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Hell: A Guide

Anthony DeStefano. Thomas Nelson, $25.99 (254p) ISBN 978-0-71808-061-7

In this disappointing study, DeStefano (A Travel Guide to Heaven), host of TV show A Travel Guide to Life, aims to report “what hell is actually like.” Hell, DeStafano explains, has been famously depicted by C.S. Lewis and Dante Alighieri and furiously debated by theologians and philosophers across time. DeStefano contends that once a person dies, their soul leaves their body, “falling” into a hell of immense pain filled with “spritualized hellfire” that one’s material body cannot comprehend, before finally meeting God for the Last Judgment. He sidesteps some of the thorniest issues about the afterlife by not addressing purgatory and offering only superficial treatment of alternative theories on hell and what comes after death within the Christian tradition. Opting instead to preach to his own conservative-leaning choir and declare those who disagree with him “traitors,” DeStefano draws on traditionalist readings of classical Christian philosophy, morality, and a supplement of biblical texts that offers little rigor. Instead, DeStefano is left to speculate about many details of hell and closes with an evangelistic call: “the words of Christ and the clear thinking of the church... testify to the real existence of hell, but so does common sense.” This flimsy analysis will only find an audience with devoted Christian readers. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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In the Name of God: The Role of Religion in the Modern World

Selina O’Grady. Pegasus, $29.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-64313-507-6

Documentary producer O’Grady (And Man Created God) presents a dazzling, lucid history of evolving, tenuous religious toleration. Starting with the Roman Empire and the beginnings of Islam, O’Grady shows how toleration was a pragmatic decision to consolidate power among diverse populations and conquered territories but collapsed when the subordinated began to threaten those in power. Tension between religious empires or nation states pervaded the Middle Ages as both Christians and Muslims fought heresy and launched holy wars against each other. Throughout the Dark Ages, O’Grady highlights how Muslims tended to be more tolerant of Jews, while Christians vacillated between relying on Jews for financing and violently massacring or expelling them, notably following the Black Death. The Reformation’s wars and the 16th-century Sunni-Shiite conflict show how both faiths fractured and struggled with toleration. After discussing the diminished and reshaped role of God in politics during the American and French Revolutions, O’Grady describes the rapid, chaos-inducing Islamic Enlightenment and modernization sparked by the French invasion of Egypt in 1798. She ends with the rise of nationalism instead of religion as a unifier, arguing that the the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust were largely a product of this realignment. This perceptive, masterly history will change how many readers think about toleration and the supposed clash between Christian and Muslim worlds. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Angels & Archangels: The Western Path to Enlightenment

Damien Echols. Sounds True, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-68364-326-5

Echols (High Magick), a Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest, provides foundational practices and meditations for building one’s magical skills in this affable work. Echols explains how aspiring “magicians” can call upon archangels and angels to achieve and maintain “spiritual sustenance.” The author was on death row for 18 years before being exonerated and notes that “working with angelic energies in my time of need had returned my passions to me, and repaired something fundamental.” With nimble instruction, Echols covers basic practices, theories, and advanced rituals that include breath work, the “Simple Blessing Ritual,” talismans, instructions for air-drawing the pentagram, meditations, and energetic vibrations, among other rites and rituals. He also explores the influences of the Zodiac, the “Tree of Life” symbol of immortality, and Tarot on magical traditions, and champions the power of “The Holy Guardian Angel.” Readers unfamiliar with Western alternative magical practices might feel overwhelmed by the many complicated rituals and dense explanations of the history of angels within Western traditions. Echols’s vast knowledge of magic and Western spiritual history makes this perfect reading for experienced spiritualists interested in esoteric traditions. (July)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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We Are Called to Be a Movement

William Barber. Workman, $8.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-5235-1124-2

Barber (Revive Us Again), a MacArthur Fellow and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., demonstrates his rhetorical gifts in this expansion on a 2018 sermon he delivered at the National Cathedral. Barber attained national attention by organizing “Moral Monday” protests throughout 2013 against legislation hurting the poor, and draws on the Psalms and the Gospel of Luke to develop his principal theme—“God uses the rejected to lead the moral revival.” The rejected, he argues, are the 140 million Americans who are poor or “low wealth” (those within the bottom third of earners). He makes an argument for all rejected to form a mass movement and come together to be the “chief cornerstones” of a more just and economically equal America. Barber’s impassioned oratory (“Revival power! Resurrection power! Love power! Mercy power! Telling the truth power!... when the stones that have been rejected come together, something powerful can happen.”) shows the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, whom Barber cites as a model for his thinking. Christians looking for inspiration toward collective action will love this. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Deep Living with the Enneagram: Recovering Your True Nature, Revised and Updated

Roxanne Howe-Murphy. Enneagram Press, $24.95 trade paper (460p) ISBN 978-0-9793847-1-4

Life coach Howe-Murphy expands on her 2013 book Deep Living in this engaging work by exploring the principles of the Enneagram, a method of personality typing grounded in the teachings of spiritualist George Gurdjieff. Howe-Murphy sorts the nine Enneagram types into three “social style clusters”—private and introspective; assured and confident; service-oriented and responsible—and goes deep into each type’s core belief, theme, behaviors, patterns, and practices to help readers “turn toward your true nature.” Personality and “mistaking your personality for who you are” forms the basis of her assessments, as do the “nine levels of expansiveness and constriction” within personalities. Her final chapters focus on what it means to change and how to do so based on one’s Enneagram type, advising readers to be curious, practice compassion, and “embrace radical honesty.” Most people, she writes, “have a deeply embedded—and erroneous—belief” that something in them must be fixed or improved, a belief that can be circumvented by “practicing presence,” defined as making “deeper contact” with one’s “open, expansive nature.” Howe-Murphy’s exhaustive, detailed work will appeal to spiritual readers looking to the Enneagram for “greater freedom, ease, and lightness.” (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Monk’s Guide to Happiness: Meditation in the 21st Century

