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Earthkeeping and Character: Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic

Steven Bouma-Prediger. Baker Academic, $24.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-8010-9884-0

Bouma-Prediger (For the Beauty of the Earth), a professor of theology at Hope College, describes the approach he believes Christians should take to environmental stewardship in this succinct yet deep volume. He argues that an ethics of ecology should be grounded in building a virtuous character and, as such, calls on Christians to be “aching visionaries” who mourn a flawed present and dream of a glorious future, and presents an “ethics in our time and place” that encourages a deeper connection to the environment. He ties each trait—wonder, humility, self-control, wisdom, justice, love, courage, and hope—to biblical citations as well as examples from figures such as Rachel Carson, C.S. Lewis, and John Muir. He also blends in his own experiences teaching students, both within the classroom and on outdoor expeditions. Though lay readers may find the academic approach and jargon overbearing, Bouma-Prediger’s analysis is fresh, and his passion and sincerity manage to shine through the dense prose. For readers seeking a model to connect Christian and environmental movements, or an extra call to care for the Earth, this lucid, hopeful work will be worth the effort. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues

Tony Bayfield. Bloomsbury Continuum, $25 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4729-6208-9

Rabbi Bayfield (Deep Calls to Deep), a professor of Jewish theology and thought at Leo Baeck College, provides an idiosyncratic, confusing look at theological issues he’s grappled with throughout his life and career, mixed in with an unenlightened overview of Jewish thought. Aiming to challenge those who “justify the unethical in the name of God,” as well as educate readers about how Jewish thinking has evolved from biblical times to the present, Bayfield haphazardly addresses ethics within a Jewish context, as well as intractable religious issues such as suffering for those deemed innocent and arguments concerning the existence of evil in a world created by God. After very brief looks at significant moments in Jewish history, Bayfield summarizes the approaches of different Jewish philosophers and theologians—such as Maimonides, who did not regard “chosenness” as a vital element of Judaism but did view the Land of Israel as one, and Spinoza, who regarded the Torah purely as “the product of human hands”—without offering any insights that will be new to readers conversant with those figures. His choice to insert imagined dialogues with God as a literary device is distracting at best. While readers looking to understand the basics of Jewish theological thought might be educated by Bayfield’s introductory work, those interested in a more well-rounded study should look elsewhere. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier

Benjamin Park. Liveright, $28.95 (352) ISBN 978-1-63149-486-4

In this enjoyable and fastidiously researched work, Park (American Nationalisms), professor of history at Sam Houston State Univ., highlights early Mormons’ political and social roles in the development of the American West. The Mormons’ first attempt to build a “new Zion” in Missouri ended in the summer of 1838 with their wholesale flight in the face of state-sanctioned violence. Afterward, they founded “kingdom of Nauvoo” in western Illinois. Led by Joseph Smith, the Mormons aimed to make Nauvoo into a God-fearing community and a model of what they believed to be the imminent kingdom of God on Earth. Park depicts the rise and fall of Nauvoo in vivid detail, exploring how it collapsed in 1848 due to a combination of factors, particularly growing state and community-wide discomfort with the Mormons as a “separate people” who lived outside of common Protestant norms and Joseph Smith’s paranoid tendencies. The community’s secretive structure, which Park argues contributed to its failure, was designed to keep Smith in power and also to conceal practices (such as polygamy) he felt might be detrimental to the church’s public reputation. Park, who was given extensive access to the Mormon Church’s archives, entertainingly establishes this little-known Mormon settlement’s proper place within the formative years of the Illinois and Missouri frontier. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine in the Rosary

Clark Strand and Perdita Finn. Spiegel & Grau, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8895-6

