Original RBL Reviews

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible

Harold Bloom. Yale Univ., $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-300-16683-5

The King James version of the Bible (KJB), 400 years old this year, is a happy reflection of its brilliant precursors and both the ignorance and literary genius of its contributors. This, contends Bloom, Yale professor and author of 38 books including The Book of J and The Western Canon, begs our appreciation of the KJB as literature, free of religious overlay. Setting aside “all questions of truth or of how to live,” he unpacks the aesthetic qualities of the KJB in a charmingly idiosyncratic manner, intermittently comparing the KJB to the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles. Reading the deeply informed opinions of an experienced literary critic, readers learn tantalizing tidbits of Hebrew vocabulary, face the New Testament's anti-Semitism, and see the KJB’s ineluctable effects on Western literature. There are long pages of quoted material, which readers may wish addressed biblical books entirely absent; but Bloom’s erudite mix of acerbic judgments (e.g., the New Testament's literary ugliness) and awed delight (“the biblical David is an incarnate poem”) offers readers a fresh take on an old book. (Oct.)

Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships

John Townsend. Zondervan, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-310- 33049-3

Townsend, who co-authored the award-winning Boundaries with Henry Cloud, solos in taking the next logical step: a book about avoiding past relationship mistakes and developing healthy and fulfilling ties. The author draws on both psychology and his evangelical Christian faith in making his case. Humans are designed to be in relationships; empirical evidence shows the benefits of human connection, and also God designed things to be that way: “God created this draw toward relationship.” He further illustrates his points by referring to countless examples from his clinical psychology practice. Townsend writes clearly and without any of the jokey bullying that characterizes some popular psychology. His aphoristic observations will be helpful to those who need it: “grief converts a wound into a memory;” “ ‘we need to talk’ ” really means “ ‘I need to talk’ ” and is best stated that way. Townsend is respectful of emotional complexity, and, while it won’t solve everything, his calm and insightful book is certainly cheaper than a visit to a therapist. (Sept.)

Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps

Richard Rohr. St. Anthony Messenger, $15.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-61636- 157-0

Franciscan priest and prolific author Rohr (Falling Upward) is a perfect writer on the subject of the 12 Steps. He understands how radical a change they bring about, and that the 12 Step program is preeminently spiritual. His easy-to-read book is essentially a commentary on each of the steps, with twelve chapters and a postscript that concisely tackles the big religious question of human suffering, suffering with which addicts and their families are intimately acquainted. Jesus, Rohr answers, is no stranger to suffering. A reader could wish that the energy within Rohr’s thinking had been better harnessed by his editor; the creative priest can make leaps of thought that are hard to follow (“vertical truth-speaking,” God as “Great Outpouring”). This is a good book for those in recovery from addiction and those who love them. (Sept.)


A Marriage Carol

Chris Fabry & Gary Chapman. Moody/River North, $14.99 (128p) ISBN 978-0-8024-0264-6

Christmas Eve marks Jacob and Marlee Ebenezer’s wedding anniversary and, 20 years later, the official dissolution of their marriage. Their journey to sign the divorce papers, however, turns into much more when a blizzard and an accident threaten lives. Marlee finds safety in a farmhouse where “Jay” helps her see her past, present, and future and offers a new way of seeing herself, husband, and marriage. The authors seamlessly blend the cleansing qualities of snow (“Melting snow exposes. Each flake is like a choice we make”) with transparent reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to create a challenging yet heartwarming tale that will touch readers long beyond the holiday season. This novella—combining the storytelling prowess of Fabry (Almost Heaven) and the marriage expertise of Chapman (The Five Love Languages series)—will change lives with its message “that there is great power in small choices.” Chapman’s afterword and discussion questions deepen the impact. This is a tiny book with a huge message. (Sept.)

