Standing against human empires: 10-26-12
Studying sex and religion: 10-29-12

Books for holiday gifts: 10-27/28-12

Although I prefer to focus on no more than one or two books in any one blog entry, I recognize that some of you already are doing your holiday shopping and may be interested in some books with faith-related themes.

So I'm going to unload a pile of them on you today -- some with a bit of commentary about them, some with barely a mention, but all with links that will let you dig into them further if the titles interest you.

Bonhoeffer-sermons* The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Isabel Best. Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr whom the Nazis murdered for plotting to get rid of Hitler, did not preach on a regular basis for much of his short (39 years) life. But he did leave a revealing legacy of sermons that give insight into his crisp theological mind and into the dark times in which he lived. For Bonhoeffer's many fans (I've long been one of them), this collection of 30-plus sermons is a treasure chest of wisdom. People who have read what is perhaps his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, will find find echoes here of the voice we find in that book, the one that reminds us that there is no such thing as cheap grace. If you've read biographical material about Bonhoeffer you won't need the brief introduction to his life offered by the editor, Isabel Best, but it's there for you and it's a good summary.

Path-prayer* The Path of Centering Prayer, by David Frenette. In my own Christian walk of faith I have learned through experience that I am not a contemplative, which is to say that the practices of meditation, centering prayer and such -- though I admire them as ways of practicising one's spirituality -- are not the practices that speak to me most deeply. That said, I know that many people of various faith traditions continue to return to contemplative practices. If you are one of them, this book is certain to be a helpful guide. The author has been a leader in the centering prayer movement for many years and studied under Fr. Thomas Keating, an early leader in this practice. Indeed, Keating has written the book's foreword. Frenette walks the reader through various approaches to the contemplative practice of centering prayer, though he wisely begins with the insight that the best advice about contemplation is "to practice the meaning of one word: amen." The word, of course, means "so be it" or "let it be," and Frenette says that "with amen, your words and actions yield to God's presence. . .Amen means trusting that you can't confront injustice on your own, that you need to let your own, self-initiated efforts and agenda be, in God." It's a lovely, focused way into a book that is sure to be appreciated by contemplatives of any faith tradition.

Five-pillars* The Five Pillars of Islam: Laying the Foundations of Divine Love and Service to Humanity, by Musharraf Hussain. (This book is due to be released Nov. 6, but can be preordered now.) This, in effect, is a how-to-be-a-faithful-Muslim book. It's a guidebook that walks people through Sunni Islam today. It's a valuable reference book not only for those who follow Islam but also for others who simply want to know more about the faith life of Muslims. You want to know how Muslims should pray while traveling on a plane? The book tells you. Do you want to know how the Prophet Muhammad fasted? Again, the book tells you. The author, by the way, is director of the Karimia Institute, a Muslim organization in England that you can learn about by clicking on that link.

Love-three*Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage, by Joe, Alina, Vicki and Valerie Darger. If your image of polygamous marriage is shaped by the horror stories coming out of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) church (for example, see this 2009 blog entry), this memoir may come as a pleasant surprise. A man and his three wives, who live in Utah and describe themselves as Independent Fundamentalist Mormons, have written this description of a big, loving family that seems to them (and may seem to readers) normal in nearly every way but the plural marriage. It's not unlike the HBO TV series "Big Love," which I didn't watch but that the authors talk about in admiring ways. As you may know, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, said plural marriages was part of God's plan for Mormons. But under great pressure, the church abandoned polygamy in the late 1800s and has excommunicated people who continue the practice. Still, many people with Mormon roots continue to practice polygamy. This book raises the question of why our culture shouldn't allow that -- especially if only one or none of the wives in a family is legally married to the husband under state law. Which seems to be the case in many plural marriage families. In such cases, why would plural marriage be any different from the countless unmarried couples who live together and have children without a state-sanctioned marriage? Those are the kinds of questions readers will ask themselves after reading this engaging story.

Free-guinness* A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, by Os Guinness. The prolific Christian writer Os Guinness is worried about the United States. He thinks we're in danger of losing our freedoms, of getting distracted from the commitment and hard work it takes to sustain freedom on a long-term basis. This book is his argument for why he says that and his plea for Americans to wake up and renew their efforts to make sure our country is the beacon of freedom for a long, long time to come. "Freedom," he writes, "never lasts forever, because it is harder to be free than not to be free. Freedom must therefore be sustained and not simply won, ordered and taken for granted." Guinness, a writer whose work I've generally admired, seems at times a little overwrought here, and yet he raises good questions. The real question, of course, is whether Americans can make anything like a renewed commitment to sustaining freedom given the 50-50 divided character of our politics today and with the almost-complete refusal of the far right wing of the Republican Party (there seem to be almost no moderates left) to entertain what used to be understood as the mother's milk of politics, compromise -- not of principal but of strategy or technique. I am less optimistic about all of this than I have ever been. But perhaps you'll find Guinness' argument cogent enough to get you to get back to work on a solution.

