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On Her Knees: Memoir of a Prayerful Jezebel

Brenda Marie Davies. Eerdmans, $22 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-80287-853-3

Davies debuts with an introspective account of her journey through religious purity into sexual freedom. She speaks out against the idea that sexual activity reduces one’s value, or that what one chooses to experience with a committed partner should be of concern to any potential future partner. Davies, who grew up a devout Christian, rails against the notion that a woman’s body is property or that having sex is to “give it up.” “Sex is an experience to be shared, not an unarmed robbery,” she writes. Davies saved herself until her early 20s, only to go to bed with a man on the second date—an experience that made her ditch the fairy tale sensibility in favor of what she felt was a genuine, natural desire. With no expectations, she married the man despite many red flags of his obsessiveness and infidelity. After they separated, her self-described “trampage” opened her eyes to sexual freedom and reunited her with her body—which she felt she lost in constantly striving for religious purity. Though some traditionalists will bristle at the premise, it’ll provide much food for thought for Christian women who have questioned the restrictions and expectations set upon their bodies. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

Sohrab Ahmari. Convergent, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-13717-8

New York Post opinion editor Ahmari (From Fire by Water) argues in this sweeping work that the West needs to re-engage more meaningfully with religious traditions in order to flourish. He asks 12 questions about the nature and duties of life that “confident, progressive modernity should readily be able to answer” but cannot (such as “How Do You Justify Your Life?” and “Can You Be Spiritual Without Being Religious?”), and offers his own replies, drawing from a wide range of eras, traditions, and thinkers, including second-century Gnostic Christian Marcion, Confucius, English theologian John Henry Newman, and feminist writer Andrea Dworkin. He pushes the view of God as rational through the work of Thomas Aquinas, and the need for a day of rest with the life and writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Ahmari argues being spiritual but not religious lacks “existential seriousness” and fails to bind community the way rituals associated with religion can and should. He uses Alexander Solzhenitsyn to question unchecked freedom of liberalism and Seneca to teach about the good death. While Ahmari’s arguments are intriguing, he is more concerned with telling a story than engaging with his points. Secularists will disagree with Ahmari’s basic argument, but those who worry about the decline of religion will appreciate this adamant call to return. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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In Step with Quaker Testimony: Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace—Inspired by Margaret Fell’s Writings

Joanna Godfrey Wood. Christian Alternative, $10.95 trade paper (88p) ISBN 978-1-78904-577-2

Wood (Traveling in the Light), a practicing Quaker, unpacks in this accessible work essential Quaker beliefs and the florid writing style of Margaret Fell (1614–1702), the “mother of Quakerism.” The author explains her first reading of Fell as revelatory, and parses Fell’s prolific writings to explain the profound inner conviction that is central to Quakerism. Wood teases out other Quaker fundamentals—simplicity, truth, equality, and peace—that Quakers call “testimonies” and Wood finds rooted in Fell’s thought. Explaining how Quakerism revolves around the notion “that beliefs cannot be nailed down” and can only be understood through questioning, Wood illuminates how spiritual understandings range from seeing “God as a human construct” to “the Christian Quaker who even perhaps refers to the Trinity.” She paraphrases selections of Fell’s writing and expounds on common themes: “The word ‘Light’—used by early Quakers to convey all that is mysterious or ineffable—reveals Truth.” Ultimately, Wood can only offer her own personal testimony of Quakerism and shows her aim as a person of faith is “wholeness,” but she concedes that she is a “work in progress.” While the author intends to explain basic Quaker ideas to those first encountering the faith, even readers familiar with foundational Quaker writings will benefit from this glowing overview. (May)

Reviewed on 03/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Glimmers of Grace: A Doctor’s Reflections on Faith, Suffering, and the Goodness of God

Kathryn Butler. Crossway, $17.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-4335-7048-3