The Homeless Bishop

Joseph F. Girzone. Orbis, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-57075-925-3

The retired priest and author of the Joshua novel series spins a new fable for the times. Carlo Brunini is an Italian bishop who decides to live as a homeless man in order to better understand how poor people live and why it is a duty of the faithful to care for the poor. Carlo goes to America, where he will be unrecognized, and lives as Charlie, a homeless beggar in upstate New York. That’s only the first part of Carlo’s adventures, but the bishop retains that identification with the poor even as he goes on to other surprising roles within the Catholic Church. Once the reader takes a leap of faith in the creator of this fable with an obvious purpose (Carlo is one very talented clergyman with a command of several languages that help him fit in around the globe), the ride is a pleasant one. Carlo is a simple hero in the theologically polarized institution that is the contemporary Catholic Church, who places following Jesus above following the rules. Some will theologically tsk-tsk; others will remember why they stay in the big, diverse tent that is Catholicism. (Sept.)

The Novice: A Story of True Love

Thich Nhat Hanh. HarperOne, $23.99 (160p) ISBN 978-0-06-200583-0

This first novel by Vietnamese Zen master, peace activist, and prolific author Nhat Hanh (Peace Is Every Step) retells a legend of Kinh Tam, who, leaving behind a failed marriage, disguises herself as a boy to practice Buddhism in a monastery. Accused of having a child with a local rich girl, Kinh Tam faces the choice of revealing her gender—and having to leave her beloved temple—or bearing severe punishment for the misdeed. Her fateful decision in the face of great injustice leads her to be revered after her death as bodhisattva Quan Am Thi Kinh, who vows to help all beings escape suffering. The short tale concludes with a note on the legend inspiring the story, a discussion of Nhat Hanh’s work by his long-time colleague Sister Chan Khong, and a brief teaching on practicing love by the master himself. This spare, graceful story adeptly conveys the spirit of Kinh Tam and the timeless nature of her response to hatred and ignorance. (Sept.)

Sneak Peeks: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW August 8

As Far As the Heart Can See: Stories to Illuminate the Soul

Mark Nepo. HCI, $15.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0757315718

Poet, philosopher, bestselling author (The Book of Awakening), and master of metaphor, Nepo has assembled a collection of soulful stories about “staying awake and staying close to what is sacred” that go straight to the heart. Each vignette relates a deep musing, dream, or abiding parable that speaks directly to living a life of presence by “return[ing] us to the hidden wholeness in which all things are connected.” Readers are invited to enter into the “marrow of story” by working with “journal questions” for reflection, “table questions ” for discussion, and meditation, all offered at the conclusion of each chapter, each one a musing that further unearths the complex interiority of being alive. Nepo is a consummate storyteller with a rare gift for making the invisible visible: his poetic conceits “loosen habits of understanding,” allowing what is meaningful in life to come newly forth. (Sept.)

Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel

Alisa Harris. WaterBrook, $14.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-307-72965-1

Authors and politicians have offered statistics and theories to try to understand the apathy of today’s youth. In this short memoir, journalist Harris gives a face and a voice to America’s younger generation, offering herself up as a case study of Christian youth caught in a partisan nation. Harris remembers an evangelical childhood spent attending political rallies, picketing abortion clinics, and idolizing Ronald Reagan. But as she grew older, she became troubled by questions of war and poverty, and her outspoken patriotism slowly unraveled and her ideals began shifting. “I found myself taking up uneasy residence in a world where there were shades of gray.” Using criticisms similar to those in Myth of a Christian Nation by evangelical pastor Gregory Boyd, she paints herself as an educated woman who ultimately rejected evangelical politics and voted Democrat. Young Americans will identify with her coming-of-age struggles and passion for weeding out injustice. Right-wing politicians and older generations of Christians should pay close attention in order to understand, and perhaps empathize with, her demographic. (Sept.)

A First Look at the Stars: Starred Religion Reviews Coming in PW August 8

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

James Martin. HarperOne, $25.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-202426-8

“So a humor book and a serious theology book meet up in a bar…” Martin, a Jesuit priest who is something of a regular on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, makes a strong case for the necessity of humor in the spiritual life, offering what he calls “a serious argument for joy.” Weaving funny anecdotes and jokes with biblical and historical research and interviews with scholars, Martin does much to rescue the Christian tradition from joylessness. In his telling, church history is filled with levity if you only know where to look—his portrayal of St. Teresa of Avila shows her to have been downright hilarious, and Jesus himself drew upon humor in ways we don’t always appreciate when we read the Gospels today. Rather than laughter trivializing faith, Martin sees humor as a faithful response to God, a default stance that invites other people into God’s family. Winsome and comical but also provocative and thoughtful, Martin’s book is a breath of fresh air for those who would take religion—and themselves—too seriously. (Oct.)

