Toward Jewish-Christian respect: 11-27-09
Contemplating the journey: 11-30-09

New faith-based books: 11-28/29-09

Because of recent heavy publishing volume, I'm going to give you one more blog book column before the winter holidays in case you'd like time to get one or more of these for friends or family.

BookstacksAs I say, faith-based books seem to come out by the hundreds each week, so the ones I'll mention today do not constitute an exhaustive list of what's new out there. They're simply the ones I've had a chance to hold in my hand, read and think about.

But just so you know my personal (and possibly self-centered) hope: If you're looking for a gift book for someone, buy my new book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. All the royalties will go to Holocaust-related charities.

Now, for others:

* Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, by Judy Klitsner. This is insightful, top-cabin Jewish biblical scholarship. The author, a biblical scholar and exegete, unpacks surprising and revelatory meaning when she compares various biblical stories. And she goes deep enough in an almost rabbinic sense to help readers understand her methods and conclusions. Klitsner's work is evidence that words thousands of years old continue to hold new and deep meaning for people who arrive long after they were written.

* The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The modern quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for more than a century -- and what often happens is that the historians who go on this search often wind up finding the historian's Jesus. The helpful thing about this book is that after each of the five contributors writes a piece about his (why all males?) version of the quest, the other four offer a response. It's quite dynamic. But, in the end, it's clear that we've reached no consensus about the historical Jesus. But the fact that 2,000 years after Jesus lived on Earth people still are devoting their lives to reconstructing his life is a measure of that life's importance.


* Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, by Cheryl B. Anderson. This is serious exegetical guidance for serious biblical students, but it is not so dense that educated lay people can't benefit from it. Anderson, a seminary teacher, offers up ways for people who take scripture as authoritative to interpret it in non-literalistic ways that make it speak more clearly to our time and place. One need not agree with all her conclusions to recognize that she is moving people toward a hermeneutic that makes the Bible more meaningful for contemporary situations and issues. This is a good candidate for study groups.

* Reason, Religion, Democracy, by Dennis C. Mueller. The author, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Vienna, offers here a detailed analysis of the ways in which religion -- especially in its radical expressions -- and liberal democracies tend to collide. If you you disagree with Mueller's conclusions you will recognize that he is raising important questions about whether and how it might be possible for religion and democracy to exist in harmony and what factors combine to thwart that. This will unsettle some of us who are people of faith and we may feel defensive. But the book is worth a read as a way of helping all of us understand what's finally at stake in all nations. 

* The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East, by David Aikman. No, of course it is not possible to understand everything about the Middle East, which journalist and Christian Aikman calls "a very complicated place," in fewer than 300 pages. And yet people who read this fascinating, historical, insightful account will be closer to an understanding than before they started. It's detailed and careful, and includes some original documents, including the Hamas charter and U.N. resolution 242. People arguing various sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict no doubt will continue to argue even after reading this, but at least their understandings should be clearer.


* It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, by Samir Selmanovic. In a time of growing religious diversity in America, we need tools that will help us live together in harmony. The author, a pastor and convert to Christianity, does interfaith work in New York and offers here some extraordinarily helpful ways to think about how to move toward that harmony. Although committed to his own faith, he is open -- and suggests we all be open -- to learning from other traditions on the theory that every religion has insights others can benefit from. This is the kind of book study groups from various faith traditions (and no faith tradition) will find useful as a guide. Despite the books' subtitle, the author is not proposing that we all merge into one syncretistic, mushy faith. Rather, he's suggesting that we be modest theologians.

* Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers, by Tom Krattenmaker. When you think about religion and athletics, what comes to mind? Inevitably, some guy behind home plate in a multi-colored wig holding a "John 3:16" sign. Well, that's not the half of it. And the author, a journalist, takes readers here on a trip through the various ways that people who would call themselves evangelical Christians use athletics to promote their brand of the faith. Krattenmaker is not against religion in athletics, but he wants us to know the forces behind it and to understand that what he calls the "crusader form" of Christianity, which he calls "rigid, militaristic, nationalistic" is what "prevails in the professional sports leagues. Too often, it's a form of faith that tends to separate us all into opposing sides and make unwelcome judgments about those on the 'wrong' side of the line." This is a remarkably interesting read.

