Books with faith-based themes continue to flood the market, and nobody, including me, can keep up with them all.
But this weekend, here's a sampling of some of the new offerings in this field:
* God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours, by Regina Brett. First, a disclosure. I know the author, who, like me, used to be president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (she writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer). I not only know her, I admire her -- both for her elegant writing and for her courage. When she was NSNC president, she also was duking it out with breast cancer. The cancer lost. No surprise to me. Anyway, there's a fair amount of Regina's struggles with cancer in this book, but there's so much more, as she draws meaning and lessons out of what life throws and her and others. If you could manage to live by these 50 lessons, you'd be an amazing person. Heck, 10 would be an improvement for most of us.
* Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of LIfe, by John F. Haught. Of all the scholars who write about the crossroads of science and religion, Haught is my favorite. He is clear, insightful, fresh and unwilling to back away from controversy. Indeed, as this book shows, he invites controversy as a way of defanging what to many appears to be an enemy, evolution, but is, in fact, merely a way of describing how things are in the world. Then Haught connects the way things are with theology in ways that make sense and that challenge people's long-held views. If Christian theology could not stay the same after Galileo, so it also must revise itself after Darwin. And Haught helps us figure out how.
* Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, by J. Philip Newell. Another disclosure. I also know this author. Several times he and I have been teaching at the same time at Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian conference center in northern New Mexico. He's got a great, analytic mind and a pastoral heart. He's one of the world's leading experts on Celtic spirituality, and in this book he draws on Celtic traditions to draw readers into new understandings of Christianity based on ancient wisdom and insights. In many ways, Newell is in harmony with much of the thinking coming from the Emergent Church Movement, though he starts from a different place and draws on different sources. It would be fascinating to see what kinds of effective ministry might emerge from a church that took seriously the Newell book, coupled with A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian McLaren, and The New Christians, by Tony Jones.
*Water, Wind, Earth & Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements, by Christine Valters Paintner. This author, too, draws on the traditions of Celtic spirituality and its close connections with the physical world to invite readers into spiritual disciplines that honor the elements. A helpful aspect of this book is the list of questions in each chapter.
* Jesus: A Biography from a Believer, by Paul Johnson. I am a fan of Paul Johnson. His earlier A History of Christianity has been helpful to me in many ways over the years. And I like this new book, too, though it contains some puzzlements. One is his statement that there are 1.25 billion Christians in the world. That figure, by most authoritative estimates, is off by nearly 1 billion. There are, depending on how you count them, more like 2.13 billion Christians -- about one-third of the world population. Another oddity is Johnson's preferred use of the King James Version of the Bible. Yes, the poetry of the KJV can be soaring, but there are so many newer translations from better manuscripts that it's hard to justify reliance on the KJV for a book like this. Still, Johnson writes well and one can find interesting little facts about Jesus and the world in which he lived that seem fresh. But, of course, as Johnson himself notes in this book, there are today more than 100,000 printed biographies of Jesus in English alone. So you have lots of choices.
* Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, by Lisa Miller. The author, religion editor of Newsweek magazine, has taken her journalistic curiosity and tried to unpack all the ideas about heaven people have believed and now believe. Whew. What a list. What visions. In the process, Miller also reveals a bit more about herself and her own views. I appreciated that openness. I think it may help me better evaluate her good work in Newsweek, to which I've long been a subscriber. The idea here is not to convince anyone that this or that idea of heaven is right or even credible. Rather, it's to explore the ideas so that each of us can think again about what we really believe about heaven, if anything. This would be a great book for a study group -- in or outside of a faith community. P.S.: At the timeI was going through Miller's book, I ran across this blog entry about the afterlife by a fellow whose blog I see fairly regularly, and it seemed to be in harmony with the seeking nature of this new book.
* Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, by Mary Pipher. For fans of Pipher's book, Reviving Ophelia (such as my wife and step-daughter), this book will come as a funny, poignant and profound gift. Mary Pipher is, in all the important ways, a writer. She has various connections -- if you need them -- to the University of Kansas and to Kansas City, though none of that is crucial to her memoir that, in many ways, is a memoir of all of us born in the 1940s. This is not your typical book about self-discovery, though for sure that, in the end, is the subject. Rather, it's a wild ride through the canyons of Pipher's sensitive and creative mind -- a mind that has suffered from depression, among other ailments -- and the ride will help each reader of all faiths (and no faith). A funny book at times, too. And how can you beat a funny book about depression and self discovery?
* Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, by Diogenes Allen. Back in 1991, a faculty member of Princeton Theological Seminary, Daniel Migliore, published a wonderful book for people trying to understand and deepen their commitment to Christianity, Faith Seeking Understanding. Now, almost 20 years later, comes an emeritus professor from Princeton with a book that has essentially the same purpose. And this one is excellent, too, if more personal in nature than Migliore's. Allen writes about complex matters in a simple conversational style that leads the reader to continue the exploration rather than give up in confusion. The reality is that every Christian in some way is a "troubled believer" if he or she takes the faith seriously. There always are questions that trouble us, and the task is to continue wrestling with answers, not satisfied with the answers we got in second grade or when we were sophomores in college.
* Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher. If the 2006 shooting of Amish children in a school -- and the forgiveness granted to the shooter by the Amish community -- astonished you, as it did many, you will want to unpack that story with this compelling book. But first you may want to see the movie drawn from the book, a movie I mentioned here on the blog recently. It will air Sunday night on Lifetime, as the link I just gave you will show. The authors of this book are college professors who have studied the Amish for years and who bring their good insights to this story.
* After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, by N.T. Wright. Who among Christian scholars is more prolific than the bishop of Durham in England, Tom Wright? Well, OK, Martin E. Marty and Walter Brueggemann, but Wright's output is astonishing and of high quality. And this book is no exception to that description. Wright here is concerned about Christian character, and how to develop it. He insists that it's nowhere near enough simply to declare yourself a Christian and then go on living without a transformation. In older theological terms, this was referred to as the difference between justification ("I believe") and sanctification ("Now what? Oh, I must change my life."). Wright's words are clear and helpful, and this is a good follow to his earlier book, Simply Christian.
* Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, by Sarah Ruden. This is not exactly an attempt to unpack the nuances of the theology of the Apostle Paul in the tradition (now a tradition) of the "New Perspective on Paul" scholars of recent decades. Rather, it's an attempt to understand his language in the Greek and Roman and Jewish context in which Paul wrote. And in many ways it's a defense of Paul against the old charges that he's anti-woman and anti-Law. Particularly interesting is the author's take on how Paul viewed homosexual acts and his proper rejection not of what we're beginning to understand as homosexual oriention today but, rather, of the prominent and abhorrent practice of pederasty at the time Paul wrote.
* Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars, by Jay Wexler. I mentioned this book some weeks ago when the author made an appearance in Kansas City -- one I was unable to attend. The author, who teaches law at Boston University, takes readers on a roadtrip to some of the sites where church-state battles have been and are being fought. Church-state disputes continue to change case law and practice, and it's hard to keep up with all that. But even those who do try to keep up sometimes forget that the cases are about real people in real locations. What this book does in a wonderfully readable way is to humanize the church-state separation story.
* Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has seen all kinds of evil in the world and has done his best to help alleviate the results -- including serving as head of his nation's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This and a long life of service has taught him -- and now his daughter, also an Anglican priest -- that humans are not called to be perfect but, rather, out of gratitude to strive to be good. Their argument is that God made us for goodness. So they help teach us here how to be compassionate people in the midst of a world full of pain and sorrow.
* Yehuda Halevi, by Hillel Halkin. I confess that until Halkin's excellent book, I had barely heard of Yehuda Halevi, a wonderful Jewish poet who lived and wrote in Spain in the middle ages. He was born in the 1070s, about a generation before the first Christian Crusade, and his life ended up being affected by that tumultuous period. So this book takes us back to a fascinating period of history as it recreates in modern English the engaging work of this Hebrew poet.
* Making Space for the Spirit: 100 Simple Ways to Nurture Your Soul, by Kathleen Long Bostrom. The author, former president of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, has expanded part of an earlier book to give readers brief spirit-boosting ideas coupled with a Bible passage, a good quote and a related piece of interesting information to create this book. It's the sort of small volume that would be good to keep close at hand for those times when we're trudging through dark valleys.
* Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, by Candace Chellew-Hodge. It should not have been necessary to write this book. But it was, and that is the shame of those branches of Christianity that refuse to include gays and lesbians fully in all aspects of church life (and, yes, that so far still includes my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).) The author is a pastor who also is a lesbian and who has had to find ways to struggle against the hatred of people with her sexual orientation. What she has developed, she writes, is bulletproof faith that can withstand withering fire. She offers here what she knows about that. For my own take on what the Bible really says about homosexuality, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page.
* Jesus Wept: When Faith & Depression Meet, by Barbara C. Crafton. This is a book of profound honesty by an Episcopal priest who has suffered the ravages of depression and has decided her experience can help other people of faith. She is unflinching in describing the pain of clinical depression and how it differs from common sadness. And she doesn't make getting through it sounds easy as pie. It's not. But, in the end, this is a book of hope for people whose misguided approach to faith often has been a hindrance to healing the serious disease of depression.
* How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. The premise of this book is pretty simple -- the more you think about God, the more the neural circuitry of your brain changes in good ways. So, in the end, this is not a book about theology or faith but about engaging in spiritual disciplines that will lead to a calmer, more peaceful, happier you. In fact, they don't really care what your image of God is as long as you have one and spend time pondering God. The authors draw on their work at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University Pennsylvania.
* Breaking the Rules: Trading Performance for Intimacy with God, by Fil Anderson. Oh, how much damage has been done to people by religions that are all about rules and devoid of grace. That's the kind of Christianity that Fil Anderson grew up with. This is the story of how this author, speaker and conference leader learned that, in the end, he couldn't be a perfect rule follower and that he needed a God of love more than a God of harsh judgment.
* The Eternity Principle: Finding God in This World and in the Next, by Glenn Thomas Carson. What Jesus meant when he spoke of the kingdom of God being at hand is, I think, what Glenn Carson means when he speaks of the eternity principle. That is, in both cases what is pointed to is the possibility of living today with the power of the divine driving your life and with eternal values guiding your decisions. Carson is president of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, but writes from a wide ecumenical view in this small book, which would make a good choice for a study group.
* In the Absence of God, by Sam Keen. The author, formerly an editor at Psychology Today, thinks institutional religion has blocked people's understanding of and appreciation of the sacred. He wants to reintroduce people to a sense of awe. He wants, he says, to "re-enchant" people. Truly there is a lot about institutional religion that gets in the way of our being in the presence of the divine. But, at least in my experience, it's the theology promoted by institutional religion that gives us the framework for understanding our experiences of the sacred -- or at least acknowledging that we can't fully understand them. So you'll have to decide when reading this whether Keen has thrown the baby out with the holy water.
* In the Heart of the World, by Mother Teresa, edited by Becky Benenate. The fascinating, if sometimes mysterious, Mother Teresa no doubt will be the subject of many more books, but this one has collected her own words to inspire readers to acts of charity and compassion. In the process, readers will discover a little more about the heart of Mother Teresa herself and what I've always thought of as her aggressive compassion.
* Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor. The author clearly is a seeker, and has been since the 1960s, when he looked around his surroundings outside of London in his native England and decided something was missing in his life. Before long he left for India and became a Buddhist monk. But his years of studying Buddhism left him, not suprisingly, unsatisfied with that path. So he began to deconstruct Buddhism, as evidenced in an earlier book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, and now this one. It's intriguing to see the parallels between Batchelor and people in other faith traditions who have rejected orthodoxy in favor of their own approaches. People who follow any faith would do well to pay attention to such rebels for their occasional insights, and I suspect committed Buddhists will be challenged by this book even as they, in response, make some adjustments in their own understanding of the tradition.
* Pocket Peace: Effective Practices for Enlightened LIving, by Allan Lokos. In the tradition of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, the author here offers, along with some interesting personal stories, recommendations for practices that can relieve stress and bring peace. Some seem a bit surprising but worth trying. For instance, "Don't speak about anyone who is not physically present."
* Laughter, Tears, Silence: Expressive Meditations to Calm Your Mind and Open Your Heart, by Pragito Dove. When you think of the practice of meditation, what quickly comes to mind? Right, your mind to which the thought just came. And, indeed, much of traditional spiritual meditation has to do with what goes on -- or doesn't go on -- in the mind. But this author wants people to practice meditation with much more attention paid to the body, and she shows readers how to do that. One of the practices has a lot to do with laughter, and what could be wrong with that?
