My, oh, my, do the books about religious subjects just keep on coming.
I'll be mentioning a stack of them here this weekend for you to consider, but as I've said before it's impossible for anyone to keep up with all that's being published in this field. So this is just a sample. And just because I mention a book and describe its contents a bit doesn't mean I agree with everything the author writes. Heck, I don't even agree with me sometimes -- and I have two new books coming out this summer (see the list below my photo on this page).
Some of these books, like my own, won't officially be published for a few weeks, but they're available for preordering now.
* The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, by Mark A. Noll. The author, now a history professor at Notre Dame, is one of the most articulate voices among evangelical Christians today. This book is an excellent companion to one written a few years ago by Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, which described how Christianity in North America and Europe has become a minority voice in the faith and how the growth of the faith is taking place in the Southern Hemisphere. Noll suggests that such a reality requires a new approach to Christian history to take all that into account, and he provides a quite readable effort toward that end here. Anyone who wants to understand the current state of Christianity in the world and some background on how things came to be that way will need to read Noll.
* The Rising of Bread for the World: An Outcry of Citizens Against Hunger, by Arthur Simon. This is the engaging story of the man who founded Bread for the World, a great agency dedicated to fighting hunger. He's the brother of the late Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, and both have been excellent public servants in different ways. Arthur Simon explains here not just his own story but also how Bread for the World grew into such an effective worker against hunger.
* Calvin, by Bruce Gordon. What is left to say about Protestant Reformation leader John Calvin in this, the year of the 500th anniversary of his birth? Plenty, and this Yale professor of Reformation history, makes it readable and brings us a fresh sense of why Calvin matters. It's not just because of how Calvin saw himself, though Gordon delves into that in some detail. Rather, it's the way Calvin helped to shape the Protestant world of today. Even people who think they know Calvin will learn things they didn't know.
* The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, by J.P. Moreland. In this compelling book, the author, who teaches philosophy, takes on the proponents (think the New Atheists, especially) of naturalism, that materialistic explanation of the world that leaves no room for God or spirit. And he employs withering fire. The result is a book that helps us understand what it truly means to be human. This is not a pop culture book for beginners. Rather, it raises the level of debate to a higher plane, which is where the battle should be fought.
* When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought, by John Mark Reynolds. The author, an educator at Biola University in California, examines the ways in which Christian thinking and Greek thinking originally encountered each other, then suggests that in our time these two streams -- faith and reason -- are not enemies. Indeed, they should not be, though extremists often promote such conflict. The author is also connected with the Discovery Institute, which promotes the Intelligent Design movement.
* The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter, by George Barna. The author is a well-known pollster who focuses on Christians, especially evangelicals, with whom he identifies. He argues that these seven groups -- "casual Christians," "captive Christians," skeptics, Jews, Mormons, pantheists and Muslims -- must find their common ground and work together to help America survive these troubling times. I'm not sure I'd have identified his categories in quite this way, but it's an interesting read.
* John Brown's War Against Slavery, by Robert E. McGlone. Was famed abolitionist John Brown just a religious fanatic? Well, not exactly, this author writes. Nor was he crazy. Those explanations for his efforts to free the slaves of the South by violence if necessary are too simplistic. As McGlone writes, ". . .that Brown was religious is in itself no explanation for his path to Harpers Ferry." This Cambridge University Press book no doubt will be viewed as the definitive Brown biography now. It is not, however, written in stilted academic prose. Rather, it's like reading the transcript of a "Sixty Minutes" report, only much longer and more nuanced. And, in the end, it helps all of us understand what religious zealotry is and isn't.
* Wrestling with our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness, by Nancy Kehoe. This is an important book by a woman who is both a nun and a clinical instructor in psychology at an institute affiliated with the Harvard Medical School. She makes the much-needed argument that people who work with the mentally ill need to understand religion and its importance to their patients and clients. She's a careful, observant writer with a message that simply must be heard.
* Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity, by William Murchison. What's wrong with the Episcopal Church and how can it be fixed? The author is confident that he knows. He suggests that the church has gone astray by looking for political -- not theological -- answers to the problems of the world it is seeking to serve. Even people who think Murchison gets it wrong would do well to understand his arguments and discern which of them might at least be aiming at the right target.
* Pocket Guide to the Afterlife: Heaven, Hell, and Other Ultimate Destinations, by Jason Boyett. Ah, nothing beats fun at the old Pearly Gates (or, for that matter, the gates of hell). And this almost-never-serious-but-educational book is lots of fun, especially if you're not easily offended. It describes some of the bazillion ways religions and other sources describe and think about the afterlife, if any. It's like a walk through a Museum of Heaven that's equipped with funhouse mirrors.
