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How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living and Dying, Purpose and Prayer, Forgiveness and Friendship

Judith Valente and Paul Quenon. Hampton Roads, $16.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-64297-034-0

Journalist Valente and Trappist monk Quenon follow up their The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed with a genial and spirited epistolary collection of introspective reflections. The duo passed back and forth letters on daily challenges, comments on current events (written over the recent period when “the Covid-19 pandemic would transform American life... and a racial reckoning would envelop the country”), and lofty theological questions (“We will follow where the Spirit leads us—to fancy or to foundational truth,” signs off “Brother Paul”). Major themes that emerge include, along with theological concerns, meditations on mortality, purpose and call, and the craft of writing in what Valente calls “a dialogue between people stuttering to articulate life’s universal questions from within highly diverse contexts.” As Catholics, both authors express appreciation for and frustration with their own faith and traditions (“My concept of sacrament is evolving,” writes Valente), as well as openness to learn from other spiritual practices, particularly Buddhism. Valente’s struggles as a married professional with a hectic schedule and Quenon’s decades of monastic living are discussed, but a poetic sensibility infuses and elevates all. Readers will want to savor these wise and lyrical offerings. Agent: Amanda Annis, Trident Media Group. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Martin Luther King: A Religious Life

Paul Harvey. Rowman & Littlefield, $35 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5381-1592-3

Historian and professor Harvey (The Color of Christ) plumbs the background and writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to provocatively build a religious frame around the civil rights leader’s beliefs and tactics. Delving into the formative intellectual and theological influences on King’s writings and activities, Harvey’s approach is not primarily as a biographer but rather a close reader of the evolution of King’s thought; as Harvey notes, “King’s radicalism had deep roots. The black religious tradition informed him through its history of protest and proclamation.” King’s ways of thinking are considered across his accomplishments and failures in civil rights campaigns including in Montgomery, Selma, and Chicago. Throughout, Harvey stresses King’s unwavering commitment to nonviolence; his political realism, derived in part from his study of Reinhold Niebuhr; and his fundamental economic radicalism. (King first read Karl Marx in 1949 while in seminary.) Harvey also acknowledges King’s “anxiety reduction” practices of drinking and sexual dalliance (which the FBI surveilled obsessively). Importantly, Harvey takes on in an epilogue the “distortions” (or “symbolism [over] substance”) of King’s message in the decades following his 1968 assassination. This careful and of-the-moment examination of King’s fundamentally religious worldview should take a prominent place on the shelf of literature about the man who changed 20th century America. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Carved in Ebony: Lessons from the Black Women Who Shape Us

Jasmine L. Holmes. Bethany House, $17.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-7642-3885-7

Educator and essayist Holmes (Mother to Son) employs her love for storytelling, history, and her Christian religion in this enlightening collection of portrayals that showcase “the inherent dignity and worth of [Black] women,” as a direct reproach to America’s “shabby record of acting in good faith toward its Black residents.” Each chapter focuses on a different historical woman, such as Sara Griffith Stanley (1837–1918), a dedicated abolitionist who affirmed that “the image of God in the body of the Negro”; and Amanda Berry Smith (1837–1915), a minister who preached even to white audiences in the U.S. and England and established a legacy working with orphans in India and Africa. Holmes doesn’t shy away from contrary opinions on figures whose ideologies she disagrees with, such as Booker T. Washington or Nannie Helen Burroughs (whom she criticizes for teaching Black people they can only be respected by earning respect), though she also recognizes Burroughs’s challenging of how white people placed “all kinds of barriers in the way of the progress of the Negro race.” Holmes trains a spotlight on notable Black women who lived life as she and others of faith wish to—through personal empowerment and religious devotion. It’s crucial reading for anyone studying the intersections of feminism and race, with or without a religious lens. Agent: Don W. Gates Jr., the Gates Group. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes

Brian Zahnd. IVP, $22 (192p) ISBN 978-1-5140-0333-6

Pastor Zahnd (Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God) offers a heartfelt Christian apologetic for postmodern times “when everything is on fire” and “the ethos of our age might be described as the felt absence of God.” Rooted in the development of his faith as well as his experiences on a sacred pilgrimage in Spain, Zahnd acknowledges and responds to the challenges of increasing cultural secularity. He speaks to how his own “theological house” has been renovated—that is, he has adjusted some of his beliefs based on reading and experience—without evicting the central Christian figure of Jesus. Zahnd distinguishes between Christ, the church, and Christianity in order to critique beliefs while remaining within the Christian tradition (“Recognizing that Christianity is a religion helps temper reckless all-or-nothing claims... religion is a human construct [and] tradition can and should be constantly reevaluated”). His fluid voice, both tempered and animated by a mystical streak, creates a deceptively accessible work, especially given its intellectual heft and range of sources (Nietzsche, Derrida, and Dostoyevsky, among others): faith and reason both find common ground in Zahnd’s writings. His followers will be glad to hear from him again, and Christian seekers new to his thinking will appreciate his passion and intellect. Agent: Andrea Heinecke, the Bindery. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World

Jacqui Lewis. Harmony, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-0-593-23386-3

Lewis, a Christian minister and creator of the MSNBC talk show Just Faith, advocates in this passionate memoir-as-sermon for change in a turbulent world via “a demanding, heart transforming, fierce love” that breaks through “tribalism” to find connection and community. Using her own life story and family history, Lewis introduces readers to ubuntu, the Zulu philosophy of “I am who I am because we are who we are.” She proposes nine ubuntu-inspired philosophies geared toward “engineer[ing] a badly needed love revolution to rise up out of the ashes,” among them loving oneself, speaking the truth, living justly, finding joy, and others. There are real-world examples to accompany each, such as of Lewis facing racism for the first time or dealing with her father’s legacy of abuse, her relationships with men, her years as a successful sales representative for Eastman Kodak, and the growing faith that ultimately led to her becoming a minister. Rather than a recipe for self-help, the approach is autobiographical, emphasizing how lives intertwine and actions impact one another, and urging readers to bring in ubuntu as an attitude to accomplish sexual, racial, and economic justice (“What hurts you hurts me. What heals you heals me.”). There’s not one single pathway here; rather it’s a dynamic missive about how one woman has made a difference. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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All Who Are Weary: Easing the Burden on the Walk with Mental Illness

Emmy Kegler. Broadleaf, $18.99 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-5064-6780-1

Christians struggling with mental health issues will find a powerful, persuasive ally in Lutheran pastor Kegler (One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins). Kegler, who has dealt with her own mental health demons along with her wife, Michelle, shatters myths that depression and other conditions are a moral failing. She takes a nuanced approach, writing, “I cannot offer the magic words that have healed me or others; what I can offer, however, is the sketches of a wide and wandering map in which I and many others who live with mental illness of all shades are walking.” The church, she suggests, has misunderstood and mistreated mental illness, while derision of conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia litter modern conversations, which fuels a sense of shame for those needing assistance. Helping others to walk their own paths toward mental health recovery, Kegler caps each chapter with questions for the reader to ponder—without judgment—as well as suggested further reading, along with healing, normalizing analogies (“We have much greater grace for a broken ankle than we do for our faltering minds”). While encouraging readers to continue their prayer practices, Kegler also gives them permission to seek pharmacological interventions and talk therapy. Kegler offers impassioned salvation to fellow Christians who have struggled with mental health; this book could in fact save lives. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Shamanic Bones of Zen: Revealing the Ancestral Spirit And Mystical Heart of a Sacred Tradition

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. Shambhala, $18.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-61180-919-0

