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Here, Now: Unearthing Peace and Presence in an Overconnected World

Kate Merrick. Nelson, $17.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-7180-9282-5

Merrick (And Still She Laughs), cofounder of the Reality church group in California, speaks with passion and depth about “practicing presence” by disconnecting from unfulfilling activities to find God in everyday life. Merrick begins by explaining a night when she spent an hour searching for makeup online while her five-year-old daughter, Daisy, slept. The next day, she learned that her daughter had kidney cancer; the guilt of spending her time the night before on the internet became the seed of her search for “practicing presence.” Over the course of three years, the family’s trips to Israel to seek medical treatment for Daisy prompted Merrick and her husband to create a “new habit of being.” She describes the value of going off the internet (and posting only monthly social media updates), ways to initiate community through attentive listening and acts of service, and strategies for weeding out unnecessary desires and thoughts. Merrick is forthcoming about her failures and her tough recovery from Daisy’s death at eight. She writes of her deep sorrow but also firm resolve: “This moment is beautiful, will be beautiful, because I’m right where I’m supposed to be.” By always returning to her axiom to “practice presence,” Merrick provides inspiration for any Christian reader in need of support during difficult times. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand

Steve Robinson. Nelson, $26.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4002-1316-0

Robinson, former chief marketing officer for Chick-fil-A, shares in his accessible debut how the company built its brand on Christian values and became a successful fast-food chain. Robinson writes that Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s founder, believed God is the creator and owner of everything (including Chick-fil-A) and that the company’s role should be the same as any human’s: to be a good steward of God’s gifts. Cathy used Proverbs 22:1—which says reputation is more important than financial success—to inform his hiring choices; Robinson explains how he was instructed to hire not based on a person’s skills or experience, but on an applicant’s willingness to be taught, and how Chick-fil-A worked hard to cultivate a culture appealing to Christians—closing on Sundays to honor the Sabbath and tithing 10% of corporate profits. Robinson also explores some of the company’s turning points, such as moving from malls to standalone locations, adding a breakfast menu, and the details of the ad campaign to “Eat Mor Chikin,” which became a viral sensation. He also briefly mentions Chick-fil-A’s opposition to same-sex marriage, explaining how the national attention from Cathy’s statements caused the company to clarify its brand. Robinson provides Christian readers great insight on how one company successfully incorporated faith into big business. (June)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Gospel of Our King

Bruce Riley Ashford and Heath A. Thomas. Baker Academic, $22.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8010-4903-3

Ashford (Every Square Inch), professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and Thomas (A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation), professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, team up for this introductory yet sweeping Bible study. Starting with the account of creation in Genesis, the authors explain how humans were made for the purpose of communing with God, why the Communion was fractured with the fall, and God’s plan for redemption—which they define as setting “right what is wrong in the world.” The book outlines six divine covenants laid out in the Old Testament that lead to the words and works of Jesus: “Jesus is the full realization of all the major symbols and stories of the Old Testament.” Finally, the authors delve into what it means to live as a Christian today, addressing the social, theological, and global missions of the modern Christian. The authors argue that Christians should fight against a “narcissistic culture” dominated by “individual autonomy,” defend the divinity of Christ, and (“addressing specifically Western Christians”) spread the gospel globally. While Ashford and Thomas’s scope is impressive, covering so much ground so briefly might disorient Christians without a firm biblical training. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Bhagavad Gita: The Song of God Retold in Simplified English

Edward Viljoen. St. Martin’s Essentials, $14.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-250-20471-4

Viljoen (The Power of Meditation), spiritual director of the Santa Rosa Center for Spiritual Living, provides a lively condensed version of this influential Hindu text, written in modern language, as well as his own commentary for the uninitiated reader. The Bhagavad Gita mainly comprises a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide Krishna on the horrors and necessities of war. Viljoen starts with a long introduction, then presents a one-page chart of characters and a 26-page paraphrase of the book—liberally sprinkled with useful footnotes. His pithy prose and enthusiastic tone help make the ancient text and traditions come alive: “I love those who are not puffed up when praised, or depressed when blamed, but find their harmony wherever they go,” Krishna says. Meant as an invitation to a deeper study of Hindu traditions, Viljoen provides basic explanations of some of Hinduism’s principles (samsara and moksha), practices (bhakti yoga, meditation), and deities (Lord Krishna, the Trimurti). A section of definitions at the end also provides further context. This short overview will be a great starting point for readers interested in one of the world’s most read religious texts, and Viljoen’s suggestions for further reading will be of great interest to those who want to fill in the gaps he leaves unfilled. (June)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America

Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock. Convergent, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-525-57720-1

Virji (The Skinny Book), a family physician and bariatric specialist practicing in Dawson, Minn., paints a harsh portrait of small-town America following the 2016 presidential elections in this clear-eyed memoir. Virji, of South Indian descent, begins with the story of moving with his family from Pennsylvania to Minnesota in 2013 to manage a hospital and open a weight loss clinic. Once there, Virji quickly makes friends and builds a successful practice. But in 2016, rural Minnesota becomes Trump country, leaving Virji with difficult questions about his place and purpose. Written in powerful vignettes that jump easily from flashback to present, the story revolves largely around a lecture Virji gave to a church, entitled “Love Thy Neighbor,” in which he attempts to answer commonly held misconceptions about Muslims. That lecture leads to more lectures, until Virji becomes an in-demand speaker in parts of rural America where Christian religious and political fervor dominate. Virji shows the community work he—and many others—are doing to combat a negative political climate through education and outreach. This is a vivid account of one man’s efforts to make sense of political tensions, racial hatred, and religious misunderstandings. (June)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Forest Bathing: Discovering Health and Happiness Through the Japanese Practice of Shinrin Yoku

