Original RBL Reviews

Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of


Crystal L. Downing. IVP Academic, $24 trade paper (295p) ISBN 978-0-8308-3966-7

Semiotics is not a common concern for most Christians. Primarily heard in academia, the study of symbols and their interpretation does not seem relevant to everyday believers. Yet Downing (How Postmodernism Serves [My] Faith) aims to not only make semiotics accessible for the everyday Christian reader, but pivotal to the “(re) signing of Christian truth” in the postmodern age. Recognizing that “Christian signs change over time” Downing attempts to introduce the uses of semiotics to those interested in communicating the Christian message today. Examining Christian doctrines along the way through the lens of semiotics, she “resigns” herself and readers to three core Christian doctrines in need of an upgrade in order to be meaningful in a postmodern world: salvation, the Trinity, and the Incarnation. Downing is careful to give myriad examples; while some are helpful, others prove unnecessarily lengthy. Added to the immense ground that is covered, the text itself can seem overwhelming. However, read gradually and resolutely, this book can be a valuable tool to those seeking to convey Christian doctrine in a fresh way in the 21st century. (June)

Awakening the Brain: The Neuropsychology of Grace

Charlotte Tomaino. Atria/Beyond Words, $24 (224p) ISBN 978-1-58270-311-4

Neuropsychologist Tomaino, a former nun, strives for a simple explanation of the complicated subject of the working of the brain and what contemporary neuroscientific discoveries mean for personal growth and change. Her subject is the brain capacity known as neuroplasticity, an ability to make new connections. She relates this ability to the titular concept of awakening, in the sense of enlightenment such as the Buddha (which means “awakened one”) underwent. It’s an ambitious subject, and the author is chattily anecdotal until she gets going with an explanation of how the brain works. She has a gift for explaining things, but a firmer editorial hand might have organized the material better and winnowed out some simple explanatory metaphors that don’t work (e.g., “inner bridges” to effect positive change). While minimizing footnotes makes the book appear more accessible, it comes at the cost of evidentiary grounding. The book is enhanced by tags that link to additional material online. Tomaino promises another book that will concentrate on the spiritual aspects of brain function. Other books on the subject are better (Change Your Brain, Change Your Life), but the author makes a vital contribution to the growing body of popular literature on an important topic. (May)

A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars

Jonathan Merritt. FaithWords, $19.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-4465-5723-8

Foolish, non-productive, an abuse of a sacred calling. This is how Merritt (Green Like God) describes the politics preached from America’s pulpits. Certainly the question of how Christians should act in the public square is nothing new, yet Merritt’s response comes at a time when name-calling and ruthless debates have peaked. A catalog of Christians’ most hateful quotes stands in almost embarrassing contrast to descriptions of the injured and needy around the world. Merritt’s writing is fearless and impassioned. Yet that passion seems to get the best of him at times, as he himself is unable to put aside the blame game. He spends a good portion of the book cataloging the “foibles” of the late Jerry Falwell, a personal acquaintance of Merritt’s father, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention. It may not be enough to overcome systemic polarization. But this author—who in just two books has tackled environmentalism, partisanship, abortion and gay marriage—is certainly not afraid to try. Agent: Erik Wolgemuth, Wolgemuth and Associates. (May)

Islamism and Islam

Bassam Tibi. Yale Univ., $30 (368p) ISBN 978-0-300-15998-1

Tibi, a renowned professor of international politics, argues in this new book that Western scholars and politicians alike have failed to grasp the critical distinction between Islam the faith and Islamism, the religion-ized political movement aiming for an Islamic state order. Moving from a brief history of Islamism to an exploration of the Islamist approach to law, violence, democracy, anti-Semitism, and “pure” Islam, Tibi argues that Islamism is a totalitarian philosophy antithetical to pluralism, secular democracy, and humanist Enlightenment ideals. Islamist fundamentalism is not a new topic for Tibi, and he does not hesitate to articulate flaws in the Islamist position, such as the mistaken insistence on shari’a as a legal rather than moral code, or the Jews as the instigators of the Crusades, or the invention of other supposedly Islamic traditions. Clearly disturbed by Islamist fundamentalism and the movement’s claim to speak for the worldwide Muslim community, Tibi sometimes lets his personal biases overshadow his argument, and outsiders to the field may be discouraged by the density of the prose and the academic references. But for those striving to make sense of Islam in politics, this work is an invaluable contribution to the debate. (May)

Why Catholicism Matters: Celebrating the Importance of the Faith

William Donohue. Image, $22.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-307-88533-3

