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Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation

David Forbes. Fernwood, $20 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-7736-3116-5

Forbes (Boyz 2 Buddhas), associate professor in school counseling at Brooklyn College, levels a heavy critique at contemporary American mindfulness in this trenchant work. Decrying the stripping of socially engaged Buddhist traditions from conceptions of mindfulness, Forbes believes the practice of mindfulness has become another way to shape self-centered, individualized, and corporatized subjects for a global capitalist economy. To combat this trend, Forbes encourages mindfulness teachers to take a more critical approach to the application of mindfulness by considering the wider social, political, and cultural context of its practitioners. Doing so, he writes, would allow teachers to become more aware of their own biases, and also foster engagement with ills plaguing society as a whole—such as racial inequality or climate change— rather than those only concerning the individual self. With a focus on the use of mindfulness in the realm of education, Forbes advocates for a refreshed “emergent mindfulness” that augments the benefits of meditation for students’ well-being with a broader social justice perspective. Forbes’s trenchant analysis of mindfulness in American culture will appeal to readers interested in the intersection of market forces and spirituality. (May)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey

Helen Prejean. Random House, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6730-5

This riveting memoir from Prejean (The Death of Innocents) describes her life as a nun, starting with her entrance into a convent in 1957 at 18 years old and ending in 1982 when she began her work with the Louisiana death row inmate that would form the foundation of her bestselling Dead Man Walking. Born in Baton Rouge, La., Prejean joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille after high school and entered a world of draconian rules: novitiate sisters were allowed no contact with family, received only heavily censored mail, and their lives were governed by strict instructions, including how to properly lay in a sickbed. This all changed in 1965 after the reforms of Vatican II, a watershed moment in the history of the Catholic Church that Prejean embraces as having a restorative influence on the church. Throughout, she persuasively shows why some choose the convent life (“I need the silence it offers, freed from the empty chatter and trivial conversations... I need the time to be in the company of other spiritual seekers”) and describes her spiritual transformation toward political activism. Providing a window into the upheaval in the church during the 1960s and ’70s, Prejean’s engrossing memoir also fleshes out how she rose to be an influential voice within the church before becoming a renowned proponent of abolishing the death penalty. Informing and entertaining, Prejean’s exceptional memoir will be of special interest to Catholics and social justice advocates. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Spiritual Gardener: Insights from the Jewish Tradition to Help Your Garden Grow

Andy Becker, illus. by Abigail Drapkin. Tree of the Field, $16.95 trade paper (124p) ISBN 978-1-7336698-0-1

With wry humor, earthy spirituality, and practical advice, lawyer and amateur gardener Becker tells the story of his own garden and entreats readers to plant, tend, harvest, and share their own soil in this fine debut. Explaining that he tries to live his life by the commandment of bal tashchit (“do not waste or destroy”), Becker explores different aspects of gardening and how they relate to his own spiritual thinking. He doles out tales of tending his garden, making peace with moles, slugs, and his neighbors who feed the rabbits he is determined to eject from their burrow under his garden. In an age when one can feel tethered to a phone and bombarded by information and news, Becker argues that tending to a garden allows for “sanctified time.” For Becker, troweling, watering, mulching, and seeding provide time to relish life, and also present opportunities for him to muse about the value of humility, how to divide chores in a marriage, and the ethics of hunting, among other topics. In uncomplicated, clear prose, Becker pleasantly urges readers—even those with just a balcony—to make a space where their home can be “infused with the Divine Presence.” Green-thumbed spiritual readers will relish Becker’s welcoming memoir. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Four Sacred Secrets: For Love and Prosperity, a Guide to Living in a Beautiful State

