how vocation is intrinsic to being human and essential for our participating in God’s mission. We need to reintegrate our lives.”

Besides the shout out to his friend and mentor Steve Garber (and his fabulous book Visions of Vocation) Bob quotes Tom Nelson (and his must-read Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship and Monday Work) who writes,

The doctrine of vocation properly understood weaves together in a seamless life of true discipleship in all facets of life. Vocation is the path of daily life where we are called to be a faithful presence in the world.

I am so very glad for Bob’s keen insight as a facilitator of good conversations, his ability to weave together these kinds of provocative quotes and good questions and Biblical material. He has an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he studied with top-notch Biblical scholars such as D.A. Carson and Scot McKnight. He’s a good father and dad and church leader and he’s a fine campus minister for the CCO at a small branch campus of Kent State University. He has learned to translate for pretty ordinary folks exceptionally nuanced theological research and sociological insight about the nature of the faith and salvation, discipleship and service, calling and work, formation and holiness, life and times, in a way that few have.

Sure the aforementioned Tim Keller has one of the pivotal texts in this movement (Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Mission, co-authored with our fiend Katherine Leary Alsdorf) and authors like Amy Sherman have challenged us very deeply to think about work and jobs in Kingdom ways (see her extraordinary Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good.) So much of this movement presumes a knowledge of the eloquent truth in Os Guinness’s brilliant The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life or the flood of books inspired by it.

The faith and work movement has, in many ways, been inspired by Abraham Kuyper’s worldview-rocking Lectures on Calvinism and Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and the hefty Oxford University Press study To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, all which grapple with the large, large question of the relationship of Christ and culture, what it means to be “in but not of the world” and how we take up our roles in institutions and marketplaces and the like. Of course, the answer to this that we find most compelling is an “all of life redeemed” transforming worldview spelled out in books like Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton’s The Transforming Vision and Al Wolter’s Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview and Michael Witmer’s Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything We Do Matters to God all the way through to recent books on public theology by James K.A. Smith and the life-changing orientation of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and his other books on a missional/Kingdom eschatology.  Our bookstore has specialized in these sorts of energizing books for the formation of a uniquely Christian world-and-life view and social imagination that allows us to live faithfully in every zone of life. Over the years we have hosted Brian Walsh and N.T. Wright and Jamie Smith and Lisa Sharon Harper (who gets at this Kingdom vision by way of the Biblical teaching about cosmic “reconciliation”) to help folks see non-dualistic, creation-being-restored, this-worldly sort of whole-life discipleship and we have written often about attending conferences and organizing workshops and curating book lists about the renewal of our culture-shaping tasks.

But, you know and I know that many ordinary folks in our churches or campus ministries or neighborhood Bible study groups or Sunday school classes aren’t going to wade through most N.T. Wright books or stunning books like Kingdom Callings or even the eloquent and thoughtful books by Mr. Garber.

So — voila —Robinson’s Reintegrate does the heavy lifting for you, bringing just the right amount of explanatory teaching, the right amount of “discovery” through conversation/reflection, and the right sort of side-bar quotes and citations from significant authors to make this a perfect introductory guidebook. It brings the content, but with a clear, light touch, with lots for anyone to find interesting.  It will give you much to ponder if you read it yourself and much to talk about if you use it (as designed) in a small group.

It is arranged so helpfully by showing how our vocational and work lives can be shaped by the key aspects of the Biblical story, the realities we sometimes call in shorthand creation/fall/redemption/restoration. Each chapter explores how this part of the Biblical drama offers key insights, how each “chapter” of the story can frame our understanding of what is going on in our lives and world and work, and how they each anticipate the next chapter of the full gospel story, the promise of meaning and hope and final restoration. My, my, this is edge-of-your-seat stuff for those that are new to this framework and a wonderful refresher for those who think they get it.

Want to know what “thy Kingdom Come on Earth…” really means and what implications it has for your daily living, even at work?  Reintegrate will help. I promise.

I like that the sidebar quotes that Bob comments upon or invites us to ponder are all rooted in this all-of-life-redeemed worldview. There’s much to consider from the beautiful writing of Cornelius Plantinga and Steve Garber to the ‘creation-restored’ vision of redemption found in the books of Al Wolters and Hugh Whelchel and Michael Witmer and Paul Marshall – do you know his handbook for thoughtful Kingdom living called Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation? (that Bob cites it just warms my heart! I love that book!)

For those who need a short a punchy introduction to a culturally-engaged, integrated Kingdom way of seeing our redemptive calling in the world, with a guide to process and apply this wholisitic, missional shift in perspective, for those who know that learning happens best when it is done in community, well, there is simply nothing like this book in print today.

Allow me to say that again: there is nothing like Reintegrate Your Vocation with God’s Mission in print today.

I am not alone is saying this, by the way. Please read these few blurbs –there are more inside the book, indicating that many folks are hoping this books is bought and used. Kudos, Bob!

This is one of the finest study guides I know for people who are eager to align their personal vocation with God’s mission in the world. Dr. Mark Roberts, Executive Director of the Max DePree Center for Leadership

Utilizing a robust theology of vocation, a coherent biblical framework and a transforming pedagogy of interactive dialogue, Reintegrate has the potential to truly change your life. I highly recommend it. Dr. Tom Nelson, author Work Matters and President of Made to Flourish

Reintegrate is an evergreen explanation of truth told in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. This overarching four-chapter story lays a foundation for providing the meaning and fulfillment we all seek in life. Highly recommended! Hugh Whelchel, author of How Then Should We Work? and Director of Institute on Faith, Work & Economics

This Bible study is creative and intriguing and will help Christians wee how all of life matters to God, especially in all of the hours we spend away from environments typically labeled “spiritual”.” Bob Robinson has done a great service to the church, helping us reintegrate our lives that are all too often insufficiently integrated with our faith. Dr. Vincent Bacote, Director of The Center for Applied Christian Ethics, Wheaton College

How do we make an utterly essential paradigm shift in not only our minds, but also in our hearts? How do we re-view what may be familiar passages of scripture with new eyes? In this thoughtful and practical study, Bob Robinson has provided us with fresh ways to engage Scripture, provocative case studies and helpful application to gain new perspective on whole-life discipleship. If workplaces are primary places of spiritual formation, then this guide must be part of your journey. Lisa Pratt Slayton, CEO Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation

We’d love for you to order a few of these small books from us and consider doing the study. We are very glad to stock it, praise God for Bob’s friendship and good work, and – okay, I can say it, now –it makes our own work-day brighter just telling you about these rare kinds of resources. Three cheers!


Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses, and Astronauts Tell Us about God John Van Sloton (NavPress) $14.99 I reviewed this extensively in a previous BookNotes, so won’t say much more now except to remind you that it really is an fabulously upbeat and enjoyable read and brings something unique to this conversation about faith and work. Yes, our workplaces can be parables, revealing stuff about God and God’s world. As we attend to Christ’s presence in our jobs, and the good our jobs can offer to us and to the world, we just might be given very new eyes to see things anew. Wow, what a book!

Do come back and read the rest of my reviews here, but do visit our previous BookNotes newsletter where I featured this innovative book and where I said much about the value of it and the amazing sermons (about different jobs) that inspired it. There’s a link to a great trailer by John Van Sloton, too.  His website is fantastic and you should be sure to tell folks about it.  Great stuff!

Work and Our Labor in the Lord James M. Hamilton Jr. (Crossway) $14.99 Above I’ve mentioned some bigger or seminal titles, hefty and vital. And there are shorts ones, brief and easy. This one is curious as it is mature and thoughtful and brief. It is part of a fabulous series called “Short Studies in Biblical Theology.” Well, let’s hope theology is Biblical, you might quip, but, you know, this phrase (“Biblical theology”) has a particular meaning – it is somewhat in contrast to “systematic theology” that arranges theological notions in categories created by theologians – the nature of sin, the role of the cross, what we think of the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus or the end times and such. Sure they use the Bible, but it systematizes these abstract topics. Biblical theology on the other hand, attempts to see how topics can be understood as guided by the narrative nature of the Bible itself. It attempts to honor the integrated teachings of law and prophets and gospels and epistles as they hold together in a plotline that finds their culmination in Christ.

Anyway, as ponderous as some Biblical Theology is, this recent series is accessible and helpful in quickly surveying the Bible’s coherent framework as it shapes our views of varying topics.   For instances, the first one was called The Son of God and the New Creation by Graeme Goldsworthy; the second was called Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel by Ray Ortlund and the most recent is Covenant and God’s Purposes for the World by Tom Schreiner.

In any event, this new one, Work and Our Labor in the Lord is thoughtful and mature and Biblical and important.

Here are the four intense chapters, in just over 100 small-sized pages:

  1. Creation: Work in the Very Good Garden
  2. Work After the Fall: Fallen, Futile, Flourishing
  3. Redemption: Work Now That Christ Has Risen
  4. Restoration: Work in the New Heavens and the New Earth

DVD ReFrame: Connecting Faith and Life Regent College Marketplace Institute  $99.00 Participants Guide, $12.00; Leaders Guide, $12.00

I hope you know of Regent, the innovative Christian graduate school in Vancouver, British Columbia. It has long been a blessing – just to know it exists makes me glad; it is not a seminary, as such, nor a Bible College. It draws on the deepest traditions within the broad Body of Christ (although it is historically evangelical, founded in the late 1960s to serve thoughtful laity by James Houston, a scholar and faithful Christian leader informed by the medieval spiritual classics and serious theology.) Authors we admire who have been on staff there over the years include J. I. Packer, Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, Luci Shaw, and the evangelical Earth-keeping scholar and eco-activist Loren Wilkinson.

One of the great pioneers of marketplace ministry is Dr. Paul Stevens who has proclaimed a wide-as-life, transforming vision for decades, and he has regularly taught work-world and business-related courses there. He has written numerous, excellent books on the faith/work movement and we stock them all. (See, just for instance, Doing God’s Business or Taking Your Soul to Work or Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture or The Other Six Days.) Stevens has retired, I’ve heard, and in his absence Regent has hired our good friend and wonderful author and speaker and educator Steve Garber. That Steve has been friends with Houston and Packer and Stevens and others in the Regent circles is no surprise; he counts as one of his dearest mentors and friends the late John Stott, who also had some Regent-esque qualities.  His theories and practices explained in Garber’s book about life-long learning, The Fabric of Faithfulness, is surely in keeping with Regent’s hopes and visions for on-going education of Christian laypeople. Steve’s contributions to this already vibrant, international learning community will be marvelous and we wish him and his wife, Meg, all God’s blessings there.

Garber was involved a bit in dreaming up and being a midwife for the production of this exceptional video curriculum, so he is not new to Regent; indeed Reframe is published cooperatively in association with Garber’s Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation and Culture. We’ve mentioned it at BookNotes before but we’ve been wanting to describe it in great detail. Allow me to say that it is very, very well done, aesthetically and spiritually and theologically. The content is incredibly solid and mature, the presentation crisp and vivid and interesting. It could hardly be recommended more highly.

I will tell you a bit about it, but you really should visit the Reframe website to get a better glimpse. Visit them at https://www.reframecourse.com/

Yes, there is a lot of content. Even the website has plenty to look at. The DVD that we sell has 10 forty-minute sessions and the study guides offer plenty of assistance to help you discuss it all. It is a truly remarkable resource, years in the making.

Although it is aesthetically rich and very interesting at it’s core there are organizing lectures by solid professors in each of the 10 classes in this course.

