Original RBL Reviews

A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation

Martin Laird. Oxford Univ., $18.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-19-537872-6

This little companion volume to the author’s earlier Into the Silent Land reads well on its own. A professor of theology at Villanova University, Laird talks nuts and bolts of contemplative practice as well as deep and nuanced theology. He is particularly, at times amusingly, successful at bringing to contemporary and vivid life the observations of the Desert Fathers and other great Christian contemplatives who spent time and spiritual energy stumbling toward God via silence, while enduring dryness, boredom, and endless loops of mental chatter. The content of the chatter has changed over the centuries, but its inevitability has not. Laird writes with a patient sympathy for common problems, possibly born of his familiarity with university students and their yearnings. He is clearly familiar with the profound and largely underappreciated tradition of Christian contemplation, and with beautiful poetry consistent with contemplative themes. This volume would be a lovely gift for those wanting to develop their prayer life, and for Buddhist friends too. (Aug.)

Thor Ramsey’s Total Money Meltdown: A Proven Plan for Financial Disaster (and Recovery)

Thor Ramsey. Moody, $12.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-0-8024-0075-8

Finding humor in the worst financial crisis to face the U.S. since the Great Depression is not easy. Ramsey, long-time Christian comedian and author (A Comedian’s Guide to Theology), uses personal anecdotes to help readers understand how NOT to handle their finances. This is the author’s strength, and the stories he recounts are the kind that everyday folks can relate to—about his addiction to Starbucks and its effect on his wallet, his considerations about whether or not to pick up a second job, and advice about using (or refraining from using) credit cards. These are common sense topics about which many of us could use reminding. Most helpful is the author’s advice to discuss one’s attitudes about money with one’s spouse—and try to understand how past history with money affects attitudes about spending, saving, and splurging. While the author is known for his religious humor, other than an occasional reference to tithing and God there is not a lot that could be labeled specifically as “Christian.” The comedian’s attempt at humorous one-liners often falls strangely flat and does very little to aid the narrative. But those who want to avoid the usual self-help jargon about finances will find this a more palatable option. (July)

Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages

Pope Benedict XVI. Fortress, $16.99 paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-8006-9851-5

In this collection of biographical commentaries, the head of the Roman Catholic Church presents 70 “catecheses,” as he calls them, of holy men (mostly) who defined the Church before the Reformation. From 2007 to 2010, Benedict XVI focused his weekly public audiences on “the ancient Church’s great personalities.” He divides the bios into four parts: “Heirs of the Apostles” begins with St. Clement; “Great Teachers” pays special attention to Jerome and Augustine of Hippo; “Monks and Missionaries” includes the Venerable Bede; and “Mystics, Mendicants, and Scholars” includes Hildegard and Clare of Assisi. Relative and welcome unknowns, such as poet St. Ephrem and Marguerite d’Oingt, appear occasionally. Benedict concentrates on each one’s loving goodness (he refers to any killing in the name of Christ obliquely, if at all); he also makes clear how each one’s faith translates to today’s way of life. Not so clear is when Benedict stops paraphrasing the ancients’ words and begins his own analysis. Perhaps these studies--necessarily dogmatic, sometimes personal, and dense with seminary jargon, given that Joseph Ratzinger was a professor of theology before he became the pope--would be more compelling if heard rather than read. (July)

Wandering in the Wilderness: Changes and Challenges to Emerging Adults’ Christian Faith

Brian Simmons. Abilene Christian Univ., $14.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-89112-285-2

There has been a slew of theoretical and sociological books about “emerging adults” lately, a term coined by scholar Jeffrey Arnett. Here comes another, with author Simmons, a lecturer in communications studies at the University of Portland (Oregon), reflecting on this new category of the life cycle in light of what it means to be an emerging Christian adult in particular. Written expressly for young Christians, with discussion questions at the end of each chapter (urging, for example, that readers reflect on what the Bible might say about emerging adults), Simmons spends time on everything from defining the relevant terms and providing an overview of the current literature, to telling stories about what life was like for him during this period. Unfortunately, some of Simmons’ stories seem overly simplistic at times, and can take away from his solid, critical reflection. Also, though Simmons draws on his students’ stories to help illustrate his arguments, he could use more empirical evidence. But his argument that “emerging adults are struggling to make their way in their Christian journey” is well founded, and offers a helpful, accessible beginning to an expressly Christian thread in this vibrant conversation. (July)

Breaking Up with God

Sarah Sentilles. HarperOne, $22.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-194686-8

Sentilles (A Church of Her Own) was on her way to becoming an Episcopal priest when she stopped believing in God. The timing was unfortunate: she was studying for a doctorate in theology at Harvard and working as a youth minister when her questions and doubts become stronger than her faith, which comes to seem “a kind of magic trick.” While self-focus is required in a memoir, some readers may feel trapped inside Sentilles’s head, privy to her thoughts but not her life with actual other people, although she does give space and credit to her intellectual influences. The author’s writing is strongly circumscribed by her point of view; many of her sentences begin with “I” (“I followed”, “I was offered”, “I remembered”, “I learned”). But the content is familiar. Her critique of the Church as irrational, cruel, and insensitive to women is not new, and indicting God for the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the Congo also follows a tradition that goes back at least as far as the writer of the Book of Job. Younger adults may relate well to Sentilles’s narration of unfolding self-discovery; others will find her too self-absorbed. (June)

Sneak Peek: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW June 13

The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture

Christian Smith. Brazos, $22.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-58743-303-0

American evangelicalism is a textured and varied collection of believers, scholars, and students. Despite the variety of belief and practice, one idea unites them: the centrality of the Bible, and the determined appeal to sola scriptura that has defined their religious basis from earliest times. The much published Smith, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, sets out in this finely constructed volume to question not just the wisdom but even the possibility of depending only on the Bible to define faith and practice. The “Bible only” foundational belief is so ingrained in the consciousness of evangelicalism that asserting its irrationality and logical impossibility strikes at the very heart of what motivates and defines the evangelical community. Smith makes a persuasive case for shifting one’s focus from the sole authority of the words of scripture to the one whom scripture proclaims to be “the way, the truth and the life.” Such a shift, he insists, is necessary for American evangelicalism to move forward. (Aug.)

Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden

Brook Wilensky-Lanford. Grove, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1980-3

Wilensky-Lanford, whose essays have appeared in Salon, Killing the Buddha, and The Exquisite Corpse, has carved her literary niche as a “private investigator with an open mind,” exploring myth and the human social psyche. In her first book, she confronts a foundational Western myth, the Garden of Eden, and humanity’s constant search to return there. Part adventure story, part historical narrative, Wilensky-Lanford spins the history of explorers who searched for the Garden’s precise earthly coordinates. With adept, well-researched prose, she traces how, from four verses in Genesis naming four rivers flowing from the Garden, scientists and pseudo-scientists, preachers and theologians, have claimed “scientific proof” of Paradise’s location—in Iraq, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, Florida, Ohio, the North Pole, and elsewhere. Though quick-witted and quirky, Wilensky-Lanford isn’t satisfied with asking only “where,” she also deftly explores “why?” After traveling the globe on her Paradise quest, she arrives at the stump of “Adam’s Tree” in a contested zone near Basra, Iraq, meditating not so much on the Garden, but on humanity’s first steps from it. (Aug.)

A First Look at the Stars: Starred Religion Reviews Coming in PW June 13

Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World

David Carlson. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-8499-4718-6

Religious studies professor Carlson investigates varieties of monastic response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and their aftermath. Looking for “A Word of Life” from religious communities devoted to prayerful reflection, he finds these communities, even if physically isolated, intensely connected to the world’s troubles. Over several years, Carlson visits numerous monasteries and abbeys, interviewing monks, nuns, a Mennonite pastor, and a community’s potter, who share their immediate personal reactions to the attack and their communities’ response. His timely exploration, coming on the tragedy’s 10th anniversary, reveals his own spiritual journey throughout this research. He uncovers a range of thoughtful, challenging perspectives relating to sectarianism, suffering, incarnation, prayer, and the relationship between Christianity, Islam, and other world religions. Thomas Merton’s writings are woven into the book’s conversations and reflections, especially Merton’s views on the mystical Christ, which lead Carlson to reflect: “the one God is a humanity-permeated God.” A powerful, insightful guide addressing highly sensitive theological issues, this book may prove accessible and helpful to many who seek to counter terrorism with faith. (Aug.)

The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists

Charles Kurzman. Oxford Univ., $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-19-976687-1

Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, poses a provocative question: given anti-Western sentiment in many parts of the Muslim world and the ease of committing violent acts, why do so very few of the world’s billion-plus Muslims turn to terrorism? The author’s answers to this intriguing question take the reader through a history of “liberal Islam”—defined as distinctly Islamic discourse about key ideals from Western liberalism such as human rights—a close examination of the role of radical Islam in the Muslim world and the backlash against it; and an exploration of what he calls “radical sheik,” or the “cool” factor of Islamist leaders like Osama bin Laden. Impeccably researched, tightly organized, and enriched by his personal experiences in the Middle East, Kurzman’s work is a useful primer on the state of the modern Muslim world as well as a solid argument for re-evaluating the threat of terrorism today and our reactions to it. Though some may disagree with his conclusions, in this lucid call for perspective Kurzman has written an important and timely work that should be appreciated by the expert and layperson alike. (July)

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara

Colleen Morton Busch. Penguin, $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-59420-291-9

This day-by-day account of the defense of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center against massive wildfires in summer 2008 brings a Buddhist twist to the age-old preoccupation of humans living with—and trying to control—fire. Busch, a writer and Zen student, weaves together the story of the lightning-sparked flames approaching the San Francisco Zen Center’s isolated mountain monastery—only one road leads out of the canyon—with the personal experiences of members of the organization who responded. “I wanted to portray Zen... as a continuous practice, a way of life,” she writes, “that cultivates a particular kind of fearlessness.” She describes the complicated decisions that led up to the final defense of the popular retreat, stressing residents’ moment-to-moment encounters with the fire’s unpredictability using minds that are trained rigorously to accept rapid change and to evaluate the needs of the present moment. The motivations of the five monks who returned to protect Tassajara after the final evacuation are explored as well as the complexities of others’ reactions. Busch skillfully blends firefighting politics and Zen insights in this suspenseful narrative. (July 11)

On the Virtual Shelves: Web Exclusive Religion Book Reviews

More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More

Byron R. Johnson (Templeton, May)


Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. (Nextbook-Schocken, Apr.)


The Lights of Marfa: One of the World’s Great Guitar Player’s Amazing Encounters with God

Doyle Dykes (Moody, Apr.)


Fasting for Ramadan

Kazim Ali (Tupelo Press, Apr.)


Year of Plenty

Craig L. Goodwin (SparkHouse, Apr.)


Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI’s Story of Courage and Faith

Maurice Possley and John Woodbridge (Zondervan, Apr.)