* Testimony of Light: An Extraordinary Message of Life After Death, by Helen Greaves. First published in 1969, and now reissued in a Jeremy P. Tarcher Penguin edition, this is the account of a woman who insists she was in regular contact with a dead nun. And not just contact, but extensive conversations. This book turns out to be a direct challenge to the traditional Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body and an affirmation of the competing Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. If read with the previous book mentioned here, you'll have a wild ride through the afterlife.
* Kabbalah for Inner Peace: Imagery and Insights to Guide You through Your Day, by Gerald Epstein. The author, a physician, draws on an ancient strain of Kabbalah, a mystical path of Judaism, to move readers toward strategies for dealing successfully with the everyday stresses of their lives. Do you have Inner Terrorists? This book offers a way to overcome them.
* The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time, By Marilyn Ferguson. First published in 1980, this book describes the many currents that eventually merged into what has been called the New Age movement. It's now been reissued as part of the Tarcher Cornerstone Editions, and it remains an intriguing read about ideas that sometimes were wonky, sometimes creative, always intruiging.
* The Jesus You Can't Ignore, by John MacArthur. This well-known pastor and radio personality contends in this book that it's wrong to think of Jesus as just meek and mild. MacArthur isn't worried about Christians seeming arrogant in their certainty about the rightness of their beliefs. Indeed, he thinks Jesus provides a confrontational model that Christians ignore at their peril.
* The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, by Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner. This popular book, previously issued in hard back, now is available in paperback. It's an intriguing mystery tale that seeks to uncover various messages Michelangelo left in his art. It's not the silly fiction of Dan Brown but an authentic effort to discern what the artist meant.
* The Sant'Egidio Book of Prayer, by Andrea Riccardi. The Sant'Egidio Catholic community was started in 1968 in Rome, and today has more than 60,000 followers in 70-some countries. This book describes the community's approach to spirituality and then shares a series of prayers used by members. It's a reminder of how many dedicated people of faith there are in the world and how they carry on with their commitment even when not many of us may know about them.
* Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests, edited by Stephen J. Rossetti. The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the center of Catholic worship. The faithful come from east and west and south and north to gather at table and experience Christ's presence in a special way. With that understanding, this book of essays seeks to encourage priests and lay people alike to understand the many meanings to be drawn from the sacrament and not to dismiss it as an empty ritual.
* 50 Ways to Help Save the Earth: How You and Your Church Can Make a Difference, by Rebecca Barnes-Davies. In recent years more and more faith communities are taking environmentalism seriously, and this book is aimed at Christian churches trying to figure out what that means for them. It 's got plenty of good, practical ideas, but all the green ink seems like overkill.
* Women Writing for (a) Change: A Guide to Creative Transformation, by Mary Pierce Brosmer. The author founded the organization after which this book takes its title. Her goal is to help women and girls understand how to write because, as she herself writes, words "do create the world we live in." Just as the Bible says God used words to create, so we can use words to shape our own world and, what's more, to make our world better because it has heard our prophetic voices -- those of both women and men.
* Prayer for Beginners: Discovering the Language of Your Soul, by Richard Webster. Another in this author's "For Beginners" series, this book will be most useful to people who would like to develop the spiritual discipline of prayer but who don't quite know where to begin. It takes a broad view of prayer and seems more concerned with where, how, when and why to pray than exactly to whom one should pray.
* The Spiders of Allah: Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War, by James Hider. This British newspaper reporter has encountered some astonishing things in his work covering al-Qaida and other terrorists, and he offers his useful insights into what he has seen. He acknowledges that he is a man without any religious commitment at all and then he seeks to understand religious fanatics. My guess is that readers might well have benefited more from an observer who takes faith seriously in his or her own life and then seeks to explore why faith has run amok in others. I sometimes felt as if Hider sensed he was shooting fish in a barrel and was happy to do it.
* Why We Love the Church, by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Although this book seems addressed to evangelical Christians, its message is appropriate for any faith community. And that is that faith is not a game of solitaire. Rather, it requires a community -- even one that is inevitably flawed. Being a religious lone ranger ultimately is unsatisfying and, in the Christian and Jewish traditions, even unbiblical. And the church is not a building. It is the gathered community.
