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Nihilism

Nolen Gertz. MIT, $15.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-262-53717-9

Gertz (Nihilism and Technology) explores the concept and ramifications of nihilism in this quirky and instructive work. In a playful tone, Gertz writes that nihilism is much more than a philosophy of meaninglessness, and makes the case that such things as optimism, idealism, sympathy, and certain forms of spirituality are much more nihilistic than one might at first think. “Nihilism is about evading reality rather than confronting it,” he writes, and it exposes the difference between “being indifferent because that is how one responds to the world and becoming indifferent because we want to be liberated from our feelings and attachments.” In this way, Gertz compares nihilistic detachment to that found in stoicism and Buddhism. By considering the connection of the rise of postmodernism to nihilism, Gertz points out that nihilism is far more present, powerful, and pervasive than its pessimistic reputation suggests: “Postmodernism is the recognition that the narratives, the ideas, and the values we use to give life meaning are empty shells—or, to be more precise, the recognition that these narratives, ideas, and values have always been empty shells.” For Gertz, understanding the “normal nihilism” of modern times and coming to grips with reality in the face of meaninglessness can help readers transform self-destruction into an opportunity for meaningful creation. Gertz’s pithy, persuasive work usefully explains how nihilism can provide motivation for self-inquiry and creativity. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash

Richard Beck. Fortress, $18.95 trade paper (150p) ISBN 978-1-5064-3376-9

Mixing biography, theology, social justice, and music history, prison chaplain Beck (Stranger God) unpacks the meaning behind the music and lyrics of singer-songwriter Johnny Cash (1932–2003) in this wonderful work. Organizing the biographical material thematically, Beck ties events in Cash’s life to 15 of his songs, each one a separate chapter. In gritty prose, Beck paints a picture of a man who was committed to God, pacifism, patriotism, racial equality, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Beck explains the ways Cash felt as broken as those he longed to help and depicts his personal battles with addiction, depression, and infidelity. Over his long career, Cash became his own “target audience” for his message of faith and forgiveness, Beck writes. Beck also uses Cash’s persona as both outlaw and saint to weave in theological discussions, including a critique of Israel’s inability to “walk the line” with God and the validity of liberation theology, which holds that God preferentially takes the side of the poor and oppressed over the exalted and powerful. For instance, in the chapter “San Quentin,” Beck uses his own work in prisons to talk about Cash’s famous prison concert (which almost started a riot). Fans of the Man in Black who are interested in how his faith informed his career will love this. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Jewish Roots of Christianity

John Bergsma. Image, $25 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-9848-2312-0

Bergsma (Stunned by Scripture), theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, provides an accessible introduction to parallels between the Essenes (an ancient Jewish community) and Christian doctrine. In chapters looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls—remnants of the Essenes’ library at Qumran—Bergsma explores topics such as marriage and celibacy, and the timing of the Last Supper. His observations buttress the uncontroversial view that the scrolls shed light on “the time period of Jesus and the early growth of the Church.” As he summarizes: “In structure, liturgy, and theology, the Essenes and early Christians were remarkably similar, but they diverged sharply” on some major things, such as Christ’s divinity. The work’s biggest weakness is in speculating beyond what is provable according to current scholarship. Bergsma contends that it’s significant that more copies of the Book of Tobit (which is not accepted as scripture by Jews or Protestants) were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls than the number of copies of canonical books. But his argument that the Essenes found that text inspiring ignores the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls that have been recovered do not represent a complete record of the Essenes’ texts. Despite this, this is a handy entry point for readers unfamiliar with the Essenes or those interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Things No One Else Can Teach Us

Humble the Poet. HarperOne, $21.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-290518-5