Gelong Thubten. St. Martin’s Essentials, $19.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-250-26682-8

Thubten, a Buddhist monk and meditation teacher, argues that “happiness is a choice” in his powerful debut. Admitting that happiness is an elusive experience that always seems just out of reach, Thubten suggests that it is one’s reaction to pleasant and unpleasant experiences (not the experiences themselves) that causes suffering and creates barriers to happiness. By practicing mindfulness without seeking a “feel-good” goal, he suggests, one can attune to an awareness that is free from suffering. Thubten stresses that it is necessary to develop the habit of “micro” mindful moments, such as mindful eating and walking meditations, and to integrate such experiences into daily life. From this groundwork, one can cultivate an attitude that embraces interdependence and compassion, principles Thubten contends form the basis of happiness. He also provides practical instructions for exercises that build on the Buddhist, psychological, and social lessons within each chapter. Though this book treads familiar ground, it succeeds as a highly accessible and jargon-free introduction to meditation. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Take a Hint, Dani Brown

Talia Hibbert. Avon, $15.99 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-294123-7

Hibbert’s phenomenal second Brown Sisters contemporary (after Get a Life, Chloe Brown) strikes a perfect balance of sweetness and spice. Danika Brown, a witchy, bisexual academic, is on the hunt for a friend with benefits who won’t try to morph their fling into a relationship. Enter Zafir Ansari, former rugby player turned security guard at Dani’s university. When Zaf rescues Dani from a mishap during a fire drill, Dani instantly believes he’s perfectly suited to her needs. But behind his burly exterior, Zaf is an anxious hopeless romantic. When a video of him saving Dani goes viral and sets the internet buzzing about their obvious chemistry, Zaf asks Dani to fake a relationship with him in order to generate publicity for his non-profit. Hibbert doesn’t use this rom-com staple as an easy shortcut to a happily ever after, instead allowing plenty of time for the development of emotions. The mutual respect that grows between them is a joy to witness, as Dani realizes that committing to someone doesn’t have to mean giving up on her own dreams. Their loving, supportive dynamic is simultaneously realistic and aspirational, and Hibbert’s characterizations, especially her careful handling of Zaf’s anxieties, are masterful. Tender, joyous, and hot as all get-out, this is sure to make readers swoon. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches about Finding True Happiness

Derwin Gray. B&H, $17.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-5359-9571-9

Pastor and former professional football player Gray (The High Definition Leader) lays out in this uplifting work examples of those who depended on God instead of themselves for happiness, and explains how doing so can bring happiness to readers. “Happiness is not the absence of bad circumstances,” he writes, “it is the presence of Godfidence—certainty and hope in God despite circumstances.” Gray cites many biblical stories that provide lessons and examples of the faith of those who lived a happy life, including moments of God comforting people in times of sorrow, the concept of lamentation allowing people to love even those they disagree with, and humility breaking down racial barriers. A particularly wise chapter depicts the apostle Peter’s wavering but ultimately firm faith in God. Gray closes with a “Happiness Manifesto” that he encourages readers to sign, as well as a 30-day happiness challenge, while the “Things to Remember” sections at the end of each chapter instruct readers to incorporate lessons of mercy and grace from biblical times. Gray’s powerful study provides a wealth of useful advice for Christians interested in close scriptural readings. (June)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Winter: Rituals to Thrive in the Dark Cycle of the Saeculum

Jo Graham. Llewellyn, $17.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7387-6371-2

Graham (The Great Wheel), a pagan practitioner and cofounder of the spiritual organization Cult of Isis, explores in this evocative work what she sees as the effects of a cyclical system called the Saeculum. Just as a year cycles through four seasons, Graham suggests, so do generations and societies. Graham believes these larger changes occur every 20 or so years, with spring a time for new beginnings and rebirth, summer for growth and exploration, autumn for conflict and the seasonal descent into darkness, and winter for crisis. This in-depth guide examines the recent past “winter seasons” in American society, such as the 1930s through the end of WWII, and how people navigated the crises it presented. Society, Graham posits, is going to enter the most challenging period of the current 80-year-cycle in 2020, and conditions will be right for conflict to boil over. She presents exercises and rituals one can use to help weather the storms, such as candle lighting, meant to dispel “Discordia,” and journaling exercises to help determine one’s “pagan values.” Readers with an interest in pagan traditions will enjoy this accessible guide for understanding the cyclical movement of time. (May)

Reviewed on 04/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Bigger Sky: Awakening a Fierce Feminine Buddhism

Pamela Weiss. North Atlantic, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-62317-475-0

Weiss examines in this steady, wise debut how she has overcome traumatic personal events by embracing Buddhist principles. In 1987, seeking help for her spirit as well as her diabetes, she entered Tassajara, a Zen monastery in central California, and began her study of Buddhism. After four years, she left the monastery and abandoned her plans to be ordained as a priest; instead, she married and became a life coach. Then, after a bicycle accident left her husband with a debilitating brain injury, Weiss reveals how the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and the interconnectedness of suffering and happiness helped her get through his recovery and become a better caregiver. Through informative tales of the Buddha, spiritual instructions, and an homage to the women in Buddhist tradition (such as the Buddha’s mother, Maya, and wife, Yasodhara), Weiss weaves an empowering vision of Buddhism into her life story; she also integrates feminine views into Buddhist tenets and encourages women to speak up: “speaking up is the first step toward untangling the tangle of unseen rules and conventions that tie us up.” Filled with both humility and confidence, Weiss’s quest for peace will appeal to Buddhist women. (June)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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