Butler (Between Life and Death) shares insightful observations about God and faith based on her work as a trauma and critical care surgeon. To better understand her part in the lives and deaths of her patients, she learned to rely on God’s plan even in dire situations: “Any good news in the hospital is a glimmer of God’s grace.” Butler shares how her own faith was forged from despair, explaining how overwork and the death of a close patient led to suicidal thoughts. Realizing that even Jesus at times felt cut off from God, her spiraling thoughts brought her close to God: “When our eyes fail to discern evidence of God love, we can cling to the truth that Christ knows our suffering, because he endured it too.” Reading the Bible marked the beginning of her spiritual recovery, and she outlines stories and lessons that spoke to her—particularly David’s lament in Psalm 22 to love God even when all seems forsaken. Butler details both harrowing stories of sickness and unexpected recoveries, citing many biblical passages that have given hope to the ailing, but the book’s greatest strength lies in the fluid, evocative writing: “When we despair in the dark of a hospital room, or hover in the silent wake of a life vanished, we can reap solace from Christ.” Devout Christians will benefit most from Butler’s words of comfort. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Partial Enlightenment: What Modern Literature and Buddhism Can Teach Us About Living Well Without Perfection

Avram Alpert. Columbia Univ., $30 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-231-20003-5

Alpert (Global Origins of the Modern Self), a professor of writing at Princeton, examines Buddhist thought across world literature in this pleasant outing. Asserting that novels that incorporate a “modern global Buddhism” can function as a guide for living out Buddhist beliefs in a chaotic world, Alpert considers characters who have “moved past the desire for complete resolution” and who can “appreciate the minor insights and partial enlightenments.” He mulls over references to enlightenment in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1900) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which link enlightenment with the politics of empire: “the merit you accrue for” helping the empire “help[s] you become enlightened yourself in a future cycle of existence.” Reincarnation is addressed in the novels of J.M. Coetzee, Yukio Mishima, and Jamyang Norbu, which consider living a good life in the present. Alpert considers themes of personal and political liberation through transformation in Cuban writer Severo Sarduy’s Cobra, and illustrates how authenticity of character is an evolving process through close readings of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1955) and Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man (2002). Buddhist students and literature lovers will find much to ponder in Alpert’s close textual readings. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square

Bill Haslam. Thomas Nelson, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-400224-42-5

Former Tennessee governor Haslam debuts with a host of suggestions for ways religious Americans can get meaningfully involved in politics. Haslam shares his concern about the country’s deep divide, but writes that “people of faith can and should play a leading role in healing the wounds of this country.” He concedes that achieving that aim is an uphill climb, because “too often the words and actions of Christians have done more to inflict those wounds than to heal them.” Haslam uses anecdotes from his public service—such as his veto of a bill that would have made the Bible the official state book—to illustrate how he balanced his official responsibilities and his private beliefs, and considers various aspects of his faith, such as the importance of humility when engaging those with different political and cultural leanings. Haslam urges readers to do away with “reacting out of fear” and instead follow the “formational practices of following Jesus” to “serve in the public square for the common good.” His insistence that every person must be viewed as having been made in God’s image informs his perspective on dialogue with others. Readers open to thinking about the relationship between church and state will benefit from this sensible advice. (May)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Moral Majorities across the Americas: Brazil, the United States, and the Creation of the Religious Right

Benjamin A. Cowan. Univ. of North Carolina, $29.95 trade paper (312) ISBN 978-1-4696-6206-0

Cowan, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, follows up his 2016 monograph Securing Sex with this persuasive study of evangelical Protestant conservatism in the Western hemisphere. Focusing on the relationship between right-wing religious and political conservatives in the United States and Brazil, Cowan constructs a nuanced argument that religious and political conservatism in these two countries are deeply entwined and often work in concert—most recently in the mutually admiring relationship between former U.S. president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Cowan starts his analysis in the 1950s with the international activities of American conservatives Carl McIntire and Paul Weyrich, who aimed to “construct a transnational New Right” through organizations such as the International Policy Forum. Cowan also highlights the response of Brazilian religious conservatives to Vatican II (1962–1965), arguing that Brazilian and American conservatives agreed on an essential vision centered on fear of “modernism,” which included communism, feminism, sexual liberation, and gay rights. This deeply researched, closely argued of work will be a valuable contribution to the field of conservative studies. (May)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Decolonizing Christianity: Becoming Badass Believers

