If Halloween is only a few weeks away, that means we're deep into the Christmas shopping season, which, from what I can tell, started Dec. 26, 2016.
All of which means it's time to suggest some new faith-based books to you, either for yourself or as gifts for people you wish were smarter and more well-read than they are. (That's partly why we give books as gifts, right?)
As you might imagine, the publishing industry seems to spit out dozens of new titles in this field each week. So it's impossible for any one person to stay on top of it all. But here is a list of books (with a link to learn more about them and maybe order a copy) that have crossed my desk in recent weeks.
-- A History of the Church in 100 Objects, by Mike Aquilina and Grace Aquilina. This book is a really cool idea well executed by a popular Catholic author and his daughter. It shows photos of objects important to the history of Christianity (not just Catholicism) and offers a page or three about each, starting with the silver star in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, marking the traditional spot of Jesus' birth. Beyond that, readers will see the Apostle Paul's tomb, the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg and even the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Scholars might argue for inclusion of objects not here and exclusion of some found in the book. But on the whole it's a great read.
-- Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, by Winn Collier. I rarely review or even list fiction in these book blogs, but these made-up letters from a made-up small-town pastor seem alive and engaging. They confront real issues in real lives and, thus, speak the truth in love. There's a worthy spirit in these letters, one that more congregations and their pastors could use. The book's official publication date is later this month.
-- Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News, by Brian Zahnd. The author is founder and senior pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo. In many ways, this book is an argument against the theme of the famous 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Zahnd is convinced that Edwards' emphasis on retributive, versus restorative, justice is terribly misguided and has botched up the church for a long time. "It's regrettable," Zahnd writes, "this sermon has shaped the American vision of God for nearly three centuries." Zahnd offers a corrective here -- a much-needed one.
-- Asian Journals: India and Japan, by Joseph Campbell. The famed mythology scholar, who died 30 years ago this month, spent a lot of time on the subcontinent and in Japan and kept copious notes, which previously became two separate books. Now the New World Library has combined them into this large, engaging collection that includes photos, maps and other illustrations along the road. Campbell is a keen observer, and he captures both moments in time and what now appear to be silly predictions and out-of-sync opinions, including these in the mid-1950s from several Indians on a train ride with Campbell: It's not Russia and China but the U.S.A. that's "itching for a fight"; the World War II war trials "were a farce: Roosevelt and Churchill should have been tried"; "war is on the way right now and will probably break out in two or three years"; this war will "finish both Russia and the U.S.A." Or not.
-- Why Go to Church? by C.K. Robertson. Here in a mere 58 pages is an introduction, through Episcopalian eyes, to what church is all about. It's part of Church Publishing's series by theologians, "Little Books of Guidance." Among the authors of other books in the series are Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas G. Long, recently retired preaching professor at Candler School of Theology and author of the terrific book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral. Robertson's book, though short, provides a more complete answer than one given by the pastor of my boyhood church who planned to preach a sermon with the same title of this book one Sunday but, in a crazily full morning service, ran out of time. So he answered the question this way: "Because it's good for you." And sat down.
-- Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, by Richard A. Brown. Like Brian Zahnd, mentioned above, Rich Brown is western Missouri writer. He's the former editor of the Community of Christ's monthly magazine and author of the 2010 book, What Was Paul Thinking? This new book is a call for Christians to use their prophetic voices to speak truth to those in power. He says the church should not focus solely on each individual's private relationship with God but, rather, with what those individuals can do to help transform the broken world around them. Which is exactly the message the church today needs to hear.
-- Auden, the Psalms, and Me, by J. Chester Johnson. The author once replaced the fabulous poet W. H. Auden on the committee charged with drafting the 1979 translation of the Psalms in the current Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church. This is an account of the various ways Auden helped with that project and how he helped to shape and maintain the majesty of the Psalms in that worship book. I was especially amused by Johnson's story of how, fresh out of college and a new resident of New York City, he found Auden's number in the phone book and just called him up and chatted. Later, when they got to know each other, Johnson never confessed to that starry-eyed call, which Auden answered graciously.
-- The Mythical Leader: The Seven Myths of Leadership, by Ron Edmondson. Just because someone leads a church as head pastor doesn't mean he or she is really much of a leader. The author, a pastor who founded Mustard Seed Ministry, writes in some detail from experience what it takes to become a true leader of a congregation. I can think of more than one pastor who would do well to heed some of this advice.
-- Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, by Kelley Nikondeha. The author was adopted as an infant and is the adoptive mother of two. She argues here that adoption can and should be seen as a sacramental way to connect what is given up with one who receives what is given up. She draws on biblical narratives to get readers to see the power of radical and positive change that adoption, whether actual or metaphorical, can bring about.
-- Big Love: The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart, by Scott Stabile. This book tells the inspiring story of how the author -- whose parents were murdered when he was a teen-ager, whose brother later died of a drug overdose and who himself joined a new religious movement he finally decided was a destructive cult -- came to find redemption and purpose. Yes, in some ways this is just one more self-help book, but it's rooted in lived reality.
-- Miracle in Motion: Living a Purposeful Life, by Antonio Martinez, Jr., with David Warden. Soon after the author, after a long journey, became a Jesuit priest, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By then he was the founding president of a Cristo Rey high school in Houston. If you know anything about the Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City, you know a fair amount about the one in Houston, in that they both serve underprivileged youth who get a chance to work part-time as part of their education to help cover the cost of the school. Martinez wanted to leave his students with advice about how to live full, productive, faith-filled lives. He didn't quite get the book done, but he asked friend David Warden to finish it for him.
