Looking for some new faith-based books? Oh, my. Your selections will have to be made from a list of thousands and thousands.
What you see here today is only a sample.
A reminder that when I include a book on my periodic book blog columns, it doesn't mean I agree with everything the author says. Rather, it means I think you should be aware of the book's existence.
* Christian America and the Kingdom of God, by Richard T. Hughes. Here, finally, is a much-needed and careful corrective to the misleading idea that America is a "Christian nation." The author, a religion professor at Messiah College, shows us clearly what the Bible means by the "kingdom of God" and how in so many ways that is in tension and conflict with American history. This is not a bash-America book. This is, rather, a sober analysis of the idea that America is God's chosen nation that has not done and cannot do wrong. To confuse a religious commitment with patriotism inevitably causes trouble. Hughes shows us why and how. What a different and better nation this would be if faith communities left, right, center and on the fringes created study groups to read this together.
* Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, by Jim Belcher. The so-called emerging or emergent church movement has sought to challenge traditional church structures and practices, and has been having some success, though not without some pushback from traditionalists. In this book, which confines this debate essentially to churches that would consider themselves evangelical, the author, pastor of a church, seeks to provide a roadmap for another way to be church. His is not the first try at such a "third way," but he does offer useful critiques of other approaches without degenerating into name-calling and factionalism, which often mark the debate. Anyone pondering the future of the Christian church would do well to have a look at this volume.
* Racing Toward Armageddon: The Three Great Religons and the Plot to End the World, by Michael Baigent. Zealous, fringe-fundamentalist followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, writes this author, are working to push the world toward a final apocalyptic battle -- and are having more success than most people imagine. This book unpacks their views and what they are doing to further their scary aims. For instance, do you know about efforts to create a red heifer? A what? Well, some fundamentalists -- both Jewish and Christian -- believe that a rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem requires the sacrifice of a pure red heifer, an animal that doesn't even exist today. So various breeding programs are under way. Really. It's good to know all this stuff to beware of it. What's less clear to me is how seriously to take the people seeking to move us toward Armageddon.
* Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Albom. I'm going to write more about this book later in a separate posting, but for now just know that Albom, well-known Detroit columnist and author of Tuesdays with Morrie, has written a fascinating story about his old rabbi as well as a story about a black preacher whose life was redeemed from the pit. And he has connected these engaging stories. The best thing about the book is that Albom shares his own fears, vulnerabilities and changes and he ponders the role faith plays in our lives.
* Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long. The traditional Christian funeral in America is giving way to something else that is not quite Christian but, rather, reflective of a culture that values status, wealth and antiseptic practices that do not honor the body in the way that Christian (and Jewish) theology honors it. The author, to battle that distressing change, here offers a clear account of how the Christian funeral (not a memorial service but a funeral with a body present) developed and why Christians should insist on understanding the ritual as profoundly connected to the sacrament of baptism and to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Bodyless memorial services in an ultramodern funeral home with canned music and a few poems are not what the church has had in mind. And for good reason. Long's book can help all Christians regain an important tradition.
* A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned Editing My Life, by Donald Miller. Ah, what an engaging and lovely read. Here's a man who has understood the power of stories and who also understood that much of his own story, for much of his life, was kind of a mess. He struggles to come to terms with what it means to find meaning -- eternal meaning -- in life, and, at the end, he's ready to sit down with God and tell God his story. Miller is funny and poignant and worth reading even if, to get it done, it takes you a million miles in a thousand years. But how in the world did an editor let Miller get away with misspelling Hemingway? It's one "m." One "m." Donald Miller, commit this to memory: One "m." (If some doofus editor changed it to be wrong, I forgive you, Don. But not if you read the final page proofs.)
* The New Religions, by Jacob Neeleman. Back in 1970, the author, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University, wrote a study of new religious movements in America. It was an early and useful look at the ways in which particularly Eastern religious thought was beginning to make major inroads into the spiritual lives of Americans. This is a reissue of that excellent study, but with a new introduction. And it's still worth a read.
* The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, by Cathleen Falsani. I've met this author and have admired her work for some time. She's the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. In this book she helps readers understand the cinematic work of Joel and Ethan Coen, who have made such movies as "Raising Arizona," "Fargo," "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "No Country for Old Men." She delves into the brothers' moral vision and tries to show readers the eternal questions that they raise. I haven't seen many Coen movies but Falsani's enlightening book makes me want to go see more. To read her blog, which, by the way, is also called "The Dude Abides," click here.
* Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, by Robert J. Wicks. The author teaches psychological counseling at Loyola University in Maryland and draws on his background in that area to help people of any faith and none to face the issues that are causing them stress. Particularly useful in our culture today is his proposal that we all develop a "listening spirit." This doesn't mean agreeing with everything we hear but it does mean developing the Benedictine virtue of humility and the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness so we don't imagine that we have nothing new to learn -- especially about ourselves.
* An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It, by Bruce Sheiman. As has been evident among commenters here on this blog for several years, the battle between rigid atheists and rigid religionists, or theists, always reaches an impasse. Neither side is ever convinced and eventually the discussion degenerates into name-calling. The author, himself an atheist, wants to take a step back and suggest that even if he doesn't believe in God, he thinks religion has value and there can be merit to belief in God. It's a nice change from the polemic that often tries to pass for reasoned argument and debate. It would be fascinating if the zealous atheists and theists who leave comments on this blog would read this book together and see if they can find any common ground.
* A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism, by Gregory E. Ganssle. Here is a calm and reasoned voice in the ongoing argument with and about the so-called New Atheists. The author, who teaches at Yale University, does a careful and fair analysis of what people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have been saying. In the end, he concludes that their positions, though interesting and passionately held, are not persuasive for people who already believe in God or even for people considering whether God exists. There is, he insists, plenty of intellectually honest space left for belief in what he calls a "reasonable God." Even reasonable New Atheists, I bet, will have to conclude that he presents their views fairly.
* One Soul, One Love, One Heart: The Sacred Path to Healing All Relationships, by John E. Welshons. The author, a spiritual teacher, draws on a number of sources, but particularly concepts found in Eastern religions, to help readers reconcile their broken relationships. The key -- no surprise -- is love. But if that is no mystery, at least Welshons provides some practical ideas for understanding what love in action looks like and how it can help reconstruct relationships that have gone south.
* God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, by Dean Nelson. One reason I found this book so engaging is that, like me, the author is a journalist. In fact, he teaches journalism. Sometimes that doesn't tell you anything about one's ability to observe and write, but in this case it's clear that Nelson can do both well. In fact, it's his ability to observe what's in front of him that is the basis of this book. He sees and draws meaning out of what he sees. And what he decides is that even though there are simple coincidences in life, there also are many times when God gives us signs of encouragement -- signs, as Nelson says, that tell us that God has been here before we got here and that things are under control. I can see this book being used by a church study group as a way of sharing with one another observations about how God has touched their own lives.
* Go to Joseph, by Father Richard W. Gilsdorf. This is a small (135 pages) devotional book for Catholics about Mary's husband, Joseph. It's really quite charming and provides all readers with new insights into Joseph's role in the Jesus story. It's helpful for Protestants like me to read this approach to theology because it raises questions that many of us rarely ask.
* Eternal LIfe: A New Vision, by John Shelby Spong. I sometimes say, only half seriously, that I love Spong because the church needs its heretics. In truth, I'm not in the business of deciding which Christians are heretics and which are not. Rather, I'm in the business of pointing readers to fascinating minds with interesting ideas -- even if those ideas challenge conventional wisdom and established doctrine. The ideas of Spong, whom I've met and enjoyed listening to (though not without some discomfort), surely do all of that. In this book, which he thinks will be his last, he pushes the theological envelope even further than usual and suggests ways of viewing religion and Jesus that even he would have found surprising and challenging just a few decades ago. Look, this is not the book to use to teach high school students basic Christian doctrine. But it is a book that can require theologically literate adults to rethink and justify what they believe and why they believe it. And that's the sense in which I think the church needs its heretics (as well as its John Shelby Spongs).
* The Future of Faith, by Harvey Cox. I wrote about this book here on the blog recently, focusing particularly on Cox's theory that fundamentalism is dying. I found he had interesting things to say about that but I disagreed with him to some extent. The thrust of the book, however, is about his belief that we are well into what he calls the "Age of the Spirit," in which rigid religious practices and doctrines are giving way to a fresh sensitivity to movements of the spirit. In Christian terms this would be the Holy Spirit. Cox has been a fascinating thinker for decades, and this book is sure to challenge some conventional thinking, though sometimes I think he and other Ivy League academics and theologians would do well and broaden their vision by sampling religious life in places like the Midwest and South.
* International Religious Freedom Advocacy: A Guide to Organizations, Law, and NGOs, by H. Knox Thames, Chris Seiple and Amy Rowe. Thanks to such organizations as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the issue of religious oppression around the world has gained lots of attention in recent years. What's been lacking has been a practical guide to help people know the players on the world stage and how to advocate for religious freedom in effective ways. That's what this book provides. It's a well-documented reference work that should be useful for years to come.
