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For All Who Wander: Why Knowing God Is Better Than Knowing It All

Robin Dance. B&H, $16.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4336-4308-8

In this uplifting memoir, Dance (A Moment to Breathe) offers hope for Christians who have wrestled with doubts about their faith. Welcoming skepticism—“Your questions and doubts could be the very thing God is using to draw you into a deeper relationship with Him”—Dance acknowledges some of her largest insecurities, including comparing herself harshly with others and struggling with the self-imposed pressure that as a Christian she “should know more” about her faith. For instance, on a trip with her college boyfriend’s family, she recalls feeling anxious after seeing how knowledgeable they were: “I felt like I was supposed to know everything about Christianity by virtue of my Southern birth and since I had gone to church practically every Sunday since I was born.” While reminding readers of the importance of praying and reading the Bible, she also cautions against striving to meet Christian expectations of perfection. Dance also explains how she has felt God’s presence in important moments throughout her life, such as when facing doubts about her personal life or during a powerful tornado, and encourages readers who are in doubt to be open to God’s awe. She encourages readers to carefully consider their life patterns and practices with the knowledge that “Wandering doesn’t always mean you’re leaving God; sometimes you’re just taking the long way home.” With many scriptural references (particularly drawn from Psalm 139:13–16) and candid anecdotes, