Susan Stiffelman: The Parents Are Alright

Years ago counselor and family therapist Susan Stiffelman had an epiphany: “I can get further [with kids] by working with the parents,” she thought. This inspired her to write Parenting Without Power Struggles (Atria, 2010). In her new book, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (Apr.), from the new Eckhardt Tolle Edition imprint of New World Library, she writes from the premise that to parent well, parents first need to be gentle with themselves.

Stiffelman, who taught herself Hindi and practices meditation, laid the groundwork for Parenting with Presence in her first book, by picturing the good parent as the calm, confident captain of the family ship. This parent neither abdicates responsibility nor uses bribes and threats in an attempt to control.

Parenting with Presence emerged from a series of telesummits that Stiffelman held with people ranging from chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall to Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marianne Williamson. Inspired by their wisdom—and quoting in the book luminaries such as Arianna Huffington and the neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel—Stiffelman guides parents in how to stay grounded as they navigate the inevitable upheavals and meltdowns that come with the job.

“It is very difficult to raise children,” Stiffelman says. But these challenges can make parenting a spiritual experience, especially if we understand spirituality as a way to live in the midst of everyday chaos. We’re not always going to want to make lunches or do long division with our children, Stiffelman notes, but we need to stay present with them—even when they push all our buttons. “I talk a lot in the book about forgiveness and compassion and apologies,” she says. “We often project our own unresolved issues onto our children,” or use our children to meet our own needs, she says. Instead of expecting children to endlessly excel, Stiffelman writes in the book: “Couldn’t the ordinary be extraordinary?”

Each chapter introduces a concept, such as compassion or self-care, and includes anecdotes and advice, as well as a section called “Now It’s Your Turn,” with an exercise to do, queries to answer, and suggestions for handling different situations. Practical questions that real parents might ask—“What if I really do want my child to excel at piano?”—are among those that Stiffelman answers.

Stiffelman says that when she can understand a past event from her now-24-year-old son’s point of view, “he’s getting to watch me grow.” When she can apologize to him for a past misunderstanding, he learns from her that he doesn’t have to do everything perfectly.

Jason Gardner, senior editor at New World Library, says, “The type of parents who read parenting books sometimes beat themselves up about falling short of their parenting ideal. In Parenting with Presence, Susan guides those parents with compassion. She covers all sorts of modern parenting conundrums with very concrete advice and practices, and she presents it all with terrific storytelling and subtlety.”

Stiffelman echoes that: “I hope people get the sense it is a very welcoming book.” —Diane Reynolds

J. Todd Billings: Hope in the Midst of Fear

“When our dreams crumble, our idols can crumble with them,” theologian J. Todd Billings says, when asked about being diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of cancer, which he writes about in his memoir, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, Feb.). “I didn’t want to be on the road of cancer, but many others have rockier roads than my own. And yet, in prayer, in returning to scripture and classical sources in the Christian tradition, my book points to a hope both in and beyond my cancer story, the story of God in Christ.”

Billings, research professor of reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., and an ordained minister of the Reformed Church in America, has made significant theological contributions over the years. Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic, 2011)—his study of the basic tenet of Christian faith and its effects on social justice, mission, and observant life—won a 2012 Christianity Today Award of Merit in the Theology/Ethics category. But when he received the news of his terminal illness at age 39, Billings’s world was shaken, and he faced the most personally difficult theological questions of his life.

“God’s story does not annihilate our personal stories, but God incorporates us into a larger drama in which darkness will not have the final word,” Billings says. “This leaves us with raw, unanswered questions. But it also points us toward a durable hope.”

In Rejoicing in Lament, Billings says he “wrestles with the problem of evil, prayer for healing, the meaning of death and loss,” but he also expresses “a durable hope” via prayers of both sorrow and thanksgiving. He writes of how life has led him toward hope in God’s promises, rather than down a road of endless questions and simplistic answers. “We need to avoid easy, ‘theoretical’ answers and always keep in mind the basics: listen to and grieve with the suffering. Don’t just pray for a ‘quick fix,’ but pray in lament and petition,” he says.