-- It Came from Beyond Zen!: More Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan's Greatest Zen Master, by Brad Warner. If you are one of those people (and who isn't?) who judges a book by its cover, you may well be tempted to skip this one, given that its sensationalized cover resembles a movie poster for "The Sea Monster that Swallowed the Monk." (Also a movie I'd never see on purpose.) But if you can just ignore the ridiculous cover you will find inside the author's effort to pass along, interpret and rescue the work of a long ignored 13th Century Japanese Zen monk named Eihei Dogen. It's an effort worth making.
-- Why I Am Catholic: (And You Should Be Too), by Brandon Vogt. Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but sometimes book titles leave you with no mystery at all about contents. Like this one. It's a volume of Catholic apologetics. The author had been among the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans when, in college, he converted to Catholicism. He offers here 11 arguments for why he believes Catholicism is true, good and beautiful.
-- Everyone's a Genius: Unleashing Creativity for the Sake of the World, by Alan Briggs. This is a book designed to help church leaders more effectively engage the communities they serve. The author is a pastor of a Colorado Springs church. He insists that everyone is capable of creativity, but "We live in a world that wants final-draft excellence with first-draft effort. Creativity needs time to roast slowly over divine coals."
-- The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, translated by William D. Creasy. This is a republication of a 1987 translation of the classic work by one of the best-known Christian mystics. Written in the early 15th Century, the book has provided spiritual guidance and, in some sense, the boundaries of boundless mysticism since then. Creasy says his goal was to produce a translation that was, clear, faithful to the original but not "stylistically quaint."
-- The Catholic Hipster Handbook: Rediscovering Cool Saints, Forgotten Prayers and Other Weird but Sacred Stuff, by Tommy Tighe. The author is a marriage and family therapist who also cohosts "The Catholic Hipster Podcast." In this book he has gathered together chapters from several writers who educate readers about saints they may never have heard of and other things that may fascinate Catholics with a sense of humor and inquisitiveness.
-- The Hollywood Commandments: A Spiritual Guide to Secular Success, by DeVon Franklin. The author, a Christian who writes books and produces films, here offers his thinking about what success is and how to achieve it. What is talent? he asks. It's "what creates value for others." Prayer is important, he says, but if you rely "solely on prayer you run the risk of weakening your faith (because) if we don't think it's going to take everything we have, combined with prayer, to be successful, we can wind up putting too much on God."
-- A Heart Like Mary's: 31 Daily Meditations to Help You Live and Love as She Does, by Edward Looney. This Ave Maria Press book guides readers into the heart of the mother of Jesus with daily meditations. The author is a Catholic priest who serves in the Diocese of Green Bay.
-- The Friendship Project: The Catholic Woman's Guide to Making and Keeping Fabulous, Faith-Filled Friends, by Michele Faehnle and Emily Jaminet. Not satisfied with countless Facebook "friends" you've never met? (Me, either.) These two authors, active in Catholic women's ministries, draw on the lives of female saints to guide readers toward deep friendships that will last.
-- Super Girls and Halos: My Companions on the Quest for Truth, Justice and Heroic Virtue, by Maria Morera Johnson. In this book readers will find female superheroes compared and contrasted with female saints. The idea is to understand virtue, morality and the role prophetic voice should play. There's some kicky juxtapositioning here.
-- Sacred Reading: The 2018 Guide to Daily Prayer, by the Apostleship of Prayer. This is the annual offering from the pope's worldwide prayer network, called the Apostleship of Prayer. It gets lots of use in Catholic circles but can serve as a model for how to do such devotional books in other traditions.
-- Catholic Puzzles, Word Games, and Brainteasers, Volume 1, by Matt Swaim. This is the size and shape of your standard coloring book, but it's full of fun ways to learn about aspects of Catholicism.
-- Christian Labyrinths: A Celtic Coloring Book, by Daniel Mitsui. I'd call this an intricate adult coloring book that offers the kind of contemplative experience that on-the-ground labyrinths offer. Careful colorers could spent a week on one page.
And, of course, I remind those of you who didn't give my own latest book, The Value of Doubt, to someone last Christmas, you've got another chance coming up. It also makes a great Thanksgiving gift, to say nothing of a great treat to hand out on Halloween. (Oh, it does, too.)
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CHECKING ON FACTS ABOUT RELIGION
Quick quiz: Which is the world's largest religion? Wrong, it's not Islam, it's Christianity. Did more Christian or more Muslim refugees come to the U.S. over the last 15 years? Wrong again. Way more Christians, as this RNS story reports. If we're going to argue about this stuff, let's at least have our facts straight. (And if you weren't wrong on one or both of these questions, I apologize for saying you were.)
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P.S.: What looks like a terrific three-day symposium starts Thursday at the World War I Museum in Kansas City. It's called "Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I through Today." Details and a place to register can be found here. Please have a look. Related to all that there's a "Voices of Conscience" traveling exhibit Oct. 24-29 at Rainbow Mennonite Church here. For details about this collaboration that includes Rainbow Mennonite, Church of the Brethren and Penn Valley Friends Meeting, click here.