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God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness

Michael Coogan. Beacon, $26.95 (200p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0194-3

In this concise, lucid book, Coogan (God and Sex), lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School, assimilates thousands of years of history to argue that humans should give up religiously based tribalism. Coogan uses logic and historical facts to make the case that what humans often refer to as God’s will to favor one group over another is, in fact, a human act. He looks at various places in the Bible in which Jews (or some subset of the Jewish people) or Christians lay claim to a special God-given “chosenness.” He shows that these texts, though afforded divine authority, are often contradicted by other biblical passages that call for inclusiveness. For instance, views on foreigners in Isaiah 56:3 6–7 (“foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh... their burnt offerings... will be acceptable”) are then contradicted by Nehemiah 13:23–25 (“You should not take their daughters for you sons... I cleansed them from everything foreign”). Coogan’s argument is convincing and supported with well-chosen examples, and his measured take will persuade (if not completely convince) any reader willing to listen. Coogan’s rigorous work deserves a wide audience. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Dwelling: Simple Ways to Nourish Your Home, Body, and Soul

Melissa Michaels. Harvest House, $16.99 hardcover (224p) ISBN 978-0-7369-6319-0

Caring for oneself and one’s home go hand-in-hand, writes Michaels (Love the Home You Have), founder of decorating blog The Inspired Room, in her approachable, faith-based guide to home design. Being aware of the correlation between one’s spirit and one’s surrounding can help one simplify, balance, and find peace, she advises, providing tools for making changes—physical as well as mental—that can help create a home that is a refuge and haven instead of a source of stress and frustration. Topics include eliminating clutter, slowing down and prioritizing tasks, meditating on scripture for inspiration, and embracing nature. Michaels suggests starting a garden, rearranging furniture to maximize window space in dark rooms, drinking purified water, and homing in on a sensory experience of the home (as opposed to a purely functional one). Committing to happy, healthy choices will make a difference in spiritual and mental health, she suggests, and recommends keeping a written account of the process to track how one begins to think more clearly. Journaling prompts and “Dwelling Well” suggestions appear throughout to help readers stay on track. This is a great resource for Christians looking to rethink their home environment. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Brave Face: Two Cultures, Two Families, and the Iraqi Girl Who Bound Them Together

Barbara Marlowe and Teeba Furat Marlowe with Jennifer Keirn. Thomas Nelson, $24.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-7852-2136-4

This affecting memoir details the journey of an Iraqi girl coming to America after being injured during the Iraq War. In 2003, Teeba Furat, not quite two years old, suffered third-degree burns on her face, head, and hands from an IED explosion. Seeing her photo in the newspaper, Barbara Marlowe reached out to offer help finding her a wig. Soon, she was offering her home to Teeba, who came to live in Ohio, where she underwent surgeries to regenerate her skin. Marlowe and her husband marshalled a tremendous amount of their own financial resources to get Teeba medical care, schooling, and naturalized immigration status. Over 12 years, Teeba’s family in Iraq and the Marlowe family establish a bond. Their respective faiths—Muslim and Christian—reinforce that bond and serve as a point of similarity, not difference, and comes to strengthen their relationship. Interspersed throughout are Teeba’s reflections on her life: “Most American kids play hide-and-seek as a pastime, but when I was little, I played it as an escape from life-threatening situations.” Teeba’s suffering becomes a blessing for her parents: “All your memories with me, Teeba, were a lot of problems. But your memories with Mama Barbara are full of fun and good things,” her biological mother, Dunia, writes. While Teeba’s story has tragic beginnings, it is a potent example how of faith can bring healing and peace in the aftermath of devastation. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness

Diana Winston. Sounds True, $16.95 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-68364-217-6

