Spiritual Living Reviews, July 15, 2012

The early summer of 2012 sees the arrival of a number of publications that emphasize calm reconsideration of some of the core ideas, texts, and doctrines of Christian tradition. Watch, too, for the attractive photo-essay on Tibet, as well as the revelatory collection of autobiographical essays by American Muslim men.


Cahill, Tom. Getting It Across: Reflections on the Sunday Readings of the Three-Year Cycle. Columba, dist. by Dufour. Jul. 2012. c.197p. ISBN 9781856077347. pap. $27.95. REL
Cahill (Divine Word Missionaries, Ireland) has done the casual reader and the attentive worshipper a favor; this book is a series of reflections on the Sunday readings of the three-year liturgical cycle. Today, we think of the sermon as a long harangue, and it is not always the case that they successfully reflect the scriptural readings of the day, but these brief and accessible essays are the informal “chats” sermons originally were. VERDICT Contemporary in application and brief, these fresh thoughts should appeal to the spectrum of Christian readers and religious leaders.

Frager, Robert. Sufi Talks: Teachings of an American Sufi Sheikh. Quest. Jul. 2012. c.296p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780835608930. pap. $19.95. REL
Frager (Institute of Transpersonal Psychology; Essential Sufism) comes to writing about spirituality with a fascinating double heritage as a psychologist and a Sufi teacher and author. There is always some dispute about the meaning of Sufi, sometimes called the mystical dimension of Islam, but the reader will find in this book a collection of “sohbets” (informal talks) that honor the Sufi way, but express a conventionally Islamic approach to theology and spirituality. VERDICT Frager’s book gives voice to the Islam of devotion, peace, compassion, and service; an excellent introduction to Islamic modes of thought for the general reader.

Hart, Addison Hodges. Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount. Eerdmans. Jul. 2012. c.176p. ISBN 9780802866912. pap. $18. REL
Hart (parochial vicar, Newman Ctr., Northern Illinois Univ.; The Yoke of Jesus) seriously and patiently examines the text of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, which many believe to be the core of the historical Jesus’s teachings, and charges us to take its challenging and radical ideas seriously, even at the cost of what we think of as conventional holiness. VERDICT It would be a blessing if more of the world were able to take Jesus’s sermon at full value, but while we wait for that, Hart’s book will serve as a good introduction; recommended for Bible study groups, pastors, and individual Christians.

Lawrence, Rick. Shrewd: Daring to Live the Startling Command of Jesus. David C. Cook. Aug. 2012. c.240p. ISBN 9781434700735. pap. $14.99. REL
Lawrence (editor, Group magazine; Sifted), tackles one of the most baffling of Jesus’s statements in the New Testament: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Lawrence interprets “wise” here (from the King James Version) as “shrewd,” and instructs Christians to understand the world as a place in which one must be shrewd, and use truth, laughter, and compassion to create “astonishment.” VERDICT With his typical fluency, Lawrence delivers commonsense advice for Christians. There is room for doubt as to whether Lawrence or anyone else has really gotten to the heart of Jesus’s curious syncope, but his book should appeal to many pastors and church groups.

Lucado, Max. Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine. Nelson: Thomas Nelson. Sept. 2012. c.240p. ISBN 9780849920707. $24.99. REL
Prolific religious writer and minister Lucado (Oak Hills Church, San Antonio; Just Like Jesus) delivers a particularly American kind of Gospel message in his many books, a message of uplift, hope, and courage. His new book continues his familiar themes; he sees God’s grace as a flood-like gift; he urges Christians to be more aware of God’s love and generosity in bestowing it. VERDICT Lucado’s latest volume will please his devoted following, and makes a respectable contemporary contribution to the library of Christian writings on God’s salvific actions in the world.

Mabry, John R. Growing Into God: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism. Quest. Sept. 2012. c.268p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780835609012. pap. $17.95. REL
Mabry (Grace North Church, Berkeley) addresses the broad questions that surround mysticism in the Christian tradition, too often thought of as something esoteric or secret. Mabry usefully reminds us that authentic mysticism is a core part of Christian practice that returns us to community rather than pulling us away. His book includes common questions about mysticism, quotations from renowned mystics, and thumbnail biographies of mystics cited. VERDICT An easy introduction to mysticism for the curious; recommended for individual seekers.

McCarthy, David Matzko. Sharing God’s Good Company: A Theology of the Communion of Saints. Eerdmans. Jul. 2012. c.182p. ISBN 9780802867094. pap. $28. REL
The saints of Christian faith are a perennial source of fascination, indisputably a component of religious history from the earliest days of the Church. McCarthy (theology, Mount St. Mary’s College; The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching) has written a thoughtful book that assesses many recent serious contributions to a theology of saints. He suggests that our ongoing relationship with the communion of the saints informs our relationship to the Divine. VERDICT Not another collection of saints’ lives, but an academic’s careful meditation on the implications of the meaning of the existence of saints, this book is a must for academic libraries, contemporary Catholics, and all thoughtful readers.