Krishnaji and Preethaji. Atria, $26 (176p) ISBN 978-1-50117-377-6

In their enticing debut, husband and wife team Krishnaji and Preethaji, founders of the O&O Academy for enlightenment, offer advice on transforming consciousness to reject a self-centered world view and recognize oneness with all humanity. “The root cause of all suffering is obsessive self-centric thinking,” the authors write in their introduction, before mining personal experiences, fables, and meditation guides to help readers increase creativity, connect with others, and heal relationships. Four key practices are crucial to achieving this state: living with a “spiritual vision” (which they define as “to live fully, to connect deeply, to love totally”); discovering one’s inner truth through nonjudgmental self-awareness; connecting to the “universal intelligence” that surrounds everyone; and dissolving inner conflict in order to help others. While some of the key points are vague, the authors’ personal anecdotes and portraits of historical figures—particularly the chapter detailing Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual transformation—provide the best examples of their teachings and make for the liveliest reading. In each section, the authors also offer mental exercises and writing prompts. Readers interested in meditation will find these lessons for uncluttering one’s mind useful. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/10/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Four Men Shaking: Searching for Sanity with Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer, and My Perfect Zen Teacher

Lawrence Shainberg. Shambhala, $16.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-61180-729-5

In his enthralling memoir, novelist and Zen Buddhist Shainberg (Ambivalent Zen) explores questions about writing, spiritual practice, and brain damage through his personal relationships with Norman Mailer, Samuel Beckett, and Kyudo Nakagawa. Shainberg points to an early turning point in his life when, during a session with a therapist, he was freed of his impulses and became able to accept the present moment with equanimity. After this experience, he writes of how he conceived of the main tension in his life: the twofold desires to create form out of emptiness, and to see emptiness as an underlying form. Shainberg spends most of the book teasing apart this tension. In his estimation, Mailer and Beckett responded to this tension differently: Mailer embraced form, struggling to make sense of the vicissitudes of the everyday; Beckett embraced emptiness, lingering in the void of meaninglessness. Lurking in the middle between form and emptiness—and calling Shainberg to return to the present moment—is the Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa. Shainberg’s enlightening memoir about three transformative relationships is accessible, deceptively simple, and wise. (July)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Crescendo: The Story of a Musical Genius Who Forever Changed a Southern Town

Allen Cheney with Julie Cantrell. Thomas Nelson, $17.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7852-1740-4

Cheney, a film and TV producer, debuts with the poignant life story of his grandfather, Fred Allen, a piano prodigy who overcame great obstacles to become a successful musician. Raised in poverty in LaGrange, Ga., Allen grew up with a mother and father who thought his musical abilities at the age of three were a curse and so locked up his piano. However, thanks to an encouraging teacher and his own hard work, Allen became set on moving to New York City and was eventually accepted to Juilliard. Cheney, with fawning admiration, quickly moves through Allen’s time in New York: his matriculation to Columbia University after Juilliard—where he met his future wife, Winnie—and his early career as a music producer. Though Allen found great success and eventually won a Grammy for producing the album How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the glamorous lifestyle and social obligations that came from his achievements, coupled with his obsession with work, eventually broke up his marriage. Winnie and his daughter moved back to Georgia, and Allen had to choose: continue to chase his dream or return to his family. Throughout, the hand of providence shadows Allen (in Cheney’s eyes) and eventually guides him home, where he worked with students to form a nationally touring theater troupe. Readers looking for a neatly constructed tale of redemption will enjoy Cheney’s ode to his grandfather. (July)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Beyond Survival: How Judaism Can Thrive in the 21st Century

Terry Bookman. Rowman & Littlefield, $36 (184p) ISBN 978-1-5381-2232-7

Bookman (God 101), cofounder of adolescent outreach program Eitzah, provides an impractical look at how Judaism might evolve in the near future. His laudable aim is to foster optimism about Judaism’s future by imagining one in which anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, fears about Israel’s continued existence, and assimilation have become less central to the Jewish communal agenda. Bookman’s path toward such a future begins with an analysis of why he believes those concerns are overstated at present. For example, while he notes the recent Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, he distinguishes between acts of an anti-Semite, which will always be a threat, and institutionalized anti-Semitism, which he claims “no longer exists. It is over. Gone.” Offering little in practical steps, Bookman concedes that some of his contentions are unrealistic. For instance, in what he dubs a “crazy idea,” he writes: “What if those millions of souls perished in the Holocaust are already here on earth, people who identify with other religions, or no religion at all?” That leads him to suggest that a mass conversion campaign to bolster Jewish numbers would be converting those with Jewish souls. While Bookman rightly diagnoses many current ills, he fails to lay out any practical plans to implement the changes he suggests. (May)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God