* A Case for the Divinity of Jesus: Examining the Earliest Evidence, by Dean L. Overman. The author, a lawyer and Christian scholar, carefully reviews here the information behind the startling affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form. He digs into not just the Bible but also creeds, hymns and other written evidence to see what early followers of Jesus believed about him and whether those beliefs make any sense. His contention is that competing voices claiming something less for Jesus were second century "distortions of the core message, not independent traditions dating back to Jesus himself." Overman is far from the first writer to examine this matter, but because the question goes to the heart of the faith, it's worth re-examining the evidence from time to time.

* The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe, by Richard Smoley. As someone acknowledged to be an authority on mystical philosophy, Smoley is unafraid to attack the huge questions that have baffled humanity from the start: Is there a God? If so, why is there evil in the world? Which came first, the world or consciousness? This book is full of attempts to struggle with such weighty matters, and thus is worth a read. But I caution that Smoley seems to quote such theological giants as Dietrich Bonhoeffer to make his own point, not Bonhoeffer's. For instance, he quotes Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis, as asking what humans are to do if they finally can answer all their questions "without God." Then he accuses Bonhoeffer of failing to answer that, thus ignoring Bonhoeffer's own answer, found in his Letters and Papers from Prison: "We are to find God in what we know, not in what we do not know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved." It's a profound and insightful suggestion from Bonhoeffer and it leads to a rather different -- and, for me, much more satisfying -- place than the destination to which Smoley would take us.


* The Pope & the Snowman: A Christmas Tale, by Roger Coleman, illustrated by Richard Becker. The author, a Kansas City pastor, gave me the privilege some time ago of reading the manuscript for this imaginative and lovely little book. Yes, it's about a pope having a conversation with a snowman -- one that changes the pontiff profoundly and gives him a new vision of what he should be about. I'm guessing it will become a seasonal family favorite for many people.

* Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor. Fans of Sue Monk Kidd -- and they are justifiably legion -- will be delighted that she has teamed up with her daughter to write this engaging interior and exterior travelogue, set in Greece and France. The back and forth between mother and daughter is wonderfully revelatory, not only of them but also of us. People who love Sue Monk Kidd's earlier works might suggest that newcomers first retreat and read The Secret Life of Bees or The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, but I think this new book would be a lovely place to start.

* Spiritual Adventures in the Snow: Skiing and Snowboarding as Renewal for Your Soul, by Dr. Marcia McFee and the Rev. Karen Foster. In some ways, this is a theological book that argues against the false split so popular with the ancient Greeks -- the mind-body separation. Christian doctrine rejects that split, especially in its proclamation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and the authors of this book, in that spirit, celebrate the body-spirit connection by proposing that people who devote themselves to skiing or snowboarding or other in-the-snow activities can experience spiritually rewarding times because, as they write, "there is something sacred about these outdoor cathedrals of winter." Co-author McFee, by the way, is a graduate of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

* Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism, by George Weigel. Sometimes the use of labels and categories simply adds to the confusion and misunderstanding. Surely that is the case with "Jihadism," which most Muslims will understand in a more personal and non-violent way than most non-Muslims will, though for sure violent extremist Muslims have used the term in the way Weigel uses it. Eventually one has to label what I would call radical and violent extremism done in the name of Islam, and Jihadism is the word Weigel chooses in this newly released paperback version (with a new afterward) of an earlier book. It's important that we understand what drove the 9/11 hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew, so we can protect ourselves against further outrages. The difficul task is to find ways to avoid describing all Muslims or Islam itself as somehow culpable for the horrors perpetrated by people who have chosen to use Islam for ideological purposes. Like historian Bernard Lewis, George Weigel hugs the line between helpful insight and prejudice against Islam. You'll have to judge for yourself whether he crosses that line at times. My own view is that there are more helpful ways to understand this radical element than by using terminology so open to misinterpretation.


* Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels, by Mary Gordon. What a lovely read. The author, a novelist who grew up Catholic but had never read all four gospels together, finally does. And she walks us through her experience, her insights, her questions. What I most admire about this book is that the author understands how to write in moving, insightful ways, understands the power (and even the ultimate inadequacy) of words. Through these well-crafted words, she brings us into the presence of the gospel words -- and, at times, even into the presence of Jesus.

* The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise, by Danielle Shroyer. From the Emergent Church Movement, the author, a pastor, seeks to describe God's movements among humanity as also emerging -- but, beyond emerging, as expanding into frontiers many of us can hardly imagine. This dynamic movement of God should encourage Christians to be open to new possibilities and new models not only of how to do church but how to do life. The Emergent Church Movement is producing some of the freshest theological thinking around today, and this book clearly fits that description.

* Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne and John M. Perkins. From deep in the trenches of discipleship, these Christian authors share with readers a book-length conversation between them about what drives them to seek to follow Jesus. They are decades apart in age but close in their belief that one must live out religious commitment among people in need, and together they invite readers to join them on the journey.

* Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives (Classic Edition), by Dan Millman. In 1980, Millman published this book (sort of an autobiographic novel), which became wildly popular. This is a special 30th anniversary edition with a new afterward. In the story, Dan meets a wise man he calls Socrates and a woman named Joy, from whom he learns a great deal about life. It's not exactly Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but it may call such mystical writing to your mind.

* Bridge Between Worlds: Extraordinary Experiences That Changed Lives, by Dan Millman and Doug Childers. This is a collection of uplifting stories about people who encountered some profound change in their lives for the better. They vary widely, from a drug dealer who goes straight to a Chinese woman who gets infused in some kind of cosmic energy and finally learns to use it for healing. There's something so bare-bones about these stories, however, that some of them strain credibility. Which is to say they could have used some more chapter and verse -- or at least footnotes with details.

* The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder's Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows, by Kent Nerburn. This is a sequel of sorts to a 2002 book, Neither Dog nor Wolf, and it takes readers into the heart of Indian, or Native American, spirituality. Kent Nerburn has managed in his books to give non-Indian readers an accurate sense of what this spirituality is all about. This latest book is a fictionalized account of a true story, and it's told the way an excellent storyteller would tell it.

* How Jesus Became Christian, by Barrie Wilson. For people who have been following the original "New Perspective on Paul" work begun several decades ago and its more recent forms under such scholars as Mark D. Nanos, this work will seem like a repudiation of all of that. Or nearly so. Wilson's contention is that Paul hijacked the Jesus movement and turned it into something it was never meant to be. It's exactly this charge (and others) that Nanos and such Paul scholars as John Gager and Lloyd Gaston have been working to expose as a misreading. Wilson even charges Paul with antisemitism, and that, again, is precisely the center of the misreading of Paul that has been around for so long. Well, I guess to understand the important work of the other Pauline scholars, one should know what they're up against. Many of Wilson's conclusions are what they're up against.


* The Church of Facebook: How the Hyperconnected Are Redefining Community, by Jesse Rice. If, like me, you are on Facebook, you sense that something almost cosmic is happening without quite understanding why and how. The author, whose musical roots are in the Presbyterian Church, here offers us new ways to think about what's going on -- but, more than that, he offers readers suggestions for ways to redeem Facebook and other social networking tools from the tedium of banality so they can become tools of ministry (in a very broad sense), help and even love. This past summer I taught a weeklong seminar at Ghost Ranch in which I tried to introduce people of faith to Facebook and other social networks in the hopes that they would use these networks as a means by which their own prophetic voices could be heard in the world. I wish this book had been out in time for me to use it. It would have added considerable richness to our conversation.

* Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic, by Chris Castaldo. This intriguing book is designed to help former Catholics who now identify themselves as evangelical Protestants understand some of their conflicted feelings. It's both a personal story of the author's change and an advice book for people walking a similar path. Sometimes I think Castaldo overgeneralizes in his descriptions of what both Catholics and Protestants think and believe, but it's nonetheless an authentic account of an authentic faith journey.

* Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, by Carl Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez. When a 16th century Christian convert reported encountering the Virgin Mary outside of what today is Mexico City, the long history of Our Lady of Guadelupe's connection with Hispanic culture began. It's quite an engaging story that has profound implications for how many Catholics today feel connected to the mother of Jesus and ultimately to God. No doubt this book is designed to appeal mostly to Catholics, but non-Catholics also may learn a lot about that tradition.

* Shift: What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today, by Brian Haynes. This pastor author makes a plea here for families to take more responsibility for the religious education of their children. It's a good and worthy goal. I just wish he would have expressed it without denigrating non-Christians needlessly. Early in the book he tells of taking his daughter to her first day of kindergarten. In that classroom, he writes, with no explanation at all, "Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, atheism, and secular humanism were present and accounted for and valued more highly than Christianity. My prayer life deepened dramatically that day as a dad trying to raise a Christ-follower in a world full of lies." As I say, he offers no hint why he thinks other religions represented in that classroom were valued more highly than Christianity, and then, at least by implication, he calls all other faiths lies. If that's your approach to religious education (it's not mine), this is the book for you.

* From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith: The Role of the Home in Renewing the Church, by David W. Anderson. If I had to pick between this book and the one listed just above it as a way to think about how families in their homes should be engaged in faith formation, I'd pick this one. It's well organized and grows out of some useful experience. Beyond that, it seems open to new ideas. It's clearly aimed just at Christians, but the message of how families help to shape faith is one that people of all religions would do well to understand more deeply.

* An Amish Christmas: December in Lancaster County, by Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller and Barbara Cameron. This is a collection of three charming novellas about life among Old Order Amish people, written by journalists who have taken the time to get to know that life. One thing they reveal is that human nature, hopes, wants, desires and goals are pretty much the same no matter what religious tradition people follow.


*A Classic Christmas: Spiritual Reflections, Timeless Literature, and Treasured Verse and Scripture, no editor listed by publisher HarperOne. This is a lovely little book that contains lots of contributions about Christmas from many sources -- from the Bible to Karl Barth, from Mark Twain to Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's just the sort of warm-hearted collection to keep handy during the holidays for those times when you want to remember what the point of the season really is.

* The Green Bible Devotional: A Book of Daily Readings, by Carla Barnhill. Sometimes a sequel comes along that makes almost more sense than the original. Thus, this devotional book takes the so-called Green Bible, published last year, and draws out the environmental and spiritual messages that were implicit but not always obvious in the Green Bible.

* Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction, by Cardinal Justin Rigali. Another in the "Shepherd's Voice" series, this book looks at how Catholics understand addiction and how they shape a response to it within the context of the gospel. Although its primary audience is Catholic, its principles may be useful for faith communities beyond the Catholic Church and even beyond Christianity.

* 101 Exercises for the Soul, by Bernie S. Siegel. This well-known spiritual coach here offers various ways to improve your life. From developing an attitude of gratitude to eating a little chocolate now and then. Nothing much new here but it's all in one place in a quick read.

* Live Your Bliss: Practices that Produce Happiness and Prosperity, by Terry Cole-Whittaker. If you're into New Age-y thinking and advice that promises that "we really can be happy all the time" and that "the Golden Age is upon us," then this is your book. The author has been selling these ideas for a long time, though not to me. I find them too self-referential and almost unaware that happiness is a by-product of a life lived in service to others, not a pearl of great price to be bought with faddish devotion to the next new idea.

* Soul Currency: Investing Your Inner Wealth for Fulfillment & Abundance, by Ernest D. Chu. You have spiritual assets. The goal of this book is for you to know that, take an inventory of them and nurture them so you invest them wisely. In some ways, this is the Prosperity Gospel for non-Christians, particuarly New Age types. There's some wisdom here, but be careful not to think of your soul currency just in terms of financial advantage.

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The BBC has decided to drop the broadcast of part of a ballet that features a deformed pope raping nuns. You know, some days I'm glad my grandparents and parents aren't still around to read the news.

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P.S.: Follow me on Twitter at


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