Cyndi Gilbert. St. Martin’s Essentials, $14.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-25021-448-5

Gilbert (Essential Guide to Women’s Herbal Medicine), a naturopathic physician, tenderly introduces the mindful therapy of “forest bathing” in this breezy, concise guide. Based on the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing involves sitting under a tree, going on a hike, walking through morning dew barefoot, or doing yoga outside to connect with nature and reduce stress. Gilbert asserts that people need to experience the awe of the wilderness, breathe oxygen-rich air, and express gratitude for the land. She also cites Japanese studies that have found scientific evidence that spending time in nature improves mood, blood pressure, blood sugar and vitamin D levels, cognitive functions, and healthy aging. In getting started with forest bathing, Gilbert advises readers to look for patterns in nature, listen to birds, smell the soil, touch the texture of bark, and taste wild berries (specifically, ones that can be identified as edible). Gilbert includes tips on how to prepare and how to set reasonable goals, and provides brief introductions to making herbal remedies and performing hydrotherapy. Spiritualist lovers of nature will relish Gilbert’s enticing instructions. (May)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary

Briana Saussy. Sounds True, $17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-68364-248-0

Saussy (The Sacred Book of Hours), founder of Sacred Arts Academy in San Antonio, Tex., shares spiritual concepts and rituals in this clearly organized workbook of magical practices. Instead of presenting traditional or fixed occult systems, Saussy covers “rituals and ceremonies that are both meaningful to us and relevant to our immediate lives.” Each chapter is organized by a “technique” or “material,” such as time, body, gardening, cooking, lighting candles, and sacred bathing. Saussy considers the mundane and magical aspects of each, littering her commentaries with questions intended to spark contemplation. For instance, in the chapter on time, she asks: “Consider your relationship to time and the ways you naturally mark time... What timepieces or chronometers do you have in your life?” Each chapter includes ritual ideas and magic practices, including meditations, sleep schedules, mirror gazing, candle rituals, and instructions for creating an altar. The rituals are simple and all easily created, requiring only household goods. Saussy’s advice is pragmatic, but her writing often strains for import: “Somewhere in the world right now people are building their altars, making offering, praying down hard.” This informal trove of spiritual advice will appeal to any reader interested in working magic into everyday life. (June)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Sick of Me: From Transparency to Transformation

Whitney Capps. B&H, $16.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-4627-9288-7

Capps (We Over Me), a speaker for Proverbs 31 Ministries, details in this helpful Bible study how readers can get away from concentrating on their own wants and instead focus on God’s will. Capps uses personal stories and scriptural references to relate how even mundane situations can inform one’s spirituality. For instance, she recalls how a mortifying seventh-grade pimple became the impetus for looking at herself (literally and spiritually) without “blemishes of jealousy, bitterness, or pride.” Skillfully breaking down biblical analysis into language suitable for general Christian readers, she compares the Pharisees’ “man-made rules on top of Scripture” to modern-day spending axioms (“it would be like adding ‘never use a credit card’ to the principle to steward your money well”) and makes lively analogies (like comparing Abner, a biblical commander, to a bad reality singing show contestant). Readers are called to question generalizations, such as how many Christians hide the “life-altering power and hope” found in Jesus in order to appeal to secular peers, which Capps believes diminishes Christians’ confidence in all facets of their lives. Christians seeking a deeper relationship with God, or looking to rekindle growth in their faith, will enjoy this accessible treat that weds self-help and sanctification. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul

Harry Freedman. Bloomsbury Continuum, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4729-5098-7

In this accessible, eminently readable survey, Aramaic scholar Freedman (The Murderous History of Bible Translations) provides a balanced look at a religious tradition whose reach has extended far beyond its original Jewish roots. Freedman explains that kabbalah, what was once the province only of “deeply mystical, otherworldly Jews, studying in closed, secretive groups in twelfth-century Provence,” has become part of the mainstream—with many celebrities now donning red string bracelets intended to ward off the evil eye. Freedman attributes its broad appeal to being “a rare example of a spiritual philosophy open to people of all creeds, yet one that does not detract from their faith.” Freedman begins with kabbalah’s origins in the first centuries CE, as ancient Jews sought to learn more about the nature of heaven, then explores how kabbalah study found a foothold in Europe in the Middle Ages, and ends in the present, when Jews and non-Jews alike make use of kabbalistic “meditations, incantations and body contortions” to experience the sublime. Freedman doesn’t shy from troubling developments around the faith, such as the fraud and sex scandals that plagued the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles over the past decade. In tracking kabbalah’s evolution and transformation through the centuries, this comprehensive guide to an important religious tradition will appeal to both readers of Jewish history and general readers of spirituality. (June)

Reviewed on 03/29/2019 | Details & Permalink

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America’s Holy Ground: 660 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks

Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. Chalice, $21.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8272-0075-3

Former journalist Lyons and pastor Barkhauer (Community of Prayer) share their belief in the spiritual power of nature in these brief meditations of national parks. Each begins with a quotation from the Bible before relating natural phenomena that inspire “humility, wonder, awe, and gratitude... such as when you peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon.” The authors also provide meditations on a theme related to the park. In the entry on Bryce Canyon, Utah, which isn’t a canyon but “a collection of hoodoos, fins, spires, and other formations” formed by rain, the nature of language is the focus. In Glacier Bay, Alaska, the authors consider landscape changes over millennia, rendered starkly by the icefalls from glaciers, a metaphor for the slow movement of God’s work. Treating 60 parks in a single book (and coming up with a unique theme for each), however, leads to a few duds, but beautiful photographs, detailed descriptions, and plenty of historical information pad out even the barer entries. Relatively brief and sometimes superficial, these ruminations on American national parks nevertheless invite readers to appreciate the value of protected places and ponder their spiritual power. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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