Christmas-Plains * The Christmas Plains, by Joseph Bottum. This essayist and poet has given us the gift of a lovely little book that helps us grasp the broader and deeper significance of Christmas. He sets much of this in his native South Dakota, and perhaps, like me, you will find echoes of one of my favorite contemporary writers, Kathleen Norris, whose early book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, so thoroughly captured that harsh and rocky land. Joseph Bottum writes with both humor and insight, and perhaps because he's also a poet his prose is lyrical and richly layered. He retreats into his South Dakota childhood, but this is not a book of nostalgia. Rather, it's a light on our path to guide us toward revelation. And it's a container of hard-won truths, such as: "But there's something deep in the architecture of children that seeks more of mothers and fathers than actual mothers and fathers can ever be." This is the book to give to someone this year who wants the gift of a slow afternoon in front of a fireplace, lost in the magic of words.

Saint-Santa* The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus, by Adam C. English. Many of us know that our modern version of Santa Claus has historical roots in St. Nicholas of Myra, a late-third, early-fourth century gift-giving Christian bishop who has been the subject of many myths and legends. But even the more recent accounts of this old bishop's lives, this author argues persuasively, confuse history and legend -- sometimes even conflating information about more than one person named Nicholas (the name of several different people canonized by the Catholic Church). Adam English, who teaches theology and philosophy at Campbell University Divinity School, aims to set the record as straight as available historical documents will allow it to be set, and the result is this quite-engaging book. There is, in the end, precious little connection between the old saint -- who almost certainly was present at the Earth-shaking Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. -- and the jolly man our children and grandchildren know today as Santa Claus. The latter is mostly the product of modern marketing aimed at selling Coca-Cola and other products. Still, it's intriguing to learn more about the life of the original St. Nicholas and to see how the values he lived out have found their way into the myth of Santa Claus today.

Now, before I get to a list of other books I'll do little more than mention with a link to their Amazon page, in most cases, let me tell you briefly about a new Christmas-related DVD you might want to own or give. It's "Love's Christmas Journey," the 11th and latest installment of the Hallmark Channel's saga, "Love Comes Softly." The story involves a beautiful young widow (her husband and daughter died in a tornado) somewhere in the Southwest in the 19th Century. She goes to visit her brother, a sheriff in another town, and his two children for Christmas and the story develops from there. I'm no movie critic (though I played one for my campus newspaper in college), but this is the sort of warm family movie that will appeal to people who like warm family stories and who can put up with mediocre acting and directing. The film is being promoted by Allied Faith and Family. Its mission is to encourage the entertainment industry to produce uplifting fare and to build bridges between the faith and entertainment worlds -- surely a worthy goal.

* How to Pray the Dominican Way: Ten Postures, Prayers and Practices that Lead Us to God, by Angelo Stagnaro.

* Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy, by Matt Litton.

Builders-community* Builders of Community: Rethinking Ecclesiastical Ministry, by José Ignacio Gonzalez Faus. A new book from Convivium Press by an influential Spanish theologian.

*Morality in Social Life, by Sergio Bastianel. Another Convivium Press offering. The author teaches moral theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

* Growing in Love and Wisdom: Tibetan Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation, by Susan J. Stabile. The author of this Oxford University Press offering teaches at the St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis and is a spiritual director.

* God: A Story of Revelation, by Deepak Chopra. Chopra, who teaches Eastern philosophy to the West, has written many books and has a large following.

* Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story, by Gangaji. The author changed her name from Antoinette Roberson Varner after studying with a guru.

* What Every Christian Ought to Know, by Adrian Rogers with Steve Rogers. This material is drawn from a 2005 book by the late radio pastor, Adrian Rogers. Know that his ideas include: "Scientific accuracy confirms that the Bible is the Word of God."

Following-footsteps* Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospels for Year C, by José A. Pagola. I wrote about the author's Year A lectionary book here.

* Green Leaves for Later Years: The Spiritual Path of Wisdom, by Emilie Griffin. Eastern religions are characterized by respect for the wisdom of the elderly. The author explores what it might mean in Western traditions -- and Christianity in particular -- to live wisely in our advanced years.

* The Magical Path: Creating the Life of Your Dreams and a World That Works for All, by Marc Allen. Is fear keeping you from achieving your dreams? If so, the author has some advice for you.

* From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, by Chris Haw. This is a memoir about a faith journey by the author of Jesus for President.

* Beauty Disrupted, by Carré Otis. This is a memoir, now in paperback, by a model who raises all kinds of ethical questions about the exploitation of women in the modeling industry.

* Christmas in Sugarcreek, by Shelley Shepard Gray. This is a novel in the "Seasons of Sugarcreek" series by an author who deals with Amish themes.

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Note: I'm in Chicagoland for a few days with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn giving talks about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust. Until I return early next week I won't be adding a second item to these posts. But you've got more than enough to read here this weekend anyway.


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