Miguel A. De La Torre. Eerdmans, $24.99 (224) ISBN 978-0-8028-7847-2

De La Torre (Reading the Bible from the Margins), professor of social ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, argues in this incisive analysis that the white supremacist tradition in the Protestant church must be recognized in order for those who have been disenfranchised to understand the inherent lies within these “unjust social structures” and seek ways to move forward. Insisting on white Christianity’s inextricable ties to and foundations in genocide, racism, and sexism, the author aims to show how Christianity has been used as a “mask” to cover “death-dealing policies” and to “demonstrate how dispossessed communities have believed the lie of white supremacy.” To support his arguments, De La Torre cites America’s history of slavery and imperialism (“a white nation built on stolen land, with stolen labor, using stolen resources”), as well as Christianity’s complicity in justifying both. Readers should not pick this up looking for fixes; when De La Torre does discuss making change, he focuses on the fundamentals: “Provide food for those who are hungry, give clean water to those who are thirsty… bring justice to the incarcerated, and provide medicine to the infirm.” These basic tenets that Christ gave to his followers are, for De La Torre, the key points that white supremacist Christianity forgets. While De La Torre’s premise will likely make some bristle, Christians within a Protestant evangelical tradition may find it eye-opening. (May)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul

James Carroll. Random House, $28.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-593-13470-2

In this trenchant analysis, Boston Globe columnist and former Paulist priest Carroll (Constantine’s Sword) argues the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church isn’t rooted in a few bad priests, but rather a profoundly corrupt system in which a small group of men wield enormous power over others. Over centuries, Carroll writes, the church’s views on gender and sexuality developed in tandem with its desire to protect clerical power, allowing for a “male-supremacist” system stacked against Catholics (often women) who tried to claim or share that power: “The malignity of that clericalism has been laid bare in recent years by the scandal of priests sexually abusing children.” Carroll also includes his own story to effectively show the varied ways this “ecclesiastical pyramid” engenders abuse. As a priest during the Vietnam War, he writes, he came to believe that jingoistic American bishops were providing the government “an excuse to reject the conscientious objector claims of Catholic boys.” Unable to stop what he saw as abuse, and unwilling to be part of perpetuating it, he left the priesthood. Despite it’s significant criticisms, the book encourages despairing Catholics to think of themselves as conscientious objectors—and to fight for what remains good and true about their faith. This persuasive, provocative work will be a must-read for any practicing Catholic. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Divine Feminine Tao Te Ching: A New Translation and Commentary

Rosemarie Anderson. Inner Traditions, $16.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-64411-246-5

Anderson (Celtic Oracles), professor emerita of psychology at Sofia University, translates and delivers a fresh take on the Tao Te Ching, keeping an eye on the feminine characteristics of the text. A classical Chinese text outlining the philosophical tenets of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Anderson writes, features 81 linked poems that explain how to “act without acting” and “do without doing.” Anderson argues this concept of wei wu wei (or “action that is non-action”) is inherently feminine, “portrayed as the ‘mother,’ ‘virgin,’ and ‘womb of creation’ ” and driven by “tenderness and selflessness.” Some of Anderson’s evidence is persuasive—such as the many metaphors of the womb and mentions of the Tao creating life—and justify her approach of using female pronouns to identify the Tao throughout. But others seem less plausible; for example, her assertion that “the capacity to forgive and let go of grievances and excess opinions about the way things and others ought to be” is inherently feminine will strike many as questionable. While Anderson keeps her own commentary deliberately short and foregrounds the translation, the relative dearth of citations or in-depth discussion will frustrate more scholarly readers. Despite this, Anderson’s attention to detail and creative interpretations will open this ancient text to a new audience (May)

Reviewed on 02/26/2021 | Details & Permalink

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