The book is part autobiography, part cultural commentary, and includes others’ stories of joy and grief. Billings shows how human sorrow can bring people closer to their faith. “We want to look successful and competent,” he says. “I’ve come to see how the ravaging enemy of cancer spoils our pretensions of control. But my hope is that my true life is now hidden—in union with Christ—even if my life appears to be going off the rails.” —Kathleen Samuelson

Janis Heaphy Durham: Reaching Across the Divide

Janis Heaphy Durham didn’t have herself in mind when she decided to write The Hand on the Mirror: A True Story of Life Beyond Death (Grand Central, Apr.). She wrote it for her husband Max Besler, who died in May 2004.

“The nature of what occurred after Max died was so extraordinary that I had to do my part,” says Durham, who has since remarried. “I believe Max found a way to reach across. If his life went on in another realm, it was my duty to tell the story.”

Durham was devastated when Besler died of cancer just four years into their marriage. She and her son by a previous marriage mourned their loss and tried to move on, but were brought up short on the one-year anniversary of Besler’s death. A powdery handprint appeared on the mirror of the bathroom he had used in the final months of his life. Another image appeared a year to the day later, and a third the year after.

These events, along with a host of other mysteries that occurred over eight years—such as flickering lights and moving rugs—prompted Durham to begin talking to spiritual practitioners, experts and experimenters in consciousness and paranormal activities, ghost experts, and all manner of physicists and scientists. Hers was no visit to the neighborhood tarot card reader, but instead a measured, deliberate approach to learning whatever she could to understand Max and what he was trying to communicate.

“As I began to learn and understand, I felt that Max really had achieved something by going from the other side into our physical reality,” Durham says. “I also discovered that many have been in contact with those they love, but were often afraid to talk about it for fear of being ridiculed.”

So Durham, a former publisher of the Sacramento Bee, set out to build what she calls a “legitimate platform” to talk about such experiences. “If I can come forward with this book, maybe others will feel less intimidated in telling their stories,” she says.

Durham has created a website to facilitate discussion ( and developed a newsletter to share information on the phenomenon. “If more people are talking about this topic, there will be more funding for more studies, and better and more media coverage,” she says. “This will be healthy for us in general as a society.”

Durham is contemplating a second book about cancer, based on her experience as a caregiver for her current husband, Jim Durham, who was diagnosed with the disease in spring 2013 and continues to fight it.

“Death has taught me a lot about life,” Durham says. “I don’t waste time anymore. I don’t judge people like I used to. And I pay closer attention to everyday moments.” —Ann Byle

Dayle A. Friedman: Embracing Age

“Contemporary culture greets aging with fear and loathing,” Dayle A. Friedman says. “We dread dying, and anything that hints of it.” Rabbi Friedman—founder of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.—is the author of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit & Grace Beyond Midlife (Jewish Lights, Mar.). “We idealize independence, and cannot fathom how one could be dependent and yet whole,” Friedman says. “Jewish tradition, on the other hand, has a healthy respect for the wisdom that comes with life experience. The tradition expects those who are older to share of their perspective as guides and nurturers of the future.”

Friedman trains, consults, and provides spiritual guidance at her Philadelphia-based practice, Growing Older. She teaches that Jewish tradition “doesn’t sugarcoat the inevitability” of hardships that come with aging, but rather “does recognize the possibility of becoming more sage as the body weakens.” She says, “We are not defined by our physical prowess, nor is our worth contingent on health and independence.”

Friedman says that once people acknowledge their sadness and grieve as losses and trials become more prevalent in midlife and beyond, they have “the opportunity at these junctures to search for sparks of light and to begin again. This is an existential choice: we can dwell in darkness or seek light. We see this choice in people who pass through retirement and find new passion in paths of service or creativity, in those who lose their homes and independence and manage to find nourishing new relationships in assisted living communities, and in elders who face dying with determination to leave a legacy through sharing their stories or values with their dear ones.”

