A pensive quality characterizes the best offerings in spiritual reading this fall, with a humorous but shrewd take on Jesus himself from David Wilkie, a feminist faith from Sarah Bessey, and a tough assessment of Christianity and the environment from Michael S. Northcott. Thomas Moore’s new work on personal spirituality is notable, as is Dean G. Stroud’s wonderful anthology of anti-Nazi sermons, but best of all, perhaps, are the profound and personal revelations of Francis Spufford, fearless in his defense of his faith.
ENGAGING THE TRADITIONS
Bessey, Sarah. Jesus Feminist: An Invitation To Revisit the Bible’s View of Women. Howard. Nov. 2013. 240p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781476717258. pap. $14.99. REL
Bessey, a blogger at sarahbessey.com, is not the first woman to try to reconcile faith with feminism, but her journey and insights have their own charm. Her best reflection comes early in this volume: “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” Bessey goes on to elaborate, with humor, how the church can move beyond the choice between maleness and femaleness; the work of Jesus, she claims, involves a total change of the binaries we see. VERDICT A straightforward, easily read move toward deeply revolutionary ideas from a devout writer, this book ought to intrigue many individual readers and church groups.
Carty, Tom. The Jesus Reader: The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ. Columba. 2013. 132p. bibliog. ISBN 9781856078771. pap. $17.95. REL
Carty uses the scope of this short book to touch on aspects of Jesus (“Incarnation,” “Suffering Servant,” “Sacramental Presence,” etc.) and his teachings (“Love,” “Social Justice,” “Humility and Simplicity,” and so on) as they can be seen in the Gospels, with apposite quotations. VERDICT This brief guide should be helpful to catechumens and church groups hoping to experience Jesus without the fog of received dogma or denominational tradition.
Cool, Michel. Francis: A New World Pope. Eerdmans. 2013. 120p. tr. from French. ISBN 9780802871008. pap. $14. REL
Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy already promises to be strikingly different from those of his recent predecessors, most especially Benedict XVI. In this short volume, Cool, an experienced French journalist on spirituality and a practiced Curia-watcher, expertly addresses Francis’s career as an archbishop and the matters that demand his attention now, including the liberalization of morals, relations with China, and the world’s economy. VERDICT An intelligent and prudent guide to the new pope, Cool’s book urges a modest optimism about Francis’s leadership; it will prove immensely helpful to Catholic and non-Catholic readers alike.
Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Sounds True. Nov. 2013. 462p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781622030637. $25.95. REL
Goldstein (A Heart Full of Peace), cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, is one of the more prominent and visible U.S. exponents of Buddhism in the Theravada tradition. This book is a very full treatment of mindfulness as it expresses itself in insight meditation; it is rooted in the Buddha’s teachings in the Satipatthana Sutta. VERDICT Intellectual, technical, and intense in its approach, this work is not for the beginner or the fainthearted but is written with Goldstein’s best efforts and should reward Buddhist readers almost as much as a lifetime of meditation with the author himself.
Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. Eerdmans. 2013. 215p. ed. by Dean G. Stroud. ISBN 9780802869029. pap. $20. REL
Of books relating to the Third Reich there is no end. This book is not typical of the genre; it celebrates the quiet heroism of 11 preachers, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, courageous enough to speak with calm clarity about the anti-Semitism—and anti-Christianity—of Hitler’s stern rule. The superb editing and introduction by former Presbyterian pastor Stroud set the sermons in context and tell us that some of these brave men died for their convictions. VERDICT This work, like editions of Bonhoeffer’s letters, is an immense contribution to the literature of Christian witness and should be read by all pastors and serious historians of Christianity.
Vanamali, Mataji Devi. Shiva: Stories and Teachings from the Shiva Mahapurana. Inner Traditions. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781620552483. pap. $19.95. REL
Vanamali (The Complete Life of Krishna) is a devout Hindu, or, as she might prefer us to say, a proponent of Sanatan Dharma, a traditionalist and nonpolitical form of Hinduism. She sees the profound implications of the alternately creative and destructive powers of Shiva, but her gift is that of a storyteller. Attentive readers will be rewarded with a rich fund of seldom-heard myths and stories about Shiva. VERDICT Vanamali’s book is seductive, full of the charm of myth retold with sincerity and with a minimum of intellectualization; it should appeal to many school and college collections.
Wilkie, David. Coffee with Jesus. InterVarsity. Dec. 2013. 112p. illus. ISBN 9780830836628. pap. $16. REL
Wilkie, cofounder of radiofreebabylon.com, has done an exceptional thing: presented Christianity without cant. This is a collection of his online “Coffee with Jesus” strip cartoons, illustrated with clip art, which features several stock characters inadvertently revealing their limits and hypocrisy to a surprisingly amusing—and amused—Jesus. VERDICT We can all wish that the author is right and that Jesus was as funny as this; Wilkie’s book deserves a place on the shelf of every pastor.