You will be hosted by Mark Mayhew (one of the primary co-creators and former director of the Regent College Marketplace Institute) and Erin Antosh, who has worked with Garber at the Washington Institute of Faith, Vocation and Culture. You will get to sit under and listen to great teachers such as Paul Williams (who, before coming to Regent, served as Chief Economist and Head of International Research for an international real estate consulting and investment banking group based in London) and Sarah Williams (a professor of church history at Regent who previously taught at the University of Oxford.) Iain Provan is a beloved Biblical study prof at Regent (who is also ordained in the Church of Scotland.) Other respected profs from Regent share the teaching load for ReFrame – you will learn from Phil Long, the amazingly energetic Rikk Watts, Bruce Hindmarsh and Polly Long.

Further, there are thoughtful contributions by what they call “practitioners” — business people and teachers and artists and civic activist and scientists, men and women from around the world, each telling about their own role in bringing God’s restoration and shalom to bear in their respective arenas.

Interwoven throughout these 10 sessions are over 25 interviews with men and women (again, from all over the world) who are quite articulate about what they do and why, how they are able to think and live faithfully in their callings, inspired by this integral vision. There is a healthy diversity among these salt and light leaders and they bring a real lively tone to it all – take a look at the website and see the folks involved.  You’ll be very impressed, I’m sure.

The Reframe: Connecting Faith and Life DVD course is a good investment for your group or church; if you are interested in this topic you really should own it. It is the crème de la crème of this marketplace movement.

I hope the many organizations and think-tanks and church-based ministries and Fellows programs helping people relate faith and work – I’m talking to you, Denver, Nashville, South Hamilton, Washington, Tempe, Baltimore, Wheaton, Charlotte, Charlottesville, Longview, St. Louis, Lancaster, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Ithaca, Orlando, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Philly – consider ordering this from us.

Maybe it could be a hefty follow-up in your church or campus after a study of Bob Robinson’s book. Or after you’ve used For the Life of the World, that enthralling DVD which we continue to sell well.

This curriculum is wonderfully aided by the great Leader’s Guide which is carefully produced in full color printing. There is much substance just in the almost 100 page workbook and it is a must-have tool to lead groups through the DVD course.

For what it is worth, although this really is about faith and life, living well in the world (but not of it) and with special attention to our jobs and careers and callings, it is, largely, a Biblical studies course. Like the other books I’ve named above, they relate the grand meta-narrative of the Bible to our own times, showing how that story of creation and fall, of Israel and Jesus, of Church and Mission, of New Heavens and New Earth can become our story.   In fact, the first two sessions of Reframe are under the heading of “The Story We Find Ourselves In” where cultural stories are shared to help viewers think about how we tend to frame our lives in our own various places these days. And how the gospel allows us to “reframe” the meaning and director of our lives.

The large middle part – sessions 3 to 7 – do the Biblical story, and they do it with depth and vision. There is always this sense that we now stand within this big unfolding work of God, as found in the story of creation and Israel, Jesus and Church. But it is basically a very robust bit of Bible teaching.

The third part – called “The Ongoing Story” has three classes for how we now live out this story of Scripture. The sessions are called “Strangers and Exiles” and “Ambassadors” and “Joyful Living.”

There is in the Leader’s Guide a lovely bit of extra help for “Continuing the Journey” and even a set of prayers from throughout the ages that can be used in your Reframe group.


The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity Tom Nelson (IVP) $16.00 I mentioned above that one of Bob Robinson’s good influences was Tom Nelson, whose wonderful book, Work Matters, documents how his church shifted from mostly churchy stuff to equipping the flock for real-world mission, speaking about vocation and calling and work. The attention Tom’s church and the workers in various careers in his church have gotten now has been a great encouragement to many of us who care about this perspective and movement, so it is good to know that Tom has created a network of pastors called Made To Flourish that helps churches focus on cultural engagement that creates human flourishing and benefits the common good.   Out of his work with his own Christ Community Church in Leawood Kansas, and his MTF contacts, he has written what might be considered a sequel to Work Matters – and oh-my-goodness, is it great!

Please notice the subtitle… work really is for “the common good” and we should, as we can, think about ways to help our neighborhoods grow, our towns and cities flourish, the needy among us find meaningful work, and hope and work for healthy economies and community development. I wish space permitted a more full review, but for now allow me to name it here and assure you I’m eager to study it. (I wonder if he will talk about supporting local business, why publisher and parachurch organizations ought not link to amazon and why we should be thoughtful about supporting businesses that are principled and not merely the ones with biggest footprint. Hmm.) The Economics of Neighborly Love deserves a many-page review itself for its good insight and exceptionally practical proposals, but for now, just know we are very eager to sell some of these. It is going to make a difference for those who consider it and is surely one of the important, strategic books of the year.

In the opening pages, Tom tells us about growing up very poor. He talks about his call into ministry and what lead him to admit to what he called “clergy malpractice” in not honoring the jobs and work people do outside the walls of the church. It’s a great few pages and I love his humble and kind and pastoral tone about his own journey to care about work and a vision for God’s ordinary people in the world.

And then, he writes:

I am delighted that so many have recently written on the deep and significant connections between faith and work, making the case that our individual work truly matters to God and to our neighbors. Yet, while our personal vocations do, of course, matter a great deal, they are by no means the entire story. Our work always takes place within larger economic realities; we are part of a much bigger story. All of our collaborative, value-adding work takes place within a system of cooperative global exchange. This is what modern, everyday economics is all about. From my pastoral perspective, far too little has been written or taught to the rising generation of leaders about how theology and economics seamlessly intersect. The glaring irony is that Holy Scripture speaks a good deal about economic flourishing. Yet in our personal lives, in our congregations and in our work, we all too often woefully neglect to connect the gospel of the kingdom with economics. This harms our witness, our cities, and our future. The church needs to address and begin the hard work of overcoming the perilous Sunday-to-Monday gap.

I love his heart, his hope for his book, his clarity about The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity:

From this crucible of my own pastoral malpractice, and in the gracious providence of God, I am hopeful that some of the insights I have assembled in the pages that follow will stretch your mind, inspire your heart, and spark your imagination in new ways. My prayer is that you might become more like Jesus, better loving your neighbor, and growing in fruitfulness to your vocational calling within the larger web of economic order that the God of history has marvelously invited us to inhabit.

So, there’s five great resources to consider as we move towards Labor Day and a new season of church and para-church programing. I hope your own congregation or faith community or campus ministry organization helps people think about the big story of which we are apart, and that you use something like Bob Robinson’s fabulous little resource Reintegrate Your Life With God’s Mission. It will be an asset to your hopes of nurturing a deeper and more relevant and lively sort of discipleship. And then dig deeper, thinking about work and “framing” our vocations and even our economic life.  These books are too good to ignore.  Buy ’em, use ’em, and — as Garber puts it in the sub-title of his lovely, thoughtful Visions of Vocation — keeping seeking “common grace for the common good.”  We stand ready to serve you further.  Happy Labor Day.


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The best new book on race, a must read, ON SALE: White Awake by Daniel Hill

White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White Daniel Hill (IVP) $16.00

Saturday night Beth and I both sensed that we were more exhausted than usual; we keep weird hours and often are drained, it seems, but this was something else. And it was obvious to us what was behind it.

The night before we watched hours of live footage of the “Unite the Right” march, complete with Nazi slogans, Hitler salutes, and all kinds of white supremacist and anti-immigration meanness.  As the  shouting men with torches surrounded the Charlottesville church where Christians and others worshiped – including some friends of ours! – I was in an unpleasant Facebook debate with a person who insisted that this faith-based counter-witness of worship was not really faith-based. His spreading disinformation about my pious friends upset me almost as much as the trauma of seeing the vile chanting and creepy flags of the far, far right as they advanced on Mr. Jefferson’s university.

The next day we gathered at our own local church for a memorial service for a dear friend, a black woman who was an inner city school teacher most of her adult life, and whose family have offered good leadership to our Presbyterian congregation. Miss Jenny co-taught third grade Sunday school for decades, including to all three of our children, not to mention our current Associate Pastor when she was child coming up our congregation.  Pastor Allison’s sermon/eulogy shared not only important insights about Jenny’s passion for ethnic diversity and racial justice, but recalled her own years “in pig tails and patent leather shoes” when Jenny so influenced her, sowing seeds that have come to fruition in Allison’s own call to pastoral ministry. Knowing that overt evil was marching in Charlottesville even as we laughed and cried and prayed and received communion in our multi-ethnic service celebrating the quiet life of a faithful black Presbyterian was, well, exhausting.

“Funerals are hard work,” Beth reminded me, even as we knew this one was joyous in some regards. A truly Christian funeral of one who dies well in the Lord can be a celebration, but this one was layered with the awful news of this awful reality about racism in America, this concurrent outrage unfolding just a few states away. The testimonies about Jenny’s pioneering work in racial reconciliation between an all-black and an all-white church during race riots in York in the mid-1960s and her on-going passion for teaching about diversity to our children would have been powerful in any season. To hear it on Saturday was remarkably poignant.  And it was exhausting.

I realized that it was okay to admit to being drained.

But I also realize that as a white person celebrating the life a beloved friend at a wholesome church service, merely checking in on my phone about the alt-right rally, wasn’t threatening to me. I realize that it illustrates a bit of what we sometimes call white privilege; I was sad about so much, but the white nationalists weren’t after me, and I could go home safe and satisfied that I knew a civil rights leader in our town. I learned years ago from a good black friend that even as he honored my own growing awareness and dislocation about matters of racism that he experienced, those of us who are white allies in the journey to justice can walk away, take a break, blend in. It is what it is, as they say, but learning to be aware of such privilege, learning to recognize, manage and steward it, even, is a long, life-long journey.

By the way, in a brand new book edited by Adam Copeland, with a foreword by Dorothy C. Bass, called Beyond the Offering Plate: A Holistic Approach to Stewardship (WJK; $20.00) a group of mostly Lutheran and Presbyterian theologians and Bible scholars offer chapters on a variety of aspects of stewarding well our givens — our bodies, our time, our work, our minds. Margaret P. Aymer, a New Testament professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary has a chapter called “Stewardship Of Privilege” in which she deconstructs the notion, in favor of a “stewardship of incarnation.”

There are a lot of voices from a lot of perspectives trying to help us think and live faithfully in these times.

My friend Drew Hart, who used to work for the CCO, has a story in his must-read Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism (Herald Press; $16.99) where he is in a meeting for those who were pretty invested in and further along the journey to dismantle white supremacy, a small group heart-to-heart about deep stuff regarding our racial identity and moving towards a more just and equitable future.  In this story, Hart is taken aback when a woman from the meeting is agitated and asks to speak with him after the meeting. She trusted him and wondered what he thought of the consensus in the group that one can’t be a real Christian if one is white.


That wasn’t at all what was said in the meeting and yet Hart wasn’t fully surprised. It is almost predictable that some white folks think that a critique of the system of white privilege in our culture – the structures and social architecture, the principalities and powers, the institutional racism – is an attack on them individually, as people.

