Original RBL Reviews

Grace and Tranquility: Natural Peaceful Paths Through Every Living Day

Eric Alan. White Cloud Press (PGW, dist.), $24.95 paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-9745245-8-0

With uplifting prose and dozens of eye-catching color photographs, Alan (Wild Grace) ponders and communicates moments of profound grace and tranquility. The author’s message is clear: tranquility and grace are not distant goals, but are already within our grasp. Images and text remind readers they should be “celebrating each moment,” be it gardening, fishing, or playing music. Messier aspects of existence aren’t shied away from, either: war, personal upheaval, aging, and finances are viewed as opportunities to learn and reflect. Alan writes with a cadence that lets flow scores of meaning-packed aphorisms. When addressing ecological balance, there’s “waste is a purely human concept.” He warns that when media “become a replacement for direct experience, they’re illusion.” The author is willing to wrestle with paradox: “Tranquility is not a simple practice. And yet it is.” Prose and pictures together create a joyful and affirming song of praise for self and society. Although Alan is sometimes overly sentimental, to spend time in his world is to join a writer-artist who addresses themes both topical and timeless. (Aug.)

Every Other Monday: Twenty Years of Life, Lunch, Faith, and Friendship

John Kasich with Daniel Paisner. Atria, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-439-14827-3

Kasich, a former Republican congressman now running for governor of Ohio, has written a conversational account of the Bible study he organized more than 20 years ago in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus. Reared a Roman Catholic, Kasich drifted away from his religion as an adult but came to embrace an Anglican faith after both his parents were killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. The Bible study’s eight members, who meet at a local diner, have changed over the years, but most seem to share his middle-class presumptions. The biggest faith challenge for these men is a preoccupation with theodicy: how can bad things happen to good people? The answers are mostly commonplace, as is Kasich’s reading of the Bible, in which all the major characters, from Noah to Paul, are faithful and courageous examples of men worth emulating. For Kasich, the Bible study serves as a kind of therapeutic way to wrestle with perennial questions about mortality. The Christianity that emerges from these pages is tame and has nothing profound to say. (June)

Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality

Michael Spencer. WaterBrook, $13.99 paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-307-45917-6

Spencer, who blogged as the Internet Monk until his untimely death earlier this year, offers a harsh assessment of institutional Christianity—“churchianity.” He speaks to the millions who, according to surveys, have changed religions or left them altogether. He takes special aim at evangelical megachurches and prosperity gospel preachers, though he also doesn’t spare those who link Jesus to the flag or sociopolitical causes. None of this, he insists, has anything to do with Jesus, who was Jewish (not American), hung out with people others rejected, and made disciples instead of buildings. He advocates “Jesus-shaped spirituality,” which can be found in service and scripture and, most important, won’t necessarily make you smile, because it can be hard to practice. Like so many critics of the current state of institutional Christianity, Spencer is a lot better at describing the problem than solving it; his indictment gets a little repetitious at times. But his tone is folksy and passionate without ranting. The book is his last word, and stands as the sincere testament of a Christian humble enough to admit and even embrace his flaws. (June)

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

Marilynne Robinson. Yale Univ., $24 (176p) ISBN 978-0-300-14518-2

Robinson’s new nonfiction work is drawn from her 2009 Terry lectures at Yale. More precisely, they are “lectures on religion in the light of science and philosophy.” The charge is ambitious, and Robinson brings to the task a suitably wide-ranging perspective. She takes aim at the modern scholarly propensity to debunk, a practice she calls “flawed learnedness.” It pitches out the babies of human insight with the bathwater of the past, preferring what she calls “parascience,” a kind of pseudoscience that prizes certainty. This “parascience” is a latecomer in human thought, the product of only the last 150 years or so. Because it closes off questions, it’s not even scientific. Nor does it allow space for the human mind and all the mind has produced in history and civilization. This is heady stuff that will particularly appeal to those familiar with the history of ideas and the many thinkers she cites, and to anyone willing to ponder broadly and humanistically about imponderable matters. Those who savor Robinson’s clear prose will also be gratified; her mind, in thought, is elegant. (May)

Missing Max

Karen Young. Howard, $14.99 paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4165-8749-1

