May begins tomorrow, which means some of you will be prowling book stores and the internet to find things to read on your summer vacation, which usually starts a month or two before it starts, if you know what I mean.
So I'm going to help you a bit with that, I hope, by briefly telling you about a stack of new books with faith-based themes. These won't be full reviews, but I'll give you a link that will take you to a site (often Amazon.com) where you can learn more and buy a copy.
And, for the record, just because I list a book here doesn't mean I agree with everything the author said. Sometimes I just want you to know that such a book exists.
So, onward. We begin with three books related to the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton (pictured here):
-- What I Am Living For: Lessons from the Life and Writings of Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney.
-- The Monk's Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan and the Perilous Summer of 1966, by Robert Hudson.
-- In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk's Memoir, by Paul Quenon.
Merton, as many of you know, was a terrifically productive writer and thinker who was known as Father Louis among the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he spent much of his fascinating life. I first encountered his work in the late 1960s and wrote a review of his book Faith and Violence for the first newspaper I worked at after college graduation, the now-defunct Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.
The first Merton book on this list is a collection of essays about him and what he meant to the authors, who include such well-known writers as Sue Monk Kidd and Father James Martin.
The second book is written by a Bob Dylan scholar who is also a member of the International Thomas Merton Society. Merton himself was a big Dylan fan, and the book explores how Merton's and Dylan's lives connect in various thematic ways.
The third book on the list above is by a monk who served as a novice under Merton at the abbey. It's a description of monastic life that concludes with this: "The choreography of the day, the week, and the year sets my pace and keeps me going. What monastics call 'the regular life' is also a form of play. I dance in the water of time, with its threat of sinking, but I am breathing the air of the timeless."
-- Lead Like a Shepherd: The Secret to Leading Well, by Larry Osborne. You know the old hymn, "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us"? This book takes that concept seriously but applies it to leadership by people today, though the author, a pastor, says that the inspiration from the book came from this passage in the New Testament book of I Peter: "Be shepherds of God's flock." It's full of advice about how to be an effective spiritual leader, though he correctly notes that such work "is not for the faint of heart."
-- From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, by Brian C. Stiller. The author is the global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, and offers here his take on how and why Christianity is growing impressively in such places as Africa and the Far East. That growth is happening at a time when, in North America and especially Europe, Christianity is becoming less dominant. The predominant voices in Christianity are beginning to come from the Southern Hemisphere and such places as South Korea, which isn't where Timbuktu is located, but you get the idea.
-- Three Secrets to Holiness in Marriage: A 33-Day Self-Guided Retreat for Catholic Couples, by Dan and Amber DeMatte. As the subtitle of this book indicates, for a month-plus-long, it offers daily meditations and conversations about how to hold marriage together. It's written with angst about what the authors see as cultural rejection of "God's plan for human sexuality and marriage" and about people growing up in "a secular culture that promotes relativism, materialism and individualism instead of in a family of life and love." If those ideas speak to you, so will this book.
-- Finding Favor: God's Blessings Beyond Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Brian Jones. The pastor-author of this book uses the word "favor" for what many others call God's grace -- an unmerited divine gift that redeems and guides the lives of people. He's a good story-teller, starting with one about landing in Honduras at the start of a military coup and one about his daughter deciding to give up boys so she could date Jesus (a ridiculous idea, he thought).
-- Good Enough is Good Enough: Confessions of an Imperfect Catholic Mom, by Colleen Duggan. As the product of a home with an alcoholic father and a mother who had been abused, the author figured out early in life that she had to be excellent at everything. But being a perfectionist as a parent is simply an impossible job, as all parents finally realize. And this author eventually figures that out, too, and tells readers how.
-- The Burden is Light: Liberating Your Life from the Tyranny of Performance and Success, by Jon Tyson. In some harmony with the previous book, this one is a guide to help overachievers recognize that they may not be living the life God would have them live. To live the latter life requires not obedience but surrender, he writes: "Obedience is a momentary decision, but surrender is the posture of the kingdom."
-- Psalm Basics for Catholics: Seeing Salvation History in a New Way, by John Bergsma. The psalter historically has been the hymnbook of the church. The book of Psalms in the Hebrew scriptures contains poetry that rings with the wide range of human emotion. The author of this book is a theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and served as a Protestant pastor before converting to Catholicism. Although this guide is written with Catholics in mind, it has information that can be appreciated by Protestants and Orthodox Christians as well as by Jews.
-- Follow: Your Lifelong Adventure with Jesus, by Katie Prejean McGrady. This book grew out of a conversation the author had with someone after she had given a talk. He wanted to know about Jesus and how to get to know him. She writes, "I stuttered out a quick answer, trying to briefly summarize what I'd just said on stage, but I could tell I wasn't satisfying him. I was being vague, speaking in generalities, making references to all the points I'd just made that had clearly prompted him" to ask his questions. The experience "left me shaken," she writes. This book is her answer to his questions.
-- Rethink Happiness: Dare to Embrace God and Experience True Joy, by Paul George. In some ways similar in theme to the Jon Tyson book above, this is a call to surrender to God and to focus on what brings joy. The author is the founder of Adore Ministries. People who search for fulfillment in shallow relationships and material goods inevitably will be disappointed. Paul George suggests a more eternal source of joy.
-- Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else, by Melanie Springer Mock. Not unlike themes in some previously mentioned books here, the thrust of this one has to do with the need to walk away from the secular industry of self-improvement and walk toward a God whose image you already bear. There is special focus here on how women in our culture are to find their true selves and how that can overcome cultural gender bias.
-- Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints, by Christiana N. Peterson. A mystic path is found in many faiths. In Judaism it's kabbalah, in Islam Sufism. Christian mystics, like those in other traditions, are people who have had some kind of quite personal experience of God. The author of this book looks to those Christian mystics to find guides for an authentic life of faith. One thing that readers may find especially valuable here is her eyes-open discussion of death and its mysteries.
-- The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships, by Suzanne Stabile. And the "Study Guide" for that book. The enneagram is a centuries old personality typing system. I think of it as a spiritual Myers Briggs tool. It's a tool of self discovery, and this book unpacks all of that as well as how it can help guide someone not just to understand oneself but to understand more fully the people with whom one is in relationship. The accompanying study guide puts what the reader learns in the main book into action through exercises and questions.
-- Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, (revised and expanded) by James Martin. This is a new edition of a book I reviewed here last year. The book as stirred up a lot of talk about LGBT issues, and not just in the Catholic Church. If you missed it last year, here's another chance.
* * *
JAMES CONE, 1936-2018
It was a sad weekend in the world of theology. James Cone, a brilliant man who is known as the founder of black liberation theology, died at age 79. I thought Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Cone taught, summed it up well: “In so many ways, James Cone has been Union Theological Seminary for the past 50 years. To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness, and fierce commitment to black liberation embodied not just the very best of our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action.” Cone was an inspiration not just to black religious leaders but to all thoughtful religious leaders who take seriously God's concern for the downtrodden.
* * *
P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about Calvin Coolidge saving an old church -- now is online here.