Winston (Fully Present), director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Semel Institute, offers helpful tools for meditators of all experience levels who “can’t seem to soften and relax in meditation,” or who simply want to freshen up their traditional meditation practices. In 72 short chapters that at times feel padded and repetitive, Winston defines and redefines natural awareness practices (“keeping focus on awareness itself rather than on the things we are aware of”) that can enhance traditional meditation or even provide “quicker access” to states of awareness, ease, or contentment. Winston intersperses valuable “Glimpse” exercises made up of a prompt and meditation questions. For example, Winston advises sitting among nature and engaging sights, sounds, and sensations before beginning a mediation that asks, “Who is aware? Can I sense the awareness that is the knowing expansion?” While Winston will lose some readers with overly meticulous categorization of different types of awareness, she also discusses better-known, more informal meditation techniques, such as “focused awareness” and “flexible awareness,” that will appeal to novice meditators. Helped along by anecdotes about her own experiences and meditation breakthroughs, Winston’s concise, easy-to-follow examples of how to cultivate a more self-compassionate meditation practice will appeal to meditators of all levels. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/01/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Written to Be Heard: Recovering the Messages of the Gospels

Paul Borgman and Kelly James Clark. Eerdmans, $30 (328p) ISBN 978-0-8028-7704-8

Positing convincingly that the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John—were written to be heard, not read, Borgman (David, Saul, and God), professor emeritus at Gordon College, and religion professor Clark (Abraham’s Children) analyze how themes embedded in each text resonate when listened to. The authors contend that the gospel writers constructed their texts as “oral performances” with “hearing cues,” narrative patterns, repetition, rhythm, and other literary constructions that helped original listeners comprehend key ideas, and contemporary readers (lacking this awareness) misinterpret fundamental themes. In extensive detail, the authors examine the narrative devices each writer employs. Employing an “authority-response” pattern throughout his gospel, Mark heightens the cautionary tale about true discipleship. From his opening genealogy (which is usually skimmed while reading) Matthew tells the story of the “next (and last) chapter in Jewish history,” framing his gospel with examples of how Jesus’ life and teaching offer fulfillments of Scripture. Luke and Acts, considered as a two-volume text, offer parallel stories, which can be performed sequentially so that prophesies in Luke are fulfilled in Acts. And in his opening intricate poem, John presents his gospel’s major theme: that believers will have power “to become children of God.” In excavating the gospel narratives’ intricate structure, this perceptive work of scholarship reveals thematic nuances long overlooked by Christian readers. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America

Michael P. Winship. Yale Univ., $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-300-12628-0

The rise and fall of the transatlantic puritanism is told through political, theological, and personal conflict in this exceptional history from Univ. of Georgia history professor Winship (Godly Republicanism). Spanning from the 1540s to the 1690s, Winship’s overview covers extensive physical ground—Bermuda, England, New England, and Switzerland, among other locations—while emphasizing the movement of people and ideas. Inevitably, the mixing of cultures that accompanied the rise of mercantilism, Winship writes, provided the incremental and unpredictable processes necessary for religious and political reformation. Central to this change was widespread questioning of the nature of authority (and asserting the right to redefine it), sparking debates over a bishop’s investiture garments, the independence of the congregation, and the authority of the British monarchy. The book’s episodic treatment of themes also serves to emphasize how personal choices can shape the course of puritan history. Highlights are Winship’s explanations of Jeremiah Dyke’s “God is departing from us” address to the House of Commons and the religious tensions that led to the Second English Civil War in 1648. Winship concludes with a discussion of the Salem witch trials, an overreach of authority that, for him, signaled the twilight of puritanism. With a clear narrative tied together with helpful clarifications, Winship’s cogent work nicely lays out the history of how puritans emerged from Protestantism. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Roar: Sulak Sivaraksa and the Path of Socially Engaged Buddhism

Matteo Pistono. North Atlantic, $15.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-62317-332-6

Pistono (Fearless in Tibet) tells the life story of Sulak Sivaraksa, the Thai leader of the Socially Engaged Buddhism movement, in this admiring biography. Drawing from interviews with Sivaraksa and his friends, students, associates, and colleagues, Pistono tracks Sivaraksa’s early conservative loyalties to the Thai monarchy; his creation of The Social Science Review, a Thai journal; his support for the student uprisings against the Thai government during the 1970s; and his periods of being persecuted and exiled. Sivaraksa’s work as a social activist is placed in contrast to Thailand’s shifting political and social climate: Sivaraksa has been critical of military dictatorship, ineffectual kingship, entanglement in the Vietnam War, American economic imperialism, and more. He argues that the legitimacy of the Thai monarchy is dependent on it attending to the suffering of the poor and cultivating righteous dharma with monastic support, but, Pistono claims, the monarchy has not met these conditions, and Sivaraksa leads an ongoing movement in Thailand critical of the government’s practices. Pistono’s hagiography is an accessible and flattering exploration of the world of Socially Engaged Buddhism, the 20th century in Thailand, and a Buddhist activist who fights socioeconomic injustice. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics

