Original RBL Reviews

Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and the Things That We Make Up

Francis Chan with Preston Sprinkle. David C. Cook, $14.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-7814-0725-0

Chan, whose breakout book Crazy Love has sold more than 1 million copies, teams up here with his friend Sprinkle, a professor of biblical studies at Eternity Bible College, to refute the Christian universalism that purportedly pervaded Love Wins, Rob Bell’s book on hell published earlier this year. Chan and Sprinkle argue for a traditional doctrine of a hell that is not “corrective or remedial . . . . Rather, hell is retributive.” Some readers will take issue with the fact that some of this book’s case rests on an argument of absence; after demonstrating that first-century Jews believed and taught a doctrine of fire-and-brimstone punishment for the wicked, Chan and Sprinkle conclude that since Jesus didn’t go out of his way to disprove this idea, he must have agreed with it. Two aspects of Chan and Sprinkle’s work are refreshing. The first is that they truly agonize over the fate of the people they consign to eternal punishment. The second is that, despite serious theological disagreements with Bell, they take the time to understand his arguments and never resort to name-calling. This book offers a conservative theological argument that is a model of Christian civility in a debate all too often marked by personal attack. (July 5)

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy

John Julius Norwich. Random House, $30 (528p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6715-2

Although it’s hard to imagine a more definitive chronicle of the lives of the pontiffs than Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997), renowned historian Norwich offers a rollicking account of the men who held the papal office, their shortcomings and their virtues, and the impact of the papacy on world history. He conducts us masterfully on a tour of the lives of the popes from Peter to Benedict XVI. Along the way we discover that Gregory the Great (590-604) was an administrative genius who established the idea that the Roman Catholic Church was the most important institution in the world. We learn that Pope Pius IX (1840-1871), who served the longest pontificate in history, expanded the reach of the Catholic Church by founding more than two hundred new dioceses in the United States and Britain. Norwich also ranges over the anti-Semitism and anti-communism of Pope Pius XII, the sweeping reforms of Pope John XXIII through the Second Vatican Council, and the murder conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I. Entertaining and deeply researched, Norwich’s history offers a wonderful introduction to papal lives. (July)

Moments of Grace: Days of a Faith-Filled Dreamer

Christopher de Vinck. Paulist, $19.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8091-0597-7

De Vinck is an accomplished and award-winning inspirational writer (The Power of the Powerless) much recognized in Catholic circles. His skill and experience as an essayist whose work appears in such periodicals as the Wall Street Journal and National Catholic Reporter allows him to pack a punch in fairly short order, with concrete details quickly setting a scene and telegraphing its meaning (“He died on a street in Paris on his way to mailing a letter to my aunt”). This essay collection is ordered around the seasons, so holidays loom large. But one of de Vinck’s underlying and larger themes is the passage of time, with the whisper of mortality growing a little louder to older ears. He often reaches back in his memories, and sometimes his reflection is nicely tuned and authentic, sometimes mere generic nostalgia. The sappy title does deVinck’s nuanced musings a disservice. Aging folks--there are a lot of those--might appreciate this as a gift for short, bedtime reading. (July)

The Devil Wears Nada: Satan Exposed

Tripp York. Cascade Books, $19 trade paper (166p) ISBN 978-1-60899-560-8

York (The Purple Crown), who teaches philosophy and religion at Western Kentucky University, attempts to examine the existence of God through a back door, that is, by searching for Satan. The effort offers a lively ride. York captivates the reader with snappy prose and a disarming, at times self-effacing, line of argumentation that serves both as the strength of the book and its shortfall. The author blurs a legitimate metaphysical conundrum by manipulating stories and debates to create theological categories predicated upon contrived stereotypes. He asserts, for example, “Protestants love talking about Satan. They simply can’t get enough of him,” reducing Protestants' reflections about perceived works of the devil to include, for example, disruptions caused by microphone feedback. From the start, this manner of trivializing serious themes betrays an already compromised starting point for his examination. Built upon contrived assumptions and simplistic definitions, this book will be welcomed by cynics about religion. Otherwise, the chatty approach to a profound theological mystery fails to engage sincere thinkers trying to reconcile the existence of evil with a loving God. (July)

