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The Hopeful Neighborhood Field Guide: Six Sessions on Pursuing the Common Good Right Where You Live

Don Everts and Tony Cook. IVP, $10 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-0-8308-4732-7

Everts (The Reluctant Witness) and Cook, writer and vice president of global ministries, respectively, at Lutheran Hour Ministries, deliver a short, practical guide for neighborhood improvement aimed at faith-based community groups. The plan is divided into six sections—focus on possibilities, share individual gifts, value uniqueness, “long for neighborhood well-being,” imagine collaboratively, and create a plan—and instructs readers on the art of pursuing the common good of their neighborhood. The authors posit that “divisive media, partisan politics, and the basic fear of people different from ourselves” are common roadblocks hindering community action, and suggest seeing a neighborhood’s potential through a “well-being window” that frames cultural diversity, civic participation, residential equity, biodiversity, and adequate infrastructure as top priorities. Unfortunately, the authors rely on hollow platitudes (“you are limited by what you can personally see”) and obvious suggestions (such as to talk about the history of one’s neighborhood to process and overcome historical traumas), but never provide real-world examples from their work on neighborhood collaborations to demonstrate these principles in action. This doesn’t have all the answers, but for readers looking to become more locally engaged, it’s is a decent starting point. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self: Interpreting Messages from Your Future

Eric Wargo. Inner Traditions, $18.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-64411-269-4

Science writer Wargo (Time Loops) delivers a detailed consideration of dreaming and precognition. His aim, he writes, is to build a “grass-roots, citizen science movement” and legitimize the theory of precognitive dreaming. Wargo asserts that neither time nor memory are linear, and one’s future self sends experiences from the future into one’s dreams. Citing his own dreams as well as examples from Freud and Jung, Wargo suggests that precognitive dreaming is common, and that the mainstream scientific attitude toward it can “no longer dismiss this subject as mere credulity, superstition, and bias.” While Wargo includes a robust bibliography filled with “liminal dreaming” and psychological studies backing his claims, he admits the “highly personalized associations” of precognitive experiences will “hold little weight with skeptics.” The method Wargo relies on involves keeping a dream journal and reviewing the journal every few days to look for potential connections between dreams and experiences in waking life afterward. The practice of free association is also recommended when analyzing one’s dreams, to “note honestly what each character, object, setting, and striking details call to mind.” Wargo’s thorough guide makes an intriguing argument for precognition that anyone can put to the test. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing

Emily Joy Allison. Broadleaf, $16.99 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-5064-6481-7

In this powerful debut, poet Allison, who coined the title hashtag in 2017 to add to the #MeToo movement, argues that evangelical theologies “enable [sexual] abusers.” Allison starts with her own adolescent experience of being groomed by a youth pastor and draws on a conservative Christian education—as well as numerous interviews with abuse survivors and academics—to identify a toxic, theology-driven “purity culture.” Teaching that sexual contact is solely for monogamous marriage between a cisgender heterosexual man and a cisgender heterosexual woman, purity culture, in Allison’s estimation, creates a perfect environment for would-be predators due to adherents’ shame and fear over lost status combined with a belief in forgiveness as a virtue. Other key features of the culture include alienation from one’s body, homophobia, hypersexualization of Black people, and calls for self-sacrifice by less powerful people in a relationship or community. For Allison, rejecting “this black-and-white thinking that evangelicalism handed down as gospel truth” in favor of a “sex-positive Christian theology” that allows members control of their sexual values is the only way forward. Part memoir, part sociological exploration, and part support kit for survivors of abuse, this is a jarring and persuasive exploration of the mechanisms that make abuse possible. Allison’s persuasive testament will resonate with readers of a Christian background in ways that both comfort and disturb. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living

Becca Ehrlich. Morehouse, $14.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-64065-388-7