Joel Edward Goza. Cascade, $28 trade paper (222p) ISBN 978-1-5326-5143-4

In his sharp debut, Goza, former pastor at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Houston, Tex., writes with passion about the racist and classist roots of America’s political and religious institutions. Grounding his work in the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith, Goza convincingly argues that America’s Founding Fathers deliberately designed a racist and inequitable society. In his estimation, America’s founders, basing their thinking on the ideas of Locke, structured government around protecting property rights rather than promoting the common good. Goza goes on to illustrate how the founders also, influenced by Hobbess, concluded that equality did not rest in economic equity. And, finally, Smith (unintentionally) created a potent image for justifying inequality with his idea of an economic “invisible hand” that would eventually balance out wealth. With this new economic paradigm, Goza asserts, justice became an exercise in punishing those who challenged the status quo, rather than a system for ensuring a more just society. Goza also argues that Christianity, around the time of the Renaissance, began rooting itself in individual salvation, which created a break from its historic pursuit of the common good. Within these frameworks, Goza concludes, it became possible to justify ignoring racism and economic inequity. Goza’s ability to sharply discern and clearly explain ideas underlying American thinking will open important conversations about the nature of equality. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Zen Beyond Mindfulness: Using Buddhist and Modern Psychology for Transformational Practice

Jules Shuzen Harris. Shambhala, $17.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-61180-662-5

Zen priest and psychotherapist Harris argues in his weighty debut that American Buddhists are prone to avoid problems while seeking enlightenment and disconnect from the ethical roots of Buddhism. As a remedy, Harris offers a three-pronged solution: study of Abhidharma psychological models (Buddhist models of the mind), utilization of Mind-Body Bridging psychotherapeutic techniques (a method involving writing down reactions or responses to such questions as “What am I attached to?”), and committed zazen practice (a Zen tradition of meditation). Where the Abhidharma psychological models are concerned with the emptiness or lack of permanence of self, the Mind-Body Bridging, in Harris’s estimation, creates and sustains one’s sense of self using the presumption that the self is damaged and needs to be fixed. Harris provides questions for mind maps and bridging as well as zazen meditations that readers can use as they work their way through the program. A refreshing alternative to the profusion of mindfulness literature, this usefel if complicated guide will be handy for practitioners interested in the integration of Buddhism and psychology. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint

Roy Flechner. Princeton Univ., $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-691-18464-7

Flechner (Converting the Isles), professor of early medieval history at University College Dublin, attempts a bold reconsideration of the life and work of St. Patrick, unsuccessfully aiming to speak to both a general and academic audience. Flechner begins with Patrick’s life in Britain, then his initial captivity in Ireland, his return to Britain, and his final missionary work in Ireland in the fifth century CE. Flechner takes each chunk of Patrick’s life as a chapter, and in each he attempts to situate Patrick in a greater context through the use of other medieval documents, as well as archaeological evidence, such as fragments of Roman texts. In attempting to appeal to multiple audiences at once, Flechner seems likely to appeal to neither: a general audience will find his dense style hard-going, while academics are likely to be put off by his oversimplifications (for instance: “It is the archaeology and the Roman sources that are the best windows on contemporary Ireland, and they compensate for the absence of any Irish written source from the period”). Flechner also has a habit of continually referring to a discussion taking place at a different point in the book, forcing readers to flip back-and-forth between chapters in order to follow his lines of argument, only adding to the confusion. However, those really interested in the life of St. Patrick might enjoy Flechner’s account, despite the frustrating presentation. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/25/2019 | Details & Permalink

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