Walking the talk”—living one’s beliefs instead of just talking about them—is a watchword for many Christians. In fact, it applies to people of many faiths and is reflected in new and forthcoming books that tell the life stories of religious and spiritual teachers, preachers, artists, and cultural influencers who have shaped others by both instruction and example.
Teachers Across Traditions
There is a long tradition in Buddhism of students writing biographies of their beloved teachers, explains Daniel Aitken, publisher at Wisdom. Some religions have sacred texts, but Buddhism is an oral tradition, so teachers are key to passing down its principles. “The Sanskrit word for teacher, guru, and the Tibetan term, lama, convey the sense of not merely an instructor who imparts information or facts, but someone who embodies what they teach,” Aitken says.
In The Life of My Teacher (Wisdom, July), the first biography written by the Dalai Lama, he pays tribute to his own lama, Ling Rinpoche, who was not only a teacher and guide but also “like a loving father to me.” Also from Wisdom is Zen Odyssey: The Story of Sokei-an, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, and the Birth of Zen in America by Steven Z. Schwartz and Janica Anderson (Jan. 2018), about the two people who shaped American Zen and spawned a new generation of practitioners. From another Buddhist press, Shambhala, comes Enlightened Vagabond (July): author, philosopher, and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard tells stories and teachings of Patrul Rinpoche, a major Tibetan teacher and thinker of the 19th century.
Women have often been excluded as teachers from both Western and Eastern religions, but The Life and Visions of Yeshé Tsogyal by the Terton Drime Kunga (Snow Lion, Aug.) tells how the female monk defied convention in the 14th century to become revered as the mother of Buddhism in Tibet. Another female teacher—this one from the Hindu tradition—is profiled in Mother of The Unseen World by Mark Matousek (Random/Spiegel & Grau, Nov.), about the Indian mystic Mother Meera, who travels the world offering darshan, a silent blessing that followers believe is transformational.
Paeans to Preachers
The preacher is more central to Christianity than the teacher, and in Dietrich: Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life (Baylor Univ., Oct.) Michael Pasquarello III adds to the extensive Bonhoeffer canon with a biography focused on his preaching in prewar Germany and the U.S. One of a group of men who plotted to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in 1945. Baylor press director Carey Newman notes, “He ultimately became a preacher without a pulpit or a church.”
In the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, another renowned preacher, befriended fellow preacher Thomas Johnson, a former slave—a story told in Steal Away Home by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey (B&H, Aug.). Ivey writes he was inspired by “their friendship and deep love for each other.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a key figure in the reformed evangelical movement in Britain and the minister of Westminster Chapel in London for 30 years. His life is illuminated in Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life: Doctrine and Life as Fuel and Fire by Jason Meyer (Crossway, Apr. 2018). Trained as a medical doctor, Lloyd-Jones came to be called a “physician of the soul,” Meyer writes. “The Doctor spoke often against reductionism in the Christian life that would stress mind, heart, or will in a segmented or segregated way... [and taught that] the glorious gospel takes up the whole person.”
In The Last Blues Preacher: Reverend Clay Evans, Black Lives, and the Faith That Woke the Nation (Theology for the People, Jan. 2018), Zachary William Mills tells the story of gospel singer, civil rights hero, and preacher Evans, who told him, “If this book doesn’t help encourage someone else, if it doesn’t inspire them, give them hope, or draw them closer to God, then there’s no point writing it.”
The life of one of Christianity’s founders and first preachers is told in Paul (HarperOne, Feb. 2018), by renowned biblical scholar N.T. Wright, who believes that in focusing on his letters and theology, scholars and pastors have not considered Paul as a person and in the context of his times. “The problem,” according to Wright, “is that Paul is central to any understanding of earliest Christianity, yet Paul was a Jew, and that for many generations Christians of all kinds have struggled to put this together.”
While neither a minister nor a scholar, Phyllis Tickle influenced publishing and Christian culture until her death in 2015. Phyllis Tickle: A Life (Church, Feb. 2018) by Jon Sweeney (The Pope Who Quit) examines her roles as author, publisher, founding religion editor of PW, and commentator on contemporary religion. Tickle was an inspired and sought-after speaker, and Sweeney writes of hearing her in 2007: “People came to hear her wide-ranging analysis, her global take on what was going on in the religious world, including the digressions, which were often just as entertaining as the lecture itself.”