Lutheran pastor Ehrlich debuts with advice on living a more Christ-centered life with less stuff. Ehrlich, who admits to many “stuff-accumulation” and “stuff-shoving” issues early in life, details how she and her husband got rid of 60% of their possessions by sticking to a program and concentrating on small things, such as focusing first on a single drawer when organizing a room. To that end, she challenges readers to pose the question: “Is this possession/time commitment/activity adding value to my life and the lives of others in Jesus’s name?” She then differentiates between the act of decluttering and a lifestyle of minimalism, exploring key characteristics of Christian minimalism—such as fellowship, service, stewardship, vocation, and spiritual growth—and emphasizing the importance of understanding wants versus needs. She also dispenses tips for self-care—including taking care of one’s body with daily exercise and mental well-being by removing negative people and environments from one’s life—and decluttering one’s schedule by setting times for prayer and being more intentional with technology. Ehrlich’s insightful self-help guide will resonate with Christians wishing to streamline an overstuffed life. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Relational Spirituality: A Psychological-Theological Paradigm for Transformation

Todd W. Hall with M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall. IVP Academic, $45 (300p) ISBN 978-0-8308-5118-8

Psychology professor Hall (Psychology in the Spirit) argues for seeking spiritual transformation through relationships in this ambitious if overly complicated work. Hall begins by examining the separation of Christian spirituality and academic theological studies, which began in the 13th century as “Nordic-Germanic nations sought to master and assimilate... patristic theology and the wisdom of classical antiquity.” He then develops his own preferred theology, emphasizing the Trinity doctrine to suggest humans need relationships both to each other and to God. From there he weaves in psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory (a sense of security comes from faith in one’s caregiver) and contemporary neuroscience findings about human emotions (“a form of implicit knowledge”) to construct a process for spiritual growth: “true knowledge of God unites intellectual belief, theological reflection, obedience to Christ, and love.” Hall’s strongest reasoning unpacks the nature of love, rooting it in Christian scripture, psychology, and lived experience, and argues “growth in love” is inseparable from one’s spiritual transformation. This is for those steeped in advanced theological studies and Christian psychology. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Voices from Larung Gar: Shaping Tibetan Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century

Edited by Holly Gayley. Snow Lion, $19.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-61180-894-0

Gayley (Love Letter from Golok), religious studies professor at the University of Colorado, brings together writings from the Tibetan Buddhist Larung Gar academy that offer compassionate and progressive perspectives on social, ethical, and political issues confronting Buddhists. In an essay about preserving Tibetan culture, Larung Gar founder Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok advocates maintaining a good heart and intent, and concern for other beings. Chökyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, discusses the ubiquitous sins of telling lies and using divisive speech, and the need to embrace morality. Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö writes about eliminating cruelty toward animals and the virtues of vegetarianism. In another essay, Lodrö weighs in on modern science’s role in the debate about Buddhist concepts of rebirth and reincarnation, arguing scientific attempts to disprove them have been inconclusive. Nun Khenmo Rigzin Chödrön considers the importance of women’s rights in education and women’s need for more financial independence. Gayley’s lengthy introductions situate each essay within Buddhist academic study and provide plentiful references for further reading. Buddhist readers will be lifted by the unquestioned optimism for human achievement and potential in the future in Larung Gar teachings. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Letters for the Church: Reading James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, and Jude as Canon

Darian Lockett. IVP Academic, $30 (276p) ISBN 978-0-83085-089-1

Lockett (An Introduction to the Catholic Epistles), a Biola University professor of New Testament, presents a forceful case for reading James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, and Jude as a distinct canon within the New Testament. Rather than being “one-off writings to disconnected communities,” Lockett argues that these “letters” together focus on “the connection between orthodox teaching and moral living” more than any other books in the New Testament. He contends that reading them in concert confers a number of practical and theological benefits, as they explicate the core Christian doctrines of “self-sacrifice, generosity, humility, and love.” His insights come through focusing on such shared themes as “the love command,” “enduring trial,” “God and the world as incompatible allegiances,” and “protecting the church from false teaching,” concluding that the “letters hold together in their concern for correct doctrine and living and, more importantly, in their concern for the peace and purity of the church.” Each chapter opens with a short summary of connections to the previous letter followed by a brief outline detailing the probable letter writer, occasion, setting, genre, and structure. Christians seeking fresh perspective on the New Testament will love this. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me into the Life of My Dreams