But this time, Hart decided not to just simply reassure her that she misunderstood, that nobody in the meeting had said such a hurtful thing. (He did say that, of course, but she insisted otherwise.) So he invited her to sit with her discomfort a bit. He asked probing questions, inviting her to ask why it was that she so misheard, so misinterpreted.  What was it about her own deep, deep loyalty to her identity as a white person that set her off?  Could it be that as Christians, we ought to have identities less shaped by our race?  It is quite a story in a very impressive book that is increasingly known as a key book for our time. Dr. Hart lives in the Harrisburg area and now teaches theology at Messiah College near us. Daniel Hill uses that story from Hart’s book to open us up to often misunderstood conversations about our identity and how race and class or national loyalties sometimes effects our self-understanding.

It seems to me Drew was right in pushing this woman a bit. And it was a powerful illustration for Hill in his new book. Both men are experience facilitators of these kinds of conversations and want to remind us: we are “new creatures” in Christ, after all, defined by our baptism, shaped by our union with Him, informed by our membership in the church, fundamentally claimed by our allegiance to God’s Kingdom coming. Of course we are made by God as creatures which certainly involves God-given race and gender and abilities and gifts and such, and we are naturally shaped by families and cultures, citizens of a country, situated in a place — all there for better or worse because this is the sort of world God made: real, material, social, cultural, situated. Yes, we are created in God’s image with these material facts and they should be celebrated. But what happens when we overly identity with our race or tribe or homeland? What happens, more, when that race or tribe or homeland is a majority culture that is known for marginalizing and hurting others? What does it mean to be white in a racially-charged culture? Even those of us who would never shout “Blood and Soil” as the alt-right marchers did in Charlottesville, might it be that we unconsciously carry a few too many eggs in the basket of our whiteness?

Not to be too clever, but how should our race color our faith?

This, my friends, is one of the primary tasks set before contemporary Christians the world over, and it is certainly one of the chief tasks set before North American Christians of Anglo descent. White folks are still a majority race and white supremacy is still the common currency of the culture. (Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s thrilling From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church reminds us that this is changing as the global church is no longer mostly white and is no longer found only in the global South.)

And, aside from the influence of non-Western, global Christians, we in the US have to grapple with our own diversity issues, obviously around black/white relations in this era of the new Jim Crow, but also with the rise of the Latino church, the Asian-American church, and the on-going relationship with our Native Peoples. For anyone that travels to church conferences or has worshiped outside of their own local church, you know this isn’t abstract or arcane — happily the Body of Christ is remarkably multi-cultural.  Some mainline churches have been addressing this for decades, although evangelicals seem to be most energetic these days at the grass roots level. Pentecostals know it for sure.  All of us who are white simply have to consider how being white has influenced our identities and how our implicit privileges (even for those of us whose lives are hard) have tilted societies blessings in our favor.

By the way, the best Christian book about this “white privilege” phrase (a phrase outlawed in at least one Christian college chapel program!) and what it all means and implies and what to think about it is Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege (InterVarsity Press; $18.00.) I reviewed that exceptionally important book recently at BookNotes and hope you picked it up from us.  It is very well written and more timely than ever given the events of recent days.  Lisa Sharon Harper says that “This book is a journal of discoveries shared with humility, grace, and unrelenting commitment to truth.”

And Wystma himself recommends this new book, quite heartily, in fact.

Daniel Hill is an evangelical Christian leader who has worked on multi-ethnic ministry, racial reconciliation, and cultural diversity for most of his adult life.  As he describes in his riveting new paperback book, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White (IVP; $16.00) this question – how do we handle the fact of white supremacy and deal with the givens of white privilege? – is urgent but painful.  offers strategies to learn, and strategies to move forward.

But for Hill, there is something equally important to explore besides the ubiquitous and fraught questions about privilege.  And that is the question of identity.

And on this, White Awake is the best thing I’ve ever read.

Hill’s new book is helpfully arranged, nicely crafted and well-written, upbeat at times and searing at others. It’s almost a perfect non-fiction book with just the write balance and flow of good humor and inspiring passion and wise Bible study and clarifying theology and stories galore.  And what stories he tells – some fairly common place, about his own failures in building cross-cultural friendships and some nearly stunning in how they shine a light upon gross injustices in a racialist culture.

Hill seemed to drift from faith a bit in his college years – his father was a strict and conservative Baptist preacher – but as he explains in the book, his renewed faith in his early twenties lead him to a leadership role in the young adult ministry at Willow Creek. A story he tells about the membership meeting he had with them is funny and poignant as they remind him that salvation is by grace alone and he didn’t really have to prove his worth to them.  Maybe some self-righteousness was going on there, even? What a vulnerable thing to share!

Willow eventually freed him up to start an urban young adult fellowship which Hill deeply hoped would be multi-cultural and embody God’s desire for racial unity. The urban version of their legendary Axiom group grew and grew but remained mostly white. He felt like a failure. I was captivated by this episode in his life and there is much to learn for any of us. In those years he wisely surrounded himself with people of color (including some honest black, Asian, and Latino pastors) who were brutally honest with him and caringly coached him towards greater clarity about the cost of his idealistic visions.

And that cost is in a way what White Awake is all about.

I believe it is the best and most useful book about race I have read in years. (And, if you follow our reviews here at BookNotes, you know I have read and reviewed a lot.) It is serious but approachable, challenging without being devastating, and offers information that is essential for all of us (of any race or background) to understand well.

Perhaps you have never read anything that makes the Biblical case that God abhors injustice, that racial bias continues to haunt North America, and that Christ’s church is called to be multi-ethnic, bearing witness to the reconciliation God is bringing among us.  I suppose if you’ve never read anything about a Christian view of diversity or the Biblical teaching about a multi-cultural church, this book might not be the one to start with.

See our suggestions about more basic and general books on race in the second half of this BookNotes list here or some of the ones here (which includes basic and advanced ones) or this recent list here which lists several favorites of various levels and styles.

But if like many BookNotes readers – pastors in mainline churches, activists in evangelical congregations, campus ministers in the CCO and IVCF and Cru and RUF and the like – you’ve already made some commitments to addressing the sins of racism and pressing on towards racial reconciliation, then this is the book you need to read next.

I’ll say it again: if you’ve read a bit in the topic of race relations, White Awake: An Honest Look At What It Means to Be White is what you should read next.

As I’ve said, you will enjoy (and learn much from) Mr. Hill’s honest storytelling and his vulnerability as a learner – and, man, is he vulnerable, candidly sharing some zingers of missteps and some epic fails in his well-intended efforts to be more racially aware and become a multi-cultural leader.  His conversational tone, his walking us through the stages and phases and ups and downs (and, again, did I mention there were some downs?) as he chronicles his journey in living color is all very, very helpful. That he has had a lot of important influences (itself a privilege) from people of color is pretty rare and he tells of the hard truths his friends have helped him see.  There were moments when I thought, wow, they could make a movie out of this guy’s life!

And he tells the exciting stories of deepening commitments to fighting racism of others, too, from hip- hop star Lacrae to social scientist (and now Duke Divinity School professor) Christena Cleveland, from social psychologist Brene Brown to civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, from  NYC pastor Tim Keller, from urban activist Shane Claiborne.  Such shout outs make this a really interesting book.

Dr. Hill draws on key scholars writing on this topic these days, too.  For instance, his overview of the work of Beverly Tatum (Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) and his drawing upon the notions of “white fragility” by Robin DiAngelo are very, very useful.

Besides enjoying (and cringing) through the lessons Hill learned too often the hard way, and rooting him on as he shows tenacity, perseverance and resilience, you will learn good, good stuff about what it means to be a “woke” white person these days. You will be motivated to do some self-assessment, you will be chided and encouraged and some dots will surely be connected as lights come on in your own soul.  You will learn a lot and I think you will really, really appreciate it.

And in all this, Hill is impeccably clear, offering succinct outlines, fine bullet points, helpful reviews. The book makes a lot of sense. There is excellent teaching from sociology and psychology and a couple of pages are a little dense for those not use to the recent research, but it is well explained and there are good footnotes. He also draws often on the traditions and insights of spiritual formation.  He gets how it is that people come to deeper maturity, how worldview transformation happens, how we align our identity with Christ, and how we can grow and change and clarify our deepest biases and default settings when it comes to how we walk through this world.  He’s a good thinker and a very good teacher.

After some great introductory chapters (“The Day I Discovered My World Was White”) and a must-read study of how unhelpful of language of colorblindness is (in a chapter called “What is Cultural Identity?”) Daniel Hill offers seven stages white folks can go through in deepening their growth into being a Christ-shaped ally for racial justice.

Hill describes these phrases under the chapter titles of:

  • Encounter
  • Denial
  • Disorientation
  • Shame
  • Self-Righteousness
  • Awakening
  • Active Participation

Further, within each stage he explains possible obstacles, roadblock to overcome or insights need to be gathered.  I loved his page or two on a wholistic Kingdom vision. His remarks about the difference between shame and guilt are right on. His comments about the nature and usefulness of lament are worth the price of the book. And – trust me on this – his point about how dismantling white supremacy is more important than diversity is essential and should be discussed widely among us. His own River City Community Church has learned over time a great deal about all this, and it is a great gift that Hill has put it all together in this fine book.

Hill tells stories of his own journey and warns us not to jump to quickly from one stage or phase to another. One of the distinctive characteristics of white middle-class American culture – which is not all bad, of course – is to promptly try to solve problems, often quickly, barging to pragmatics without adequately understanding things. In even the most profound of deep conversations between races about hurt and injustice and implicit bias and more, white folks almost always say “what should I do?” Which, as Hill explains, is well-intended, but not really the best  first response.  He explains why and it is a good thing to learn from him. (In one of the humorous stories near the end of the book Daniel is telling about a workshop he was doing, helping some folks struggle with all of this, and one of the earnest participants said, “I know I’m not supposed to ask this, but…” and then asked the “What Should I Do” question, just using other words. They all got a laugh about how ingrained this move is, wanting to jump to action, sometimes before sitting with the questions, being humble enough to learn, processing our own identity issues before trying to solve the problems of race by offering white leadership.)  Anyway, through good teaching and helpful stories, we learn how to process these stages well, deeply, with integrity,

Daniel Hill guides us through these steps, by the way, with lots of Bible teachings which are naturally integrated into the text.  Even the typography of the book makes it easy to follow the flow of his points and sub-points.  Good job, IVP!

There are discussion questions at the end of White Awake and they are exceptionally profound.  White Awake is so useful that it has gleaned great blurbs of endorsement from the leadership likes of Shauna Niequist, Ken Wytsma, Efrem Smith, Mark DeYmaz, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, and John Perkins (“I would encourage every Christian to read it.”)

I agree with what Michael Wear says when he writes:

A profoundly pastoral book with serious implications for the ecclesial, social, and political life of our nations… Readers can trust Daniel Hill to tell them the truth about racism and white supremacy. Hill does not use these fraught issues to manipulate, but rather to help his readers see more clearly. If Christians read and consider this book carefully, it will help them. It helped me.


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Disruptive Discipleship: The Power of Breaking Routine to Kickstart Your Faith by Sam Van Eman ON SALE NOW

Sam Van Eman starts his fabulously interesting and very helpful new book, Disruptive Discipleship: The Power of Breaking Routine to Kickstart Your Faith, helping us understand his curious project,  giving us a hint even in the opening acknowledgements page.  He tells about a guy who approached some of his Christian buddies, calling them together at a diner, admitting to them that his faith was on auto-pilot, so to speak, a bit meh.  Over coffee, his friends asked him some good questions, helping him discern what was wrong, what he might do to kick-start his faith again, ratcheting  it up to a more conscientious level.