Zen Buddhist priest and poet Manuel (The Deepest Peace) offers a counterpoint to Western Zen’s embrace of scientific theory in this refreshing take on promoting shamanism within Zen. The volume focuses on indigenous traditions and their connections to the earth, spiritual ancestors, and rituals that enhance Buddhist practice. Drawing from African, Caribbean, and Native American shamanic practice, as well as Black Christian churches, Manuel contends that chanting, zazen (sitting meditation), and other acts can invoke altered states of consciousness and bring practitioners closer to nature. Chapters explain how to make offerings to honor ancestors for healing and transformation, chanting to experience oneness and achieve illumination, and putting forth gratitude, which leads to “a sense of abundance.” Manuel applies shamanic ritual to the realities of racial oppression, finding “ritual and ceremony... to be the most profound way to enter into a realm of liberation and embody compassion for my life and all others.” A valuable resource section, meanwhile, includes chants and tips for attending meditation retreats. The open, conversational tone and inclusion of personal anecdotes help make the spiritual considerations accessible to those less familiar with shamanism. The Zen curious as well as longtime adherents will appreciate Manuel’s revelations. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Life, Part Two: Seven Keys to Awakening with Purpose and Joy as You Age

David Chernikoff.. Shambhala, $17.99 paperback (192p) ISBN 978-1-61180-861-2

Meditation counselor Chernikoff's Buddhist-leaning debut guide to graceful, conscious aging sees the challenges inherent to the second half of life—whether chronological or due to a major life shift, such as a cancer diagnosis—as a "remarkable curriculum for awakening." He articulates core principles for synthesizing "wisdom and love from long life experience," among them embracing mystery, choosing a vision, awakening intuition, committing to inner work, suffering effectively, serving from the heart, and celebrating the journey. Chernikoff recommends a cultivated balance of introspection and service that contributes to collective well-being. Examples are drawn from his hospice work and experience teaching psychology and meditation, and the conversational tone avoids the judgmental "to do" vibe common in self-help works, though the author quietly urges readers to work toward making a transformative reassessment of their relationship to the world. There's limited specifics addressing the inevitable bodily changes of aging, or the loss of loved ones and the Western cultural attitude toward aging; Chernikoff focuses more on the ineffable. Readers feeling unmoored after a certain age can take in much from this contemplative take on finding connection and purpose. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Year with Martin Buber: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

Dennis S. Ross.. Jewish Publication Society, $24.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-8276-1465-9

Rabbi Ross (When a Lie Is Not a Sin) superbly distills the theology of Martin Buber (1878-1965), a consequential Jewish thinker whose focus on making human interactions meaningful influenced Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." As Ross concedes, Buber's writings, marked by "artistic flourishes," can be "difficult reading." Ross's artful solution is to pen short sections on every Torah portion, divided into three parts: a short summary of an aspect of that portion (such as the debate over whether Noah was righteous only by the low standards of his time), followed by an interpretation of a relevant section of Buber's work, and then Ross's own perspective on and struggles with related ethical issues. Not every section is equally valuable; for example, following up a discussion of Abraham's challenging God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with an anecdote about Buber confronting Reinhold Niebuhr about a partially critical review is a letdown that only undermines the implications of the biblical patriarch's famous question, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" Despite that, this remains an invaluable entry point to a humanist thinker who sought to identify, build, and preserve "holiness in our daily routines" by putting people, rather than objects, first. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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There Is Never Anything but the Present

Alan Watts. Pantheon, $20 (128p) ISBN 978-0-59331-602-3

Adorned with simple but pretty illustrations, this compendium of aphorisms drawn from the writings of hippie theologian and Eastern mysticism popularizer Watts (The Way of Zen), who died in 1973, aims to heal, inspire, and release. Readers can dip into any section for one-liners or short paragraph whispers of wisdom, such as “Never pretend to a love which you do not actually feel, for love is not ours to command.” Watts muses on the natures of love, life, faith, and belonging, giving readers pause to consider the greater meaning of many thoughts, such as “We do not dance to reach a certain point on the floor, but simply to dance.” Others are more straightforward pronouncements that reflect Watts’s rebellious era but still hit as timely, to wit: “There will be respect for authority when, and only when, authority is itself respectable.” Some selections include drawings, from simple design flourishes to more scratchily etched imagery such as a floating eye, shaggy tree, or a classic serpent eating its tail. Designed as a gift book, it feels like it would fit as much on a bedside as coffee table—and readers may find themselves flipping through pages before wrapping it up. Agent: Jessica Salky, Salky Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/22/2021 | Details & Permalink

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