Eerdmans, 112 pages
Rowan Williams’ recent small books “Being Christian” and “Becoming Disciples” have been helpful in describing foundational Christian belief and practice. Here, Williams turns his attention to what makes us human and how we can sustain what is humane when it is being increasingly threatened. Taken with the other two, it makes a trilogy worth reading together. By the author’s admission, these essays are perhaps more intellectually challenging. Yet they are worth the effort. As Williams says, “Unless we have a coherent model of what sort of humanity we want to nurture in our society, we shall continue to be at sea over how we teach, how we vote … how we think about the beginning and end of life.” It concludes with a sermon on the ascension of Jesus.
Anxious to Talk About It
Carolyn B. Helsel
Chalice Press, 128 pages
Helsel wants ordinary white folks to engage the conversation about race in a way that propels them forward into action steps. She writes gently without ranting, yet the clarity and urgency of her purpose is unmistakable. Moreover, Helsel is emphatic about her Christian perspective on racism. This book is a perfect primer for those ready to talk and to act.
The Marvelous Mustard Seed
Amy-Jill Levine & Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (illustrated by Margaux Meganck)
Flyaway Books, 40 pages
The authors, both Jewish, continue their recent practice of creating children’s books based on the parables of Jesus. The book is beautifully illustrated. Their intent is “not to erase the good readings that have been offered … rather to add a new understanding based on what we imagine Jesus’ original audiences might have heard.” The authors succeed in their attempt and have provided a good resource for both Christians and Jews to enter this parable. A guide for parents and educators is included.
Home by Another Way
Barbara Brown Taylor (illustrated by Melanie Cataldo)
Flyaway books, 40 pages
Taylor brings her usual brilliant writing and insight to this beautifully illustrated children’s Christmas story. Of course, the best children’s stories are for adults, too. This is no exception. “Sometimes the most valuable gifts are the most unexpected.”
A Lens of Love
Jonathan L. Walton
WJK, 208 pages
This book by the chaplain of Harvard University was born from discussions with young adults about the Bible and their desire to know it better. Walton sat with a diverse range of young adults each month teaching the socio-historical layers of Scripture and demonstrating ways to interpret it through the “lens of love.” He describes it as an effort “to promote ethical and responsible biblical interpretation among non-specialists.” It’s a well-written, useful guide to the Bible by one who uses it for love in the world.
Hope in Time of Abandonment
Wipf & Stock, 320 pages
This is an old book, yet thankfully reprinted now for a new audience. I must say these current times cry out for fresh reading of Ellul, and this is one of his finest, most challenging books. He combines sharp sociological commentary with equally erudite exegesis of Scripture. How shall we live if indeed we are living in a time of abandonment? What might such abandonment say about God? Can we have hope as the children of Israel traveling similar paths? One thing I know is that when times are as fraught as now, it’s important to return to the classics for wisdom. This is one.
What Are We Doing Here?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages
Robinson, one of our wisest public intellectuals, continues to defy convention by asserting the deep insights of Christian faith into all manner of subjects. She is a consummate contrarian who criticizes every ideology in order to evoke a deeper conversation about what matters most. In this collection of essays, she is particularly focused on what divides the country, probing both left and right assumptions about truth. Relentless in her pursuit, Robinson forces her readers to read more slowly and think more clearly. “The willingness to indulge in ideological thinking – that is, in thinking that is by definition not one’s own, which is blind to experience and to the contradictions that arise when broader fields of knowledge are consulted – is a capitulation no one should ever make.”
Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (Revised and Updated)
Abingdon Press, 160 pages
Any congregation will benefit from engaging this book that highlights these essential practices: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and extravagant generosity. Imagine if every faith community embraced each of these practices in a serious way. What might happen to them and the people they service? The second edition goes much further in the direction of missional life among neighborhoods and communities. Get your leaders together to study this book. Ask yourself what practices describe your congregation.
What in the World Is Wrong with Gisbert?
Jochen Weeber (illustrated by Fariba Gholizadeh)
Flyaway Books, 32 pages
Another lovely children’s book that draws attention to the need for young people to belong and the consequences of the bullying that is so common among kindergartners (and the not so young). Gisbert is different. He is a very tall giraffe. That is who he is; but not everyone accepts him because he is who he is. The authors help children navigate this pain through this story that show a way forward for us all.
Love Without Limits
Jacqueline A. Bussie
Fortress Press, 195 pages
The author is the director of the Forum on Faith and Life at Concordia College. One might think it a cliché to say Jesus loves without limits. Sadly, that message is actually more radical than a cliché and very much needed in these times. Bussie, a Lutheran theologian, tells of love for neighbor and stranger crossing boundaries. “Nothing is more scandalous and subversive than a love without limits.” This is a memoir, but it’s also a theological examination of the depths of love.