A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul

John Philip Newell. Jossey-Bass, $19.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-470-55467-8

Newell (Christ of the Celts) has become the premier writer of Celtic spirituality since the untimely 2008 death of John O’Donohue. A poet, he has a natural lyric voice as he ranges over his subject and its main themes of creation and oneness. This is not new--indeed, it’s very old in Christianity, and it provides a sylvan break from contemporary debates over social issues, hell, and atheism. Newell’s is a loving vision that nonetheless looks suffering “straight in the face,” a phrase he borrows from writer Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who perished in the Holocaust. He recognizes both balm for suffering and inevitable brokenness. His theology includes a provocative understanding of sin as “sundering,” a breaking apart of unity, citing both the word’s etymological root and the visionary priest Teilhard de Chardin. He is deeply dependent on the great psychologist Carl Jung and uses his own dreams as a means of understanding what God is saying, an approach that requires deep honesty. Newell will not be everyone’s draught, but those inclined to the unifying vision of Celtic spirituality will want to drink deeply of him. (July)

Nature as Spiritual Practice

Steven Chase. Wm. B. Eerdmans, $18 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-8028-4010-3

Chase (The Tree of Life: Models of Christian Prayer) sees God in nature. Unlike many who see the spiritual symbolized in nature, Chase offers far more than interpretation of signs and symbols. His is a full theology: to study nature is a spiritual practice, because “she is the teacher and she is material and she is spiritual.” He deals with Queen Anne’s lace and pied-billed grebes, but also with Jonathan Edwards and the Beatitudes; indeed, the last part of the book places the Beatitudes in the context of nature’s wisdom. The author’s analysis is located in the rich tradition of biblical references to the natural world and also the thinking of those who have written about God and nature, from the Desert Fathers to such contemporary nature writers as Terry Tempest Williams. This is not a book for those new to green theology; it requires thoughtful digestion. It will, however, deepen the thinking and theology of all who care for creation. A separate Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice is a workbook that can go out in the field for use while hiking. (July)

Sneak Peeks: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW July 11

The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath

Sen. Joe Lieberman with David Klinghoffer. S&S/Howard, $22 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4516-0617-1

In this accessible and informed introduction and homage to the Sabbath, Lieberman, longtime U.S. senator from Connecticut, composes a personal and inspiring ode that encourages individuals of all faiths to accept a day of rest. Despite his hectic political life, including a vice presidential candidacy, Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, has remained steadfast in his observance of Sabbath, a day in which technology, business transactions, and mundane activities are disallowed. Far from detracting from his career, Lieberman contends that his adherence to the Sabbath’s laws has energized and empowered him. Sharing personal political stories relevant to the day of rest and walking readers through each aspect of Shabbatland,his endearing term for the Sabbath experience, including brief explanations of some prayers and descriptions of typical Sabbath fare, Lieberman welcomes readers along his Sabbath journey. Each chapter offers simple ways, such as shutting off Blackberries and arranging a formal meal for family and friends, to make Sabbath meaningful to all people. This deeply sincere and highly readable composition is certain to help people rethink their concept of Sabbath and prod them to rest. (Aug.)

The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith

Julian Guthrie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-547-13304-1

In this David versus Goliath narrative, award-winning San Francisco Chronicle reporter Julian Guthrie tells the story of a small group of everyday Catholics who dared—for more than a decade—to challenge the official Roman Catholic hierarchy’s decision to close their historic parish church, St. Brigid in San Francisco. The diocese insisted the closure was a response to the expense of repairs to an aging church and declining membership. But as parishioners dug deeper, they gradually discovered a darker set of motives. Describing machinations going all the way to the top tiers of the Vatican, Guthrie suggests that St. Brigid, sitting on a valuable piece of San Francisco real estate and with $700,000 in cash in the bank, was targeted for liquidation to pay for the hidden crimes of priests. A gripping story with a compelling if somewhat complicated cast of characters, this book paints lay Catholics as heroes—and is unlikely to be popular with the Catholic hierarchy. (Aug.)