Novelist Young (Blood Bayou) continues her romantic suspense specialty in her second book for an evangelical Christian imprint. The book loses no time in setting up its central and painful premise: six-month-old baby Max is kidnapped during the chaos of a New Orleans Mardi Gras. Mom Jane, dad Kyle, and teen stepsister Melanie must deal with the heart-wrenching, guilt-burdened aftermath, and they don’t do it well. The crime element of the plot waits in the wings as the dysfunctional family drama plays out with a twist. Young doesn’t begin weaving the villain into the action until fairly late in the book, leaving the narrative a little unbalanced as it shifts gears from domestic drama to crime suspense. The central relationship of Jane and Kyle is tense and emotionally credible; less credible is the volatile teenager Melanie, who makes a number of pivotal choices throughout the story. The faith elements are neither intrusive nor formulaic, and Young’s dialogue characteristically crackles. Though this is not as strong as her previous outing, Young will continue to please her many readers. (June)

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman. Canongate (PGW, dist.), $19.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2996-3

This gospel retelling is relatively faithful in style, time line, and events to the four canonical gospels—though Pullman injects a very Pullman-like spin on it by splitting Jesus Christ into two men, among other creative twists. Twin babies are born of the virgin Mary, one called Jesus, the other Christ. After a childhood in which Christ is a goody-goody and Jesus the popular one, Jesus and Christ continue down separate but intertwined paths, with Christ sneaking around, spying on Jesus’s ministry and writing down his every word and deed. Jesus becomes a philosopher-revolutionary and Christ is the politically savvy brother, who ultimately proves naïve. Pullman’s gospel version reveals how the politics and structure of the institutional church were plotted by power-hungry men, who used the renown of Jesus and his well-meaning, devoted brother Christ as pawns in their corrupt game—a critique that will be familiar to readers of His Dark Materials. This is a tale of (almost comedic) mistaken identity and good intentions gone horribly awry. Readers will find the parables, the Good Samaritan, healings, and the Sermon on the Mount, among other familiar scenes. (May)

Sneak Peek: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW June 14

Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex

Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider. Jewish Publication Society, $45 (220p) ISBN 978-0-8276-0895-5

In this fascinating and comprehensive investigation into the Aleppo Codex, scholars Tawil and Schneider vividly recreate the history of this rare and eminently significant text and track its tragic course through time. Through their analysis of its authorship in the 10th century; insights into its association with medieval and modern biblical luminaries; pointed questions regarding its partial destruction; and rare photographs, the authors convey both the spiritual and material significance of what many call simply the Crown. As the most authoritative rendering of the Torah, the Crown’s maintenance and survival was vital, yet its transfer from place to place over the centuries has almost always been shrouded in mystery. During its 500-year stay in Aleppo, Syria, under the superstitious and watchful eye of the Jewish community there, only a handful of religious scholars were permitted to view the sacred codex—reflecting an unfortunate circumstance, since pogroms in the 1940s destroyed substantial portions of the text. This highly readable and intriguing account will captivate readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the history of the Crown. (July)

Building Cultures of Trust

Martin E. Marty. Eerdmans, $22.99 (200p) ISBN 978-0-8028-6546-5

The presidential election of 2000, the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made the degree to which trust in political and religious leaders has been completely broken a serious consideration. In his thoughtful and probing study, Marty, the dean of American religious thinkers, examines some of the reasons that mistrust is fostered in society and then suggests ways that trust can become a more evident feature of society, enriching our lives. Rather than striving to construct a utopian state in which everyone trusts everyone else completely, Marty suggests a more incremental approach in which individuals in various cultures and subcultures, such as science and religion, begin to build trust step by step through conversations about the nature of human communication and the human self. Open flow of communication is vital, for Marty, to the development of trust as part of the goal of building cultures in a complex society. Part of the Emory University Studies in Law and Religion series, Marty’s little book offers hopeful suggestions for restoring trust in a world sorely lacking it. (July)

A First Look at the Stars: A Starred Review Coming in PW June 14Adam Elenbaas. Tarcher/Penguin, $23.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-58542-791-8

Author Elenbaas, a New York writer and therapist who grew up Minnesota-nice until he rebelled into a sex-and-drugs period, writes of his discovery of the curative and transformative power of the psychedelic experience. Elenbaas participated in ayahuasca healing in Peru; ayahuasca is a jungle vine brewed to make a highly purgative, hallucinogenic drink. The healing experiences allow Elenbaas to come to terms with himself and a family history of men who can’t figure out what to do with themselves. At the heart of the book is the relationship between Elenbaas and his father, a well-intentioned, progressive Midwestern Methodist minister who cares more for his job than for his family. The tension in their relationship is heartbreakingly poignant, and the book’s best writing comes when Elenbaas trains an observer’s eye on his family and his experiences. The conclusions he draws are less than profound, but the journey he writes about should not be missed. Less about drugs and more about family, this is a book for fathers and their sons; it beats the swagger of war stories. (Aug.)