Most evangelical Christians have on their bookshelves the classic devotional My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, but few know the role his wife played in getting that book into their hands. To mark the 100th anniversary of Chambers’s death, Baker Books is publishing Mrs. Oswald Chambers by Michelle Ule (Oct.). “Biddy” Chambers created her own press to publish My Utmost for His Highest as well as 29 compilations of her husband’s sermons and teachings.
A more traditional evangelist tells his story in An Asian Harvest (Monarch, June). Paul Hattaway—international director of the ministry organization Asia Harvest and an expert on the church in China—recounts his missions work in the region over the past 50 years. Pamela Perillo is a more unlikely messenger: she was sentenced to die in 1980 for murdering two men during a robbery, and Salvation on Death Row: The Pamela Perillo Story by John T. Thorngren (KiCam Projects, Jan. 2018) tells of her reprieve, retrial, resentencing to life, and embrace of Christianity behind bars. Perillo now trains service dogs in prison, and a portion of the proceeds of Salvation on Death Row will benefit Patriot PAWS Service Dogs.
The life of another influencer—this one in politics—is told in Citizen Newt by Craig Shirley (Nelson, Aug.), an authorized biography that examines Gingrich’s work and his Christian faith. Says executive editor Brian Hampton: “We actually signed this book back in 2010, long before Trump entered the political arena.” But with the release of Gingrich’s Understanding Trump (Center Street, June), Hampton says Nelson plans to connect the two books in its marketing: “It will be along the lines of, ‘If you want to understand Donald Trump, read Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich. If you want to understand Newt Gingrich, read Citizen Newt by Craig Shirley.’ ”
Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, another political figure who is perhaps best known for his destruction of draft files in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War, spent decades opposing nuclear weapons and caring for those suffering from AIDS, as Jim Forest writes in At Play in the Lions’ Den (Orbis, Nov.). Forest and Berrigan, who died in 2016, were friends for 50 years. Berrigan could be prickly and was no plaster saint: Forest once made his confession to Berrigan as they walked down 78th Street in New York, saying “words I had often heard in the tight enclosure of a confessional, ‘With the authority I have received from the Church, in the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you from all your sins.’ Later we sat in the kitchen in the Jesuit house, laughing... [and] drinking beer.”
Other subjects of new spiritual biographies were influencers in the arts. In Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent, Jan. 2018), Gregory Alan Thornbury tells how Norman—who was opening for the Doors, Janis Joplin, and the Who in the late 1960s—decided to sing about Jesus and became one of the original Christian rock artists. Thornbury writes that Paul McCartney once told Norman, “You could be big if you’d just drop the Jesus stuff.” Despite his rejection by the mainstream music world, Norman has been cited as an inspiration by Guns N’ Roses, the Pixies, and U2. In children’s literature, the Little House on the Prairie books have been beloved for decades and were adapted into a long-running television series. A Prairie Girl’s Faith: The Spiritual Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Stephen Hines (WaterBrook, Feb. 2018) shows how Wilder’s faith is woven through the books and how it shaped her own life.
Some teach and lead outside of traditional religions. Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, is profiled by Paul-Gordon Chandler in In Search of a Prophet (Rowman & Littlefield, Sept.). Acquiring editor Sarah Stanton notes that the book shows “how he worked to bridge cultures through his writing and art, and how that’s relevant today in our divided times.” Chandler writes, “Kahlil wrote for both the East and the West, presenting a nonsectarian vision of our world and offering his readers a spiritual tapestry that transcends humanity’s divisions.”
New biographies of key figures in Western esoterica and the occult also are coming. In February 2018, Inner Traditions’ Destiny imprint will publish The Metaphysical World of Isaac Newton: Alchemy, Prophecy, and the Search for Lost Knowledge by John Chambers. Newton wanted to restore what he considered the true religion from before the flood of Noah, Chambers writes, when science and spirituality were one. And Inner Traditions recently published Deconstructing Gurdjieff: Biography of a Spiritual Magician by Tobias Churton, which looks for the truth behind the personal mythology Gurdjieff created, revealing his fascination with hypnosis, magic, theosophy, spiritualism, and mystical Islam.