It's time again to alert you to newly published books that deal with various aspects of religion and spirituality.
And, believe me, there are plenty of them. So many, in fact, that I can give you only a sample of what's newly available. I remind you that when I mention a book here it doesn't mean I agree with everything the author has to say. Rather, I just think it's worth you're knowing about the book so you can decide whether you want to read it.
* Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, by Bettye Collier Thomas. This is a huge -- and hugely important -- work that seeks to give us an accounting of how African American women have worked for centuries to overcome sexism and racism, relying on their faith. At times the way that Christian faith was practiced was part of the problem. As the author, who teaches history at Temple University, rightly notes, "Religion has served as both a source of black women's oppression and a resource for their struggles for gender equality and social justice." There are stories of individuals here and what they brought to the movement for freedom but, equally important, there is an intentional focus on the many organizations these women used to advance their cause, and that is history rarely remembered or understood even by people engaged in this liberating work or supportive of it from the outside. (In fact, there's a three-page list of the abbreviations just of these organizations.) No history of religion in America or the civil rights movement can be exhaustive without what this book provides.
* Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. The Jewish Publication Society has done the world of biblical scholarship the great favor of publishing this work -- which first appeared in 1995 -- in paperback. This is rich, nuanced, insightful and revelatory writing that unpacks even for lay readers some of what a cursory reading of Genesis is bound to miss. It's hard to imagine a book that has shaped the world's understanding of itself more than Genesis, and we need all the help we can get to save us from ruinous literalistic readings of it on the one hand and from flighty purely allegorical readings on the other. The author, daughter of a rabbinic family, helps us move past and through those destructive alternatives.
* Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, by Sara Miles. Don't let the 1960s-70s title of this book put you off. It's a lovely, well-written, engaging account of how a mid-life convert to Christianity figured out that Jesus was serious when he asked followers to feed the hungry, house the poor, visit the sick and love the unlovely. Sara Miles directs a food pantry at an Episcopal church in San Francisco, and this is an account of how that came to be and what she's learned from throwing herself into the work. What she has, in fact, learned, she says, is how to move from "piety to passion, from habit to risk, from law to love." And in the spirit of the gospel, she tells us to go and do likewise.
* Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity, by Miriam Adeney. Christianity still has more adherents in the world than any other religion, which means that the way we North Americans Christians practice the faith is a minority expression of it. The author, who teaches global and urban ministries at Seattle Pacific University, gives us here a broad and yet personal sense about how Christians elsewhere in the world work and worship. Miriam Adeney is not writing an academic account here for scholarly consumption. Rather, she has evangelism and education in mind. But the end result is a good picture of global Christianity. For more faith-neutral studies of this subject, see Christianity: A Global History, by David Chidister, The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins, and The New Shape of World Christianity, by Mark Noll.
* The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith, by Stephanie Saldana. In the midst of a lucious love story between the author and a French monk we learn a great deal about life in the Middle East in the midst of the Iraq war. The author goes to Syria to study how the Jesus she knows as a Christian is understood in Islam, and winds up with various crises of her soul -- all told in lovely, lilting words that bear with them a sense of timing that keeps the reader engaged to the end. Stephanie Saldana is a poet, and her prose shows it.
* Jewish Feminists: Complex Identities and Activist Lives, by Dina Pinsky. What forms our identities? Although the author focuses that question on the lives of Jewish feminists, her conclusions are universal and enlightening. She shows us that each of us is the product of a variety of influences and of many experiences, and no two people -- even if they share the same religious or ethnic label (say Jewish or Muslim) -- are identical or think identically. And, by the way, the author, who teaches sociology at Arcadia University, affirms that men can be feminists, too.
* The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin, by Charles Foster. In the often-frustrating debate (well, not debate, usually, but shouting match) between Darwinist extremists such as Richard Dawkins and biblical literalists who call themselves the Creationists, not much useful emerges. Indeed, those of us who appreciate what Darwin has to say but also are people of faith often wonder where we are supposed to stand in all of this. The author, a tutor at the University of Oxford, gives us hope that there is considerable common ground that science and religion can share. This book is a careful articulation of why a rational conversation between the two is not just possible but also necessary.
*Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Courage and Hope, by Princess Kasune Zulu with Belinda Collins. Well, she's not truly a princess in the sense of being part of a royal family. Rather, Princess is simply the name she was given. And yet she has turned into a leader who is helping people all over the world, including in her native Zambia, to understand the HIV virus that infects her and the disease of AIDS that has swept across Africa, killing many members of her own family. She has become a speaker who travels the world, and this book is the story of her life so far.
* The Truth: About the Five Primary Religions (Book I of a Foundational Trilogy by the Oracle Institute), by Laura M. George. And The Love: Of the Fifth Spiritual Paradigm (Book II of a Foundational Trilogy by the Oracle Institute). It's hard to know exactly how to describe these books, which contain interesting material and some worthwhile approaches to understanding the center of various religions. I hesitate to call them New Age material, partly because the author describes how she once went to a New Age seminar and was so unimpressed that she demanded -- and got -- her money back. But, frankly, there are better places than these books to learn about Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. But I was attracted to her list of seven characteristics of healthy religions. She was pretty on target there. And she's right about the centrality and importance of love, though that insight isn't unique.
* Forward in Hope: Saying Amen to Lay Ecclesial Ministry, by Bishop Matthew H. Clark. The Catholic Church, facing a growing shortage of priests, has turned to lay people to perform some of the non-sacramental tasks previously done mostly by priests. This has not been a break with history at all. Indeed, lay leaders have emerged in every generation to help do the work of the church. But among some ordained leaders there has been a fear that lay leaders can or might usurp priestly authority and function. Bishop Clark, who serves in Rochester, N.Y., where I used to work for the now-defunct afternoon newspaper, argues wisely here that lay ecclesial ministry is vital. Some of us -- whether Catholic or not -- hope this increasing use of lay ministers will eventually loosen up other strictures on the ordained priesthood. But at the moment that seems like an unrealistic dream.
* Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna, by Kenneth J. Howell. For many Christians, the history of Christianity is a black hole, meaning little is remembered before last week's sermon, if they even remember that. But it's perhaps impossible to understand the richness of the faith without knowing some of the details of its long history, including the people usually referred to as the Church Fathers. This small, quite readable book offers a good picture of two of those people who lived in the decades after the death of Jesus' Apostles. Ignatius and Polycarp still have much to teach Christians, and the author, who teaches Christian history at the university level, helps to make their lives and writings accessible.
* Mala of the Heart: 108 Sacred Poems, edited by Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt. The word mala refers, essentially, to a rosary, or prayer beads, and this book is, in effect, a mala on paper. The editors have collected 108 sacred poems -- usually quite brief and in which the great Persian poet Rumi is heavily represented. These are lovely small lights poking holes in the dark nights of our souls.
* God on Campus: Sacred Causes & Global Effects, by Trent Sheppard. The author, promoting a movement of prayer on college campuses across the U.S. this year, offers here an abbreviated history of ways in which college students starting at Harvard in the 1600s have been engaged in religious movements. There are some intriguing stories from various eras -- stories with which I was not familiar -- about how Christian ministry happened on different campuses. And even if you're not interested in the current drive for prayer on campus, this history is worth knowing.
* Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain, by William M. Struthers. In our culture, pornography -- hardcore and otherwise -- is pervasive. The author, who teaches psychology at Wheaton College, seeks here to help us understand not just why porn is everywhere but also how, in a scientific, technical sense, it distorts brains (mostly men's brains) and makes healthy sexual intimacy more difficult. Struthers' goal is to help readers regain a sense of the sacredness and dignity of each person -- values he derives from his Christian faith. To do that requires an honest look at the way porn seduces men and puts them on the road to unhealthy relationships.
* A Taste of Heaven: A Guide to Food and Drink Made by Monks and Nuns, by Madeline Scherb. This book is just a kick. The author, a journalist, has included recipes (and stories) from the U.S., Belgium, France and Germany. I can't wait to see if I can con my bride into making "Brownies a al Mode with Trappistine Caramel Sauce." And I might also go for some "Veal Kidneys with Trappist Ale," though, for me, minus the veal kidneys.
* The New Enlightenment: A Search for Global Civilization, Peace, and Spiritual Growth in the 21st Century, by Grady E. Means. This author has thrown over his Catholic upbringing to issue a broad complaint against what he calls "doctrinal religion," that is, essentially any "organized religion." He thinks, rather, that we need a more inclusive and generous spirituality that doesn't by its very nature rely on large structures and exclusivist claims of rightness. His is a liberating but also a frustrating voice in that he seems to think that any organization of religious thought is not just unnecessary but dangerous. There can be danger in religious structures, to be sure, but eventually all spiritual movements must produce some kind of structure if they are to maintain themselves. A small puzzle here is why an American author chooses to spell "judgment" the British way, "judgement." Without an explanation it suggested amateurish editing.
* The Last Day of My Life, by Jim Moret. This is not an overtly (or even covertly) religious book. But it raises the ultimate question that all people of faith must face -- the question of our own mortality and of life's meaning. The author, a journalist and network TV show host, found himself in a season of despair and considered suicide as a way out. But he came through that shadowy valley and forced himself to think about -- and plan for -- what really matters in life. This is his compelling account of that journey to self-understanding.
* Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh. In the Myers-Briggs way of measuring personality types, I am an introvert. Part of what that means is that I do better either alone or without long contact with large crowds, which drain me of energy. The author has a similar personality and wrote this book to offer hope to introverts who have felt out of rhythm in church settings, which, like the culture generally, seem dominated by extroverts. McHugh, a Presbyterian pastor, writes here about the many gifts introverts have to offer the church and about how the church can accommodate those gifts. I can think of lots of potential church leaders who could benefit from this affirming book.
* Love & War: Finding the Marriage You've Dreamed Of, by John and Stasi Eldredge. What this book offers is honesty wrapped in an appreciation for what love can redeem. The authors have been married about 25 years and have figured out how to do the hard work necessary to hold a marriage together. They have acknowledged their own weaknesses and needs and have committed to give themselves to each other. Then they've shared here what they have learned and how it all fits in a marriage in which both partners are also committed to a relationship with God. What's here is not amazingly fresh insight but, rather, timely reminders of what's so easy to forget.
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WHEN RELIGIOUS RIGIDITY RUNS AMOK
I plan to say more about this here in a few days, but I was pleased that a jury took just 37 minutes on Friday to convict Scott Roeder of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a late-term abortion provider in Wichita. Roeder's actions show what can happen when one adopts an attitude of false certitude about religious beliefs. I'm not arguing here for or against abortion. Rather, I'm suggesting that violent extremism can be the end product of an approach to religion that suggests it is possible to know everything about God's will and to hold all the truth. That approach is a recipe for disaster, as the Roeder case proved once more. (Because Roeder shot Tiller in Tiller's Lutheran church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America put out this notice of Roeder's conviction. It has a link to the Web site of Tiller's church.)
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P.S.: From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18, I'll be teaching a Communiversity class on essay writing at in the Witherspoon Room of Second Presbyterian Church, 55th and Oak. For the Communiversity catalog entry about the class, click here and then scroll down to page 14.