MEMOIR & BIOGRAPHY
Davidson, Sara. The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Scholar Take Aim at Our Greatest Mystery. HarperOne. Mar. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9780062281746. $25.99. REL
The aging of the baby boomer generation seems to have opened up the taboo topic of death in new ways (e.g., Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking). Here Davidson (Loose Change) converses with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (“Reb Zalman”) to help readers of all ages prepare for the last stages of life: to come to terms with fear, with loss, with pain, and with letting go. VERDICT Both a kind of biography of Zalman and a moving manual on dying, this book should reach far beyond a Jewish or aging readership.
Fields, Leslie Leyland & Jill Hubbard. Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hurt and Hate. W Pub. Jan. 2014. 236p. ISBN 9780849964725. pap. $15.99. REL
Fields (contributing editor, Christianity Today) and Hubbard (cohost, New Life Live on Christian radio), a clinical psychologist, have broken a kind of barrier in Christian writing. The standard in spiritual memoir or sermon has long been to return to established relationships with renewed patience and vigor; the authors write frankly of disastrous failure in parent-child relationships and the importance to the victim as well as to the wrongdoer, not of forgetting but of forgiving. VERDICT This candid volume should prove painful but necessary reading for individuals, church groups, and pastors.
Spufford, Francis. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. HarperOne. 2013. 240p. bibliog. ISBN 9780062300454. $25.99. REL
Spufford (English & comparative literature, Goldsmith’s Univ. of London; I May Be Some Time) is one of the most admired writers working today. This memoir, really his second after The Child That Books Built, may come as a surprise to his readers, since it is a profession of his Christian faith. Lest his secular readers fear that his faith requires a sacrifice of the complexity of his mind, Spufford here exhibits his trademark brilliance, humor, and acumen, demolishing the intellectual emptiness of the New Atheism along the way. VERDICT Richly rewarding to mind and heart, and a fine example of one of the era’s best writers at full tilt, this book deserves a wide audience.
ADVICE & SELF-HELP
Bell, James Stuart with Sam O’Neal. The Spiritual World of the Hobbit. Bethany House. 2013. 240p. notes. ISBN 9780764210204. pap. $13.99. REL
Peanuts, The Simpsons, and the Narnia books have all had their turn, so why not the world of J.R.R. Tolkien? The trick with Tolkien, as Bell (Inside the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) rather dimly recognizes, is that Tolkien was not a great fan of allegory: discovering Christianity in The Hobbit prompts the vexed question of religion within Middle Earth—are they waiting for their own Christ? Or are they all virtuous pagans living long before Christ? Beyond this, this work is an effective if rather simplistic close reading for moral and ethical lessons. VERDICT Tolkien’s most devoted fans are no strangers to finding meaning and personal values in The Hobbit, but this straightforward little volume may shed light for newcomers.
Moore, Thomas. A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World. Gotham. Jan. 2014. 286p. ISBN 9781592408290. $27.50. REL
Moore’s Care of the Soul was the inescapable spiritual reading of the early 1990s, poised for classic status. This latest volume continues the labor Moore has undertaken in the intervening years; like the rest of his writing, it attempts to synthesize the insights of religion and psychology. Here his mission is to encourage readers to cultivate their own spirituality in a way that honors their creativity and sexuality. VERDICT Moore has been criticized for a kind of hasty or superficial approach to complex topics, but his counsel is consistently sensible and affirming. This book should appeal to many of the unchurched, as well as the faithful across traditions.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. The Art of Communicating. HarperOne. 2013. 166p. ISBN 9780062224675. $25.99. REL
Nhat Hanh is one of the most popular living writers in spirituality, acclaimed for his courageous stances during the Vietnam War, as well as for titles such as Peace Is Every Step. His latest volume, like most of his work, reflects a range of Buddhist and non-Buddhist influences but is a curiously dogmatic approach to communication, with its own “mantras,” such as: “You are partly right,” notions that are original to the author without seeming helpful. VERDICT Nhat Hanh’s authority as a religious leader will bring this book attention from his devoted readership, but it is unlikely to be attractive to more sophisticated readers in psychology or group dynamics.
Northcott, Michael S. A Political Theology of Climate Change. Eerdmans. 2013. 344p. ISBN 9780802870988. pap. $30. REL
Northcott (The Environment and Christian Ethics), one of the most vocal and eloquent writers on the morality of ecological awareness, makes a passionate and scholarly case against the increasing abuse of our planet’s environment and for the revolutionary change necessary to stop it. William Blake, surprisingly, is his guide and arbiter. VERDICT Northcott comes perhaps as close to true prophecy as we see today. His far-reaching writing brilliantly calls us all to account and to a deeper discipleship. Churches, pastors, and individuals, Christian or not, will respond.
Sweeney, Jon M. & Michal Woll. Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century. Jericho. 2013. 224p. ISBN 9781455545896. pap. $15. REL
Interfaith marriages are increasingly common; this book, a kind of personal counterpart to Naomi Schaefer Riley’s ’Til Faith Do Us Part, candidly shows how seemingly superficial differences in religion can enlarge the inherent conflicts in marriage over issues of identity, community, and child rearing. Sweeney (editor in chief, Paraclete Press) and Woll, a rabbi, write with the rich experience both of their life together and their deep knowledge of their faith traditions. VERDICT While the authors’ professional involvement in religion marks them as a little different, the evidence is strong that many married couples, and the religious leaders who counsel them, should get a great deal out of this honest work.