The newly published books about religion, spirituality and ethics have been piling up on my desk, so I thought I'd give you a chance this weekend to browse through some of them that you may want to buy as gifts for others in this upcoming holiday season.
By publishing this list two months before Christmas, I am giving you no excuses for not knowing about them in time to snare one or several. Several, I hope. There are some wonderful books here -- and quite a variety, too. Let's begin with some books about the Christmas season itself:
* Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, by Donald Heinz. If you're a Christian, my guess is that you think you have a pretty good grasp on the annual celebration of Christ's birth. My further guess is that you think that it's sad how in many ways this religious holiday has been co-opted by commercial interests. Before we become too sure of ourselves in this regard, we'd do well to spend some time with this new book, which restores to Christmas -- all of it, from the New Testament birth stories to the most outrageous Santa in the poshest department store -- its original luster, its connection to the idea and fact of incarnation, the fabulous gift of Christmas that set loose in the world a force that mere humans cannot control. Heinz, an excellent writer who teaches religion at California State University and is ordained as clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, comes at Christmas from many angles. The result is that, in the end, the reader not only has a much deeper appreciation of the season and its meanings but also can't wait to experience it all over again.
* The Christmas Chronicles, by Jeff Guinn. Well, this fat book is just for fun. It contains Guinn's three novels about Santa -- The Autobiography of Santa Claus, How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas and The Great Santa Search. It is, of course, all silliness, but it's good silliness. For in the midst of made-up stories, the author manages to convey some real history -- or at least historical context. Nothing wrong with that.
* Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life, by Judith Dupré. What a gorgeous, well-edited, well-written book. Full of photos and paintings and other artistic depictions, it seeks to unpack the oft-told story of the Virgin Mary in countless ways. Much of this, naturally, is a book about the first Christmas and the role played in it by a young teen-ager from Nazareth. But it's more than just the standard Mary story. The author raises the hard questions of faith and moves readers to a new understanding of how Mary has been seen across the centuries. This is a book not just for Catholics who honor Mary in special ways but for all who would try to grasp the power of the incarnational story and the role God asked sweet Mary to play in it.
* The Unsheltered Heart: An At-Home Advent Retreat, by Ronald Patrick Raab. The author is a Catholic priest who has spent considerable time ministering to poor people in Portland, Ore. In this book, he sets out a daily five-step individual retreat to carry people through the four weeks of the Advent season on the Christian calendar. For each day he offers brief but wise meditations on how we can hear prophetic voices and respond to them.
* Advent and Christmas: Bridges to Comtemplative Living with Thomas Merton, edited by Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth. Fans of the late monk Thomas Merton (there are millions of them, including me) will be happy to know that the "Bridges" series from Ave Maria Press now includes this new volume, which is to be used for devotional study through the Advent season. It draws on words from Merton to guide readers into the heart of the pre-Christmas season. For all the rest of the "Bridges" series, which is being updated, click here.
* The Pope's Maestro, by Sir Gilbert Levine. The author tells here the remarkable and engaging story of how he, a Jew, made music for and at the request of Pope John Paul II. If you know anything about the late pontiff, you know he was born in Poland and grew up with many Jewish friends. He worked hard at the Vatican to improve relations between Jews and Christians -- and between Muslims and Christians, as well. Indeed, JP II has been called the best pope the Jews ever had. In 1987, when Poland still was under Communist control, Levine, born in Brooklyn, was asked to be artistic director and conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic. Krakow, of course, was where JP II, as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, had served prior to his election as pope. Through that Krakow connection, Levine and the pope met and collaborated on various concerts for peace over the years. This volume describes that history, about which I was essentially ignorant before. It's both a great Jewish and a great Catholic story. And it comes with plenty of photos and with a DVD of a pope-Levine concert presented in 2000 in a church in Krakow.
