The Power of Silence, Social Gospel, Environmentalism, & More | Spirituality & Religion Reviews, May 15, 2015

This season offers an immense variety of experiences in spirituality, which range in gravity and quality. Cherished Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh returns to the presses with Silence, while Mark Stoll issues a landmark history of a strand of American experience in Inherit the Holy Mountain, and Daniel Westberg takes up the challenge of Thomistic approaches in Renewing Moral Theology. John H. Walton takes a faithful but informed and intelligent approach to the Book of Genesis in The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Aaron Chalmers offers an excellent student’s approach to the prophetic books of Hebrew scripture in Interpreting the Prophets, and Robin Meyers stokes the flames of the Social Gospel in Spiritual Defiance. There are also memoirs and calls to action, for readers of various persuasions.

Engaging the Traditions

Chalmers, Aaron. Interpreting the Prophets: Reading, Understanding, and Preaching from the Worlds of the Prophets. IVP. 2015. 187p. notes. index. ISBN 9780830824687. pap. $20. rel

Chalmers’s (head, Sch. of Ministry, Theology and Culture, Tabor Adelaide; Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel) latest offering was born out of his desire to supply a beneficial text to his students. The book that has resulted, however, has wider application. While academic in style, tone, and approach, the work is also accessible and clearly organized, demonstrating the author’s rich understanding of the “worlds” of the prophetic figures of ancient Israel and the peculiarities of the prophetic/apocalpytic genres. He is especially effective when warning contemporary readers, especially those preparing to preach, not to misread, overread, or abuse the words and messages of the ancient texts. Chalmers retains his faith perspective while maintaining deep respect for his subjects. VERDICT An intelligent approach to an important component of Hebrew scriptures for the Christian reader, especially the seminarian or pastor.

Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church. Thomas Nelson. 2015. 288p. notes. ISBN 9780718022129. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718022136. rel

searchingforsilence51515Evans’s (Faith Unraveled; A Year of Biblical Womanhood) latest volume stems from a continuing search for a suitable worship context. Contemporary literature in spirituality can often contain a lot of works that seek or try to create a jazzy and accessible approach to Jesus or church life; Evans’s take is different: “Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity.” The book is structured around the traditional seven sacraments, which Evans suggests deliver particular messages—that the church can welcome, unite, and feed those who attend. The author’s approach is stylish and verges on the literary, and her graceful strategy is refreshingly distinct; she ends as she begins, with a sense of the goodness and nearness of God. VERDICT Elegantly structured and thoughtfully written, Evans’s approach to church through the metaphors of the sacraments should please many reading groups and individual seekers.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise. HarperOne. 2015. 208p. ISBN 9780062224699. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062224712. rel

This offering is the latest from popular and beloved Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and writer Hanh (Peace Is Every Step and The Miracle of Mindfulness). Here he acknowledges the buzz of noise, internal and external, that fills our lives, interfering with mindfulness and insight. He offers numerous techniques and meditations that aim to cultivate silence and stillness, even in the most chaotic settings. This silence, he says, will help seekers to hear the “true sounds” that come from the Bodhisattva (one who is on the path to enlightenment) trait of deep listening, bringing personal freedom and truer connection with others. VERDICT While not intended to be a reader’s first guide to Buddhism, Hanh’s newest title is a graceful contribution to contemporary Buddhist literature and one of the author’s finest works.

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate. IVP. 2015. 256p. notes. index. ISBN 9780830824618. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780830897711. rel

Walton (Old Testament, Wheaton Coll.) argued in his previous book, The Lost World of Genesis One, that the first chapter of Hebrew scripture was not to be read literally or scientifically, but as a description of a “cosmic temple inauguration.” Similarly, this book is an intelligent discussion of new ways to view the story of Adam and Eve—that notions of formation from dust or ribs were “archetypal claims and not claims of material origins”; that while Walton believes that a real Adam and Eve existed, it is not necessary to view all human beings as literally descended from them; and so on. What Wilson does with faith and learning is to save a certain sort of Christian reader, once again, from over-literalism not respectful of either Hebrew scripture or contemporary science. VERDICT Walton’s intriguing volume should appeal to pastors and academics, as well as seminary students.

Westberg, Daniel A. Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace. IVP. May 2015. 281p. index. ISBN 9780830824601. $25. rel

Based on the title of Westberg’s (ethics & moral theology, Nashotah House Theological Seminary; Right Practical Reason: Action, Aristotle and Prudence in Aquinas) previous study, it is no surprise that his most recent book takes a keen interest in Thomistic approaches. Westberg tries, in this extended treatment of “Christian ethics,” to combine the example of Thomas Aquinas with the Evangelical focus on the example of Jesus Christ and the interest in scripture. The result is a carefully researched and argued analysis of the meaning of sin in this understanding, and approaches to several virtues (wisdom, justice, fortitude, self-control, faith, love, and hope), described here as “moral dispositions for acting well.” ­VERDICT While Westberg’s post-Thomistic take on ethics and the virtues is likely to be a bit dense for the casual reader, it should be well received by academics.

