It's time to offer to you a few faith-related books that you might think about for your autumn-winter reading or even for holiday gifts (after, of course, you've given all your friends my books).
Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by how many books on religion, spirituality and related fields get into print. Some are simply theological polemic, of course. Others are rewording of ideas that have been around for a long time. But here and there are some worthy of at least an initial investigation. I'm not going to do full reviews of the books listed here, but I will give you, I hope, enough to let you know whether you want to investigate each one further.
By the way, a few of these books haven't officially been published yet but will be soon. In any case, you can preorder them at the link I've given you if you want.
Let's start with this one:
* The People in Between: The Paradox of Jewish Interstitiality, by Robert J. Marx (publication date Nov. 18). The unfamiliar and a bit awkward word "Interstitiality" should not drive away curious readers who want to understand experiences of the Jewish people better and to grasp the sometimes deadly antisemitism that has plagued them almost from the beginning. The word simply means "in between," as the title indicates, and is drawn from the word interstice, which means a narrow space between things. The author, an insightful rabbi, explains here how the "in-betweenness" of Jews has defined much of their history, particularly in the several diasporas that have sent Jews away from their roots in the Holy Land -- well, roots that grew after the people of Abraham moved into the ancient land of Canaan. "Throughout history," Marx writes, "great nations and powerful movements emerge, grow strong and then diminish. Their power seldom goes unchallenged. Into the resulting conflict, the appearance of a third party always represents the element of surprise. . . .Significant divisions -- between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, Christian and Muslim, Protestant and Catholic -- suggest the terrain in which the interstitial power is shaped and defined." The author digs into the history of antisemitism (though I continue to recommend David Nirenberg's recent book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, for a deep historical look at this subject, and a book edited by Alvin Rosenfeld, Resurgent Antisemitism, for a current perspective). In that process he looks, for instance, at the way Richard Nixon treated Henry Kissinger, a Jew who was his secretary of State and sometimes referred to by White House insiders as Nixon's "Jew Boy," Marx reports. It wasn't pretty, but that section of the book is a good reminder about how Jews in modern America often were and still are treated. In the end, this is an excellent addition to the literature on antisemitism, though the publisher has allowed too many silly typos to creep in.
* In Faith and in Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families, by Dale McGowan. The New Testament book of II Corinthians (6:14) advises followers of Jesus not to be "bound together with unbelievers." Or, as it's sometimes translated, "unequally yoked together with unbelievers." This verse, often yanked out of its original context, traditionally has been taken as advice to modern Christians not to marry people of a different faith or of no faith at all. The author of this book, who is an atheist married to a Southern Baptist, wishes to differ. It can work, he writes. Indeed, there can be strengths to such a marriage that a union between two people of the same faith can't and don't have. In any case, if you find yourself in such a relationship, this volume offers advice on how to make it work well.
* Overrated: Are We More in Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World? by Eugene Cho. This is a plea to take the Christian faith seriously by putting it into action for good. Cho, a pastor, asks, ". . .is it possible we are more in love with the idea of compassion and justice than we are with actually putting it into practice?" And: "I would contend that the culture today is light on wisdom and lacking a depth of substantive understanding. Our limited attention span spreads our affections thin, yielding shallow roots." Thus, faith without works, perhaps. And such faith, as the book of James in the New Testament says, is dead.
* Three Moments of the Day, by (Jesuit) Fr. Christopher S. Collins. This is, quite simply, a guide to prayer. Think of it as a retreat in print that guides readers through how to engage in daily prayer despite the busyness of life. Done in the Catholic tradition, this book pays considerable attention to "the Sacred Heart of Jesus," as the author puts it.
* Renewed: Ten Ways to Rediscover the Saints, Embrace Your Gifts, and Revive Your Catholic Faith, by Robert P. Reed. Also, obviously, in the Catholic tradition, this book by the president of the CatholicTV Network, is an invitation to study 20 different saints and draw inspiration from their lives. The book is divided into 10 different lessons on how to do this.
* The Way of Serenity: Finding Peace and Happiness in the Serenity Prayer, by Fr. Jonathan Morris. Here's a third book in a row from Catholicism, though this book should find an audience beyond Catholics. It focuses on the "Serenity Prayer," which has been attributed to lots of people but, says Morris, was either written or popularized by the great Protestant theologian of the previous century, Reinhold Niebuhr. It goes: "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." In a prayer so simple, it turns out there is much to unpack and think about. And that's what Morris does for readers here.
* Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, by Eve Tushnet. With perfect timing, this book will help to inform the debate within Catholicism that an interim report from the recent Vatican synod on family issues just released, suggesting the church can do better in finding space for gays within its parishes and life. This is the story of a gay woman who embraced the church and now seeks to live authentically as both gay and Catholic. "One thing I've found particularly hard to deal with," she writes, "is the gap between the public image of the Celebate Gay Christian and the messy reality of my life. It can feel like you're carrying on your shoulders the weight of everybody's expectations of our group."
* Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door, by Barbara Mahany. As you know, newspaper columnists tend to be fabulous writers (oh, we do, too, except for those who don't). And Barbara Mahany of The Chicago Tribune is no exception. In this book she offers a season-by-season collection of short essays that live out the Buddhist admonition to be mindful. But she does it from the perspective of a Catholic married to a Jew. Put this book in the Christmas stocking of people who love carefully considered words.
* Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart, by Capt. Dan Willis. The author has spent more than two decades with the La Mesa Police Department near San Diego, and writes from his experience of seeing first responders commit suicide or suffer from anxiety, depression and other hazards of the work. From his work training such public servants to survive emotionally, he has compiled this guide to helping first responders. An especially interesting chapter is called "Faith in Service," and explores the benefits religious faith can have on people who do this demanding work.
* The Relationship Handbook: A Path to Consciousness, Healing, and Growth, by Shakti Gawain and Gina Vucci. As its title suggests, this is a self-help book for people who need to work on improving their relationships. But it's more than relationships with others. It's also the relationship people have with themselves. The book is based on workshops these two authors have led for a long time.
* Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? by Philip Yancey. The author's many fans will not be surprised that he has followed his famous book What's So Amazing about Grace? with one asking why the church seems to be falling down in its role of being a channel of God's grace. Instead, he charges, "Nowadays, Christians devote enormous energy to judging 'those outside the church.'" And he uses as an example the obsession of some branches of Christianity with homosexuality. That kind of focus, he says, can "undermine a gospel of grace."
* The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton, by (Franciscan) Fr. Daniel P. Horan. Perhaps with the first pope named Francis, it's inevitable that scholars and others will be re-examining St. Francis and how he has influenced various Christian leaders. That's what Horan does in this book by looking at how St. Francis shaped the thinking and spirituality of the famous monk and author Thomas Merton. Horan finds that influence to be pervasive. One example: "Francis's mendicant life of minority is reflected in Merton's monastic life of contemplation."
* The Jesus Creed, by Scot McKnight, and Sharing God's Love: The Jesus Creed for Children, by McKnight and Laura McKnight Barringer. McKnight's book first came out 10 years ago. This is an anniversary edition in which McKnight again asks not what the creedal confessions of the Christian church have been throughout its history but, rather, what Jesus' own creed might have been. McKnight reduces that creed to loving God and loving neighbor. The second book here is a way of teaching that creed to children through story form.
* The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, by Stephen J. Patterson. In the spirit of the interesting but sometimes-tiresome Jesus Seminar, Patterson explores the gnostic Gospel of Thomas as well as the never-found-but-postulated document called Q, from the German word quelle, meaning source. Checking the ways in which the synoptic gospels sometimes repeat each other, scholars have concluded that they drew on a common source, Q, which contained sayings of Jesus. Patterson's book digs into that idea and even offers something of a reconstructed Q based on the work of the International Q Project. Lots of attention has been paid in recent years to Thomas, in addition to the so-called Gospel of Judas, also a gnostic writing. And although some of it's been intriguing, it hasn't much changed how the church thinks about itself or acts in the world. But the work goes on.
* The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, by John Shelby Spong. Also in the spirit of those who challenge Christianity from the inside, former Episcopal bishop Spong consistently makes fundamentalists and people who would call themselves conservative Christians upset. He's always interesting, though sometimes needlessly provocative. This is the paperback version of a book that came out in hardback more than a year ago. "How difficult it is," he writes, "for religious people to embrace an unbounded God." Or, come to think of it, an unbounded bishop.
* Proof of Angels, a novel by Mary Curran Hackett. Because I rarely review novels, I'll simply tell you that this one is a story of redemption and faith about a firefighter who believes he has experienced divine intervention. Maybe he should get a copy of the book I mentioned above, Bulletproof Spirit. If you like this Hacket novel you might want to try her previous novel, Proof of Heaven.
* Joyful: Return to Sugarcreek and Snowfall, novels by Shelley Shepard Gray. The author's specialty is fiction set within the context of Amish life, as these two books are. Unlike most novels, at the back of each of these you will find discussion questions along with other information about the author and a preview of some of her work to come.
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WHY ISIS DRAWS IN RECRUITS
Why do people join such terrorists groups as ISIS? The author of this piece suggests religion is not at the base of such decisions. Rather it has to do with sex and aggression, but also an effort to find signifance in one's life. Ah, yes. The search for meaning. But why does meaning have to mean destructive actions? I don't get that.