* American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings, edited by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. This is a fascinating collection of writings that, for some, are divinely inspired scripture texts and for others are, as the editor acknowledges, "the work of madmen and cranks." Maffly-Kipp has culled through a wide collection of such texts and given us samples of, for instance, Thomas Jefferson's own version of the Bible, in which he essentially cut out any reference to the divinity of Christ; the Book of Mormon; writings from Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, and many others written between 1794 and 1907. Put all in one place, these writings raise the question of how sacred writ comes to be thought of as that and the question of why all branches of Christianity have never quite been able to agree on what books should be in the Bible. Yes, you'll find lots of religious thinking here but you'll also find a mirror held up to America.
* Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges, by James Emery White. The author is a Christian pastor and theology teacher who identifies himself as an evangelical -- but a worried evangelical. He acknowledges that the traditional evangelicalism represented by, say, Billy Graham, has withered in many ways and he's worried about how this tradition can find a renewed sense of itself in not just a post-modern world but in what is clearly becoming a post-Christian world. Oddly enough, however, his recipe seems to be more of the same -- proclamation of biblical inerrancy, an emphasis on personal salvation so people don't go to hell, those sorts of approaches. If he knows much about the Emergent Church Movement, which has its roots among evangelicals, he seems unwilling to acknowledge it or to explore what that movement might be getting right. To get much out of this book you pretty much have to be in the same evangelical camp with White, who is well aware of the pop culture all around him and its sometimes-destructive values. It's just that I don't see him reaching much beyond evangelicalism to find ways to stand against that destruction. Too bad. There's lots of common ground on which Christians of all branches can stand together against the worst in the culture, even if we disagree about some of it. There's no need for evangelicals to think they have to take all this on alone.
* My Spiritual Journey, by the Dalai Lama, with Sofia Stril-Rever. This book is a bit unexpected in its presentation and format. Instead of long chapters detailing the boyhood of the Dalai Lama (born Tenzin Gyatso) in Tibet, his time as a Buddhist monk and his time as Dalai Lama (starting in the 1950s), the chapters are short and are almost meditations on some aspect of those three periods in his life. As non-Buddhists read his words, they will get a better feel for such difficult-to-understand concepts as reincarnation and other matters Buddhism teaches. The Dalai Lama has been a voice for peace and interfaith conversation for a long time, and in this new volume his voice remains consistent. There is interesting information here about what happened in Tibet under the Chinese Communists and why the Dalai Lama fled, but for a fuller account of that pain and the continuing trauma in Tibet, I recommend Surviving the Dragon, which I wrote about in this entry in August.
* Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, by Brad Warner. Well. What to make of this strange book? It's vulgar, profane and in-your-face in ways that seem unnecessary to make the point. And yet it's also funny and bears truth. The author is a Soto Zen priest who also does lots of other alternative-culture things. This is Buddhism and sexuality sort of the way "Saturday Night Live" might do it, only on a back-channel cable station with no rules about what words you can't say.
* A Sorrow Shared, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Readers who love the late Henri Nouwen (who doesn't, save those who've never read him?) will be delighted that there is now a combined edition of his In Memoriam and his A Letter of Consolation, both written about the death of his mother. Better yet, there's a lovely forward by Barbara Brown Taylor, also a gifted writer and thinker.
* Rumi: The Big Red Book, translations by Coleman Barks. Not long ago the old Persian poet Rumi was (and may still be) the best-selling poet in America. This some 800 years after his birth. In this volume of nearly 500 pages, an expert in Rumi (born Jelaluddin Rumi), Coleman Barks, offers his translations of many of this mystical poet's poems and quatrains. This is a wonderful collection of words that move the heart and soul, and they are contained within a disciplined setting that helps readers grasp their meaning.
* Walking Gently on the Earth: Making Faithful Choices About Food, Energy, Shelter and More, by Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff. In the end, this book, by a mother and daughter team, is a call to think. Think about what we eat. Think about how we grow food. Think about what fuels we use to propel ourselves from here to there. And more. The authors want us to ponder how all of that fits in to our faith commitments and what religion tells us about how to live gently on our planet. They argue that even baby steps toward wiser choices can help all of us. They're right about that, although, of course, there are some matters of environmental degradation that have systemic causes and will require larger, systemic answers.
* Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, by Wangari Maathai. It is hard to be engaged in work that seeks to repair the world without at some point reflecting on how that work is informed by one's religious or spiritual values. This book, by the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya, seeks to explore the connection between her efforts to plant millions of trees in Africa and the eternal values of religious faith. She acknowledges that when she began the GBM work in 1977, it was not for religious reasons. But as the work has continued and gained worldwide attention and praise, Maathai has seen spiritual connections to what she's doing and she implores us to do the same in our work, whatever it may be.
* Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, by Bernard Schweizer. Do you know what a misotheist is? It's different from an atheist, it turns out. An atheist doesn't believe there is a god. A misotheist is just so angry at God that the author, a college English teacher and author, concludes that the result is hatred of God. In this intriguing volume, Schweizer finds evidence of misotheism in lots of literature and helps us unmask it. Why does it need to be unmasked? Because, he contends, authors often hide it or play it down so that most readers will pay attention to the larger literary plot or substance of the writing but not get all distracted by the author's virulent dislike of God. In the midst of today's harsh arguments between the aggressive new atheists and the defensive old theists, Schweizer gives us a new category (with several subcategories) to think about. And it's worth the effort.
* Ancient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way, by David Robinson. This Presbyterian pastor has discovered the rewards of Benedictine spirituality, an approach to the Christian faith that goes back 1,500 years. And he carefully walks readers through the process of understanding how a commitment to that tradition can help shape them as generous, disciplined and loving Christians. As the book makes clear, Benedictine spirituality need not be limited to Catholics. Rather, it's a spiritual path for many people who want to learn to simplify life and be guided by the virtue of humility. If you've never explored the Benedictine path, this is a good place to start.
* Paths to Prayer: A Field Guide to Ten Catholic Traditions, by Pat Fosarelli. If you've ever wondered how Catholic spirituality traditions differ and what they have in common, this small book will be a treasure full of clear answers. The author, a theologian and teacher, helps us understand these spiritualities: Augustinian, Benedictine, Cistercian, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, Ignatian, Salesian, lay and mystical. Did you, like the author when she was young, simply assume that there was one Catholic approach? Well, guess again. In fact, now you don't have to guess.
* Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, by Ken Howard. This is an important book for all of us Christians of every branch of the faith. It seeks to describe the current divisions in the church and then to point to a way forward that will respect our differences but unite us because of the common ground we share. Howard is an Episcopal priest who begins, appropriately, with the harsh splits in his own denomination. But then he moves out to the broader church and tries to set the currently unsettled nature of the church in a historical context. He is well in tune with the Emergent Church Movement (indeed, ECM guru Brian McLaren has written the foreward) and thus able to help readers see what that movement brings to the question of the future of the church. In the end, Howard says, "we will have to become more comfortable with the discomfort of paradox -- engaging the tension between truths that to us seem irreconcilable -- while recognizing that to God, reconciling the irreconcilable is all in a day's work (if that long)." Thus his name Paradoxy for how the church can move forward. My only serious complaint about this book is that, especially at the beginning, Howard also falls into the trap of imagining that there are just two sides, "liberals" and "conservatives," without reminding us that labels hide much more than they reveal and that the world is more complicated than that. That's too bad, because what Howard is seeking to do is to find a middle way forward between the extremes that takes account of nuance.
* Shopping, by Michelle A. Gonzalez, and Playing, by James H. Evans Jr., both part of a Fortress Press series called "Christian Explorations of Daily Living." Although the titles of these books may make them seem trivial, they are anything but. They are serious efforts to understand the everyday experiences of shopping and playing in terms of Christian theology. The shopping book's author comes at this by drawing extensively on Catholic social teaching, while the playing book's author teaches systematic theology at a seminary. The series editor, David H. Jensen, teaches theology at a seminary, too. If our faith is to instruct us in all areas of our lives, shopping and playing must be included. These thin books will give you much to think about.
