Original RBL Reviews

Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words

Brian D. McLaren. HarperOne, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-0618-5401-9

Christian evangelical author, teacher, and pastor McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity) started his writing career helping nondenominational evangelical churches adapt to the emergent, post-modern, post-Christendom era. His most recent books, however, are directed to those outside the church who identify as “spiritual, not religious” or those who find church lifeless. Using personal narrative, simple language devoid of church-speak, and self-deprecating humor, McLaren’s intimate voice envelops the reader with a sense of safety to match the vulnerability his title suggests. Beginning with a story of St. Francis of Assisi stripping naked before his father to reject his inheritance, and concluding with an invitation to skinny dip in the “river of sacredness,” McLaren presents four spiritual “seasons”—simplicity, complexity, perplexity, and harmony—accompanied by 12 prayer practices. Each practice, described as “simple, doable, and durable,” is rooted in a single word (e.g. here, thanks, sorry, help, why, yes, behold). Conventional Christians may not welcome McLaren’s extravagant invitation to those on the religious margins, but anyone wanting to conserve the spiritual spark in themselves or someone else will find this book a gentle and generous tract. (Mar.)

In the Valley of the Shadow

James L. Kugel. Free Press, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4391-3009-4

In 2000, at age 54, Kugel, a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard, was diagnosed with incurable cancer. He was told that he could have two or three years without debilitating symptoms and that new research might enable him to live a bit longer. He has now lived ten years beyond the original prognosis, during which time he wrote several books, including the successful How to Read the Bible (2007). He also achieved emeritus status and moved to Jerusalem. In his new book, he ruminates about his religious faith in the face of the lethal diagnosis. The book is not designed to help people in a similar situation, but rather to explore the relationship between his sense of smallness and religion. This leads to an extensive survey, sometimes hard to follow, of poetry, anthropology, neurology, and archeology, as the author seeks to identify a biological basis for universal similarities in language and belief systems while insisting on the primacy of religion. Although Kugel discusses witchcraft as a behavioral determinant in some African tribes, he surprisingly fails to mention the belief in reincarnation that brings solace to many in the face of death. In any case, Kugel has used his wide-ranging knowledge to affirm religious faith, doing so richly. (Feb.)

Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

Joseph E. Lowery. Abingdon, $22 (121p) ISBN 978-1-4267-1324-8

Lowery, past president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, is a candid preacher of sermons embroidered with colloquial humor, blending verve and reverence for God while pressing for social change without sounding pedantic. These 26 speeches, sermons, and reflections touch on topics from economic empowerment to ending racism both to benefit blacks and to liberate whites from the burden of prejudice. Lowery is effective in sermonizing when he offers a clear message for others to follow; he is less so when he reacts from the pulpit to news events like Bill Clinton’s affairs. The many themes of the book--honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, political change, and the disenfranchised perspective of black boys are just a few--weaken the collection because the chronological order of the sermons doesn’t mirror the urgency or timeliness with which so many of them were delivered. Many of the sermons take their audiences to the mountaintops or to float along a river, but a few are thin and out of place in the collection and probably should have been omitted. (Feb.)

Ranking Faiths: Religious Stratification in America

James D. Davidson and Ralph E. Pyle. Rowman & Littlefield, $49.95 (216p) ISBN 978-1-4422-0853-7

Most researchers working on social stratification address ethnicity, gender, race, and class, but tend to ignore religion. In this work, Davidson (Purdue University) and Pyle (Michigan State University) seek to fill that gap by addressing the relationship, both historical and contemporary, between religion and status in America. Through their thorough review of stratification by religion in American history, the authors demonstrate that religion affects access to the resources that determine a group’s status. Davidson and Pyle’s analysis of patterns in religion identification among elite versus non-elite groups leads to some fascinating results--for example, their argument that the rise of boarding schools and legacy admissions was tied to entrenchment among the religious elite is an important insight, But their application of sociological theory, especially conflict theory, is too brief, drawing likely oversimplified conclusions about the relationship between religious stratification and social instability. Although the prose is dry at times, particularly in their review of American religious history, this work, in its introduction of religion as a formal category of stratification, should be regarded as an important contribution to the fields of religion and sociology. (Feb.)

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity

James C. Burkee. Fortress, $29 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8006-9792-1

Burkee, a historian at Concordia University Wisconsin, offers a personality-driven account of the shift toward conservativism in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. After setting the stage by highlighting the socially progressive aspects of the synod after World War II, Burkee tracks the swing to the right largely through the actions of conservative agitator Herman Otten and synod president Jack Preus in the 1960s and ’70s. Relying on personal interviews and archives only recently accessible, Burkee does offer a staggering amount of information and insight into how conservatives succeeded in their theological and political goals. However, the lack of explanation of basic mechanics of synod elections and management might leave unfamiliar readers feeling somewhat confused, and the implications beyond the Missouri Synod are obscure. Also, his disdain for Otten and Preus and their methods is barely contained, raising questions of impartiality. Historians and others with strong interest in the Missouri Synod or in how staunch religious-social conservatives achieved success during the Cold War years will be engaged by the book, though the work is a bit dense for casual reading. (Feb.)