Andrew Root. Baker Academic, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8010-9847-5

In the fantastic second volume of his Ministry in a Secular Age trilogy, Luther Seminary professor Root (Faith Formation in a Secular Age) analyzes the “vocational identity crisis” faced by many contemporary pastors. Root, drawing on the work of theologian Charles Taylor, writes that “the very idea that there could be a personal God who orders and acts in the cosmos has become unbelievable” and then presents ways in which pastors have effectively reached their congregations despite this societal movement toward individual conceptions of truth. Root offers a historical overview of six pastors who serve as archetypes for their era: Augustine, 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, 19th-century American revivalist Jonathan Edwards, congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher, liberal 20th-century minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, and contemporary Evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Examining how the clerical role has changed, coinciding with changing perceptions of the supernatural, Root traces the pastoral identity across the centuries and provides a composite template for how a pastor can navigate modern concerns. Highlights include Becket’s insistence that priests’ sacramental actions can protect believers from evil spirits, Edwards’s belief that faithful living depends not on “what you do, but how you do it,” and Warren’s conviction that the pastor’s role is to provide resources to help individuals discern their life purpose. Identifying many challenges facing clergy today, Root offers a persuasive vision for how pastors can effectively reach their audience. (July)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World: How Life-Giving Thoughts Can Unlock Your Destiny

Bobby Schuller. Thomas Nelson, $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4002-0170-9

In this uplifting guide based on Proverbs 23:7, Schuller (You Are Beloved), host of the TV show Hour of Power, encourages Christians to focus on the power of thought to improve happiness and connection to God. Schuller believes he has improved his marriage, parenting, business, and ministry by identifying and changing his own faulty thought patterns. Comparing the mind to a garden that requires tending and care, he writes, “Small thoughts—like a new belief in God, forgiving an offender, not blaming authority figures, or being grateful every day—can also make gigantic changes in your life over time.” He explains how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones by meditating on scriptures and wrestling with their core lessons. Conversely, Schuller believes that adversity should be acknowledged, but should never dominate one’s thinking. While Schuller offer little in the way of practical steps, his methods always push readers toward reconceiving personal setbacks as “a setup for the next chapter in your story.” Each of the book’s chapters conclude with training exercises for reflection and verses for meditation. Any Christians looking for ways to deepen their Bible study will be enlightened by Schuller’s persuasive techniques for pondering scripture. (June)

Reviewed on 05/03/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Behind the Laughter: A Comedian’s Tale of Tragedy and Hope.

Anthony Griffith and Brigitte Travis-Griffin with Mark Caro. W, $24.99 (236p) ISBN 978-0-7852-1950-7

Comedian Griffith and his wife Travis-Griffin give readers a glimpse of the difficulties they endured after the death of their two-year-old daughter, Brittany, in this poignant memoir. Griffith moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to pursue comedy, and his wife and daughter stayed behind in Chicago. As Griffith’s career slowly picked up steam, his daughter began exhibiting signs of Down syndrome. Then, just after Griffith achieved a childhood dream by performing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Brittany was diagnosed with leukemia. As Brittany’s condition quickly worsened, the two lived between L.A. and Chicago as Griffith felt he had to seize his moment of notoriety, but his jokes became increasingly dark as he questioned his faith in God and contemplated why this was happening to him. In alternating sections, Travis-Griffin explains how she began to feel increasingly alone and unappreciated as Griffith doggedly concentrated on his goal of moving the family to L.A. and his next appearance on The Tonight Show. After Brittany’s death a few months after her diagnosis, Griffith and Travis-Griffin’s marriage suffered as both reeled from regrets and pent up frustrations. However, a moment of catharsis came when Griffith shared Brittany’s story on the Moth Radio Hour in 2003 in a confessional performance that helped to heal much of the lingering pain. This powerful, intimate story pulls back the curtains on one marriage’s profound loss. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/26/2019 | Details & Permalink

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