THIS JUST IN: A LOOK AT JOE BIDEN'S FAITH
When Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Barack Obama's pick to be his running mate, was himself running for president last year, The Christian Science Monitor did this good piece about his faith and what it means for his public service. For more on this aspect of Biden, click here and read what the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life put together then about Biden.
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SOME GEMS IN THIS COLLECTION
The nation's book stores (and warehouses for online distributors) continue to fill up with books that try to help us understand religion. I'm going to list quite a few new ones here, but please understand that this is just a small sample of these kinds of books. And sometimes I list them not as a recommendation but just to make you aware that they exist so you can argue with the authors.
* A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy. It may seem odd, in a list of books about religious themes, to begin with what looks, by its title, to be a history book of an interesting (if threatening) country. But, in fact, the author, who teaches at the University of Exeter in England, pays close attention to the endless number of religious threads that run through -- and, in many ways, tie together -- Iran's history. Is Iran more complicated than the theocratic thugs who hold religious power there today? Indeed it is. It's even more complicated than its off-balance president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and others who have held power since the 1979 revolution. This book will help all of us grasp the nuances. I hope policy makers in Washington read this before running off to another war.
* An Introduction to World Anglicanism, by Bruce Kaye. The author, an Australian church official, spends a good deal of space on the history of the Church of England and its spread around the world. But he does engage some of the crises -- particularly matters of human sexuality -- that seem to be unraveling the worldwide Anglican Communion. Kaye appears to be put out -- "peeved" might be a good, refined word for his tone at times -- at members of the Episcopal Church in the United States who have forced the world structures of the church to deal with matters of ordaining gays and lesbians to ministry. But Kaye's is a calm and thoughtful voice, and he offers a helpful look at Anglicanism, which will continue to exist even if the Anglican Communion dissolves in chaos.
* The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle. One of the best observers of religion, Tickle here describes not just the so-called "Emergent Church Movement" but, beyond that, many changes in Christianity. These changes, she says, are leading to a theology that "will look far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative and more mystical than anything in the last 1,700 years or so." She takes the long view, both backward and forward, and in the process helps us understand where Christianity is today, even as it finds new expressions. The book is not due out until October from Baker Books, though at the Amazon link I've given you here you can sign up for an e-mail to be notified when it's available.
* The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural, and the Healing Power of Hope, by Allan J. Hamilton, M.D. What do medicine and spirituality have to do with one another? (For part of an answer, see my blog entry for this coming Monday.) A lot, it turns out -- if the physicians offering the treatment are sensitive to the spiritual needs of their patients. In this lovely read by a doctor who, believe it or not, writes not only legibly but well, we are taken into many stories of ways in which the practice of medicine encounters the mystery of faith. Don't miss the story of the Gypsy queen named Bubbles. And don't miss the helpful list of 20 rules to live by at the end of the book.
* No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, by Michael Novak. The author, the 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize in religion, moves us away from the binary and falsely simplistic argument of faith versus atheism. The reality, Novak says, is that everyone doubts and struggles to know what to believe and how to live. This is a refreshing look at a debate that in other hands gets tiresome quickly.
* The Spiritual Journey of Charles Fillmore: Discovering the Power Within, by Neal Vahle. Whether you are a follower of Unity and the Unity School of Christianity or a critic (and there are many, especially among Christians who would consider themselves conservative), this is a book that will help you understand the man who, with his wife Myrtle, created Unity, which has its world headquarters in the Kansas City area. The author explores Fillmore's connection to Christian Science and other spiritualist or New Thought movements of the 19th Century and describes how he came to formulate what would become Unity. The story allows readers to see where Fillmore moved away from traditional Christian thinking (in such areas as reincarnation).
* Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses, by Donna Freitas. What is the culture like on college campuses these days -- at public, private, Catholic and evangelical schools? The author, who teaches religion at Boston University, spent time finding out, and writes an enlightening, if disturbing, book about the way students sometimes get swept up in a yes-to-sex (and sometimes a rigid no-to-sex) culture that can damage them spiritually and morally. If you have college students in your life, you should know what's in this book.
* Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy, by Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey. Back in the early 1980s, I read a book called Conversions, edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder. In it they told the story of a collection of famous people who had experienced some sort of religious change. It was fascinating, but the subject is even more relevant today when surveys tell us that 44 percent of Americans have changed religious affiliation in their lives. So the authors of this new book offer us a look inside the heads and hearts of people who have converted in some sense. They are quite careful in using the term historically, recognizing, for instance, that the early followers of Jesus "surely weren't yet converting to a new religion. . ." This is a helpful look at a religious dynamic that has taken on a peculiarly American character these days.
* Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World, by Vinoth Ramachandra. This is a book that will complicate your thinking, as all useful books should. The author, an Anglican lay theologian who lives in Sri Lanka, begins by looking at the so-called War on Terrorism, deconstructing it in a way that helps us see the gray as much as the black and white. Then he takes on religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science and post-colonialism. You may not always agree with his analysis but you will be educated and challenged.
* The Faith of Barack Obama, by Stephen Mansfield. The author, who also wrote The Faith of George W. Bush, offers here a relatively brief but surprisingly detailed account of the religious influences in Obama's life and an analysis of what that might mean if he's elected president in November. Mansfield thinks Obama, whom he admires, has the potential to integrate authentic faith into considerations of public policy in helpful ways.
* The Lord's Supper: Five views, edited by Gordon T. Smith. I wish I had had this book years ago when I moderated a wide-spread e-mail discussion group that focused on the meaning of Holy Communion. Writers present these five views of Eucharist -- Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist and Pentecostal. After each description of what each of those traditions believes about Communion, the other four writers comment. In the end, it makes for an insightful look into a major sacrament that has divided Christianity for centuries. I'm just sorry Orthodox Christianity wasn't included in the book, no matter how close to the Catholic position Orthodoxy finds itself. This would be a great study book for church groups.
* Poets on the Psalms, edited by Lynn Domina. The book is the happy result of a lovely idea -- to have poets write engaging essays (14 in all) about the book in the Bible that gets read probably more than any other. Anyone who, like me, is profoundly moved by the beauty, power and mystery of the Psalms will find this volume a worthy addition to whatever other books on the Psalms already are on the shelf.
* Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs, by James A. Herrick. What is it about UFOs and a sharper awareness of the cosmos that leads us to modify -- or create new -- religious beliefs? The author, who teaches communication at Hope College in Holland, MIch., explores what an awareness of the possibility of aliens in our world is doing to our thinking about spiritual matters. It's quite a trip.
* A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith, by Doug Pagitt. The "Emergent (sometimes Emerging) Church Movement" has generated many books, news stories and analyses, and this volume adds to our understanding of what is going on here. The author is pastor of a Minneapolis church in this movement and says that though he is a Christian he doesn't believe in the kind of Christianity that has been around for a long time. He wants and needs a new model, and is willing to struggle to help create it.
* The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, by Tony Jones. From the same publisher (Jossey-Bass) as the previous book, this is another in a series about the Emergent Church Movement. The author is national coordinator of Emergent Village, and I especially like his analogy that people in this movement are a bit like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in that they are tired of the old ways of doing things and are seeking a new model. (You can thank me later for not saying paradigm.) Both of these are helpful looks at what is happening in this area of Christianity.
* Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, by Paula Fredriksen. Although this title won't be released until later this fall, I want you to know about it now and consider acquiring it when it's published. In Christian history, there's a long, shameful strain of anti-Judaism. (For my own take on this, see the longish essay I've posted here on the blog. Click on "Anti-Judaism in Christian History" under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.) The author, who teaches in the religion department of Boston University, has gone back through centuries of anti-Jeish history in Christianity and sought to understand how Augustine's thinking either contributed the problem or the solution. She tends to lean toward Augustine as someone whose thinking was, in the end, helpful to Jews as they sought to protect themselves from virulent anti-Jewish teachings of the church. I think she may give him too much credit, but she offers a fascinating study of the period and of Augustine's fresh thinking. Anyone who has an interest in Christian-Jewish relations today should give this book a read.
* Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, by Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver. The author has been in the thick of the debate over how much the church should be involved in politics. He was, for instance, insistent that Catholics in 2004 should vote for George W. Bush against Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, because of Kerry's views on such issues as abortion. With the next presidential election coming up soon, this book will give readers good insight into the thinking of Chaput and others who aren't hesitant to speak out on matters of politics.
* A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division, by Chris Korzen and Alexia Kelley. In some ways, this helpful book comes from the flip side of the previously mentioned volume. Indeed, this book mentions Archbishop Chaput and not in an admiring way but, rather, as a representative of what the authors call the politics of division. There is, it turns out, truth in both books. You'll have to decide which one speaks more clearly to you and your values.
* A Well-Built Faith: A Catholic's Guide to Knowing and Sharing What We Believe, by Joe Paprocki. Think of this made-up title: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Talking to Non-Catholics about Catholicism. That's essentially what the author offers here, complete with lots of illustrations and even some pretty good cartoons.
* The Last Secret of Fatima, by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, with a forward by Pope Benedict XVI. Early in the 20th century, three shepherd children in Portugal reported receiving a vision from the Virgin Mary. The final part of that vision was kept secret for decades, finally being revealed near the end of the papacy of John Paul II. This book is an account by the Vatican's secretary of state of the meaning of that vision.