Mullin, Glenn H. & Gerry Croce & others (photogs.). The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas. 2011. c.184p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781611250060. pap. $29.95. REL
Mullin (The Fourteen Dalai Lamas) offers here, in collaboration with several photographers, a lavishly illustrated volume about Tibet’s sacred places. Mullin’s brief chapters focus on Tibet as the source of its influential religious tradition; the results are a kind of advanced or sophisticated coffee-table book. VERDICT More travelog or photo-essay than extended discourse on Tibet or the Dalai Lamas, this book, with its brilliantly vivid photographs, would be a perfect gift for the spiritually minded armchair traveler; good also for the general-interest library collection.

Smith, Elihu Genmyo. Everything Is the Way: Ordinary Mind Zen. Shambhala, dist. by Random. 2012. c.286p. bibliog. ISBN 9781590309728. pap. $17.95. REL
Smith (Prairie Zen Center) has written a fine and well-controlled book on his own experience and the fundamental truths of the Zen approach to Buddhist understanding and life. Before the rise of Tibetan Buddhism’s popularity began to overwhelm it, Zen Buddhism was perhaps the most acclaimed form of Buddhism in this country; Smith’s intelligent book specializes in Zen’s startling and poetic insights. VERDICT Revelatory for the Buddhist practitioner; fluent and fascinating for the general reader.


Axelrod, Matt. Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide. Jason Aronson. Aug. 2012. c.200p. ISBN 9780765708878. pap. $16.95. REL
Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) uses his 20 years of experience as a cantor to present the typical questions of the 13-year-old girl or boy and their families as they prepare for the ceremony that signifies the passage of a young person into the adult Jewish community. Axelrod writes with humor and ease but never condescends to his young target audience. VERDICT Axelrod’s little book should be valuable for most Jewish families, as well as rabbis and cantors wondering how to help their young bar/bat mitzvah candidates.

Nakkach, Silvia & Valerie Carpenter. Free Your Voice: Awaken to Life through Singing. Sounds True. Aug. 2012. c.226p. bibliog. ISBN 9781604078008. pap. $18.95. REL
Nakkach (founding director, Vox Mundi Sch.) has written a book that addresses the role of the singing voice in opening up personal spirituality. The idea that music‚ singing in particular, which engages the body so directly‚ can awaken spirituality comes as no news to musicians, but Nakkach makes this message accessible to the broader public, emphasizing the non-Western and pre-modern traditions to do so. VERDICT Drawing from a range of traditions, this book should be fascinating for individual seekers, as well as organizers of spirituality workshops.

Raffa, Jean Benedict. Healing the Sacred Divide: Making Peace with Ourselves, Each Other, and the World. Larson. Jul. 2012. c.320p. ISBN 9781936012602. pap. $18.95. REL
Raffa (Bridge to Wholeness), inspired, in part, by the writings of Carl Jung, attempts to show here how certain preconceptions about God (masculine, tribal, childish, “like us,” gender-biased, external) have damaged us, our spirituality, and our relationship to the world. She suggests alternative understandings of God: holistic, light-giving, powerful, balanced, dialogic, and so on. Raffa’s conception is powerful and subtle, and goes well beyond a simple female-based spirituality; her execution suffers a little from trying to be very accessible. VERDICT An important contribution to the continuing development of spirituality, bound to appeal to readers interested in gender roles, feminist approaches, and psychology.

Vaughn, Ellen. Come, Sit, Stay: Finding Rest for your Soul. RWorthy. Jul. 2012. c.288p. bibliog. ISBN 9781936034642. $19.99. REL
Vaughan (Choosing To See) meditates here on Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Many know this text from Handel’s setting of it if from nowhere else, but using it as a source for spirituality is unusual. Vaughan, as might be expected from her popular prior titles, writes with fluency about seeking solace in and with Christ‚ comfort without passivity. VERDICT This straightforward book should win readers across denominations; it will appeal especially to women and to church reading groups.


All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim. White Cloud. (I Speak for Myself). 2012. c.256p. ed. by Wajahat Ali & Zahra T. Suratwala. illus. ISBN 9781935952596. pap. $16.95. REL
Too various for a simple description, this fascinating book brings together 45 brief testimonies from American men who are Muslim, men who run the full range of experience, identity, and persuasion‚ gay and straight, convert and birthright, immigrant and native, conservative and radical. These candid and unfailingly fascinating life-writings should give us all hope that it is possible to see Islam as a faith, and not a threat. VERDICT This volume should appeal not only to Muslim readers, but to the broad spectrum of readers interested in contemporary American spirituality, as well as men’s religious experience. A complementary volume in the series, I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, was published in 2011.

Donnelly, John. A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa. Beacon, dist. by Random. Jul. 2012. c.200p. ISBN 9780807001325. $25.95. REL
When he was a reporter for the Boston Globe, Donnelly spent time in Africa. Here he tells the story of David Nixon, a carpenter from North Carolina, who followed a quixotic path to Malawi where he attempted, with mixed success, to open a school for AIDS orphans. Nixon’s story is a kind of paradigm of the generous impulses of a growing number of Americans, faced with the apparently overwhelming challenges of contemporary Africa. VERDICT Candid and unvarnished, this book is a window onto the difficult experience of charitable work in Africa today, good for fans of life-writing, as well as those considering a similar journey.