A First Look at the Stars: Starred Religion Reviews Coming in PW July 11

A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny

Amy Julia Becker. Bethany House, $14.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7642-0917-8

Becker (Penelope Ayers: A Memoir), a Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate, knows how to grab a reader’s heartstrings and never let go as she writes about her journey as a new mom to Penny, her first child, who has Down syndrome. The author keeps a journal in her early days as a mother, a time when her faith, her expectations, and her fears ran a gamut. Becker tells how impressed she has always been with intelligence, and now her little girl will lack this gift so important to Becker. Or would she? This beautifully written text explores how Becker and her husband deal with the news of having a child with a disability and the transformation they undergo as time passes. Each journal entry opens a new chapter of Penny’s growth, and with every change in Penny comes a corresponding response of grateful joy in everyone else. Becker’s work is introspective and theologically inquisitive, leading readers to ask the same questions this mother asks herself as her world tilted off its axis. (Sept.)

Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story

Gangaji. Tarcher, $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-58542-887-8

A provider is killed when traveling and his family becomes impoverished. Just when the situation seems hopeless, a stranger arrives to reveal treasure hidden under the floorboards of their home. With this simple parable, Gangaji (You Are That) outlines the strife, the joy, and the unforeseen shocks that life brings. The treasure, hidden nearby all along, is treated as a metaphor for spiritual yearning, reminding seekers that answers lie within. Alongside this plain yet revealing story, Gangaji recounts a life’s journey that encompasses her difficult childhood, a broken marriage, the thrills of the counterculture, and spiritual revelations received from guru Sri H.W.L. Poonja. Gangaji speaks of finding conscious space through cultivating stillness and silence, and although her practices derive from Hinduism, there is less of a defined religious tradition than a general sense of spiritual wisdom in her writings. This gently flowing but often disarming volume invites readers to examine the narratives that shape them, and is a call to pass beyond personal stories to find a deeper, more universal self. (Sept.)

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

Miroslav Volf. Brazos, $21.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-58743-298-9

Religious perspectives properly belong in the public sphere, Volf (Exclusion and Embrace) argues, because religions often foster healthy social environments. While acknowledging that Christianity has been historically complicit in coercive conversion, Volf focuses on internal religious “malfunctions” that have allowed such unfaithfulness. When Christians lose sight of their faith’s prophetic edge, substitute idols for God, use faith as a “crutch,” or resort to violence, they corrupt their faith, Volf contends. Although writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, Volf cites scholars such as Mohammad al-Ghazali and Moses Maimonides to emphasize that individual and communal flourishing constitutes a defining concern of many religious traditions. Volf also engages antireligious arguments from thinkers such as Marx and Nietzsche. With a goal of generating hope for Christian communities in today’s pluralistic world, Volf encourages Christians to share and receive gifts of spiritual wisdom, to speak truth in their distinct religious voice, and to live generously with people of other faiths. This insightful exploration of how Christians may faithfully engage today’s political and pluralistic culture provides accessible, wise guidance for people of all faiths. (Aug.)

Children’s Religion Books

With this issue of Religion BookLine, PW’s Religion Department debuts original reviews of children’s religion books. Original reviews will also appear in PW’s print magazine once a month beginning July 18.