* How to Really Love Your Grandchild, by D. Ross Campbell, M.D. The author, a clinical psychiatrist, follows his popular How to Really Love Your Child volume of some years ago with this sequel, which is written from a religion-friendly perspective. My wife and I have six grandkids, the oldest of whom is six. So we'll no doubt be returning to this helpful book for tips from time to time.
* Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back, by Ken Wilson. When I first read the title of this interesting book, I thought, "Jesus wants Judaism back?" That was, after all, his religion. Well, no. That's not what Wilson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, Mich., means. What he means is that much of the rigidly dogmatic kinds of Christianity that allow almost no questioning of anything have done Christianity harm and have prevented people from encountering the authentic Jesus. If you want to see what Christianity might look like with a deep focus on Jesus and not on the things that have built up in the church over the centuries, this volume can give you some ideas.
* Just Courage: God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, by Gary A. Haugen. The author is president and CEO of theInternational Justice Mission, and this book is a call to people of faith to get serious about helping those suffering injustice. In it, Haugen tries to undermine all the excuses people often use not to do that.
* Gandhi & Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence, by Terrence J. Rynne. Rather than being a devotional or primarily inspirational book, this is a serious, almost academic, look at what nonviolence meant to Jesus and what it came to mean to Gandhi. Then it offers some fresh thinking about what all of this means for the idea of salvation in Christianity.
* The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption from Asbury Park to Magic, by Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz. If you're a fan of The Boss, you'll find this exploration of the theological meaning of his music and life a helpful perspective. The author is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Massachusetts.
* Atheism Remix: A Chistian Confronts the New Atheists, by Albert Mohler. Given all the people taking shots at the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, it would be surprising not to find Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent Christian conservative voice, joining in. In this book, Mohler takes on not just the "new atheists," but some of their other critics (like John F. Haught) for suggesting that the new atheists are wrong for having "made the error of reading Christianity through the lens of conservative believers."
* The Everyday Visionary: Focus Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, by Jesse Duplantis. This televangelist focuses on succeeding, reaping benefits, getting blessings. If you want to follow this approach to Chritianity, he can guide you.
* A Dog Named Christmas, by Greg Kincaid. I like to feature writing by local authors, and Kincaid is a lawyer who lives in Olathe, Kan., a Kansas City suburb. This is a short work of inspirational fiction about a developmentally disabled young man and his efforts to get his community to find temporary homes for dogs from a local animal shelter. It won't officially be published until the fall, but you can preorder now.
* My Guardian Angel is so Real, by Stacy Terrell Dennis. If you believe in demons and angels, you'll be right at home with this account. And if you don't, well, maybe the author's stories about them will convince you.
* Islam: The Religion and the People, by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill. Lewis is not my favorite author about Islam, though he's quite well known and has an international reputation. But I find his sometimes-facile use of such terms as "Islamofacism" can and does provide fodder for people who wrongly see the problem as Islam itself and not radical or militant Islam, a distinction Lewis is generally careful to make. But even Muslims who distrust Lewis would do well to read him carefully so they respond not to rumors of what he's said but to his actual words. This book is due out next month.
* The 10 Commandments of Common Sense: Wisdom from the Scriptures for People of All Beliefs, by Hal Urban. The author is a driving force behind the "Character Education" movement, and, relying on what he calls just plain common sense, provides here some (well, 10) rules by which to live useful, productive and happy lives.
* Understanding Evangelical Media: The CHanging Face of Christian Communication, edited by Quentin J. Schultze and Robert H. Woods Jr. IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, is publishing some high quality books these days (including several on the list this weekend), and this is another of them. The goal here, in a series of essays by scholars, is to help all of us understand the way the Christian message is getting communicated today. There are insights here for people of all faiths, though clearly it will be of most interest to evangelicals -- no matter how that word gets defined.
* Twice Loved, by Lori Copeland. As regular readers of these blog book columns know, I rarely mention books of fiction. But this new one crossed my desk recently and I thought some of you might find some value in a story set in Texas right at the end of the American Civil War. The main character struggles to discern God's will for her life. This is the first book in a "Belles of Timber Creek" series.
* And if I almost never mention fiction, I even more rarely mention music. But "Bound to Go," by Andrew Calhoun & Campground, a collection of 35 (yes, 35) folk songs and spirituals in the African-American tradition, is a lovely work that will put you in touch with a religious history in ways that words on a page can't.
Finally, another mention of two books I've written about recently:
* The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, by Jeff Sharlet. For my recent column about this, click here.
* Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann. For a recent blog entry about this, click here.
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BLACK AND BLUE MEDAL?
As the Beijing Olympics wrap up, it's worth remembering, a commentator says, what happened to Chinese Christians while all the sport was going on. And as I've said before, it will be intriguing to see what kind of follow-up the media do on the many issues of religion in the country after the games end.
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here. (My Saturday column this weekend talks about the influence of the Gutenberg Bible and printing.)