An institution that has been around for almost 2,000 years must have done something right. Donohue, president and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, argues that the Catholic Church has played a significant role in the social, intellectual, spiritual, and political life of the world, and continues to do so. The author creatively uses the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance as springboards to introduce the Catholic traditions, thought, and doctrines that have built the Church for more than two millennia. Donohue certainly knows his church history, which is the most valuable aspect of this work. Sadly, his cultural warrior stance merely detracts. The author’s case is strongest when he is lifting up the Catholic Church and its accomplishments, not when he critiques other lifestyles, traditions, and social mores. Although non-Catholics will learn a lot, practicing Catholics who may not know much about the rich tradition of their church will appreciate how their beliefs still ring true today. (May 29)

Coming Full Circle: Ancient Teachings for a Modern World

Lynn Andrews. Rainbow Ridge Books (Square One, dist.), $17.95 paperback (224p) ISBN 978-1-937907-01-3

Andrews, author of nineteen books about shamanism and the sacred feminine (Jaguar Woman, Medicine Woman, Crystal Woman) has woven together a composite of stories and lessons from her spiritual adventures with indigenous healers. These healers—women from the “Sisterhood of Shields,” a hidden circle of forty-four shamans from far-flung parts of the world—have been schooling Andrews in shamanic journeys into the sacred feminine and personal power for three decades. Spiritual seekers who resonate with Andrews’ spiritual orientation--and she has been criticized for misrepresenting her experience--will find that her patchwork quilt of the sacred and the mystical offers glimpses of a more meaningful view of the world: one of hope, mysticism, and power. Agent: Devra Ann Jacobs. (June)

Children’s Religion/Spirituality

Original RBL Reviews

Picture Books

Martín de Porres: The Rose in the Desert

Gary D. Schmidt, illus. by David Diaz. Clarion, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-547-61218-8

Martín de Porres, the son of a rich Spanish nobleman and a freed black slave in 16th-century Peru, wants to become a monk, but it is forbidden. “You are not of pure blood,” the prior says. Martin persists: “I will wash the dishes and tunics.... I will clean the halls and the baths,” he says, and Martín’s resolve draws attention. Animals adore him, the ill and destitute flock to him for healing, and the monastery at last relents. Martín’s dignity in the face of racial discrimination and his tenderness toward society’s weakest are a refreshing addition to the too-small pantheon of nonviolent heroes. Diaz (Praise Song for the Day) contributes powerful, Chagall-like spreads with big shapes outlined in heavy black. Gently draped monks’ robes provide a visual foil for strong architectural lines, and Martín’s tranquil features cast a kind of spell over the pages. Schmidt (Okay for Now) makes it clear that even without the claims of miracles that followed him his whole life, Martín, who was canonized a Catholic saint in 1962, must have been an extraordinary individual. Ages 6–9. (June)


Wild Horse Spring

Lisa Williams Kline. Zonderkidz, $10.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-310-72615-9

The second book in Kline’s series Sisters in All Seasons continues the story of stepsisters Stephanie and Diana as they negotiate growing up in a blended family. Told in straightforward prose from each girl’s point of view in alternating chapters, the story unfolds on the family’s vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where a clash in culture between the vacationers and the protectors of the environment, with its native wild horses, echoes the clashes between the two girls. Diana’s a rebellious daredevil; Stephanie’s a people-pleaser who’s scared of adventure. Diana’s interested in horses, Stephanie in boys, until Cody, a boy in the house next door, roars into their lives on an ATV. They unite in his defense when he’s suspected of injuring a wild horse with his vehicle. By the end of their vacation, Stephanie finds the courage to ask the question she’s been afraid to ask her father and stepmother. Diana, too, matures, accepting the difficulties in her relationship to her unreliable father. This is a realistic novel about a contemporary Christian family whose values are expressed with subtlety. It’s also an optimistic story that doesn’t avoid the complexities of young people’s emotions and lives. Releases simultaneously with Summer of the Wolves. Ages 8-11. Agent, Caryn Wiseman, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (May)

Crazy Dangerous

Andrew Klavan. Thomas Nelson, $14.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-59554-793-4

Sixteen-year-old narrator Sam Hopkins starts the story in media res: he’s been beaten up, and he’ll backtrack to tell you how that happened, and oh yeah, there’s this girl who’s kind of weird. When Sam, a preacher’s kid who’s definitely not goody-two-running-shoes, helps out his schoolmate Jennifer Sales in an encounter with bullies, he makes a new friend who happens to be seeing demons. Gradually Sam comes to think Jennifer’s visions aren’t as crazy as they sound, and it might save lives if only he can figure out what exactly she might be seeing. Klavan is highly skilled at crafting fast-paced action, and Sam’s voice is compelling. Chapters told from Jennifer’s point of view tease and are appropriately creepy. A plot twist near the end is satisfying and unexpected, and a little sprinkle of supernatural seasons the whole. This could entice boys who are reluctant readers. Ages 12-up. Agent: Alyssa Eisner Henkin, Trident Media. (May)