A little communal discernment like that might enable any of us to diagnosis the doldrums or enculturation in our faith journey and with the right kind of guidance we might be inspired to set up a plan, maybe disrupt our routines, getting intentionally outside of our comfort zones to see what God might do.  Who really wants to be stalled or bored in the life of faith?

Disruptive Discipleship is about this exact thing, how we can encounter opportunities for change and growth – pressing on to Christian maturity – by creating experiences that stretch us, by entering into some intentional effort to experience some new things, or experience ordinary routines  in some fresh ways.  Disruption, at least the sort that is explored here, is a good thing – or it can be, if managed well.   It isn’t rocket science, really, but Sam has been at this a long time, working for the Experiential Design (XD) team of the Coalition for Christian Outreach campus ministry, and has created outdoor adventures, wilderness experiences, mission trips, and other designed programs that heighten participants openness to growth.  By studying managed risk, community building activities, and a thoughtful approach to enhanced, interactive learning, Sam has honed his extraordinary gifts in setting up and leading these kinds of events.  Disruptive Discipleship tells some of those stories.

And I couldn’t put it down.

Here are just a few  comments about why I liked this book so much and why I think our BookNotes readers and Hearts & Minds customers will want to pick it up.

You can obviously order it from us by using the secure order form link shown below.


Firstly, perhaps you are not like me, but I have an aversion to these kinds of things, somewhat philosophically, maybe, and temperamentally.  I hate it when a lecturer says (usually with newsprint and markers in hand) “Let’s break into little groups and talk about this.”  I think, “No, let’s not break into little groups and talk about this.” Give me a good lecture in a classroom any day.

Now there’s a pitch for a book sale — it’s about something I don’t like.

But hear me out.

On my high-minded days I might (feebly) try to make a (unsustainable) case that contrived experiences are not to be trusted; they aren’t authentic;  learning should be natural, not forced or manipulated.  So, well… uh;  this is just dumb of me. Education obviously happens in a variety of contrived ways, and creating outside-of-the-comfort zone activities is a fine thing.  The literature on learning has shown this, over and over. Sam talks about growth and change that can happen in ordinary life, in our natural rhythms and daily routines, but (like the guy he mentioned in the beginning) sometimes we get stuck. We have to create some fresh opportunities which rock our own boats with purpose.  So Sam helps us determine when we need such interventions and tells of such opportunities, explaining wonderfully what to make of them.

Often these learning experiences have dual purpose – the point of a mission trip is, firstly, to serve others, obviously, not  to navel gaze or team-build;  but surely such service trips are opportunities for  learning and growth, hopefully receiving  insight about those being served, maturing into mutuality and a commitment to social change alongside others.  But they also  present opportunities to learn about one’s own self, one’s biases and fears and judgements and weaknesses. The best mission trippers keep journals and leaders offer time to debrief, not just about the service/mission itself, but the interior and relational lives of those experiencing the details of the trip together. It is nearly a cliché to hear folks say that although they go to serve, participants come back enriched in their own lives, somehow changed, more aware, deeper as people having experienced something together.

Often, teams on such trips grow in relationship as they bear stress together and talk through hard stuff.  There is nothing inauthentic about this team-building process, nothing wrong with being guided to consider what’s going on in one’s interior life, forced to grapple with feelings that arise because of the proximity to poor folks or being in the environment of a mission trip or working alongside people unlike yourself.  What does it mean to behave generously and well when there are limited resources, when others in close proximity become annoying?  It’s pretty obvious that deep learning on trips of this sort happens well, especially when guided by mature facilitators.  Sam is such a leader and hearing how he does it is amazing.

And he does it not just on mission trips but on backpacking expeditions and bicycle rides, and in the day to day of his own family and marriage.

So, my instinct to say that learning has to be natural or is best when occurring in ordinary life (or a traditional classroom) is debunked: going on trips or creating learning environments to work on certain outcomes can be a very effective thing, and I was inspired by Sam’s good stories.  You may be too – certainly if you like this sort of “disruptive” growth or maybe, too, if you, like me, are reluctant to change, don’t want to be disrupted, and use some intellectual argument against contrived learning.  Maybe less skilled or shallow facilitators have given some of us a bad impression of experiential designs, but in the right hands, as shown in the stories Sam tells, breaking routine for intentionally taking up interactions for growth, can be an extraordinary gift of grace.


Secondly, although he doesn’t dwell on it for more than a few wonderful pages, there is ample philosophical theory behind this kind of experiential education, this gift Sam has to design participatory learning via outside of the classroom experiences. The wholistic and multi-dimensional  underpinnings of Van Eman’s pedagogy were mostly learned from older leaders within the CCO, drawing from epistemologies that are more than rational, philosophies that are informed by the likes of Calvin Seerveld (Rainbows for the Fallen World) and Al Wolters (Creation Regained), Jamie Smith (You Are What You Love and the others in his “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy) and Andy Crouch (Strong and Weak.) Esther Meek, a philosopher who has taught the ways of knowing described by the world-class philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi (see her Little Manuel of Knowing) is an example of this deeper way experiencing knowledge (with head and heart unified) and what it means to learn to care about what one learns.  Parker Palmer’s beautifully rich To Know As We Are Known: A Spiritual Education and Steve Garber’s  profound Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior seem not far from the surface in the CCO’s conversations about experiential education.  Learning, like life itself in God’s world,  is multi-dimension, and learning happens best in community, shall we say, in collaboration. Deep transformation gained from profound engagement with theses truth truths, the really real in God’s good but broken world, is always more than gathering more data in our brains; such typical ways of learning are reductionistic and finally shallow. The learning theories that underpin Sam’s delightful book are mature and thoughtful and effective and, I think, deeply, profoundly Christian.

Van Eman’s Disruptive Discipleship is decidedly not an academic or philosophical book, but it has been written from within a context where a group of very sharp folks have been hammering out this stuff for decades.  It is dedicated to the founder of the CCO’s wilderness and XD program, Paul Harbison, who is legendary in the world of Christian outdoor education.  And Paul has as profound and natural a Christian world-and-life-view as nearly anyone I know.  Sam’s dedication page is a huge sign for those who know, that this book stands within a longer conversation about ways of knowing, transformational learning, embodying truth, being playful in life, and what it means to grow into full-orbed, mature, honest, Kingdom people.


A third thing to keep in mind about Disruptive Discipleship is that Sam is himself very vulnerable in telling stories of his own need for change in his own life.  It isn’t all colorful narratives of dramatic mission trips or vivid wilderness adventures (although the caving story literally made my heart pound faster as I read it!)  There are stories of serving the homeless and stories of rock climbing and back country hiking, but much of content  is almost mundane, stories of giving up watching football on Sunday afternoons for a season, stories of helping his daughters learn to push themselves to hold their breath longer than they thought they could, examples of fairly common place stuff that can be marshaled for our spiritual growth.  And he tells of some things of his own life – he was raised by a single mom in poverty and to this day struggles with certain issues (even needing to have a snack around at all times.) I’ve known Sam a long time, and knew much of this, but was deeply, deeply touched by his sharing so candidly about his own inner life, his fears and foibles. This is a good thing in a book, getting a glimpse into the real story of the author and I compliment him for it.  You will, too.

So when the author talks about designing experiences, he is aware that many of life’s biggest opportunities for growth just come at us. Isn’t our walk through this hard world and our own suffering what one theologian called our “school of discipleship”?  If we’re attentive, can’t nearly anything become an opportunity for growing in faith, hope and love? Do we really need to go looking for disruption?  Isn’t there plenty in daily life to keep us energized for the journey  of Christ-likeness?

Well, yes.  And, again, Sam does address that – much comes at us in life but we have to be seasoned, practiced, at making the most of it.  We can practice growth, actually, by creating these episodes, activities, experiments, adventures.  From camping programs with ropes courses to the classic spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, from a service project far away to a renewed commitment to simply reach out to a next-door neighbor, many kinds of adventures await us, and we can plumb them for greater growth if we know how.  Sam’s book – with a perfect blend of narrative storytelling and direct teaching even with bullet-pointed guidelines – helps us learn how to do this.  It seems rather simple, but processing what we’re learning, applying insights to our real lives, actually growing and maturing in our faith is the point, and too few of us know how to do that.  Disruptive Discipleship is a great handbook for basic Christian growth, for Kingdom maturity, for spiritual formation.

This doesn’t all have to be dramatic or painful, either, although at one point Sam suggests that a plan for growth should “cause a bit of anxiety in anticipation of being shooed from the nest.”


To help us realize out how anxiety- producing episodes (even minor ones, with low-levels of anxiety) can be a vehicle for growth, he talks about how he and his wife, Julie, worked at a Christian summer camp, serving as outdoor adventure coordinators.  They took cabin counselors and campers hiking, biking, rock climbing, caving and such.  Most camps do this – but what real transformation comes of it? Pondering this, they deepened the approach, which he describes like this:

This involved converting the activities from thrill-seeker entertainment into catalysts for connections, from independent focal points to integrated waypoints.

Wow.  Read that line again!


The book is divided into three major parts: first, about Growing Restless, where we admit to feeling stuck, explore our options for what to do about it, and make a plan – a part that I’m sure  most of us overlook.  He even has some exercises we can do to diagnose our malaise.  I’m sure this will be life-giving and helpful for many.


The second unit within Disruptive Discipleship is called Growing Deeper.  Here is where we hear about stepping out in faith, working on trust, testing our endurance, and experiment with service.  These chapters  offer profound insights into the nature of hope and love, especially, and I’m sure you will find them thrilling.


The third part is entitled Growing Up.

Here Van Eman teaches about “translating change” and “navigating valleys” and “getting unstuck together.”  All of this is wise and insightful and – to be honest – not spoken of as much in most circles as we ought.  This is good pastoral wisdom, pushing folks on to deeper more faithful living, but not many of us get so down-to-Earth about seeking how we actually change. Really, this is solid, helpful stuff and it was a blessing to hear Sam say it so bluntly, back it up with Biblical teaching, and compliment it with stories both hilarious and hairy.

Whether you are one who wants to grow up a bit or if you are one who is tasked to make disciples of others, helping them grow, there is good information for you here. There is, by the way, a very good small group study guide, making this an ideal book to use with others.

JAMES 1: 4

Sam has two epigrams in the front page of the book.  One is a favorite verse, James 1:4, which is a guiding text for this exploration of disruptive type discipleship.  It reads: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it? With some grit and determination – at least intentionality – we can allow God’s faithfulness to bring us to greater maturity. (And, as he says later in the book, that can best be measured by the rubrics of faith, hope, and love.  Nice! )  So that is one of the Biblical guides for this project: a work of perseverance that has to be finished, a goal of growing where we don’t lack spiritual maturity.


Also on that frontispiece, he writes something to “all who have suffered (a little or a lot) with me on purpose.”  I liked that, that we can suffer on purpose. (He says, too, that he’s “ready to go again” whenever they are ready, and you can just sense the gleam in his eye as he anticipates another adventure, messy and difficult as it may be.)

The interactive experiences of intentional growth aren’t all heavy introspection about suffering or filled with gritty, dogged determination. Most  are joy-filled and stimulating.  Once you have the right attitude, disruption can sometimes be a blast.  And this book, prodding as it may be, calling us to make a plan to get out of our doldrums, moving deeper and into more authentic maturity by trying some experiential educational experiments,  will be a thrill ride of a read.  I’m confident  you will enjoy it.


