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Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought

Edited by Stuart W. Halpern. Maggid, $29.95 (350p) ISBN 978-1-59264-470-4

Yeshiva University’s Halpern (Torah and Western Thought), and the 12 contributors to this volume, exceed its stated goal—to provide concise, yet comprehensive introductions to works of Jewish thought that “should be an essential part of every Jewish library,” in order to inspire readers to seek out the original works. Given the age of some of the works included (the first classic examined is Rav Saadia Gaon’s Emunot VeDeot, from the 10th century C.E.), each of the scholars analyzing them must explain “how contemporary readers might find meaning and relevance in texts written in intellectual and religious climates so different from our own.” They all do so clearly and without glossing over troubling material—for example, Rabbi Judah Halevi’s view of Jewish chosenness. The author of the chapter on Halevi, Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, does an especially good job of making his subject topical, noting how a 20th-century issue concerning when the Sabbath begins in Japan—of great practical concern for European refugees who found themselves resettled there—was anticipated, and resolved, in the 12th century. Both newcomers to classic works and readers familiar with them will benefit from these clearly written and insightful essays. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Practice Resurrection: And Other Essays

Erik Reece. Counterpoint, $25 (220p) ISBN 978-1-61902-608-7

Reece (An American Gospel) superimposes the title of one of his finest treatises on this anthology of 15 essays that delve into his conflicted relationship with Christianity and thoughts on environmental stewardship, among other topics. Reece, raised by a Baptist minister, refashioned his beliefs over many years to differ substantially from his forefathers’—which preached that Christ’s resurrection mattered more than his life—and, instead, proposes to readers a religion of experience. Poignant topics, such as the new creationism, the circulatory system, and “lionspeak,” reflect his life: poet, professor, essayist, naturalist, conservationist, birding friend of Wendell Berry, and executor of poet Guy Davenport’s estate. While some of the essays address a straightforward topic, others meander and find their footing when Reece details his thought process. For example, “Flight Risk” starts on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight, before moving to France to approach the apocryphal Acts of Peter, then to Simon Magus, and finally to the Daniel Boone Forest near Reece’s home in eastern Kentucky. “The work of... writers I most admire is telling a truth that exposes a lie.” The same could be said about Reece’s fine collection, which will interest readers grappling with how to think of their faith in an environmentally precarious world. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Love Let Go: Radical Generosity for the Real World

Laura Truax and Amalya Campbell. Eerdmans, $21.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-8028-7447-4

In 2014, LaSalle Street Church on the near north side of Chicago received money from the sale of investment property and, at the time, many asked “What did the church do with the $1.6 million?” Truax and Campbell, senior pastor at LaSalle and member of the church’s leadership council, respectively, answer that question as a jumping-off point, but also address much more in this well-wrought book. At the time of the sale, LaSalle had budgetary needs of its own; however, the church also has a reputation for generosity amid the scarcity of its poor neighborhood. “Generosity frees us to be our truest selves,” the authors write. First, not without dissension, the church gave $500 to each member “to do good in the world”; the spending included paying for an African woman’s surgery and simply passing out $20 bills. Along with the modern stories of LaSalle, the authors effectively interlace ancient stories from the Bible and advice from outside resources, financial and religious. They write as much about the grinding, rewarding process of discernment—praying, meeting, listening inside and out—as about dispersal of funds. Part story of LaSalle’s decision of how to handle their investment, part testament to the powers of generosity, this book will be of interest to anyone interested in community building or philanthropy. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life

Kelly Flanagan. Zondervan, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-310-34516-9

Flanagan, clinical psychologist and founder of the UnTangled blog, wants readers to think about the elusiveness of feeling good about oneself. The book’s origins come from his experience writing personal letters to his children about faring well in life by turning off the critical, negative sound bites that can poison a restless mind—these thoughtful essays got him an invite on The Today Show, which took his blog readership to new heights. Flanagan offers readers many small observations about life, relationships, and the inner workings of the heart and mind in easily digestible fashion. Men and women alike will benefit from his humble transparency as he untangles his own struggles with acceptance of himself. Although the book will be helpful to any reader looking for affirmation and relief from self-criticism, Christian readers especially will find solace, a gentle nudge to change as needed, and tender reminders that all people struggle in similar ways. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible

Sarah Ruden. Pantheon, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-307-90856-8

Ruden, visiting scholar at Brown University and translator of classical literature, shifts from secular works to the Hebrew and Greek language of the Bible for a close analysis and retranslation of a few key passages, such as the story of David and Bathsheba, the Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer. Ruden’s work emphasizes the complexity inherent in translation; she lingers on some of the most challenging concepts and explicates the historical and linguistic context for her work, debunking both myths and poor prior interpretations. The book is not only a scholarly analysis, though, but a paean to the rhythm and poetry of the text. Rudin also diverges from standard academic tone, weaving her own personal stories together with her intellectual task; all this makes the reader feel as if they are spending time with a fun—and very smart—friend. This combination of casual ease and serious scholarship allows Ruden to bring fresh insights into even the most familiar stories and will make the book a true pleasure for anyone with an interest in translation or the Bible. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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How to be Ultra Spiritual: 12½ steps to Spiritual Superiority