* The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is Scientifically Accurate, by Andrew Parker. Imagine a respected and well-known scientist (Parker is both) suggesting that the person or people who wrote the book of Genesis got it pretty much scientifically correct. Well, you no longer have to imagine such a thing. You can read this book and recognize that reality. And a fascinating reality it is, too. Oh, Parker isn't a biblical literalist or creationist. Rather, he's a careful student both of evolutionary science and of what Genesis was trying to tell us about God and creation. It's quite a remarkable and bold effort that is sure to draw condemnation from rigid religionists as well as from atheistic scientists. For all such people this book can be seen as, well, an inconvenient truth. Parker here opens up fresh and deep meaning in the biblical text as he seeks to reconcile it with the Big Bang and evolution.
* Twelve Stones: Notes on a Miraculous Journey, by Barbara Carole. This is the remarkable story of a woman who searched the world for truth but found, instead, God's gift of love. A secular Jew who had little use for religion, she finds her way to Christianity. True to the book's title, it's a rocky road, and she writes about it with unblinking honesty.
* Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, by Mitch Horowitz. If the various fringe elements of spirituality -- in their American form -- have always fascinated you, this is the book to read. You'll find here descriptions of psychics, mystics, spiritualists and even Freemasonry. His theory is that all of this stuff and more helped to create the America we know and love as its ideas have worked their way into mainstream thinking.
* What's Right with the Church: A Manifesto of Hope, by Elmer L. Towns. You'll pretty much already have to a Christian who considers yourself conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical to resonate with this book by the man who cofounded Liberty University with Jerry Falwell and who once said people should pray that Barack Obama will convert to Christianity. Probably a Mainliner or a Catholic, say, would write a quite different book that could, nonetheless, point out lots of things that are right with the church. For one thing, such an author might be more historically accurate and religiously sensitive than to describe the Judaism (more accurately, the Judaisms) of Jesus' day as "dead."
* The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church, by Andrew Farley. You're going to have to decide about this one for yourself. The author's catch phrase, "Jesus Plus Nothing," is one that has become associated with a radical, politically motivated approach to Christianity described the Jeff Sharlet in his book The Family. I'm not suggesting that Farley has any connections to all that. But "Jesus Plus Nothing" has always struck me as simplistic and not respectful of the Jewish roots of Christianity. In his chapter on "the Law," Farley is careful not to dismiss Judaism and its reliance on the Law, but I found there a sense in which Farley says none of that is supposed to matter anymore. Well, yes, Christians would say they're saved by grace alone but minimizing the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and our own sacred history is part of what has created the long, shameful arc of anti-Judaism in Christian history. (For my essay on that, look under the "Check this out" headline on the rights side of this page.) If all Farley is trying to say is that Christians should understand and focus more on Jesus, fine. But his language leaves open these other, more disturbing possibilties.
* The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice. What a wonderful thing that Janet Soskice has rescued this story, just as the twin sisters about whom she writes found and rescued one of the earliest versions of the four Gospels. It's a fascinating tale set in Cambridge, England, and in the Middle East, and it has the advantage of being all true. The book is complete with intriguing photos and is written not in stilted academic style but in the style of a good storyteller, which Soskice, who teaches theology at Cambridge, surely is.
* A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ, by Michael Card. With an initial discussion about the nature of slavery -- and an acknowledgement that slavery still is a present evil in the world today -- the author, an award-winning musician, seeks to unpack what it means to Christians to be slaves of Christ. This is at once a devotional book and a book about how deep meaning can be found in paradoxes. This book is a good candidate for church-based study groups.
* Choices and Challenges: Lessons in Faith, Hope and Love, by Alan G. Greer. Once this lawyer and political activist quit yelling at God and giving God instructions, he learned to listen and to pay attention to the divine presence in his life. This book is about what he learned, including the understanding that "Why me?" is almost always the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking how God interacts with us and what difference that makes. Greer understands a profound lesson of faith -- it's not about us, it's about God.
* Finding Organic Church: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting and Sustaining Authentic Christian Communities, by Frank Viola. This book will be most useful to Christians who are engaged in church planting or who are seeking to transform their current congregation into something more vibrant. Viola looks at biblical precedents for how faith communities are organized and at what gives them life and effectiveness and then seeks to adapt those lessons so they can be implemented today. There's even a chapter about how to sing together.