Just to give you a flavor, here is a bit from early on in the book:

If this book is broadly about going somewhere when we feel stuck, it’s more specifically about growing up when we’ve been acting like children. How might this happen outside of persistent prayer or life’s unwelcomed challenges that force growth upon us? One way is by adding intentional, out-of-the-ordinary disruptions to our daily routines. Disrupting every day’s routines would lead to chaos, but an occasional shift in the schedule can offer a world of good.

In the Coalition for Christian Outreach, we refer to these intentional disruptions as “designed experiences.”  In fact, I work in a department called Experiential Designs – XD for short – which has a forty year history of delivering customized learning moments for groups, like six-week mountaineering trips for college students and interactive retreats for board members. We don’t create this stuff from scratch – not all of it, at least; we adopt work others pioneered before us and alongside us.

So, again, it is this XD work from within the CCO that has shaped Sam’s vision for helping us “grow on purpose.”  Again, here is how he puts it:

Whether planning an overnight hike or nixing chocolate for Lent, designed experiences help us uncover what curbs and what catalyzes our growth as followers of Christ.

The book is just loaded with memorable lines like that.

He reminds us of the basics, but speaks plainly about our need for growth:

…if we want our road rage to decrease and our compassion to increase, worry to be replaced by serenity, and financial fear to meet generosity, and if we have any desire to learn to wait, forgo, remain calm, listen, forgive, press on, or practice self-denial, we must place a high value on maturity.

Disruptive Discipleship aims to show you how to grow up – and how to do so on purpose.

I want to say two more things about why you should consider buying  Disruptive Discipleship.


For many of us who are leaders, educators, those who work with groups, want to build community or nurture teams, this could bring professional insight about experiential education  to stimulate your own fresh ideas about your own disciple-making plans. Reading this (and working on the study guide and reflection questions, especially with a friend or colleague) will bring some focused, creative energy to your own designing of growth opportunities for those you seek to impact. Disruptive Discipleship has a personal growth focus, but I’ve called it a resource and tool on purpose.  If you work at a camp or do youth ministry or disciple or mentor others, or need to think about how to make your teaching more engaging or fruitful, you need to be stimulated by this experiential educational model and Sam’s good stories.

I think Disruptive Discipleship is a good book for your small-group, Bible class, youth ministry, church camp, spiritual retreat, campus leadership group, non-profit board, or team-building workshop.


I think some of you might be thinking this is a tool for those who are just starting out on the Christian journey or for idealistic young people who are super eager to take risks and learn well.  Maybe you’ve been at this maturing in Christ stuff for a life-time, or are a seasoned pastor, or have a highly-trained spiritual director.  I want to suggest that this could be useful for you, too.

But more, I want to suggest that no matter how mature you seem to be in faith, hope, and love, no matter how much you sense God’s presence, how much you value liturgy or spiritual formation or realize that the gospel is transforming you from the inside out, we can all use a little fresh help. Those who are wise in the ways of the Lord know this already – we all need as much assistance as we can get and it doesn’t all come from just reading books;  we need on-ramps, means of grace, perhaps, to prod and help us process and apply and live what we’re learning. This is one such resource for your own formation in the ways of God’s Kingdom. It is a tool not just for the stuck, but for anyone wanting to grow, wanting to deepen their faith, wanting to move forward.  It can be adapted to whatever life stage you are on, applied in varying situations and environments.  Maybe you just feel “under-utilized” (an interesting phrase Sam introduces,  one that rings true for many fairly mature Christians, I’d bet.)

Or maybe you are in transition in your life.  Sam writes about that as well.

He writes:

You’ve accepted a new job, you retired last month, you’re graduating, or you adopted a child. You’ve entered or are about to enter a new season – exciting or terrifying, minor or major – and you want to make the most of it.

Or, as he also says, quite evocatively:

There are moments in life when faith falls out of its old container. Heading off to college can cause this. Being unemployed can cause this. Losing a loved one can cause this. What once worked – comfortably, I might add – suddenly doesn’t. The neat little box that held all of faith’s parts in one organized place cracks across the bottom, and the pieces spill onto the floor.

So, you see, Disruptive Discipleship, clever and interesting as it is (even with a Bible study offered as an appendix called “What Jesus Knew About Experiential Education”) is really a book about maturing in Christ, growing as a self-aware person, and becoming a real agent of God’s redemptive work in the world, no matter who you are or what condition your life is in.  Don’t you want to grow up, to be a self-assured “wounded healer” and Spirit-guided agent of hope?  This fun book will help you, as Sam invites, knowing that suspending normal can be scary and disrupting routines can challenge the status quo, nonetheless, we should “take the risk and sign up.”


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Over 40 novels briefly described. Wow. ALL ON SALE at Hearts & Minds

Hearts &  Minds friends,

I’d be sad if you didn’t notice, but we’ve not done a new BookNotes newsletter in a few weeks.  There have been stupefying technical aggravations and our computer dude is moving us to a new platform and server, blah, blah, blah.  The old BookNotes blog posts are all still archived at the website, our order form page there is still super secure, and we hope that you might support our mail order business now that we’re back in the technical e-saddle.  Sorry if there are unforeseen aesthetic glitches, too.  It feels like we’re flying without a net here, at times.

As always, we send this out with a prayer for God’s peace and a hope: read for the Kingdom!  Thanks.

I hope you enjoyed our last post naming a whole bunch of particularly pleasing non-fiction reads. These were books selected because of their lovely writing or fun style or interesting subject matter. I can’t imagine not liking those books about rock music or Michael Perry’s wonderfully crafted rural essays, but I know even with these entertaining titles, a few of our customers wanted some ideas about fiction.

I’ll admit that it is hard for me to describe what I like in a good novel; what exactly was it that so captured me when I tore through massive stories like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See or Dan Vyleta’s amazing Smoke which I reviewed last year this time, or the brilliant 500 page The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert? Why does Beth so often recommend the huge 1920’s Norwegian novel Kristen Lavransdatter? Why are some very demanding books — just think of the never-ending Crime and Punishment or the complex James Joyce classic, Ulysses, or rather unusual ones like The Confederacy of Dunces or Infinite Jest — the very ones that fans most passionately defend?  But they aren’t all for everyone, I know.

I ask this (what makes a good novel?) not exactly rhetorically. I’m wanting to note that this curiously curated list includes some I just love telling folks about, a few that are important this season that we’ve not yet read ourselves, and a few that we have on sale and wanted to offer at a good discount. A few are older, but most are quite new. So, there is a blend of recommendations here guided by a number of criteria and for various sorts of readers.  I won’t say too much about them, but will try to help you decide if they might belong in your hands this summer.  Really, there is something for nearly anyone here.  Enjoy.

When the Emperor Was Divine Julie Otsuka (Anchor Books) $13.95  I know of a group of clergy that are reading this fairly short novel together so I thought I’d read along from a distance. I experienced it in one long sitting on a sunny Sunday afternoon and was truly, deeply captivated.  One reviewer had written that “Otsuka’s novel grabs you with its first sentence and doesn’t release its grip until the last page… Her writing cuts like jagged glass.” It is about a Chinese American woman and her two children who are taken to an internment camp in 1942 – her husband was already taken to a prison, so we learn of him through his letters to the children. I have never read a book so terse and lean in its style, and, in any event, have never read anything on this topic.  The reviewer from the Los Angeles Times said When the Emperor Was Divine is “a story that has more power than any other I have read about this time.” 

Homegoing  Yaa Gyasi (Vintage) $16.00  This has been on my list for a while, and we’re glad it is out in paperback.  Although the story starts in a slave market in eighteenth century Ghana, it follows two half-sisters whose lives are so very different, and it shows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations – up through the Jazz Age in Harlem.  The Washington Post called it “dazzling, devastating, truly captivating.” NPR said it “brims with compassion… Yaa Gyasi has given rare and heroic voice to the missing and suppressed.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates says “Homegoing is an inspiration.”


Long Way Gone  Charles Martin (Thomas Nelson) $15.99  I don’t recall what small publishing house Martin was on when we first discovered his earthy prose years ago, but he has become a big name in inspirational fiction, doing good work usually set in the south.  He has become a USA Today best seller and titles like When Crickets Cry and Chasing Fireflies are exceptional. This one is about a musician and singer-songwriter named Cooper O’Connor who “took everything his father held dear” and drove 1,200 miles to Nashville, “his life riding on a six-string guitar and the bold wager that he had talent.”  I don’t know if it is fair to compare this to the country-music soap opera Nashville – which we loved, by the way -but it seems like that kind of story.  It claims to be a radical retelling of the prodigal son story, taking us from tent revivals to the Ryman Auditorium and the broken relationship between a father and son. 

The Angels’ Share James Markert (Thomas Nelson) $15.99  Okay, speaking of guys who write well in the “Christian fiction” world, this new author is on to something pretty amazing. This is a story about an illegal whiskey distillery in Kentucky during the prohibition.  And, it is full of mystery, including this: “Some believed he was the second coming of Christ. William wasn’t so sure. But when that drifter was buried next to the family distillery, everything changed.”

Set in Twisted Tree Kentucky. Angels’ Share is said to be a “story of fathers and sons, of young romance, of revenge and redemption, and of the mystery of miracles.” This is southern fiction, and it’s wild.  Who doesn’t want to hear about a book described by Julie Cantrell, bestselling historical fiction author of Into the Free, like this:

“Bullets. Gravel. Southern church pews. An illegal distillery and a slew of small town secrets… I’d call that a strong brew.”



My wife swears by these hard-to-put-down, charming stories, heart-warming but not overly sentimental, thoughtful, but not too highbrow, heavy at times, but not devastatingly so. She fell in love with A Man Called Ove and, since it isn’t particularly Christian, or even admirable — Ove is a crusty character, I’m told — she at first was a little reluctant to tell others how she enjoyed the book and appreciated Backman’s style and vision.  And then she found other folks, conservative evangelical folks, even, who similarly raved about the stories and how they enjoyed them.  Recently, a Christian leader was recommending them in a workshop.  So we’re on a roll, now, inviting everyone to consider these engrossing stories.

I will mostly copy what the publishers or other reviewers have said to help you understand the basic plot of each of the five.  The descriptions aren’t my words…

“Backman is a masterful writer, his characters familiar yet distinct, flawed yet heroic…There are scenes that bring tears, scenes of gut-wrenching despair, and moments of sly humor….A thoroughly empathetic examination of the fragile human spirit.” —Kirkus Reviews 

A Man Called Ove (Washington Square Press) $16.00 I suppose you should start here.  I love this quote: “There are characters who amuse us, and stories that touch us. But this character and his story do even more: A Man Called Ove makes us think about who we are and how we want to live our lives. A Man Called Ove seems deceptively simple at the start, yet Frederik Backman packs a lifetime’s worth of hilarity and heartbreak into this novel. Even the most crusty curmudgeon will love Ove!”–Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowse.

Here is how one Booklist reviewer described it: 

He’s a curmudgeon–the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time? 

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations. 

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year, ‘ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down”

Britt Marie Was Here (Washington Square Press) $16.00  Here is how the publisher describes this good story:

Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others–no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. 

But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes. 

When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg–of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it–she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs? 