Sneak Peeks: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW May 14

Extraordinary: An End of Life Story Without End

Michele Tamaren and Michael Wittner. Pearlsong (Ingram, dist.), $18.95 trade paper (222p) ISBN 978-1-59719-061-9

In this deeply moving and inspiring account, Tamaren and Wittner share the life story of a man close to their hearts. When Michele’s mother, Betty, married Herman Liss (she was 55 and he was 65), Tamaren finally had a father figure she adored. Always joyful, Herman exuded a love for life that was contagious. His sincere concern for others, his keen intelligence, and his natural grace generated hundreds of meaningful friendship throughout his life. Wittner, who first met Herman as a result of a community service requirement in his high school, became a devoted friend to the older man when Herman nearly lost the resolve to live after Betty’s death. The authors recall, in simple but evocative language, how Herman always encouraged others to follow their dreams and how deep was his commitment to treat others as he would want to be treated. Readers can expect tears to flow as Herman’s life inspires them to be better. (June)


Joel C. Rosenberg. Tyndale, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4143-1967-4

Rosenberg (Inside the Revolution) says he—and his readers—must put everything on the line to save America from economic, social, and spiritual implosion. He points to earlier epochs in American history when people thought the nation would fail and argues that the First and Second Great Awakenings of evangelical fervor turned the nation around. For the first time in print, Rosenberg tells a very personal story not just of his conversion to Christianity but also of his conversion from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. Further, he tells how he has “detoxed” from politics and believes the most important task of all is making disciples of Christ, saying that the church, not politics, is the “last best hope” for our nation and world. Logical fallacies, generalizations, and “evidence” that is only collected opinion weaken an otherwise passionate, clear, honest portrayal of the author’s prophetic call for prayer, fasting, and political action for God to bring about a “Third Awakening” that would turn the United States around and prevent catastrophe. (June)

A First Look at the Stars: Starred Reviews Coming in PW May 14

The Girl’s Still Got It: Take a Walk with Ruth and the God Who Rocked Her World

Liz Curtis Higgs. WaterBrook, $14.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-57856-448-4

The bestselling author (Bad Girls of the Bible) takes readers on a time travel trip to the biblical world of Ruth. Higgs’s contemporary, conversational style provides insight into the themes of strong women, devotion, and faith found in the biblical book. A perfect blend of humor, extensive research, descriptive language, and insightful commentary brings to vibrant life Ruth and her relationships with mother-in-law Naomi and second husband Boaz. Breathe in the smells of ancient Bethlehem; hear the sounds of laborers threshing in the fields; see the emotions on the faces of these women; and understand how God walked with them through their lives. Readers view the events with the help of friendly tour guide Higgs, who provides extremely detailed information in a way that’s enjoyable and memorable. Each chapter ends with a “Ruth in Real Life” feature, in which women share personal messages about their husbands, mothers, and daughters-in-law to emphasize the contemporary application of the biblical lesson. The text also includes a map, discussion questions, a study guide, and tips for further reading. Agent: Sara Fortenberry. (July)

The Good Life: The Moral Individual in an Antimoral World

Cheryl Mendelson. Bloomsbury, $25 (320p) ISBN 978-1-60819-831-3

This powerful, meaningful, and thorough book preaches “moral mentality.” By following a moral geography mapping the good, moral life, Mendelson (Home Comforts) corrects oversimplified, misleading notions of morality. The author allows that the word “moral” suffers ambiguities, which, she regrets, has resulted in its co-opting by the political right. She is not neutral in her gritty analysis. She names names from Right to Left, from Cheney to Mamet. A professor of philosophy at Barnard College, Mendelson distinguishes among premoral, antimoral, and immoral; she discusses torture and abortion under “pseudomoral.” In 10 chapters, she marks among other coordinates the intersections of morality with democracy, family, money, and culture. She assesses the damage of being uncaringly cool or incurably narcissistic; she assails academe in one chapter and carves up puddin’-headed pundits in the last chapter, a long, often impenetrable disquisition. The headnotes—quotes from Hume, Leonard Cohen, Nietzsche and others—support her theories as much as multiple examples from literature (Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës), law, and life. Her style, clean and sharp and heavily footnoted, does not suffer minds “immune to reason.” Agent: Geri Thoma, Markson Thoma. (June)

On the Virtual Shelves: Web Exclusive Religion Book Reviews

Nothing & Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942-1962

Ellen Pearlman (North Atlantic/Evolver [Random House, dist.] Apr.)