* A Book of Wonders: Daily Reflections for Awakened Living, by Edward Hays. The man who directed the Shantivanam retreat center not far from Kansas City has produced a lovely little book of daily meditations that can inspire readers to take life and faith seriously. I especially liked his April 20 advice to become a writer and his entry for Aug. 1 about the mystery of light.
* Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty, edited by Robert A. Wild. Any of Thomas Merton's millions of fans will be delighted with this newly released collection of letters between the fascinating -- if sometimes troubled -- monk and a social activist named Catherine de Hueck Doherty. They offer a new glimpse into the man's heart and mind and teach us anew about true friendship and about how to discuss intensely important matters with calm and reason and insight.
* The Compassionate LIfe: Walking the Path of Kindness, by Marc Ian Barasch. With Buddhist sensibilities, the author seeks to understand what it takes to engage everyone one meets with kindness. It's an idealistic book, to be sure, but also realistic about the human condition as well as the human capacity for good. What a lovely world this might be if everyone lived out what the author discovers and proposes.
* Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love, by George E. Vaillant. If you read this recent cover piece in the Atlantic monthly about the life and fascinating work of George Vaillant, you'll be eager to read almost anything he writes. Vaillant, a Harvard professor, here argues that humanity is built to be open to spiritual experiences. He thinks that what he calls "the human capacity for positive emotions is what makes us spiritual. . ." And he surmises that the great and long-lasting religions have emphasized "the positive emotions of faith, forgiveness, hope, joy, love, and compassion. . ."
* We Get to Carry Each Other:The Gospel According to U2, by Greg Garrett. Nearly everyone -- even those of us who rarely listen to rock bands -- knows that U2 is, as the author says, a Christian rock band on its own terms. Its appeal is universal, even though you may have seen lead singer Bono show up as a speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. In this small book, the author, an English professor at Baylor University, seeks to unpack the theology that undergirds U2's music. Anyone who has any interest in the state of music in the church nowadays would do well to understand U2's approach and appeal, and this book can certainly help with that task.
* Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal, by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland. The authors, both Christians, offer a quite thorough and useful look at Buddhism, the places at which it connects with Christianity and the places at which the two traditions are in tension. It is a respectful approach that could lead to some useful interfaith dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. And its publication gives me a chance to remind you of a blog called Interstices about Christianity and Buddhism, written by a Christian friend of mine.
* The Tibetan Book of Meditation, by Lama Christie McNally. This is a how-to book that will help people who want to understand and experience this kind of meditation. Some techniques of meditation, of course, are found in various faith traditions. This is written from a Buddhist perspective with the goal achieving a more mindful, satisfying life.
* The Cross: 38,102 Miles, 38 years, 1 Mission, by Arthur Blessit. Some people can be obsessed with religion without degenerating into violent extremism. The author is an example. Starting in 1969, he walked all over the world carrying a cross, trying to persuade people to be followers of Jesus Christ. It's a pretty astonishing tale, no doubt most appreciated by Christians who consider themselves quite theologically conservative.
* The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by Matt Baglio. This is written by a journalist about a priest who goes to the Vatican to receive training to be an exorcist. The journalist is a careful observer and someone who also takes faith seriously, though not unskeptically. His descriptions of what Father Gary Thomas goes through in his training and his later exorcism work may well require you to rethink what you believe about a spiritual world and even about evil.
* The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, by Benjamin Wiker. Not many people get others' juices flowing like Charles Darwin. He's a saint. He's a demon. He's brilliant. He's wrong, wrong, wrong. And on and on. This book, written by a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, which promotes Intelligent Design, takes the view that Darwin was "a very good man" with countless good personal qualities. Darwin's problem, the author suggests, was "his strange insistence on creating an entirely godless account of evolution. That evolution must be godless to be scientific is the Darwin Myth, so profoundly misleading that it must be called a great lie. . ." Those sound like fightin' words.
* When the Good News Gets Even Better: Rediscovering the Gospels Through First-Century Jewish Eyes, by Neb Hayden. The idea behind this book is not just good but incredibly necessary for Christians -- to understand Jesus in his Jewish context. So such explorations are to be encouraged. But if you want to read a book that really does this in a scholarly but approachable way, I'd go with Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Hayden's approach, which seems geared toward people who need lots of graphic tricks to get through a book, at times seems to do exactly what Levine says shouldn't be done -- "Judaism becomes. . .a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn't it; whatever Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category." I'd love to read a Levine review of this book. Hayden, by the way, is a member of a group called The Fellowship, or The Family, subject of Jeff Sharlet's excellent 2008 book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.