Funny and moving, sweet and inspiring, Britt-Marie Was Here celebrates the importance of community and connection in a world that can feel isolating.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: A Novella  (Atria) $18.00 This short one is described as “an exquisitely moving portrait of an elderly man’s struggle to hold on to his most precious memories, and his family’s efforts to care for him even as they must find a way to let go.”  In the book, the old man asks, as he sits in the square looking at a child, “Isn’t that the best of all life’s ages, an old man thinks as he looks at his grandchild, when a boy is just big enough to know how the world works but still young enough to refuse to accept it.”

Lisa Genova, author of the powerful novel about Alzheimer’s, Still Alice, says,

“I read this beautifully imagined and moving novella in one sitting, utterly wowed, wanting to share it with everyone I know.”

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (Washington Square Press) $16.00 And, here, yet another charming, warm-hearted novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller A Man Called Ove, translated from Norwegian.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy–as in standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal. 

When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s instructions lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and old crones but also to the truth about fairy tales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

Beartown  (Atria Books) $26.99  This is the most recent, the eagerly anticipated hefty hardcover.  Beth loved it.  Here is how the promo copy tells about it:

“People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the workingmen who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected. 

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.”

Meals From Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence Ben Sciacca  (Multnomah) $14.99  I held this high in front of 2000 college students last year after we heard challenging messages from hip hop artists and activists, LeCrae, Propaganda, and Sho Baraka. These hip hop stars brought solid Christian conviction about God’s work in the world, about Christ-like reconciliation, and about the need to focus on racial justice (among other things) in our sadly broken culture.  At that Jubilee conference we feature mostly non-fiction books and we had shelves and shelves about race, justice, mass incarceration, criminal reform, domestic poverty, and more, but I thought maybe the students would respond to a story.  And did they ever -we sold a bunch of these.  The story’s plot is fairly simply: a black guy from the ‘hood who is on the run from the police has taken a white guy hostage in his car, and they spend the night driving around, mostly talking.  They become honest with one another, truly listening, back and forth, back and forth, trying to figure out this matter of injustice, police violence, urban disadvantage, white privilege, law, order, grace, goodness, and the possibilities of peace and reconciliation.  Sho Baraka has an afterward in this book, making it particularly relevant for many of us. 

The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha Diane Glancy (Excelsior Editions/SUNY Press) $14.95  This slim book is from the award-winning Native writer Diane Glancy, continuing the project she began in Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears and Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea, two other equally captivating, short novellas of historical fiction. We received a brand new book of hers in the store the other day (a nonfiction reflection about love) and I was reminded that we wanted to highlight this one. It was inspired by her reading of an old biography of Tekakwitha called Mohawk Saint. The wonderful cover art, by the way, is by CIVA member Mary McCleary.

The Chimera Sequence Elliott Garber (Osprey Press) $15.99  We have lots of best-sellers and well-advertised books in our fiction section, but we enjoy stocking indie presses and some self-published work by friends we admire.  Elliott is the son of Steve Garber, one of my best friends (and author of the must-read Fabric of Faithfulness and Visions of Vocation.) Yet, I would suspect that Elliott wants this book to be known for its own merits, not just because his dad is a good writer (and his mom is a librarian.)  Well, it is deserving – one New York Times action/adventure writer, Maria Goodavage, says “I couldn’t put down Garber’s engaging, rapid-paced, action-packed thriller.”

The New York Times author Dr. Marty Becker (known as “America’s Veterinarian”) says, “Not since Jurassic Park has a science thriller of this magnitude been written…

Holy smokes, what an accolade!

Elliott Garber is a veterinarian himself and a military officer currently on active duty with a special operations command. He has lived in India, Egypt, Mozambique and Italy and he has traveled to over 50 other countries, including a recent deployment to Iraq.  You see, he is a highly-trained veterinarian who works with animals for the military all over the world – and so, he knows much about how diseases are carried in the animal populations.  In this novel, there is a humanitarian aid hospital in war-torn central Africa which diagnoses a very dangerous disease in humans that is also killing endangered mountain gorillas nearby. The Chimera Sequence quickly becomes a thriller of international scope, moving from a cargo ship in Sudan’s largest port to a Lebanese restaurant in DC and beyond.  It’s tracking a “looming global menace” and the story becomes what one reviewer called “a thrill ride” of a story.

The Psalms of Israel Jones Ed Davis (Vandalia Press) $16.99  I don’t know how we discovered this rare story about “secrets and snakes, rock and gospel, guilt and grace”but I’m glad we did. It’s published by an imprint of the West Virginia University Press which does some stellar Appalachian fiction.

Maybe I read a review by Lee Abott who wrote:

I love this book, not least for the zillion writers and religious thinkers I find in it, among them Dickens, Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, Jimmy Swaggart, and Walker Percy. The plot is straight out of On the Road with the same moral risk and ambiguities and the prose is rich.

Imagine Me Gone Adam Haslett (Back Bay Books) $15.99  This came to our attention when it was long listed for the National Book Award (we try to stock most National Book Award winners.)

One reviewer, Peter Carey, says it is “literature of the very highest order.”  But I’ll admit — don’t say you’ve never done this — I was attracted mostly by the cover. Just the tip of that house? The missing letters?  And, when reviews come in like the ones below, aren’t you intrigued?

“Superb… Haslett is one of the country’s most talented writers.”  Wall Street Journal

“The novel’s most rewarding surprise is its heart.” The New York Times Book Review

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale Ian Morgan Cron (Zondervan) $16.99  Since we listed a new Ian Cron book in our earlier, fun non-fiction list (his recent co-authored book on the Enneagram, The Way Back to You) I figured I’d remind you now about his older novel.  It offers a great premise – a disillusioned pastor of a megachurch heads to Assisi to renew his faith.  (His name is Chase, by the way.)  In Italy he goes on a pilgrimage re-tracing the steps of St. Francis, meets up with some simple Franciscan friars, and, well, you can imagine what happens when he returns home, wanting his church to live into this sort of simple, radical faith. You know Cron is funny and full of pathos (his memoir Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts is an all-time favorite and will make you laugh and probably cry!) This fiction story is full of spiritual hunger and a bit of history and a yearning for hope. Not every book carries blurbs on the back from writers as diverse as Rachel Held Evans, Eric Metaxas, Fr. Richard Rohr, Mako Fujimura, Rowan Williams, and Shauna Niequist. This shows just how widely it is respected and how many folks have really enjoyed it. Don’t miss it (no matter what Enneagram number you’ve got.)

Incorporation Will Willimon (Cascade) $29.00  Speaking of books about the troubles and possible revitalization of churches, who better to try his hand at writing a church novel poking at our modern foibles than born storyteller and world-renowned theologian, preacher, and former United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon? This story is about Hope Church (its colorful clergy and its people, of course). But, well, from the title you might guess this is a feisty dig at the crowd-pleasing, worldly businessy approach to church. Michael Malone (himself a great novelist) says “Imagine a contemporary variation on Trollope’s Barchester Towers, set in a small American town with a big church.”  You’ll find plenty of real human messes here, even what the back cover calls “ungodly shenanigans” which includes drunkenness, adultery, even criminal malfeasance. This is quite a story, entertaining, witty, blunt, by an author who is quite aware of the irony of it all.  Will there be a final accounting? Is there a God around?

The River Why David James Duncan (Sierra Club Books) $14.99//new edition $15.99  If we’ve talked about fiction, together, ever, I am sure you know that this remains one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read. It is wonderfully funny, oddball, full of truly great writing, including some beautiful glimpses of nature, and a well-rendered encounter with God, one of the best I’ve ever read. The book is about fishing — both fly fishing for trout and worm fishing for bass — and, well, two differing visions of the meaning of life. I’m not kidding; it is about fishing and the search for the meaning of life.

Publishers Weekly called it “A veritable epic… moving, rhapsodic in its intensity.”  You’ve got to read it — please!!  Beth and I agree that this is an author we most love telling people about.  Let us know what you think.

The Brothers K David James Duncan (Dial Press) $18.00 If The River Why is my favorite David Duncan book, it is my wife’s opinion that this, Duncan’s second novel, about a family of baseball-playing boys, set during the painful Viet Nam war era, is even better.  I think that many readers agree, but everybody agrees that you should read both of these extraordinary novels.  If you like baseball, you’ve got to get this (it is better than Owen Meany, which itself is grand and exceptional.) Is this a homage to The Brother’s Karamazov?  You tell me. Many reviewers have waxed eloquent about the meaning of this great story and we very highly recommend it.

Sun House (Little Brown) TBA  This is what we think will be the name of the long-awaited book coming from Duncan…  or so the New York Times announced late last year. We have been waiting decades for this, literally. He has some memoiristic ecological rants, a collection of short stories that we stock, and he continues to write and teach and speak, but we haven’t seen a new book in ages, let alone the long-awaited third novel. I swear, this book has been anticipated more than any novel I can think of in our 30-some years of bookselling. At least we know the title. We heard it was to be out this fall, but, alas, no word yet.  Pre-order it from us now if you’ve been waiting. Unless you already did in, like 1998 or so. If you haven’t, get The River Why and The Brothers K and be prepared to enjoy two wonderfully quirky, moving, well-conceived, unforgettable novels.

Silence Shusaku Endo (Picador) $16.00  Maybe not light fare for happy beach reading, Silence is one of the most acclaimed novels of the late 20th century, the basis for the epic and much-discussed film by Martin Scorsese. (Scorsese has a very moving new foreword to this “Picador Modern Classics” edition.)  Although we have carried it for years, our own tribe has come to love this in the last year or so in part because of the remarkable book about it by our artist friend Makoto Fujimura, whose own faith was kindled when he read Silence during a study trip to Japan. (Mr. Fujimura’s award-winning book about it is called Silence and Beauty:Hidden Faith Born of Suffering and is itself very, very, highly recommended.) The point of the Endo novel is complex, but its basic plot is simple: it is about the persecution of seventeenth century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and their Christian converts who are brutally tortured for their faith. Why does God seem silent amidst their suffering? This powerful story of “enduring faith in dangerous times” is considered one of the finest novels every to come out of Japan.  

The Abbey: A Story of Discovery James Martin, SJ (HarperOne) $14.99  I hope you know Father Martin, a popular Catholic writer who has done books on all sorts of theological topics, from a wonderful book about Jesus to one called My Life with the Saints to a really great book about humor.) His newest is a short and sensible one called Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. That is very nicely done, and short, btw.  We are fond of Martin and his many good books.

 As far as we know, The Abbey is Fr. Martin’s only novel and it is now out in paperback. The fabulous author Ron Hansen (his Mariette in Ecstasy is amazing!) said it is “a sheer delight – funny, engaging, deep, and moving.”  Memoirist and poet Mary Karr loved it (“a triumph from one of our best writers working like a master in a new form.”)  And Brendan Walsh happily called it “unputdownable.”  So there ya go — give it a try.

Thirteen Reasons Why Jay Asher (Razor Bill) $10.99  We’ve stocked this since it came out, and gave a brief overview of it a few years ago in a list of books for older teens. Kirkus called it “brilliant and mesmerizing” and YA dramatist Ellen Hopkins says it is “a book that you can’t get out of your mind.”  Now here’s the thing: since it was turned into a very graphic Netflix show, it has become an even larger cultural phenomenon, certainly one of the most talked-about and fiercely debated shows of the year. I was asked by a local TV commentator to comment on the show, which we have not seen, so I couldn’t comment on it, although I hear it is graphic.. I do realize that it shows some truly awful stuff. The book itself is harsh and hard – you know it is about a set of tapes sent to 13 high school classmates by a student who took her own life; the tapes outline their crimes of bullying or betrayal or apathy in the face of sexual violence, in effect blaming them for her despair.  This is eerie and suspenseful and well-crafted and necessarily disturbing. If you know any troubled youth today, you should read this.