Picture Books

Heaven, God’s Promise for Me

Anne Graham Lotz, illus. by Laura J. Bryant. Zonderkidz, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-310-71601-3

An older sister narrates, in rhymed stanzas, the questions she and her brother have following their grandmother’s death, and the answers they receive from God’s Word (a painting shows them reading the Bible together) about heaven: “He said His home is a great big house/ With lots of rooms and space.” While awkward rhythms occasionally prove jarring (“You will walk and run./ You will play and sing./ You will have many friends./ Heaven will never be boring.”), this debut picture book by Lotz (Just Give Me Jesus), daughter of Billy Graham, conveys scriptural understandings of heaven in accessible language. Delightfully incongruous images of children cavorting with animals, sliding down rainbows, and petting lions, along with frogs carrying frosted cupcakes, and ostriches piggybacking on turtles populate Bryant’s (Jam and Honey) lively, full-bleed, full-spread, pastel-colored illustrations, which depict heaven as a place of revelry and wonder. Some readers may find the evangelistic emphasis too constricted: the story closes with directions for entering heaven by confessing sin and professing belief in Jesus. Questions for discussion follow, including “Who do you want to go to Heaven with you?” followed by a suggestion to share the book with friends. Ages 4-7. (Sept.)

How Dalia Put a Big Yellow Comforter Inside a Tiny Blue Box: And Other Wonders of Tzedakah

Linda Heller, illus. by Stacey Dressen McQueen. Tricycle, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-58246-378-0

In a playful yet nurturing manner, Dalia, who is a “very smart teacher” to her younger brother Yossi, shares with him the lessons she learns at the Jewish community center about tzedakah, the Jewish tradition of charity. Hebrew letters, words (with phonetic translations) and symbols (like the Star of David) appear in text and illustrations, as through questions and answers Dalia introduces Yossi to a tradition about generosity and caring. Piquing Yossi’s curiosity by telling of wonderful large objects residing in her tiny homemade tzedakah box, Dalia responds to his question, “'Is Tsadee Daled Kof Hay a magic word?’” by offering intriguing definitions such as, “ ‘It means I care for you.’” McQueen’s (Boxes for Katje) earth-toned illustrations include full-bleed, full-spread paintings of single scenes, depictions of several scenes per full-spread against white backdrops, and rectangular, framed postcard images of affectionate brother and sister inserted onto other paintings. The artwork astutely complements Heller’s (The Castle on Hester Street) storyline, capturing nuances; for example, when “Yossi’s lip quivered,” because Dalia’s teasing confuses him, the painting shows siblings holding hands while Dalia explains herself clearly. An end page describes tzedakah’s historical roots and contemporary traditions in this informative and heartwarming introduction to the concept of cheerful giving. Ages 4-8. (Aug.)


Perfectly Invisible: A Universally Misunderstood Novel
Kristin Billerbeck. Revell, $9.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-8007-1973-9

In Billerbeck’s sequel to Perfectly Dateless, heroine Daisy Crispin is feeling cautiously optimistic in the final months of her senior year at the tony St. James Academy in uber-wealthy Silicon Valley. For one thing, she assumes that Max Diaz, the gorgeous Argentinian boy who swept her off her feet at prom, is her boyfriend, and for another, she is thrilled to have been accepted into an elite university. Daisy’s optimism fades, however, when Max stops speaking to her and begins spending time with Daisy’s best friend, Claire. As she copes with this disappointment, Daisy also navigates the choppy waters of unemployment, insufficient college funds, eccentric parents, and confusing attention from her long time crush as well as from two older men. Through it all, Billerbeck’s light touch makes Daisy’s adventures a pleasure to follow. There are moments when the narrative lags, and others when the plot twists and turns somewhat unconvincingly. Nonetheless, Daisy’s wit, intelligence, sweetness, and devotion to God, make her a Christian role model to whom young readers will certainly relate. (July)

On the Virtual Shelves: Web Exclusive Religion Book Reviews

Into the Heart of Life
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (Snow Lion, May)


A Hitchhiker's Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground
Bruce N. Fisk (Baker Academic, Apr.)


Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt

Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy (Bear & Co., Apr.)