* Hope: Lessons from a Hummingbird, by William M. Cuccia. Struggling from years of depression, this pastor and his wife found a wounded hummingbird they spent a week nursing back to health. It changed their lives, and this book is the story of that transformation. It's not an elegantly written book by a master wordsmith but it does point us toward realistic hope, and there's never anything wrong with that.
* Patron Saints for Postmoderns, by Chris R. Armstrong. I used to enjoy reading this author's commentaries in Christian History magazine, and I see that he has used that interest in historical things to write about 10 persons who can inspire us today. Probably everyone would pick a different 10 people from faith history to emulate, and Armstrong's choices include some people of whom you may never have heard, such as Amanda Berry Smith and John Amos Comenius. But whatever names one picks, Armstrong is right to suggest that we shortchange ourselves and the church when we aren't in tune with church history and the people who lived it and created, in a sense, our own past.
* Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, by Bobby Gross. This author is right that most Christians pay precious little attention to the liturgical year. Oh, Catholics and Anglicans are better about it than most Protestants, in my experience, but hardly anyone really lives day by day conscious of where we are in the church's calendar. This book can help Christians do exactly that -- and with good explanations about what each of the liturgical seasons means and how they came to be, too. Anyone looking to commit himself to a bit more spiritual discipline could do well by starting with observance of the liturgical seasons.
* Guardians of Being, words by Eckhart Tolle, art by Patrick McDonnell. This is one of those charming little gift books that make people say, "Ohhh" and "Ahhh." McDonnell is a cartoonist who draws "MUTTS," and Tolle is an author and spiritual teacher. Tolle's words about being in the moment and being mindful are accompanied by McDonnell's drawings, mostly of cats and dogs. It's pretty ancient wisdom but it's presented in a fresh way. It'll take you 10 minutes to read. But you'll probably keep it on a table in the TV room and pick it up again and again.
* Horses with a Mission: Extraordinary True Stories of Equine Service, by Allen and Linda Anderson. When I was a child I was fascinated by the love for horses the cowboy heroes showed -- like Roy Rogers' horse Trigger. Indeed, Trigger at times seemed almost human. This book celebrates horses that have helped people heal in various ways and that have become special servants to people in need. Horses clearly can have therapeutic uses, and the collection of stories here captures some of the more remarkable examples.
* Soul of a Dog: Reflections on the Spirits of the Animals of Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz. This book is a treat for animal lovers. It's full of warm-hearted but truthful stories about ways in which animals and humans interact and ways in which humans seek to understand the essence of being an animal other than the human kind. The question of whether animals have souls gets answered here for people who have space in their hearts -- not necessarily their heads -- for an affirmative response. Katz, who lives on a farm, has written lots of books about animals and knows his subject well.
* The Buddha's Wish for the World, by Monshu Koshin Ohtani. The author is the head of Japan's largest Buddhist denomination, but he writes in a personal, clear and helpful way -- not just for Buddhists but for everyone. He draws life lessons from Buddhism, tells illustrative stories about those lessons and asks readers to think about how such lessons can make a positive difference in their lives. This is a gentle book of wisdom.
* Karmic Management: What Goes Around Comes Around in Your Business and Your Life, by Geshe Michael Roach, Lama Christie McNally and Michael Gordon. This is a personal and business self-help book that draws on Buddhist wisdom. Hmmm. Does it work? One is tempted to ask how successful a businessman the Buddha was. On the other hand, doing business and managing one's personal life by relying on Buddhist wisdom has to be a better approach than that used by the high-flying folks who crashed our economy last year. Maybe all of them should get copies of this book. In the same vein, there's now a 10th anniversary edition out of The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, by Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally.
* The Spirituality of Sex, by J. Harold Ellens. What is life all about? In simple terms, it's a search for meaning. The author, a retired pastor and university professor, contends that our search for meaning happens in both the spiritual and the sexual realms of our living. In fact, he contends the two are intertwined in countless ways. The book is an exploration of that connectedness, and it includes some quite engaging stories of how people go about figuring all that out.
* The Magician's Way: What It Really Takes to Find Your Treasure, by William Whitecloud. I don't include many works of fiction in my lists of faith-related books, but you might find this one worth your time as a tale that kind of doubles as a self-help book, though that may not be a fair description of it. What's at the center here are some lessons about the human heart and our need to pay attention to what's important in life, because what we pay attention to becomes, in the end, what our life is about. Well, that plus it starts out with a pretty good snake story.
* * *
A NOBEL CAUSE?
The people cry peace, peace, but there is no peace -- even when someone wins a prize for peace. And who among those who know history can be surprised?