Yvonne Orji. Worthy, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5460-1267-2

A stand-up comedian and actor, Orji combines humor and faith in her delightful debut. “God has custom-designed your life to be magnificent,” she writes, “and by default, the magnificent is uncertain and daring.” Using motivating principles (“God isn’t out to ‘get you,’ but He is out to get something for you”) and reflecting on biblical stories, Orji warns readers that achieving the best life requires sacrifices that take time to pay off. Interpreting the rain God sent to drown the earth and float Noah’s ark as “whatever God is gonna send in your life, whether it’s a job opportunity, a spouse, or property,” she advises readers on “becoming your best self” to be ready for any situation: “Building your ark is your way of being prepared and staying ready to receive His abundance.” Orji recounts her career trajectory from aspiring to be a doctor to focusing on comedy—much to her family’s chagrin—and her own doubts when starting out. She also opens up about her depression after lost chances and other professional challenges, and how she uses her faith as a bulwark against fear: “you gotta make those defeatist thoughts think twice about messing with you. That’s how scared your fear should be of your faith.” Stressing the importance of service and filled with empowering affirmations (“God doesn’t choose the perfect, He perfects the chosen”), Orji’s spirited biblical interpretations and boundless enthusiasm will appeal to her fans and newcomers alike. (May)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found

Angela Williams Gorrell. Eerdmans, $21.99 (245p) ISBN 978-0-8028-7794-9

Pastor and theologian Gorrell (Always On) poignantly conveys in this heartfelt reflection the effects of grief and implores readers to seek out joy even during times of sorrow, fear, or anger. Gorrell had been researching the ways Christian theology conceives of and facilitates joy when her father, nephew, and the husband of her cousin all died within a month. As Gorrell struggled through her “weeks of hell,” her research into happiness seemed implausible; yet she eventually learned that “joy is what we feel deep in our bones when we realize and feel connected to what is good, beautiful, meaningful.” After signing up to lead a prison Bible study for women, Gorrell learned from her students how honesty, empathy, and humility enabled them to make amends for past mistakes and open up to God’s plan for their future. Gorrell chronicles her interactions with the women in her study, illustrating the connections between despair, addiction, and suicidal thinking, while offering insight on joy as a prescription: “When joy finds us, we need to express it deeply and freely... joy is counteragent to despair.” Gorrell’s therapeutic message provides a healing balm that will resonate with any Christian. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Silent Illumination: A Chan Buddhist Path to Natural Awakening

Guo Gu. Shambhala, $16.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-61180-872-8

In this meticulous work, Chan Buddhism teacher Guo Gu (Passing Through the Gateless Barrier) offers a teaching on mozhao, or “silent illumination,” through new translations of and commentaries on the writings of Song dynasty master Hongzhi. Silent illumination meditation, Gu explains, is not a method to practice, a thing to acquire, or a state to attain; rather, it is a returning to the simple, natural, and lively expression of “experiencing and embodying without attachments.” Achieving this state involves four steps: exposing, embracing, transforming, and letting go of the subtle ways attachment appears in everyday experience: “to understand silent illumination is to appreciate our true nature as already free—the natural awakening of who we are.” In the final sections, he offers new translations of 25 excerpts from Hongzhi’s work that emphasizes the Chan dictum “practice is not about awakening, for that is who we already are,” but “about eradicating delusion.” Scholarly Buddhist readers will learn much from Gu’s intellectually robust yet pragmatic introduction to silent illumination Chan. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/29/2021 | Details & Permalink

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