ADvice & Self-Help

Meyer, Joyce. Get Your Hopes Up! Expect Something Good To Happen to You Every Day. FaithWords. 2015. 208p. notes. ISBN 9781455517312. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781455517305. rel

Meyer, of Joyce Meyer Ministries and author of Be Anxious for Nothing and dozens of other titles, is an apt representative of a certain strand of American Christianity: indubitably conservative but ebullient, upbeat, and focused on the cheerier components of the Christian message rather than more sobering issues such as self-examination or justice. The author is also immensely wealthy, profiting from book revenues and other compensations; her ministry is an industry. It is hard to dislike this stridently upbeat little book, with its emphasis on blessings and hope but also hard to be surprised that Meyer herself, like other proponents of the “prosperity gospel,” is so chipper—she has so much to be happy about. VERDICT ­Meyer’s dedicated readers will want this volume, but it is unlikely to interest a wider readership.

Murray, David. The Happy Christian: Ten Ways To Be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World. Thomas Nelson. 2015. 256p. notes. index. ISBN 9780718022013. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718022020. rel

happychristian51515Murray’s (Old Testament & practical theology, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary; Jesus on Every Page; Christians Get Depressed Too; How Sermons Work) latest book is a long formula for improving life satisfaction for Christians, inspired in part by relatively new findings in brain science suggesting that simply adopting more positive attitudes leads to greater happiness overall. The author’s ten-step recipe includes valuing, among other things, the future over the past, giving over getting, work over play, and diversity over uniformity—all viewed through the lens of Christian life. VERDICT Murray’s approach is delightful and should bring new perspectives to thoughtful Christians; it should prove especially useful to everyday readers and church groups.

Schlimm, John. Five Years in Heaven: The Unlikely Friendship That Answered Life’s Greatest Questions. Image: Crown. May 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780553446579. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780553446593. rel

This work is a significant departure for prolific cookbook author Schlimm (The Cheesy Vegan; The Beer Lover’s Cookbook); it is a memoir of a five-year friendship with an elderly Benedictine nun in the context of her ceramics shop on the grounds of the convent. Sister Augustine’s personality, faith, and advice are all direct, simple, and homespun; her friendship with Schlimm seems to have been transformative for him in some ways because he was ready for her message of compassion and humility. ­VERDICT Schlimm’s book has the charm of the friendship it describes; it will prove worthwhile for individual seekers, as well as those who live with or care for the aged.

Additional Spirituality & Religion

redstarMeyers, Robin. Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance. Yale Univ. 2015. 168p. notes. index. ISBN 9780300203523. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780300213768. rel

spiritualdefiance51515Meyers’s (philosophy, Oklahoma City Univ.; Saving Jesus from the Church; The Underground Church) call to action is based on his Lyman Beecher lectures, hosted each year at Yale Divinity School, and given its title this work is a suitably bracing and even fiery summons, what Meyers terms orthopraxy (right action). He is inspired in part by the writings of 20th-century Polish poet Anna Kamienska but has little need of borrowed eloquence as he movingly asks for resistance to the tyranny of the self, to orthodoxy, and most especially to the indignities and outrages of militarism and capitalism. The author also calls for and preaches the true Social Gospel; he urges readers to contest the Church’s own staid, repetitive, exclusive status quo, the church as “a boys club, or a heavenly pyramid scheme.” VERDICT Meyers’s ideas might upset and alienate the comfortable yet will also enlighten and inspirit a thoughtful readership of seekers and ­pastors.

redstarStoll, Mark. Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. Oxford Univ. Jun. 2015. 416p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780190230869. $39.95. rel

Stoll (history, environmental studies, Texas Tech Univ.; Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America) presents a remarkable and eye-opening study in the history of ideas; he demonstrates nothing less than the vivid impact of faith traditions on citizen action and public policy relevant to the environment in the United States. Contrary to what one might expect, it was the heritage of Calvinism (Presbyterians and Congregationalists) that created and fed the particularly American feeling about the natural world and the human relationship to it, and therefore shaped a great deal of governmental policy. The history itself is fascinating, but Stoll’s conclusion, that “the decline of environmentalism shadowed the waning of Presbyterianism,” given that there has been no major environmental legislation since 1990, is chilling. A certain passion has been extinguished with the loss of religious or postreligious motive. VERDICT A superb and lush history of the environmentalist impulse seen through the lens of faith traditions.

Wilson, Jarrid. Jesus Swagger: Break Free From Poser Christianity. Thomas Nelson. 2015. 208p. notes. ISBN 9780718021993. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718022006. REL

This is Christian blogger Wilson’s (30 Words) second book-length work, and a great deal is revealed by its title, his job title (NextGen Pastor), and home church (LifePoint Church, Smyrna, TN). He puts a young and even hip face to Christianity, with a vengeance. Wilson’s message is, in the context of contemporary Christianity, sound: he is opposed to easy, superficial, and materialistic forms of Christian identity, and he challenges his readers to be full-time, sincere Christians. Given his appeal to the current moment and the young Christian reader, the author’s admiration of Dietrich ­Bonhoeffer comes as a surprise, but a welcome and salutary one. VERDICT Wilson’s brief book should be useful and of interest to individual readers, pastors, and most definitely church youth groups.

Graham Christian (MSLIS, Simmons Coll.; PhD, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst), formerly with Andover-Harvard Theological Library, is an independent writer and scholar in Western Massachusetts

 

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