When Girls Became Lions Valerie Gin & Jo Kadlecek (When Girls Became Lions) $14.99  We have touted this from time to time and wish it were better known… independently published, it is very well done and a lot of fun.  One of the co-authors is a legendary women’s soccer coach, her co-author a former athlete who mostly makes her living as a writer.  Together they’ve given us a great story about women’s collegiate sports, starting with a rag tag group of girls playing soccer in 1983 and what happens when 25 years later a coach learns about their small-town, mid-Western championship. This really shows the impact of Title IX and the “triumphs and struggles of women in sports.”  There aren’t many books like this, so well done about women’s sports, and think it would make a great gift to any teen or college athlete you fan you know.

The Writing Desk Rachel Hauck (Zondervan) $15.99  This is intriguing, entertaining stuff within the genre of “Christian fiction” — that is, mostly inspirational stories published by evangelical publishing houses. Hauck has become a New York Times bestselling author (she is known for a moving trio of novels called The Wedding Dress, The Wedding Chapel, and The Wedding Shop.)  I thought some of our customers will like this not only because of the wholesome tone but because it is about writing and publishing. It uses a creative device – Tenley Roth’s first book was a runaway bestseller, but she is “locked in fear” as her deadline for the second book approaches.  She is “weighted with writer’s block.”

And soon enough, you discover another story about another woman writer who wrote at the same desk with hopes and fears of her own.  Born during the Gilded Age, Birdie Shehorn wants to tell stories, write novels, make an impact on the world. The dramatic back cover copy tells us “Tenley and Birdie are from two very different worlds, but fate has bound them together in a way time cannot erase.”

A Land Without Sin Paula Huston (Slant) $27.00  Slant is a classy imprint created for thoughtful fiction by Gregory Wolfe of the Image Journal. (The latest from Slant is a serious hardcover called Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by the wonderfully thoughtful Daniel Taylor. It is, by the way, on the surface, a crime novel about the murder of, get this, a postmodern literary critic – yep, a real deconstructionist. ) Slant’s Land Without Sin came out about five years ago and at that time I named it as my favorite novel of the year, as I recall. It was named by Publishers Weekly, in fact, as one of the “Best Summer Books” of 2013.  It is a grand and important story, set among aid workers in Central America, struggling with revolution and liberation theology, inviting us into exciting plots with (as one novelist wrote) “the depth of soulful inquiry of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  WE HAVE THIS AT A SPECIAL SALE OF $10.00 OFF.  Our sale price is just $17.00 — while supplies last.

In the Absence of God Richard L. Cleary (Xulon Press) $24.99

Bridging the Abyss  Richard L. Cleary (Xulon Press) $15.99

I have mentioned both of these apologetic thrillers from time to time and we’ve had Mr. Cleary — he is called Dick by his friends — to the store to present on both of these books. They always create good conversations and a lot of fun. Dick is nearly a neighbor here in Dallastown and was one of the earliest supporters of our bookstore and is one of my best friends.  He is a former high school football coach, the former head of the science department at our local DAHS, currently a college philosophy professor, a Lutheran church-school teacher, avid birdwatcher, and a great husband, dad, grandfather, and near constant conversation partner with me, on everything from bio-ethics to intelligent design to the ethics of war and peace to the complexities of contemporary politics. I say all this to remind you that we really are blessed when we get to support a local author who is so supportive of our store, and whose work we respect.  In these two novels, Dick is doing what C.S. Lewis recommended — stealing past watchful dragons, as the Oxford don put it — by using a good story to raise huge questions about ethics, philosophy, and finally, the question of the meaning of life without a caring creator God. 

The first book, The Absence of God, is pure Cleary.  The story revolves around discussions (personal, among relationships, and also in public forums) that happen on a college campus, with questions about whether or not we can say something is truly “wrong” without any transcendent truth on which to base any such claims. One character in the book wants to insist there is no religious truth, but yet wants to opine about all mattes of things such as war and global warming and racism.  Well, how do we know something is wrong, if there is no God? Who says so?  There is much philosophical and scientific conversations among the characters in this book and for those that enjoy listening in to a good feisty dialogue, the characters here — in between sports and a crime on campus and some personal problems among the staff, including a trip to see an aging parent in Baltimore — really go at it.  I think Cleary would hope that, besides an interesting story, readers of the book might clarify what they believe and why they believe it, learn to debate well, and even be prepared to raise important questions in their own real-world conversations. This fun story can help you learn the art of apologetics, especially around questions of ethics and law and truth.  

In the second book, Bridging the Abyss, a character or two from the first book show up, and in that sense it is somewhat of a sequel.  But for this one, Cleary pulled out the stops and decided to have a more developed plot, more interesting character development, and a lot more action. This is a suspenseful read, fast paced, dramatic, with some degree of violence, with kidnapping, ransoms, rogue black ops, and more. I think when it came out I said there was little offensive for those that watch Breaking Bad or any number of popular shows like Criminal Minds. But here’s the thing: again, Mr. Cleary the college teacher, the Christian apologist, the rational thinker, wants to use this plot as a device to get at this big question: again, can we really know something to be good and true, or ugly and wrong, without basing it on some outside revelation by a God who is Supreme?  Is Dostoevsky correct when he said that if there is no God, anything is permissible?  And, how do we come alongside those who don’t believe in God, but feel the human sadness when there is tragedy, especially if they have no point of reference for finding meaning in all their sorrows? We all live in this world, such as it is, with the yearning for the good, the true, the beautiful, and more.  Can even the rough stuff explored in this suspenseful crime novel help us learn how to bear witness to a worldview that provides reasons for these very things? The Absence of God may be a bit deeper than some may want, but Bridging the Abyss with its contemporary issues of crime and fear and the seeking of resolution, just may be the way to enter more deeply into these questions of truth and questions of ultimate meaning.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats Jan-Philipp Sendker (Other Press) $15.95  Just holding this new paperback makes me want to start the story – it is an international best-seller, set in Burma.  There is Eastern mysticism, romantic encounters, deep mystery.  It has gotten some great reviews, but I can’t quite say more. We are very excited to stock it here at the shop.

Caroline Leavitt (author of Pictures of You) says of this much discussed novel,

“No matter what I ev
en attempt to say, I can’t possibly capture the absolute magic of this book. Like a spell, it haunts. Like love, it’s going to endure.”

Jesus Cloned  William Hagenbuch (Archway Publishing) $28.99  Well, didn’t I say we sometimes like to carry some uncommon books that you may not have heard of elsewhere? Hagenbuch is a colorful UCC pastor with a MDiv from Boston University’s School of Theology.  He’s a first time novelist with a big passion for telling this story, which is too complex and dare I say wild to explain simply, here. The short version is that nineteen-year-old Joe O’Dell is about to learn he is not who he thinks he is. Granted this is fantastical but it has to do with, among other things, a creepy Orphan Black type organization which has some two-thousand-year-old DNA that may be…. wait for it… from the body of Jesus Christ!

There are twists and turns and subplots, but the big question this brave story dares to host is one about the very nature of Jesus. I suppose many of our theological readers know about the hypostatic union and all that “fully God and fully man” talk from the Nicene Creed. Yep. There’s that.  And, as it says on the back cover, “Through their losses and gains, Joe and those closest to him reveal to themselves – and all of us -how far God’s love reaches, and how much that love heals.”  This is a large, sprawling story by an interesting, progressive pastor who wants to raise important questions about God, Jesus, incarnation, and about life and grace and redemption.  WE HAVE A LIMITED SUPPLY THAT WE WILL SELL FOR $10.00 OFF while supplies last.  SALE PRICE = $18.99

A Second Baptism of Albert Simmel Rodney Clapp (Cascade Books) $19.99  I don’t know if you recall the books from maybe a decade or so ago that we raved about by Rodney Clapp, back when he was working at IVP and did the exceptional, and still important Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options, or when he became a founding editor of the significant Brazos Press imprint, now affiliated with Baker Books.  He did some books on pop culture, is known for knowing much about the blues, and he did a wonderful book about being fully human and finding God’s presence in the ordinary called Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels. Mr.Clapp did a good book on Johnny Cash (or is it really about the contradictions at the heart of American culture?)  We still stock all of these.  Anyway, he has a novel, now, recently published by his latest employer, Wipf & Stock publishing. 

What’s it about?  Well, it seems sort of dystopian, with a “sub” person who, well…  just get a load of this:

Then comes shocking news that changes his life and leads him on a journey across what is now called Old America. Along the way he will encounter a buffalo stampede, attacks of bandits and pirates, the violent practices of a scape-goating religion, the so-called meta-Indians, the last movie in a gentle small town, and a host of colorful characters. Throughout his arduous travels he intriguingly ruminates on the riches–and challenges–of a life of faith. At once science fiction, a western, a comedy, a love story, and a novel of ideas, The Second Baptism of Albert Simmel is filled with suspense and vivid scenes, and takes the reader on an unforgettable journey.

Once in a Blue Moon: A Novel Vickie Covington (John F. Blair Publishing) $26.95 Speaking of Southern fiction writers and folks who have been around the horn a bit, we respect Vickie Covington so much.  We discovered her – as so many did – firstly in Salvation on Sand Mountain, the amazing non-fiction book about snake handling in Appalachia that her eloquent husband at the time, Dennis Covington, wrote about their involvement first reporting on, and then becoming friends with, a weird West Virginia Pentecostal church.  She went on to co-author the stunning book about their marriage difficulties, Cleaving.  She has written essays and novels, and, as far as I know, this is the first book she has done in a long while. There is a vibrant and fun blurb on the back by the indefatigable Fanny Flagg who says Ms. Covington is “one of the most gifted and talented writers of the New South.”  Mark Childress (author of Crazy in Alabama) says, “This is a lovely book, full of delight and real feeling. I can’t think of another quite like it.”  If you want to enter Southside Birmingham for a spell, joining her “community of lost souls who find each other in a season when hope and change seem like real possibilities” – that’s an allusion to the time period in which Once in a Blue Moon is set, right after Obama’s first election victory — this could be a wonderful read for you or your book club. It’s the kind of book that is getting buzz in indie stores that curate special selections that maybe don’t come up readily in the dumb amazon algorithms  or bestsellers lists.  You heard about it here!

Camino Island John Grisham (Doubleday) $28.95  I don’t have to say much about this other than that it is wonderful to be able to highlight a book by a Baptist Sunday School teacher who is known and beloved in both popular best-selling book selling venues (from airports to discount chains) and in thoughtful literary circles, for being a fine writer, a good storyteller, and a decent man. Would that all authors had such a personal reputation for being serious about their art but also for their integrity and charm.  Further, it’s fun to tell about books about books and writers, and this one is not a legal thriller, but a book about an author and his writer’s block.  Well, there’s a heist of some exceptional books from Princeton and a rare books dealer, too. In it, Grisham reveals some of his own issues, his own tricks of the writing trade, and channels some of his own advice to aspiring writers to his stuck, stuck character. This is selling well throughout the country, and we’re happy to offer it as well.

