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Following: Embodied Discipleship in a Digital Age

Jason Byassee and Andria Irwin. Baker Academic, $21.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-5409-6227-0

Byassee (Surprised by Jesus Again), a teacher at the Vancouver School of Theology, and minister Irwin team up in this insightful exploration of Christian discipleship in the digital age. Byassee describes himself as “the weird elder relative” to millennial Irwin, whose productive use of technology in his ministry inspired their investigation into “how the church can use technology with hope, rather than being used by it.” To that end, the authors unpack challenges of ministry during the pandemic and share stories of online encounters that helped meet real world needs. One pastor, for instance, met several elderly parishioners online at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and helped supply them with badly needed distilled water. Another recounts a church that paired youth ministers with “church grandparents” as an emotional and IT support network. Regarding social media, Byassee and Irwin emphasize authenticity and caution when engaging with others online: “Dividing the self into split experiences of reality is something we have seen go violently wrong.” Finally, they challenge Christians to view technology as a tool and creatively consider how to use it “to love God and neighbor more.” Christians who are skeptical about technology would do well to pick this up. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Creatures of Habit: Breaking the Habits Holding You Back from God’s Best

Steve Poe. Thomas Nelson, $18.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4002-2342-8

Poe, lead pastor of Northview Church in Indiana, debuts with an engaging examination of 12 dangerous habits that offers up ways to replace them with routines that support a healthy Christian life. Addressing biblical sins, modern ills like workaholism, and the pitfalls of pride, worry, cynicism, and guilt, Poe approaches his topic with humility and explains, for instance, how unresolved trauma might lead to anger becoming a habitual response to inconvenience, potentially leading to damaged relationships or lost jobs. To break the habit, Poe recommends apologizing to those hurt by outbursts, taking up exercise, developing Scripture-based self-talk, and seeking God’s help through prayer. Other suggestions include finding an accountability partner and being more grateful. Unfortunately, Poe’s overly spiritual perspective has its blind spots—as when, in discussing workaholism, he asks readers to consider why work is an emotional priority for them without acknowledging factors like financial precariousness or the need for health insurance. This sympathetic guide will appeal to Christians looking for simple ways to make some changes in their lives. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Every Little Win: How Celebrating Small Victories Can Lead to Big Joy

Todd and Brooke Tilghman. Thomas Nelson, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4002-2910-9

In this uplifting debut, Tilghman, a Mississippi pastor and past winner of The Voice, and his wife, Brooke, emphasize the importance of celebrating small steps along the way to achieving one’s goals. In alternating sections, the couple explain how they have learned to exercise faith over fear and live joyfully by identifying ordinary “wins” in every situation—such as Todd’s early days singing in front of church members before graduating to bigger stages, a small but important “win.” Brooke, meanwhile, embraced her authentic self after struggling with anxiety, and learned to concentrate on her people skills when running the church while Todd was away with The Voice. Todd describes how Brooke encouraged him to audition for The Voice despite his hesitancy and acknowledges his previous tendency to be a people pleaser: “I’ve overcome the burden of trying to do everything right, and instead I simply follow where God leads me and share the love of Jesus the best I can.” In their transparency about choosing optimism, the Tilghmans will inspire Christians to focus on the small things. (June)

Reviewed on 04/23/2021 | Details & Permalink

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One Step Closer: How a Life-Altering Accident Led Me to Everything I Almost Missed

Ryan Atkins. Binturong, $14.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-73568-861-9

Atkins, creator of the Flat on My Back blog, debuts with an inspired account of how he discovered “hope is possible no matter the circumstances” while recovering from a car accident that left him quadriplegic. He recounts his life story before and after the accident, which occurred when he was 21, narrating how he struggled physically and mentally to adjust to his new circumstances, found his way back to religion, met his wife, and maintained a sense of purpose and optimism. Atkins takes the reader into his mind every step of the way, showing great vulnerability as he details periods of hopelessness, his initial insecurity about his romantic relationship, and his reflections on the shallowness of his life before the accident. Though the ending is rushed, the work is well-structured and teases out Atkins’ personal evolution in straightforward prose that centers his determination and optimism: “I vowed to push through the resistance and venture down the path of whatever journey God had in store for me.” This will inspire hope in any reader. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities

Ben Kirby, Thomas Nelson, $18.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-7852-3883-6

Ben Kirby, the once-anonymous author behind the PreachersNSneakers Instagram handle, which is dedicated to chronicling the extravagance of celebrity pastors’ lifestyles, raises worthy questions about the church’s entanglement in “capitalism, consumerism, and celebrity culture” but offers few answers in this underwhelming analysis. Is it appropriate, the author wonders, for a pastor to be a celebrity and have an entourage, or for a celebrity who becomes a Christian to be treated as a pastor? In all cases, the author diffusely answers: “maybe, but it’s hard.” The author suggests Christians need to strike a balance between using social media and displaying humility, and seek wisdom “from scripture... and wise counsel” to achieve that balance, but never expounds on what that means or where to learn. Perhaps the most insightful chapter is one dedicated to expensive sneakers and the resale market for them: “When a hobby becomes your god or causes others to envy or feel less than, it’s time to ask tough questions about its place in your heart.” While the author aims to address both non-Christians and Christians, this cursory analysis doesn’t provide enough context for outsiders to follow the critiques. This strident complaint that the pursuit of fame is diluting the gospel falls flat. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness

Sarah Clarkson. Baker, $16.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-5409-0051-7