Telling true stories of people she has encountered in her work, Friedman wrote Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older for “readers at every stage along the continuum from midlife through end of life.” That includes “my contemporaries, who are in our 50s, caring for aging parents, and thinking ahead to our own third chapters—new work or pursuits that will capture our passion in years ahead.”

“I’m also thinking of people in their 60s and 70s who are perhaps glimpsing early signs of physical changes, perhaps making new beginnings in downsized homes, and seeking ways of contributing meaningfully to their communities,” Friedman says. “And I’m thinking of people who are further along in the aging process, in their 80s and 90s—folks who have seen their share of loss, and who are facing or anticipating physical or cognitive frailty while very much engaged in vibrant living.”

Friedman’s hope for the book is “that all of them will find the tools to grow deeper and wiser as they grow older.”—Kathleen Samuelson

Harvey Cox: Who’s Afraid of Biblical Criticism

Harvey Cox didn’t plan to write about the Bible. His classic book The Secular City caused a sensation when it was first published by Collier in 1965 and had surprising popular appeal for a book by a theologian, leading to a Time magazine profile that produced the famous (or infamous) “God Is Dead” cover. Cox—who was the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard until his retirement in 2009—later wrote many books, including Religion in the Secular City (S&S, 1985), on Pentecostalism and liberation theology; Many Mansions (Beacon, 1988), on world religion; and The Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009). Though Cox is not a biblical studies scholar, in 2011, when Roger Freet, then his editor at HarperOne, asked him to write a popular guide to biblical criticism, he agreed, and it became his newest book, How to Read the Bible (HarperOne, Apr.). “I really enjoyed writing it,” Cox says. “One of the most enjoyable things was talking to people in the field.”

Cox’s family didn’t read the Bible at home, but he grew up hearing the stories in Sunday school. He thought of the Bible as a collection of stories until he discovered, while in seminary, that it can be approached critically as a historical document. Although he’s certainly not a fundamentalist, Cox wondered how to reconcile his narrative reading of the Bible with a critical/historical one.

In September 1963, during his involvement with the civil rights movement (he was an early supporter and friend of Martin Luther King Jr.), Cox spent a night with protestors in a smalltown Southern jail. Some of the protestors read from the Bible—mainly from Exodus and the Gospels—as if the stories were meant specifically for them and their situation. In that moment, Cox realized that the Bible could be read another way—not only as a beguiling collection of stories or a quasi-historical document to be analyzed, dated, and classified but also as a sacred book that has meaning for his own life and that speaks to today’s world.

By framing How to Read the Bible within his own life history, Cox says, “I could show people how I went through those three stages of reading the Bible” and concluded that the best way to grasp any biblical passage involves a combination of all three approaches: the narrative, the historical, and the spiritual. He writes, “First, never forget that story is utterly fundamental and ask, ‘What is happening here?’; second, become an amateur history detective and uncover the ‘who, when, where, and why’ about a particular text; and, finally, get into a dialogue and start to engage the text in a no-holds-barred wrestling match; if you open your mind and your heart to it, the meaning for any text will find its way across the centuries.”

Most people read the Bible in a devotional fashion, through the lens of faith, Cox notes; biblical studies scholars, on the other hand, take a technical, critical approach. Those two kinds of Bible readers rarely interact. “My goal is to build a bridge,” Cox says—to allow devotional Bible readers “not to be apprehensive about biblical scholars.” He notes, “They are trying to clarify many of the same issues you’re studying.”

Gently introducing various critical methods, Cox’s book illustrates how different interpretations can add meaning to Bible stories. For example, source criticism—the idea that the Hebrews used multiple earlier sources for their own purposes—allows readers to identify and become familiar with the numerous written and oral traditions that were patched together to compile Genesis.

Cox himself learned something important from writing the book. “Here we are, in this age of great religious pluralism, and I came to realize that the Bible itself is very pluralistic,” he says. “It’s written in different voices, in different eras, and contains different theologies, but it has a coherent message. And it’s helpful to know it was like that from the beginning.” Cox hopes How to Read the Bible will help readers grasp “what it is I have in my hand—poetry, gospel, history.” —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.