*A Case for the Existence of God, by Dean L. Overman. This interesting lawyer once wrote a book arguing that the world could not have been created by accident and what he called "self-organization." He follows that up here with an argument that draws on both science and religion to say that God exists and there are many reasons to believe it. He offers intellectuals scholarly cover for faith, in a sense, but he goes beyond that to suggest ways people can have a transforming relationship with this God.
* Did the Resurrection Happen? A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, edited by David Baggett. Anyone interested in a lively discussion -- even debate -- between someone who believes passionately in the resurrection of Jesus (Habermas) and someone who has moved from atheism to Deism but who has all kinds of trouble buying the resurrection (Flew), this is your book. Habermas serves as a Christian apologist here while Flew is a reluctant semi-ally who is willing at least to consider the evidence and even engage in a discussion about what should count as evidence.
* The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence & Imagination, by Robert Moss. In various places in the Bible, dreams play a key role. Was that just ancient superstition or is there really something important that our dreams are trying to tell us? The author, who has studied and written about dreams for a long time, thinks they matter. And, he says, so do what we call coincidence and imagination. He offers his reasons here as a way of helping people better understand and shape their lives.
* Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, by Dallas Willard. The author is a widely read voice for Christians who seek to take discipleship of Christ seriously. His contention here is that a lot of people don't understand the difference between opinion and knowledge, and he suggests that spiritual knowledge is reliable and trustworthy. To Pontius Pilate's question to Jesus, "What is truth?" all kind of answers have been given. Willard's new book is another engaging answer in this long conversation.
* Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk. All people of faith are called on in various ways to be caregivers for others. The problem can be that the pressures of doing this can drain the caregiver of energy and spirit. This book seeks to offer help so that caregivers can continue responding to their calling without giving up. A lovely touch to this serious book is that scattered through it you'll find some excellent and funny cartoons that reinforce the words.
* First Be Reconciled: Challenging Christians in the Courts, by Richard P. Church. Many Christians know that the New Testament urges followers of Jesus not to take each other to court but to settle their differences through reconciliation outside of court. With a Mennonite perspective, the author, a lawyer, describes why that advice makes sense today and how to achieve such resolution. He also offers some good history of how this approach has been used over the centuries.
* Healing into Possibility: The Transformational Lessons of a Stroke, by Alison Bonds Shapiro. After suffering two strokes, the author of this helpful book figured out how to adopt an attitude that would help her recover. Although the focus here is recovery from stroke, many of the lessons (like "cultivating gratitude") are applicable to the various illnesses, injuries and ailments that clergy find every time they visit members of their congregations in hospitals.
* A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, by Warren Cole Smith. From inside the evangelical Christian branch of the faith, the author looks at how things are going and raises troubling questions about what has gone wrong. It may be overstated to say that Smith has turned state's evidence here, but he does suggest that things inside evanglicalism are not what they might seem from outside. His goal is to fix things. Probably all faith communities would do well to have articulate inside critics.
* What Else but Home, by Michael Rosen. Well, look, this isn't directly a book about religion. To call it that would be a stretch. But it's about something religion teaches -- the value of family and the worth of every person. It's the story of how a group of boys from a low-income housing project in New York become part of the life of the author's family. Writing street dialogue is no easy task. Rosen has captured much of that well without seeming to be making fun of it. Still, there were times when I wished he had toned down that language-capturing effort.
* When Doctors Become Patients, by Robert Klitzman. Like the previous book, this one is also not directly about religion. But this one is about one of the religious virtues -- empathy. I met the author a few months ago at a dinner and had a great conversation about his own experience of speaking with lots of physicians who themselves became ill and, in the process, learned what good medical care and good doctor bedside manner looks like. Klitzman teaches clinical psychiatry at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. Had I known about this book when it first was published in late 2007, I'd have recommended it then. Glad I can do so now.
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CRUISTIANITY? LORD, WHAT'S NEXT?
And just for fun this weekend, someone on this blog has made up religions for celebrities. Suggest some others, if you like.
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P.S.: In a comment left here Friday, someone said Islam had more followers in the world than any other religion. Not so. Christianity is the world's largest religion. The figures vary from source to source, but Adherents.com puts Christians at 2.1 billion and Muslims at 1.5 billion, while Religioustolerance.org has Christians at 2.039 billion and Muslims at 1.226 billion. I often hear people say there are more Muslims in the world than Christians, but the best evidence suggests that just isn't so. The most reliable American statistics on religion can be found on the site of the American Association of Religious Data Archives.