Thoroughly Alive blogger Clarkson (Book Girl) shares stirring reflections on the power of beauty, goodness, and love amid suffering in this eloquent work. She describes healing encounters that she first experienced as a child struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder: “Where suffering has made God abstract and distant to us, where brokenness leaves us with unanswerable questions, beauty allows us to taste and see God’s presence.” Clarkson explains how she has found God’s goodness through the love of her parents, moments of natural beauty, and in the hospitality of others. She writes of how, despite once considering getting married and having children “an almost impossible dream” due to her mental illness, she met her future husband, expressing heartfelt gratitude for the fulfillment of her desires. With references to art, literature, and scriptures, she speaks of beauty “through all the great and changing grief” within the world and draws inspiration from Job’s refusal to curse God despite his pain and suffering. Ultimately, Clarkson encourages Christians to love in a manner that makes “the tenderness of Jesus tangible.” This affecting testimony will spark hope in any Christian in need of a lift. (June)

Reviewed on 04/16/2021 | Details & Permalink

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God Is Your Defender: Learning to Stand After Life Has Knocked You Down

Rosie Rivera. Thomas Nelson, $28.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7852-3772-3

In this powerful guide, Rivera (Take Your Power Back), former cohost of the Spanish morning show Despierta America, offers help to Christian readers looking to heal from past hurts. Rivera shares her struggle to trust God as her defender, disclosing painful circumstances in her life—including the effects of sexual abuse she experienced as a child and the death of her much younger sister. She discusses questions on dealing with suffering, such as “Why do bad things happen?” and “Why do people do hurtful things?” and points readers to the Psalms, where David seeks answers to similar questions. Rivera considers withholding forgiveness a type of revenge (and thus to be avoided) and emphasizes the need to forgive others: “When we bless others, when we forgive, when we let God be our Defender, it comes back to bless us.” Instead of “paying for the wrongs you’ve experienced,” she encourages Christians to trade burdens, loss, and desire for God’s always optimistic outlook: ”fresh eyes, a renewed faith, an empowered story.” Rivera’s uplifting testament will reassure any Christian of God’s active presence in life. (June)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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When You Greet Me I Bow: Notes and Reflections from a Life in Zen

Norman Fischer. Shambhala, $17.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-61180-821-6

Zen priest and poet Fischer (What Is Zen?) collects thoughtful personal essays from over three decades of his Buddhist teachings and practice. First, he discusses harmonizing one’s relationships with oneself, others, the physical world, the spiritual world, and time. For instance, “Leaving Home, Staying Home” revisits the story of Siddhartha leaving his pregnant wife to achieve enlightenment, each sacrificing so the other can live a fulfilled life. In the section on the relationship between writing and thinking, the essay “Impermanence Is Buddha Nature” explains that impermanence is both loss and change, which can be refreshing and renewing. Regarding cultural encounters, “The Two Worlds” contrasts Japanese and Western interpretations of Buddhism: where “the sacred has been reduced to the ‘inner life,’ something private,” in the West, in Japan, a Buddhist sensibility includes “a vague and dark (if also beautiful and serene) sense of an alternate order of reality.” In the standout “Buddhism, Racism, and Jazz,” Fischer describes African American cultural influences in American Buddhism and explains how addressing the “great national wound of racism” requires Buddhists to pursue “political and social activism as a total life project.” These moving contemplations showcase the intricate workings of a wise mind. (May)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Faith, Nationalism, and the Future of Liberal Democracy

David Elcott et al. Univ. of Notre Dame, $40 (188p) ISBN 978-0-268-20060-2

In this trenchant analysis, Elcott, a professor of public service at NYU, teams up with other researchers to explore the ways religion impacts politics in the U.S. and Europe. The main areas of concern are how religious ideology can form a bully pulpit, galvanize political viewpoints, and be used to exclude marginalized communities. The authors spend much time tracing the historical roots of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, and posit that "religion" in political terms doesn't mean beliefs or rituals, but "identity, nostalgic symbols, an incarnated sensibility in which God is manifest in land and flags, history and tradition." Citing examples such as Trump's "Muslim ban" or the banning of headscarves in France and Germany, the authors contend that religion has had a resurgence on the secular global political stage: "Religious identity is a vital talisman of national identity found at the core of most self-defined illiberal movements, such as Catholic Law and Justice in Poland or the Christian Coalition in the United States." The authors also offer an array of solutions to stem the tide of illiberal democracies, particularly focusing on encouraging religious leaders to challenge dangerous political rhetoric, work on behalf of immigrants and refugees, and speak out against religious extremism within their own faiths. This is a startling reminder of the insidious potential of religious identity being overtaken by extremist political forces. (June)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Peaceful on Purpose: The Power to Remain Calm, Strong, and Confident in Every Season

Joel Osteen. FaithWords, $23.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3439-5

Lakewood Church pastor Osteen (Empty Out the Negative) provides guidance to help Christians practice intentional peacefulness in this insightful homily. He advises Christians to not allow disappointments to cause frustration or discouragement, and instead to remember that God is in control. Osteen suggests replacing “thoughts of worry” with an “all is well” mindset, describes how doing so can relieve pressure and contribute to peacefulness, and cites examples of God’s divine protection and intervention in the lives of Elijah, Paul, Silas, Daniel, David, and Joseph to suggest it’s possible to know peace in times of adversity. He then identifies “destiny moments” when God set up seemingly ordinary circumstances to fulfill his purpose—such as when Jesus instructed two of his disciples to bring him the donkey that he would ride into Jerusalem. Throughout, readers are reminded that challenges are an opportunity to see God working in their lives: “You can’t go anywhere without your Guardian God. That’s why you can live from a place of peace, a place of faith, even though there’s turmoil all around you.” Osteen’s fans will love this. (May)

Reviewed on 04/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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