Karl Barth, the Jews, and Judaism
George Hunsinger, editor
Eerdmans, 192 pages
This is a stellar collection of essays by first-rate Barth scholars, both Christian and Jewish. Contributors include David Novak, Eberhard Busch, Peter Ochs and Ellen T. Charry. Hunsinger, one of the premier American scholars, has labored many years in this field. Given the continuing conversations about Jewish-Christians relations, this book will be a valuable guide for pastors, teachers and scholars.
Give Love and Receive the Kingdom
Paraclete Press, 208 pages
Sister Benedicta Ward is one of the finest writers on the spiritual life. Her collection of the desert sayings is the classic text. Now she brings her heart and skills to the English tradition of spiritual practice. This has been described as her magnum opus. When public protest is so necessary in our time, it is equally necessary to be rooted in practices that deepen the heart.
God, Improv, and the Art of Living
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Eerdmans, 230 pages
The author explores a way of life that is persistently open to the possibilities when one says “yes, and!” No one has applied the theories of improvisation with greater theological depth and practicality than McKibben Dana. This book, previously reviewed in the Outlook at length, will open your life to a perspective that changes everything. As the author admits, “I’ve learned more about myself in my study of improv than I have in almost any other endeavor. It’s on-the-job life training.”
Together at the Table
Karen P. Oliveto
WJK, 176 pages
The author is described as the first openly LGBTQ bishop of the United Methodist Church. The author is interested less in label and more in welcoming all people to the Table of the Lord. This memoir tells her story of faith and courage as she continues to bear witness to the love of God for all people. The Table of the Lord is both metaphor and concrete reality of where she discovers the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Eerdmans, 248 pages
John Fea is a reliable historian who recounts precisely the reasons for the rise to power of Donald Trump and the fierce support of white evangelicals. Fea, an evangelical, describes the fear, nostalgia and dark desire for power among these evangelicals that continue to sustain their support. Yet, he is not uncritical, offering a way forward for the gospel to be embraced with integrity rather than the current foul brew. It’s not clear if the puzzle of white evangelical support is solved or can ever be solved, but for those who appreciate history, this is worth reading.
Charles L. Campbell
WJK Press, 300 pages
This book is part of the “Belief” theological commentary series. Campbell is a practical theologian and this book is a culmination of 30 years of reflection and writing. He contends, rightly, that North American churches are dealing with deep wounds analogous to those described in Paul’s letter. That conviction makes a difference in how one practices ministry and does theological commentary on Scripture. “Theology at the site of a wound is necessarily practical theology.” Preachers and teachers need to study this fresh theological reading of Paul’s letter especially for the healing of the wounds that divide us.
Making Faithful Decisions at the End of Life
Nancy J. Duff
WJK, 128 pages
Duff is a wise guide for Christians seeking to engage the difficult issues at the end of life. It is important for Christians to have the language of their faith to speak about death and dying, including thorny issues of end-of-life support, living wills, death with dignity laws and more. Pastors who want to help their congregations should have this book on hand. It could be an excellent opening for conversations most find difficult or want to avoid.
A Sojourner’s Truth
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson
IVP, 208 pages
This is a powerful memoir of truth-telling beginning with the first sentence: “Telling the truth can get you into trouble.” Robinson has experienced a great deal of loss and pain — after all, she is a black, Christian woman from the South. In this book she wants to confront “the darkness of this world” so that more of us can walk in the light. For her, that means speaking honestly as a woman of color and encouraging others to do the same. “The first person each of us must learn to speak truth to is ourselves.” She adds cultural, theological and biblical commentary to her personal truth-telling.
Michael Barram (foreword by Walter Brueggemann)
Eerdmans, 265 pages
This is another book in the remarkable “Gospel and Our Culture” series. The series’ purpose is “to foster the missional encounter of the gospel with North American culture.” That is precisely what Barram does in this book. With clarity and conviction he probes the shadow side of the American dream when juxtaposed with the dream of God in Scripture, particularly Exodus and the covenant theology throughout the text. With additional commentary on the Sermon on Mount and the book of James, what is manifestly obvious is that Christian discipleship requires attention to the economic imperatives of the Bible. While the book is quite accessible, there is nothing about it that is easy or comfortable — especially for those Christians, left and right, living in the comfort zones of white America.
Sources of the Christian Self
James M. Houston & Jens Zimmermann, editors
Eerdmans, 694 pages
Honestly, this collection of essays could take a lifetime to read, but it would be lovely endeavor. Houston and Zimmerman, professors at Regent College in Canada, have gathered writers from across the world to map out what it has meant to say “I am a Christian” over the ages. Hence, we have rich biographical essays on disparate Christian women and men, from the first century to the 21st century. That astonishing list includes Teresa of Avila, Christina Rossetti, John Calvin, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Justin Martyr and Flannery O’Connor, among others who live out their Christian selfhood. The authors have used Charles Taylor’s classic “Sources of the Self” as the model for their work. Think of this as a magisterial collection to dip into for a lifetime.
Roy W. Howard is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and the Outlook book editor.