J.P. Sears. Sounds True, $16.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-62203-821-3

Sears translates his satirical YouTube series on spirituality crazes to a self-help guide in this humorous send-up. Ultra spirituality is the more intense, more insistent version of new age that amplifies the common claims of the spiritual-but-not-religious set. For instance: quality meditation is determined by length; truths are truer if you can cite your guru; the best intuitions are the vaguest; and being present in the now is a weaker version of the real goal of being present in the soon. Filled with unhelpful advice, the chapters cover a wide range of topics to make sure you are on the path towards more enlightenment than anyone else. The parody offers sharp critique of self-righteous vegans, image-obsessed yoga practitioners, and greedy peddlers of spiritual advice. Sears is at his best in the chapters on competitive spirituality and during his more antagonistic takes on mindfulness and the hypocritical disparaging of religion by those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”. The joke wears a little thin at times but hits its targets with pressing questions. Opponents of shallow, commercialized spirituality will be delighted, and practitioners of the practices pilloried will be reminded how their intentions and attitudes might be blocking their aims. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-pastor

Jason J. Stellman. Convergent, $24 (176p) ISBN 978-0-8041-4062-1

Stellman, cohost of the Drunk Ex-Pastor podcast, advocates moving beyond mainstream Christian ideas in this encouraging work of popular theology. Drawing on his personal journey from evangelicalism to Catholicism to a more complicated relationship to faith, he argues that most Christians misunderstand the nature of God. In place of a stern, sadistic stickler for law, he urges an understanding of God as father. This orientation opens Christians to a stronger sense of grace, a more universal idea of salvation, and a less hostile approach to the world. His wit and popular culture references disguise and cushion the seriousness of his claims. He carefully draws from the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, and New Testament texts, explaining their still relevant and originally shocking claims. Stellman manages to find a middle ground between liberal Christianity’s broad toleration and conservatives’ push for boundaries and textual adherence. The work ends somewhat abruptly but provides a vision for a broader, more hospitable Christianity that has room for all our failed attempts and plenty of hope. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

Lyndal Roper. Random House, $40 (576p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9619-7

Timed to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the “Ninety-Five Theses,” Roper’s biography is a demonstration of her skill not only as a historian but also as a storyteller. She begins with an overview of Luther’s life and work, then explains her own personal involvement with Protestant theology and the study of religious history. It is important to note that her aim is to write a holistic biography, not just to recount the highlights of a combative life or explain why the theses were controversial. The book is arranged chronologically, and Roper starts with Luther’s family, using a variety of sources, including portraits, to discuss his background. Roper keeps her story tightly focused, never wandering too far from Luther and his intellectual work over the course of his life. A definite strength of the volume is Roper’s ability to explain complex intellectual events clearly; for instance, her discussion of the Diet of Worms and Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings are well-organized and impartial. Roper is willing to allow her subject to stand in full complexity without seeking to simplify away difficulties of character and action. This volume will be of great appeal to scholars, but it is also extremely readable and will find a welcome audience among history enthusiasts. Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story

Steven Curtis Chapman, with Ken Abraham. Revell, $22.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-8007-2688-1

Accomplished Christian musician Chapman shares struggles and successes throughout his career and personal life, including how his faith was tested when his youngest daughter died after being hit by a car. Born and raised in Paducah, Ky., Chapman never dreamed he’d win multiple Grammy and Dove awards—he couldn’t even sing that well—but he was gifted at writing lyrics and connected with his audience through snippets of conversation while performing. His hit songs are a strong thread throughout the book, but the story’s real treasure is his relationship with his wife, Mary Beth, and their children. She preferred order and predictable schedules; he was cut from a creative cloth. The clash threatened their marriage, but at each crossroads they found their way. Then, while raising three kids, the Chapmans decided to adopt from China. When their third adopted child, Maria, was killed in a tragic accident at the age of five, the family was devastated. Chapman’s pain is evident, yet his grief feels rushed in places because he’s so intent on sharing Bible verses and a faith message. Indeed, Chapman admits to a lifelong tendency to want to “fix” things. What’s lost with that approach is a sense of how difficult it is to live with unwanted circumstances and unanswered questions about God. Even so, there’s little doubt his beliefs are sincere and will encourage others. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present

Philip Gorski. Princeton Univ., $35 (336p) ISBN 978-0-691-14767-3

Gorski (The Protestant Ethic Revisited), a sociologist and religious studies professor at Yale, offers a sweeping and exhilarating review of the history of American political culture. He revives Robert Bellah’s famous idea of civil religion to look at three intertwined strands of political theology: religious nationalism, which fuses religion and politics; radical secularism, which completely divorces the two forces; and, midway, civil religion, which he sketches as a prophetic republicanism based on ideals drawn from biblical prophets and millennia of political philosophy. He analyzes key figures, offers refreshing insights into some, such as W.E.B. DuBois and John C. Calhoun, and is never shy about offering remedies for the corruption of the American civic spirit. National service is one bold recommendation to reawaken a spirit of public engagement. Gorski’s interpretation is likely to be challenged, and it should be, as part of the process of taking his thesis seriously and using it to move forward politically. More academics should follow his example of contributing to public debate in an accessible way. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/06/2017 | Details & Permalink

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