* A Year with Aslan: Daily Reflections from The Chronicles of Narnia, edited by Julia L. Roller. For fans of C.S. Lewis, any excuse to dive back into Narnia will be welcomed. And here's a year-long chance to do just that. The editor has selected a Lewis reading for each day of the year and then has drafted a question to get the reader to think more deeply about what Lewis meant or at least about what something in the daily passage might mean to us. This is a lovely daily devotional idea.
* God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God, by Tim Clinton and Joshua Straub. The authors are Christian counselors who approach the faith from within what I'm sure they would call the evangelical or conservative branch of Christianity. They tell interesting stories here about how they came to understand their faith more clearly through various experiences of trauma, and they draw on their experience as counselors to explore what it means to be drawn toward God. But in the end I found not much fresh here and I found the authors drawing firm conclusions without either offering much evidence or without acknowledging that other Christians have come to different conclusions. A small example is the conclusion that "the death of Christ was always God's plan. . ." They authors here might have mentioned that such theologians as Alfred North Whitehead answer the question of whether that "was always God's plan" with much more nuance and, thus, much more interestingly.
* The Friends We Keep: Unleasting Christianity's Compassion for Animals, by Laura Hobgood-Oster. This is an overdue book. Using her prophetic voice, the author calls Christians to account for how they have treated animals and calls them to an ethic that makes room for a healthy and loving relationship with animals. The Bible, of course, is full of animals, from Noah's Ark to the Holy Spirit as a dove, with the animals at Jesus' birth in between. But as Hobgood-Oster points out, somehow over time Christians have lost sight of their responsibility to live in harmony with animals, even ones who provide some of our food. In addition to a renewed call to the ethical treatment of animals, the book contains lots of interesting history as well as disturbing stories of horse racing, dog fighting and lions eating Christians.
* Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time, by Jane Knuth. Ah, a well-written book with a realistic view of what it means to help poor people. This is a collection of stories about people who use a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store but who, in turn, teach the volunteer clerks there a great deal about what it means to be fully human. There is no romanticizing of poverty here, just true tales of real people who will change your life, as they changed Jane Knuth's.
* Running on Faith: The Principles, Passion, and Pursuit of a Winning Life, by Jason Lester, with Tim Vandehey. If stories of people overcoming barriers inspire you, this will light your fire. The author is a Christian athlete who has pushed himself to and past the limit to accomplish quite amazing things. Lester, badly injured as a 12-year-old, has relied on his faith not just to survive but to excel. True, at times here Lester seems to want to universalize his story to all of us. Such as when he writes: "When you say yes to the opportunities that frighten or intimidate you, God will always do two things. He will give you gifts, and he will humble you." It is, of course, a little presumptuous to tell others what God will "always" do. Still, it's hard not to admire what Lester has accomplished and to be inspired by it.
* Life Without Limits: Inspiration for a Ridiculously Good Life, by Nick Vujicic. If you want to be doubly inspired by people who have overcome physical disabilities with the help of their faith, read this book after you read the book just above here. The author, in his late 20s, was born in Australia of Serbian immigrants, but born without either arms or legs, a condition known as phocamelia. But this clearly hasn't deterred Vujicic (pronounced Voy-a-chich) from leading a happy and productive life. To get a sense of his spirit, click here for a YouTube presentation of him talking to children and then describing for others moving from hopelessness to resolve. He has devoted his life to encouraging people to overcome whatever they face.
Also: I haven't had a chance to check out American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, but religious scholar Martin E. Marty reviews the book here.
Finally, two books I have something to do with:
* They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, by me and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. The book came out just over a year ago. All royalties go to Holocaust-related charities.
* Elmwood Cemetery: Stories of Kansas City, by lots of Kansas Citians, including me. This gorgeous book describes lots of people buried in this historic cemetery on the city's east side. I wrote the chapter on clergy buried there.
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MAYBE THE POPE NEEDS HIS OWN SHOW
Will Pope Benedict XVI be a guest on Conan O'Brien's new TBS show? Maybe, this report says. Hmmm. What do you think? Would it be a good way to appeal to Conan viewers or just the trivialization of religion as entertainment? My vote: 20 percent the former, 80 the latter.