Humble the Poet (Unlearn), a Canadian rapper and spoken word artist, blends memoir with standard self-help advice in this uneven work. Having previously worked as an elementary school teacher, the author taps the informal vibe of a cool authority figure as he casually reveals his hardships, low points, and unflattering thoughts to demonstrate how “you can’t be yourself if you don’t know who you are.” Each chapter opens with an anecdote, including accounts of difficulties producing music videos and stories of working with Pharrell Williams, that segues into general insights meant to guide readers away from negative thinking: “Purpose is not one-size-fits-all... the more deeply we dive inward, the more clarity we’ll have about what tickles our fancy.” The author asks readers to admit when they are being greedy and selfish, and provides poetry and pull quotes to punctuate his lessons. Conversations with colleagues and friends (including a particularly affecting discussion with a friend fighting cancer), as well as with his famous acquaintances, are often the vehicle by which wisdom is imparted, lending their voices an all-knowing quality. While the personal stories of brushes with fame and fortune provide the most entertainment, the unspecific lessons (“There’s no fun waiting for us after the work; there’s just more work”) feel unnecessarily tacked on. Fans of the author’s work will enjoy this peek into his life, but readers looking for solid advice will be disappointed. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession

Cameron Dezen Hammon. Lookout, $17.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-940596-32-7

Houston musician Hammon’s engrossing debut reveals the underside of “born again” evangelicalism on the southern megachurch music circuit. Born in New York City, Hammon was raised Jewish and, while writing “post-grunge folk-pop,” which she performed at “coffeehouses and small clubs” in Lower Manhattan, she embraced the Christian community of Tribe house church and was baptized at age 26. When she decides to move to Houston with her long-distance boyfriend, she finds work as a “worship leader” who sings and leads prayers. Barely making a living in a job she describes as a cross between worship and a “Christian game show,” Hammon is trapped in the world of tenant-worker evangelicalism. To make ends meet, she must endure the loss of agency and sexual harassment and contend with an unhappy marriage: it was a “study in paradox. I should look young, but not too young. I should look pretty, but not too pretty.” Jumping back and forth between New York and Houston, the gripping narrative explores the strife and renewal of Hammon’s multiple spiritual awakenings. A lifelong “seeker,” Hammon constantly reconsiders her spiritual life until the book’s end. Hammon’s candid exploration of how megachurch worship culture objectifies women will stun and move both Christian and general readers alike. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God

Alister McGrath. Tyndale Momentum, $22.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4964-3807-2

McGrath (Theology), professor of science and religion at Oxford University, provides an excellent study of Einstein’s theories in relation to his beliefs about God. McGrath explains the scientific achievements of Isaac Newton that dominated the world of physics while Einstein was working as an assistant in a Swiss patent shop in 1905. That year, Einstein published an article that would “overthrow” Newtonian ideas, in which he proposed that light was composed of particles and that each particle’s energy could be measured by the frequency of its electromagnetic radiation. McGrath then lays out Einstein’s subsequent work, article-by-article, establishing his theory of special relativity. Though Einstein revolutionized physics, he failed in his quest to discover a “grand theory of everything,” a problem he wrestled with until his death. While Einstein did not believe in a personal God, McGrath writes, he was driven by a “cosmic religious feeling” that became his “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” McGrath, a Christian, encourages other Christians to consider Einstein’s teachings as a mechanism for thinking about their own ideas regarding the relationship between science, religion, and the “meaning of everything.” This analysis of Einstein’s ideas will appeal to any Christian reader looking to contemplate connections between God and the unresolved mysteries of scientific discovery. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Ways of Heaven: An Introduction to Chinese Thought

Roel Sterckx. Basic, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-1-5416-1844-2

Sterckx (The Animal and the Daemon in Early China), professor of Chinese history at Cambridge University, masterfully guides readers through the foundations of classical Chinese philosophical and spiritual thought in this splendid work. He focuses primarily on Confucian, Daoist, and legalist thought as the three main philosophical strands with origins in ancient China that are still identifiable in modern times. Sterckx begins with a historical summary and introduction to the concept of Dao, before dividing the rest of the work into thematic chapters—including government, ritual behavior, the relation of individuals to one another and their ancestors, the natural world, and economic behavior. Sterckx is at his best explicating the philosophy of Confucius, clearly showing how the philosopher “argued that human relationships thrive better when human conduct is regimented and shielded by a phalanx of rituals, ceremonies, courtesies and conventions.” Sterckx grounds the book in the buildup to China’s Warring States period, which reinforces his idea that Chinese philosophies arose from political and social events—which strikes a contrast to Greek philosophies of a similar era which strove for an ideal of thought outside of the bounds of everyday human interaction. The firm historical grounding and Sterckx’s clear, concise writing make this an excellent volume. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Two Buddhas Seated Side by Side: A Guide to the Lotus Sutra

Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Jacqueline I. Stone. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (312p) ISBN 978-0-691-17420-4

Scholars Lopez Jr. and Stone offer an in-depth introduction to the Lotus Sutra—one of the most influential texts of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism—in this comprehensive, highly technical work. Their opening exploration of the Lotus Sutra focuses on the work as a text of timeless revelation (which captures the Buddha’s words and actions) against a backdrop of backlash from mainstream Buddhism. Although originally composed in India during the first century BCE, over centuries the text rose in stature and influence over Mahayana Buddhism. Nichiren, the 13th-century Japanese founder of the Nichiren Buddhist tradition, reinterpreted the Lotus Sutra for what he saw as an age of decline, emphasizing the salvation of even the most deluded as long as they accepted and embraced the sutra. By unpacking the Lotus Sutra chapter by chapter and explaining both the lesson presented by the Buddha and the influence on subsequent Buddhist lineages, Lopez Jr. and Stone’s detailed analysis makes for a welcome, admirable addition to the large repertoire of more general Lotus Sutra studies. Their incorporation of Nichiren showcases the sutra as not merely a religious document, but a text of living faith concerned with the salvation of everyday people. Though readers with even a passing interest in the topic will find this hard-going, this intricate text will be welcomed by dedicated Buddhist readers interested in the history of the Lotus Sutra. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham

Grant Wacker. Eerdmans, $24.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8028-7472-6

Historian Wacker (America’s Pastor) provides an overview of the public life and career of Christian evangelical leader Billy Graham (1918–2018) in this comprehensive biography. Beginning with Graham’s rocky start to pastoring at Bob Jones Bible College in 1936, Wacker explains how this experience and Graham’s transfer to Florida Bible Institute confirmed his desire to preach. With only a brief introduction to Graham’s theology, Wacker’s analysis focuses mainly on Graham’s preaching crusade and rise to fame in the 1940s, including revivals that lasted for weeks and his role as an advisor to American presidents. Graham had an outsized public influence on issues such as segregation, poverty, and American wars abroad—on which he frequently clashed with politicians. Wacker draws from the work of fellow historians to round out his portrait, such as what initially sparked Graham’s interest in social reform (an experience giving to evangelical humanitarian organization World Vision) and how he successfully harnessed television (and later the internet) to promote his Bible crusades. Wacker also often includes quotes from press conferences and interviews (“I think Vietnam has taught us... that we are not all-powerful and that America is not the Kingdom of God”) to give the flavor of Graham’s voice. This detailed, enjoyable biography will please readers interested in Graham’s political life and influence on American culture. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety

Henri J.M. Nouwen. Convergent, $25 (192p) ISBN 978-1-101-90639-2

The late Dutch Catholic priest and spiritual writer Nouwen (The Return of the Prodigal Son) unpacks what it means to be a follower of Jesus in modern society in this excellent posthumous collection of essays drawn from his lectures. Following a moving introduction from friar Richard Rohr in which Rohr argues Nouwen’s ideas were prescient, Nouwen (1932 –1996) invites secular readers to consider Christianity in the first chapter, and the rest of the book is an explicit call to those looking to follow Jesus’s example. He explores the challenge of loving one’s enemies and the connective nature of suffering: “All of humanity has been nailed on the cross... the Risen Lord is the Lord in whose body we have all been gathered. There is great hope in this understanding.” For Nouwen, those who choose to follow Jesus will be rewarded with joy and the promise of God’s presence. He also often draws on the Gospels to invoke concrete examples of Jesus preaching to his original followers, paraphrasing many sayings and rules for readers: “Pray for people that you do not like. You really have to work at it,” and, “We are suffering almost every moment of our life. There is always something that is a little hard... I think we should start with focusing on our small problems.” For Christians interested in Nouwen, this fresh collection of his writings will serve as a fine entry point. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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