* The Ultimate Christian Living: Faith and Fellowship Celebrated Through Stories and Photos, by Todd Outcalt. The author, a United Methodist pastor in Indiana, has collected here brief stories written by people who have experienced faith in some new ways. Sometimes these are just small stories of inspiriation, and sometimes they are life-changing stories. But in all cases, what makes them effective is that they are authentic stories told by the people who had the experience.
* Love's Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition, translataed by David and Sabrineh Fideler. Almost every religion has a mystic tradition, and in Islam, that is Sufism. The most famous Sufi poet is Rumi, some of whose work is included in this volume. But its original translations from the Persian also includes many other voices. Most of these poems are quite brief, but all the more powerful because of that. This is the paperback version of the hardback published in 2006.
* Journey into Reality, by Joann Nesser. This small book is an edited collection of talks the author has given at spiritual retreats for people seeking new ways to know and experience God. It's a guide from a woman who has experienced life's ups and downs and who shares her insights in helpful ways.
* Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy, by Douglas A. Hicks. In a world in which economics has gone slightly crazy (well, more than slightly) in recent years, the author, a Presbyterian pastor and teacher, here offers ways for Christians to live faithfully while treating money not as an idol but, rather, as a necessary tool that, when used right, can do some good. This is a wise book that requires readers to engage the concept of "enough," and that seeks to move them away from the culturally approved greed that has driven so much of the American -- and the world -- economy for so long.
* The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church, by Fritz Kling. Across the globe, Christian missionary organizations have been at work for a long, long time and have had to adapt to new conditions over time. That adaptation continues today, and this book by a man who has been part of what he calls the global church recounts the various forces that are working to change the shape of mission work around the world. It's not just technological changes that allow instant communications, but that's certainly part of what's facing workers in the global church. It's hard to imagine how anyone could function well in this global church without knowing what Kling reports here.
* The Animal Manifesto:Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint, by Marc Bekoff. This is not a bleeding-heart book that suggests animals are just about on an intelligence level with humans. Rather, it's a plea for a more moral and compassionate approach to the non-human animals that human animals encounter daily -- and it will help you see animals in a much more appreciative light. Our sacred writ is full of animals, and it's up to us to learn how to live in harmony with them even as some of them, for many of us, become our food. This book can help us make that transition.
* Ancient Faith, Future Mission: Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition, edited by Steven Croft, Ian Mobsby and Stephanie Spellers. All over the world, the Christian church is struggling to find fresh ways of telling its ancient story. In the United States that effort has come to be called the Emergent Church Movement. In the United Kingdom, the term "fresh expressions" is often used to speak of the same work being done to create a church that can speak to a post-modern world. This book reflects the Church of England's work to be part of that new movement and to permeate the movement with its sacramental approach to worship and, indeed, all of life. Can the old dog church learn new tricks? Yes, of course, but they won't be of any use if they are simply tricks unattached to what's been best in the past, and that's part of the message of this book.
* Full Body Presence: Learning to Listen to Your Body's Wisdom, by Suzanne Scurlock-Durana. In many spiritual traditions, the body is either central to theology or, alternatively, it is radically de-emphasized. This author wants people to develop techniques so they are fully aware of their bodies and how they are connecting with the energy of the world around them. In some ways, this "full body presence" may be necessary for adherents of both traditions, those that emphasize the body and those that don't. In any case, the author wants us to understand the context of our bodies in the world.
* Patched Together: A Story of My Story, by Brennan Manning. Fans of this former priest know he's a good story teller and that his focus is God's amazing grace toward fierce people. This is something of a summing up of how Manning sees God's perfection working its wonders among imperfect people.
* Salomé, a novel, by Patti Rutka. I rarely include novels in these blog book columns, but this one is about Salomé who asked for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, and it has some fascinating twists and turns that have to do with who wrote one of the New Testament gospels. Besides, the author knows how to use words well.
NOTE: For many reasons, I've decided that in the future I won't save up a stack of books and pile them all into one blog book column, like this one. Instead, you will find brief reviews of new books from time to time as part of my daily blog entries.
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A RELIGION-SCIENCE HONOR
A former priest who became a geneticist and biologist has won this year's prestigious Temple Prize in religion. Good. I'm glad the Templeton Foundation continues to honor people who seek common ground between religion and science.
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P.S.: To sponsor me for this year's AIDS Walk Kansas City, click here. And thanks.