Married couple Strand (Waking Up to the Dark) and Finn (The Reluctant Psychic) elucidate a lengthy, often fantastical, account of their journey into a faith driven by feminine, transcendent connection to nature. During a time of great financial stress, Strand felt mysteriously drawn to an old statue of the Virgin Mary at an antique shop and purchased it. Nearly immediately, Finn, who was raised Irish Catholic, was affected by the statue and “by the end of the day, [she] had transformed the mantel above the fireplace into an altar.” They then, oddly, have separate visions of a “Lady” who compels them to “pray the rosary.” The voice of the lady urges them to reconceive of patriarchal structures (such as those within the Catholic church), and their own research suggests the origins of the rosary, “a sacred circle of flowers,” can be traced back more than 5,000 years as a symbol of “eco-feminine” power. For Strand and Finn, “the way of the rose” is what connects each person to the “vast, interconnected body of prayer we call the Earth.” Though no concrete steps are offered here, readers looking for an alternative to traditional religion may take to this whimsical story of finding inspiration in unlikely places. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Faithful Way: Remaining Steadfast in an Uncertain World

Cynthia Heald. NavPress, $15.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-6415-8025-0

Heald (Becoming A Woman of Prayer) offers tips on remaining faithful in this comprehensive daily Bible study. “Faithfulness begins with ardent love for the Lord and fervent determination to fling ourselves in reckless confidence on God,” she writes. With each of the 31 chapters designated to correspond to a day of the month, she offers examples of both faithful and unfaithful saints, shares how she has experienced God’s love, stresses the importance of trusting God through one’s obedience, and discusses how to blend grace and discipline, what the hard work of forgiveness takes, and what to do in the face of unfaithfulness. Heald also provides guidelines for guarding against temptation and encourages Christians to be strengthened by pursuing “like-hearted fellowship.” She compares those desiring to be faithful in their journey toward God to athletes, as the work of both requires discipline, hard work, and focus. Each devotional includes scriptural references, questions for personal reflection, and a closing prayer. Heald’s instructional study guide will caution, challenge, and comfort Christians whose goal is to be able to say, as Heald does, “I have remained faithful.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Religion in Vogue: Christianity and Fashion in America

Lynn S. Neal. New York Univ., $28 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-4798-1359-9

Neal (Romancing God), professor of religious studies at Wake Forest, mines issues of Vogue magazine from the mid-1940s to the late 1990s to explore fashion’s shifting use of religious symbols in this persuasively argued work. First, she examines how Vogue used explicit religious topics in articles and photos to train readers into being participant-observers that felt acknowledged but also distanced from some practices (such as articles on pilgrimages in foreign lands). Next, she considers advertisements to argue that fashion knowingly drew on notions of Sunday best dress, the conception of women as “Eve,” and even magic to entice Christian women. Neal’s arguments become even more convincing as she turns to fashion articles, with chapters on the cross as an accessory, the creative remixing of Catholic religious dress as fashion, and the use of images of Mary and Jesus on clothing. Neal balances her historical analysis with clear but persuasive theory and has a real skill for summarizing controversies. Scholars of fashion, popular culture, and religion will welcome this fresh take on an underexplored facet of the American experience. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Conflagration: How Transcendentalists Sparked the American Struggle for Racial, Gender, and Social Justice

John A. Buehrens. Beacon, $32 (324p) ISBN 978-0-8070-2404-1

Unitarian Universalist minister Buehrens (Universalists and Unitarians in America) presents an illuminating collective biography of 35 key figures from the 19th-century American transcendentalist movement. Buehrens argues that, while transcendentalism is often encountered by Americans through the lens of literature, the lives of transcendentalists demonstrate that their beliefs led them to passionate activism intended to reform—even revolutionize—politics and society. Whether through projects such as the Brook Farm experiment in communal living, urban social ministries such as a refuge for women fleeing domestic abuse, or organized resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, transcendentalists labored to address the social problems of their day. However, Buehrens’s claim that transcendentalists “sparked” or gave “rise to nothing less than the start of a second American revolution” overreaches. Many of the causes transcendentalists took up (such as abolition) predate the rise of transcendentalism in 1830s New England. Also, the persistent focus on white male leadership (when figures such as Lewis Hayden and Margaret Fuller appear in the text, their contributions are often framed as successful primarily due to the encouragement and promotion of white men) adds a note of disappointment to an otherwise engaging narrative. Despite this, Buehrens’s take on Transcendental activism will appeal to scholars interested in exploring antebellum social justice concerns. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature

Micah Mortali. Sounds True, $17.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-68364-325-8

Mortali, director of the Kripalu Schools for yoga-based education, argues in this mystical work that connecting to nature has inherent benefits. “Rewilding is... a journey of self-realization,” Mortali writes, and “the practice of mindfulness is essential” to it. Mortali offers projects aimed at getting readers to get outside to “BRFWA”—breathe, relax, feel, watch, allow—the core methods of how he believes one can truly “awaken to nature”; included among them are walking meditations, listening exercises, and day hikes. However, some of the ideas he proposes, such as building and sleeping in a debris hut (“both a shelter and a sleeping bag in one”), may be more than some readers wish to take on. Mortali draws on personal experience, an eclectic mix of spiritual traditions (though primarily Buddhism), and modern research into the positive effects of exposure to natural environments (particularly its stress- and anxiety-reduction benefits) to make his case. While focused primarily on how the natural world benefits human beings, Mortali’s conclusion turns to how nature also fosters “dedicated care-takers” and “active ambassador[s] for the more-than-human world.” Those looking to bring more intention or spiritual connection to their engagement with nature will enjoy this actionable guide. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Everywhere Holy: Seeing Beauty, Remembering Your Identity, and Finding God Right Where You Are

Kara Lawler. Thomas Nelson, $17.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4002-1163-0

Blogger Lawler (A Letter for Every Mother) invites readers in this hopeful, uplifting testament to draw closer to God—and therefore to their authentic selves—by looking to uncover beauty within ordinary moments. Sharing personal stories from her home in the Appalachian Mountains, Lawler’s quiet reveries and reflections have the feel of a contemplative spiritual retreat. Whether she’s washing freshly laid eggs or revisiting her childhood home in search of the little girl she used to be, Lawler’s meditative storytelling is authentic and spiritually insightful. She also candidly chronicles her struggle with depression and anxiety, and how this has affected her relationship with God and her family. Instead of offering the typical end-of-chapter questions so readers can better apply what they read, Lawler addresses the reader midstory to ask questions and provide time to pause and reflect. Christian readers who are dealing with depression, parenting struggles, questions of identity and self-image, or who simply find it hard to bring prayer into their chaotic life will find welcome encouragement in Lawler’s rejuvenating words. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel

Shalom Goldman. Univ. of North Carolina, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4696-5241-2

In this persuasive work, Goldman (Zeal for Zion), professor of religion at Middlebury College, argues that the “intertwined cultural histories” of the United States and Israel have run in parallel and shaped one another. Beginning his chronological analysis in 1817 and following the contours of first Palestine, then Israel’s changing geopolitical status through to the present, Goldman examines how American Jews and non-Jews used books, movies, television programs, music, and their own celebrity to initially support and later criticize both the idea and reality of Israel. Depictions, Goldman notes, were often rooted in support for such other causes as socialism, imperialism, racial justice, or Christian missionary efforts—rather than support for Jewish faith or statehood. Each chapter thoroughly explains the shifting political landscape in both territories and the relationship between the two, basing the chapters around key American figures such as Mark Twain, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, and Madonna, who all took a stance on the status of Israel. Despite the title, Goldman casts a wide net in defining the arts, but his explorations of American tourism to the Holy Land and American philanthropy—in particular, the creation of the Jerusalem YMCA—are particularly illuminating. This detailed history will provide any reader interested in U.S.-Israel relations an accessible overview of a complex social and political relationship. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/27/2019 | Details & Permalink

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