Running with Joy: My Daily Journey to the Marathon

Ryan Hall. Harvest House, $13.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-


The fastest American-born marathoner of all time (2:06:17) offers an inside track on the day-to-day life of a runner, a life unglamorous and yet inspiring. His message is “even if you don't land on the podium or run a personal best, even if you have a bad workout or are struggling with an injury, you can experience joy to the fullest.” The book chronicles a 14-week training journey to the Boston Marathon, providing helpful insights into training exercises, nutrition, and racing tips for runners. In high school Hall ran the mile in a state-record 4:02 after following advice from his father to rest before the race. “I would have never rested if it were left up to me, but I trusted my dad and took it easy,” he writes. The reader gets inside the head of one of America's elite runners, learning about his relationship with his wife, who is also a professional runner, and his faith in God, the source of his joy even when he does not reach the podium. The narrative jumps around too much as it begins but settles into a steady pace for a powerful finish. (Feb.)

Sneak Peek: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW Feb. 14

Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

Bart D. Ehrman. HarperOne, $25.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-201261-6

The evocative title tells it all and hints at the tone of sensationalism that pervades this book. Those familiar with the earlier work of Ehrman, a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus, will not be surprised at the content of this one. Written in a manner accessible to non-specialists, Ehrman argues that many books of the New Testament are not simply written by people other than the ones to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries. The word itself connotes scandal and crime, and it appears on nearly every page. Indeed, this book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else's name was common practice and perfectly ok in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptable -- hence, a forgery. While many readers may wish for more evidence of the charge, Ehrman’s introduction to the arguments and debates among different religious communities of the first few centuries and among the early Christians themselves, though not the book’s main point, is especially valuable. (Apr.)

Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts

Meir Shalev. Harmony, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-71718-4

In this innovative and skillfully woven analysis of biblical firsts, Shalev (A Pigeon and a Boy), an Israeli columnist, probes the significance and underlying stories associated with eleven of the Bible’s “firsts.” He investigates the meaning of the first laugh, explains how the first Jewish monarchy arose, and explores the tragic story of the first loving woman, all from a firmly secular perspective. Shalev’s vast biblical knowledge is evident, and he does not hesitate to offer his own take on a given subject, a perspective that often differs from traditional rabbinic understanding - a point he proudly makes throughout his work. His scrutiny of all aspects relating to a particular theme, his colorful descriptions of hallowed biblical figures, and his smooth pen enhance this biblical narrative, but some may find his frequent derision of traditional analysis distasteful and his sometimes casual writing distracting. Readers, either familiar or unacquainted with the biblical text, will enjoy this accessible and authentic excursion into the ancient world of Jewish life. (Mar.)

A First Look at the Stars: Starred Religion Book Review Coming in PW Feb. 14

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World

James Carroll. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-0-547-19561-2

“Oh Jerusalem, how often have I wept for you!” laments the psalmist. And well we should weep. For millennia, Jerusalem has been the meeting point of religion and culture, traditionalism and modernity, and the seemingly inevitable violence that erupts from a particular faith’s exclusive claim to the city. Carroll, author of the critically acclaimed Constantine’s Sword, has given us one of the broadest and most balanced accounts of the city of King David in recent years—one centered on the concept of “sacred violence” as a path to redemption, a vision long engendered by Jerusalem and all that it represents. But he has another agenda—to analyze and interpret the intersections of history, theology, philosophy, and popular culture in a way that offers hope of an emerging religion that “celebrate[s] life, not death.” Given the long history of violence and death surrounding both the physical Jerusalem and the “imagined” city (e.g., America as a “city on a hill”), is this even possible? The former Catholic priest remains optimistic that humanity will find a way to resolve the conflicts that are so much a part of its story. Conceptually profound, richly detailed, and wonderfully realized, this book brings to life the dynamic story of the Divided City. (Mar.)

On the Virtual Shelves: Web Exclusive Religion Book Reviews

Larkspur Cove
Lisa Wingate (Bethany House, Feb.)


Save the Date
Jenny B. Jones (Thomas Nelson, Feb.)


The Warrior King

Wendy Murray (Ecco Qua, Jan.)


Tapping the Source: Using The Master Key System for Abundance and Happiness
William Gladstone, Richard Greninger, and John Selby (Sterling/Ethos, Nov.)


The Spirit of the Quakers

Edited by Geoffrey Durham (Yale Univ., Nov.)


Living Into Hope: A Call to Spiritual Action for Such a Time as This

Joan Brown Campbell (SkyLight Paths, Nov.)