Spark: The Firebrand Chronicles Book One       J.M. Hackman (Love2ReadLove2Write Publishing ) $14.99  I am really, really happy to tell you about this for at least three big reasons.  Firstly, I’m happy to admit, the author is a cousin of mine, and we watched her grow up, crossing paths at family reunions, weddings, funerals, and such. She’s a devout and serious Christian in a small town evangelical church and her degree in writing is from a very impressive department in a respected college.  So, there’s that: our family is really proud of her, and, gee, it isn’t every day we get to tout a published volume by a family member.  So cheers!  We hope you consider giving it a try.

Besides, Ms. Hackman is a thoughtful gal, a good mom, and has been working away at her craft for years.  She’s got a chapter in a remarkable anthology of speculative fiction and has dabbled in some historical fiction.  This, her first major work, is a YA novel, fun and upbeat, accessible, but with some hints of some very serious thought behind the fantasy plot. I respect those writers who keep at it, writing, blogging, developing their fan base. She is increasingly known in the world of wholesome YA stuff, and other fantasy writers have said fabulous stuff about this first volume of a planned trilogy. The series will become known as “The Firebrand Chronicles” and you’ll learn why early in Spark. The next one is going to be called Flare and you’ll be awaiting it like her other big fans.

And here is the third reason, besides being related, and that she’s a hardworking, up-and-coming author that is earning respect among fellow writers and YA fiction readers – and about this I just have to be honest: I don’t read much fantasy stuff at all and although we’re fond of the YA genre, we don’t read as much as we’d like. Beth adored all the splendid Harry Potter books, of course, but I’m still stuck on my beloved early books by Katherine Paterson and Gary Paulson and Gary Schmidt and Lois Lowry. I realize I’ve limited myself, but my favorite fantasy novels are by Madeline L’Engle and, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia.  The only thing we read more to our kids growing up, I suppose, were the exquisite and highly recommended Little House books.

 And so, when I was immediately taken with this book, I was surprised.  It’s written in a funny sort of cadence and slang, like a cheery, smart teen girl with some attitude might really talk. It’s hilarious, actually, and Brenna’s got lots of good chutzpah.  The opening sequence where’s she’s a normal kid in school and fire starts blazing from her fingers, and then she finds a portal – yeah, like, they are a thing – well, I was hooked.  Who know this could be so much fun! Here’s what I had the privilege of saying on the inside cover:

As a bookseller who reads bunches of books, I have rarely been so captured by an alternative reality fantasy as I was from the very first page of this marvelous new book. I was smitten with Brenna, the snarky, confident, sixteen year old who exhibits wit and grace (and fire – you’ll see.) You will love this fun story crafted by a great writer who chooses wonderful words and colorful phrases, sometimes with stunning results. As the drama unfolds, you will learn why Hackman started Spark with the apt line from C.S. Lewis that there are no ordinary people. Wow.

This Heavy Silence (Paraclete Press) $14.95  Well, I hope you know – hear this now if you haven’t yet heard it – we have stocked all the books by Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry that we can, and we had a selection of his nonfiction, fiction, and poems, the day we opened 34 years ago. But I didn’t know his novels well until a customer pressed into my hands our own store’s copy of The Memory of Old Jack twenty-five or more years ago. Of course everybody loves Berry’s lovely, slow, deeply wise Jayber Crow and it remains one of my all-time favorite novels.  However, Beth and I both agree that we liked Hannah Coulter even better!

Well, we say all this for the record, but also because of this: there are other authors who have written about rural life with care and conscientious prose, there are other stories about farming, and other novels about loyalty to a place that are deeply spiritual without being preachy or pushy, and Nicole Mozzarella’s wonderfully rendered This Heavy Silence is one of them.  It got a coveted starred review from Library Journal and Christianity Today awarded it the “Debut Novel of the Year” in 2006 when it was released in hardback.  We’re glad to remind you of this “mesmerizing portrait of betrayal, forgiveness, and the mysteries of grace” that unfold in about a decade of life in the rural Midwest as a woman struggles to raise a troubled child and keep the spring-fed beauty of her family farm. Yes, yes, read Wendell Berry, all of his novels and short stories, and the rest.  But read other novels of rural life, too.  And this one is beautiful. It would make a great book to enjoy this summer, or, in fact, this coming fall harvest season.

The Underground Railroad: A Novel Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) $26.95  I don’t have to say much about this, and cannot, as none of us here have read it yet. It has been on our radar since it first came out, when it garnered some stunning reviews, and then when it won any number of important awards last spring. It received the National Book Award, which is further indication of its significance in the publishing landscape. Colson Whitehead is a prizewinning and best-selling author and his story of a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South has been called “a magnificent tour de force.” It was an Oprah’s Book Club selection for 2016; you can see why when you read blurbs like these:

A potent, almost hallucinatory novel… It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift…He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.

–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead…A book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era…The canon of essential novels about America’s peculiar institution just grew by one.
–Ron Charles, Washington Post

Stunning reviews appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and on NPR and People and more. I have to ask myself: what am I waiting for?  You too?  This is one of the most praised and popular novels of the last few years.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Arundhati Roy (Knopf) $28.95  Again, this is one we are very proud to tell you we have, one of many on our “new fiction” display.  This author is legendary for her exquisite prose and her remarkable memoirs and essays. I am not sure it is fair to call her an activist, but she has been outspoken about human rights and the things that matter much in our world.  I hope you know her name (and her most awarded novel The God of Small Things.)  As Junot Diaz (whose book I reviewed a year ago) says, “If you want to know the world behind our corporate-sponsored dreamscapes, you read writers like Arundhati Roy. She shows you what’s really going on.”

This new one (her first novel in 20 years) is an epic story about.. well, literary fiction of this caliber isn’t “about” one thing. But the plot seems to revolve around a romance, in the context of war and peace in India as it “takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.”

One reviewer noted that “it is an aching love story and a decisive remonstration, a story told in a whisper, in a shout, through unsentimental tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh.”  USA Today called it “fiercely unforgettable” and Slate called it “deeply rewarding.”  I have hardly read more interesting reviews of any book in a long while — it is called “stunning” “fearless” “a great tempest” “compelling”  “ambitious”  “a masterpiece” “musical”  “humane” “powerful and moving” “glorious” “lustrously braided” “gorgeously wrought”  “a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace” and  “the unmissable literary event of the summer.”   I sort of wonder how many other Christian bookstores carry it, and how many church-based book clubs would take up such a complex and ambitious book?

Man Who Met God in a Bar: The Gospel According to Marvin Robert Farrar Capon (Mockingbird) $16.99  I alluded to this one in that previous blog as I was so glad that Mockingbird brought out another rare one of Capon’s — a book of sort-of-fiction, a set of feisty conversations between two characters that were essentially alter egos for the late Father Capon and his wife, Valerie. That book of discussions between Pietro and Madeleine, More Theology and Less Heavy Cream, is a sequel to the previously published Light Theology and More Heavy Cream that were firstly published as installments in the Christian satire journal, the late great Wittenberg Door.  So I mentioned those in that post, and will announce this one, now.

Capon was a prolific writer, theologian, film reviewer, New York Times food critic and is most known for his deep, extraordinary theology-of-food/leg of lamb recipe book, Supper of the Lamb. Okay, that said: this newly released Marvin one is another of the previously unreleased works of Capon that was written later in his life, and recently offered to Mockingbird by Valerie Capon.  It is wonderful to see this slim novel in print offered somewhat as a companion to their fabulously fun …and Less Heavy Cream.  

What’s it about, you ask? After explaining this colorful Episcopal foodie priest, this storytelling, movie-loving, recipe-making theologian, you really need details?  Just buy the thing and go along for the ride. You’ll have a blast and your spirit will be uplifted and you’ll delight in the word-smithing, you’ll learn something about the goodness of life, the weirdness of our times, and the beauty of grace.  What a joy, having this rare little novel with its brand new cover.

Behold The Dreamers Imbolo Mbue (Random House) $17.00  I’m glad this is now out in paperback and that it is a honored selection of the Oprah’s Book Club for this year.  My-oh-my, we need novels like this, storytellers that through the power of a well told tale allow us to glimpse into another’s life, see things from a different angle, have our hearts touched.  We become more empathetic, I’m sure of it, by reading well, and reading this kind of story — about marriage, immigration, and the lives of a young couple from Cameroon, living in New York City.  I am sure you will be a better citizen, a better neighbor, a better Christian by entering into the worlds of others like this. Take it up with your book group and see what happens.  And let us know how it goes!

Freedom’s Ring Heidi Chiavaroli (Tyndale) $14.99  There are so many inspirational novels within the “Christian fiction” genre and although we stock more than most stores, my own imagination isn’t captured by most.  Yes, we have Amish stories and faith-based historical romances.  Some are truly a blessing to readers, and some authors have their devoted fans.  But every now and then a writer comes along within that sub-culture that perhaps deserves to be known more widely.  This looks like a fascinating bit of historical fiction, a clever and curious device, connection Boston in 2015 when the Boston Marathon bombing put an entire city on edge and Boston 1770 when the Boston Massacre sparked the American Revolution.  In Freedom’s Ring, Heidi Chiavaroli weaves together the past and present, starting with the grief of a runner Annie David and her wounded niece,  and a colonial woman named Liberty Caldwell, whose brother was killed in the deadly fray.  It is a love story as well, “women’s fiction”, they say, which “haunts and heals long after the last page.”

The Widow Nash Jamie Harrison (Counterpoint) $26.00 Counterpoint is a smallish, literate publisher (known for doing many of Wendel Berry’s books, so you know they are people of integrity.) This novel is curious, serious, said to be “deliciously ambitious” and written with “technicolor, vibrant prose.”  Known for memorable characters and unexpected adventure, it is an ambitious story.  There is history, here, but more: in fact, it could be considered a feminist take on the classic Western. Or, perhaps, it enters this historical period to offer “a compelling novel of reinvention and the seismic sacrifices we make for difficult family.”  Carl Hiaasen loves the widow Nash in The Widow Nash, and says “this shining book is flat-out terrific.”

Do Not Become Alarmed: A Novel Maile Meloy (Riverhead) $27.00 This publishing imprint is respected for doing often exquisite books of well-written fiction and non-fiction, and this author has been lauded by The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and other such outlets (for both her adult and middle grade novels.) She has that rare ability to be a fine and fun storyteller, with a thoughtful, literate streak. Helen Fielding of Bridget Jone’s Diary fame says, “Here is that perfect combination of a luminous writer and a big, page-turning story.”

But I’ll admit, even though I am attracted to the theme of being responsible to keep another safe, it was this endorsement that drew me in and made us just have to stock it, from novelist, bookstore owner, and book lover extraordinaire, Ann Patchett:

This is the book that every reader longs for: smart and thrilling and impossible to put down. Read it once at breakneck speed to find out what happens next, and then read it slowly to marvel at the perfect prose and the masterwork of a plot. It is an alarmingly good novel.

Beren and Luthien J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, with illustrations by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) $30.00 Okay, for some, we’ve saved the best for last. Just in, this is, yes, an early book not previously released by Tolkien, but one whose story serious Middle Earthers will recognize. 

Here is what they say about it:

“The tale of Beren and Luthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the world conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the Battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year.

Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Luthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Luthien was an immortal Elf…  [her father was a great Elvish lord, who imposed on Beren an impossible task in order to prove his worth to wed Luthien.] This is the kernel of the legend, and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Luthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.

In this book, Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Luthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded, but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this “Great Tale” of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterward lost.”


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