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

Parker Palmer. Jossey-Bass, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-470-59080-5

Palmer’s (Let Your Life Speak) newest was six years in the making. He bravely takes on the current political climate, with its atrophy of citizen participation, the ascendance of an oligarchy that shapes politics, and the substitution of vituperation for thoughtful public discussion. It’s a tall order that became even taller because Palmer had to climb out of a pit of depression—his constitutional proclivity--to do so. But wrestling with essential questions of public life became therapeutic, and this book provides therapy for the American body politic. Palmer’s use of acute 19th-century observers of American life and character--Tocqueville, Lincoln --as well as his use of anecdotes and lessons from his own long career provide context and tonic. His insights are heart-deep: America gains by living with tension and differences; we can help reclaim public life by actions as simple as walking down the street instead of driving. Hope’s hardly cheap, but history is made up of what Palmer calls “a million invisible acts of courage and the incremental gains that came with them.” This beautifully written book deserves a wide audience that will benefit from discussing it. (Sept.)

Children’s Religion/Spirituality: Original RBL Reviews

Picture Books

Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast

Jamie Korngold, illus. by Julie Fortenberry. Kar-Ben, $16.95 (24p) ISBN 978-0-7613-5647-9 $7.95 paper ISBN 978-0-7613-7970


Sadie and her little brother Ori awaken early the morning of Sukkot, the Jewish holiday celebrating the fall harvest. The two have decorated an outdoor sukkah, or harvest booth, and decide to eat breakfast there, a meal the pajama-ed siblings slowly assemble. Then they invite some faithful friends who don’t mind waking up early to share their feast. Korngold, a rabbi with an eclectic career, writes her first children’s book, and it has a playful sensibility and nice pacing. Fortenberry’s soft colors and lines include details that visually pop. The book charmingly teaches a lesson about a holiday and its observance, and is appropriate for religious education as well as family reading time. Ages 2-6. (Sept.)

S is for Snowman (God’s Wintertime Alphabet)

Kathy-jo Wargin, illus. by Richard Johnson. Zonderkidz, $15.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-310-71661-7

C is for cute in this winter-themed alphabet book by Wargin that joins her other season books (F is for Fireflies). Children can learn their ABCs in the context of a season that has special appeal to them. Families get friendly suggestions in rhymed couplets for wintertime activities (H is for hot chocolate, I is for ice skating). Cheery illustrations by English artist Johnson (If Elephants Wore Trousers) include lots of engaging animals (household pets wearing sweaters, and raccoons, rabbits, and other outdoor residents) as well as a set of multicultural and multigenerational human characters. The verses are God-centric, as the subtitle makes clear, so this book will be enjoyed most by young Christian families interested in understanding and appreciating the seasons as a blessing of God. Ages 4-7. (Sept.)


Dragons of the Watch

Donita K. Paul. WaterBrook, $13.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-4000-7341-2

Adventures continue in the world of Amara created by Paul (DragonKeeper Chronicles). The artist-hero Bealomondore returns, this time joined by Ellicinderpart Clarenbessipawl--Ellie for short--a country girl with a goat named Tak for a sidekick, who can literally lead his mistress astray and thereby complicate the plot. Country Ellie and the urbane Bealomondore are unlikely companions in Rumbard City, where, with one exception, the only inhabitants are unmannerly and very tall six-year-olds of the high race of urohms. And oh yes, there are dragons, seven minor ones “no bigger than kittens.” The plot is fairly simple, the characterizations rich, the Christian allegory visible but not overly intrusive. The pacing occasionally flags, but Paul’s imagination never does. Another winner for all ages. (Oct.)

On the Virtual Shelves: Web Exclusive Religion Book Reviews

Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty 
Mustafa Akyol (Norton, July)


Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus

Kyle Idleman (Zondervan, June)