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Winter books briefly noted

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Popular writing

Poet Warrior: A Memoir
Joy Harjo
W.W. Norton, 240 pages

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo moves fluidly from prose to poetry as she weaves together stories of her Native American ancestors with her own upbringing, where she experienced poverty, her mother’s devoted love and her father’s drinking and rage. She took refuge in poetry and music where she could imagine herself as Emily Dickenson’s kindred spirit, two “nobodies” seeing poetry as a “refuge from the instability and barrage of human disappointment.” Harjo does not attempt to be comprehensive; instead, she shares bits and pieces of grants and honors interspersed with family life and descriptions of the Navajo Nation Council, offering us a moving glimpse of her world.

Putting it Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George James Lapine
Macmillian, 416 pages

“Art isn’t easy!” the characters sing in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” His collaborator, director and writer James Lapine recalls the messy process of putting it together in a series of interviewsand reminiscences.

Sondheim, Lapine and an inordinately talented cast created a work of healing and hope that continues to be transformative for audiences today. Perhaps this can offer encouragement for the work of ministry as well. Creating something transformative is risky and sometimes chaotic, but, with the benefit of hindsight, the results can seem divinely inspired.


All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Tiya Miles
Random House, 416 pages

Miles uses an embroidered sack – an enslaved woman’s gift of love to a daughter about to be sold – as the jumping-off point to trace the history of an individual family and to draw broader conclusions about slavery, power and the question of “who tells your story.”
The cotton bag surfaced recently in a flea market rag bin, embroidered in 1921 by a Ruth Middleton who painstakingly stitched her great grandmother’s story. Miles names Rose, Ashley and Ruth – three generations of women who created some amount of agency and ancestry for themselves – as she helps us understand the difficulty of telling stories about people whom history ignored and dehumanized.


Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South
Margaret Renkl
Milkweed Editions, 304 pages

New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl shares her thoughts on life, faith and “persistent hope” from her Nashville home. She writes generously about her neighbors, contemplates nature and seeks to understand the complexities of political divides in America. Renkl likens her book to a “patchwork quilt”; she has carefully curated her writings from the past four years, stitched them into new patterns and offered up her distinctive voice as she reflects both critically and appreciatively on her region and the state of our country.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story
Nikole Hannah-Jones
One World, 624 pages
This is not our parents’ history book. It’s the American origin story most of us never learned in school, revealed through the lenses of history, journalism and economics. Since Africans were first traded to Virginia colonists in 1619, U.S. founders built an economic and social system dependent on the unpaid labor of enslaved people, leading not only to the Civil War and laws like Jim Crow but also contributing to the American Revolution, U.S. Constitution and many of our sacred institutions. As you might expect from a New York Times project spanning 300 years of history, this epic work is long and challenging, but it pays off in a deeper understanding of the issues we face today.

Christian writing

Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence
Diana Butler Bass
Harper One, 320 pages

Through an artful blend of memoir and theology, Bass takes us on a journey to free Jesus from the constraints of the Western Church. And what a trip it is! She explores Jesus as friend, teacher, savior, Lord, presence and the “way,” sharing how she came to these revelations during relationships (both painful and joyful) and as she came into her own as a woman, scholar and Christian. This is a book for those who seek to follow Jesus outside institutions as well as for those who love the church as it is.

Pastoral Imagination: Bringing the Practice of Ministry to Life
Eileen Campbell-Reed
Fortress Press, 264 pages

As one of the leaders of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project, Campbell-Reed studies pastors at work, learning how they develop creativity and imagination over the course of years, even entire careers. From this, she has identified 50 topics essential to the practice of ministry, incorporating everything from discernment and prayer to navigating conflict and experiencing joy.

Campbell-Reed illustrates each practice with a pastor’s story, making “Pastoral Imagination” an engaging read. Chapters conclude with questions to ask yourself or to discuss with colleagues as well as a link to a three-minute video in which she tells the story and suggests an additional resource. A pastor, chaplain or other spiritual leader looking to jump-start 2022 with a weekly time of growth might enjoy this practical guide.

The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings
Amy-Jill Levine
Abington Press, 176 pages

Is it literally true that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Does Jesus actually insist that we must hate our entire family before we can become his disciple? Levine struggles with these and other Gospel passages that resist easy understanding, forging ahead in search of good news that speaks to us today.

She gently guides the reader through the background of Jewish teachings and the customs of the Middle East that would have influenced Jesus, inserting snippets from her own life, references to other Bible passages and an occasional preferred translation from the Greek that offers greater nuance. The result is both scholarly and accessible — and a guaranteed conversation starter for group discussion.

In Defense of Kindness: Why it Matters, How it Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save the World
Bruce Reyes-Chow
Chalice Press, 112 pages

This slim volume is an ideal “how to” for our contentious times. Reyes-Chow posits that kindness is essential to achieving peace and justice, and he describes a variety of spaces, ranging from social media to school drop-off, in which our frustration, self-righteousness and other emotions easily leads to unkind behaviors.
Instead, Reyes-Chow invites us to strive for intentional acts of kindness, and he describes what this could look like in various situations. A simple reflection question and practical “try this” idea conclude each chapter, making this book perfect for a church’s small group or for individual journaling and practice.

A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community
Adam Russell Taylor
Broadleaf Books, 272 pages

Sojourner’s president writes as a leader of a social justice organization, father of two mixed-race sons and as an American Christian seeking to build the beloved community in our own time. As a student spending a semester abroad in South Africa, he had hoped to make a difference in the fight for racial freedom there. A wise mentor advised him to go home — transforming U.S. policies would have a ripple effect in South Africa far greater than any change he could accomplish there.

Taylor has spent his career doing just that, and here he shares a vision of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community for our time, describing how it would redeem and bless us all. His book is a call for unity based not on ignoring our differences, but on finding new ways to tell our stories, to be candid and vulnerable and to experience the richness of our shared life as a people.

Where the Light Fell
Philip Yancey
Convergent Books, 320 pages

The wise and tender soul who gave us so many works on suffering, redemption and grace retraces his path from a fundamentalist upbringing with an emotionally abusive mother. Yancey ultimately found a grace-filled faith, traveled with loved ones through mental illness, apologized to those he harmed along the way and made peace with his painful path. Philip Yancey’s memoir is a tough read, but it provides startling insights into how one who suffered so much is perhaps uniquely positioned to offer hope and healing to others.

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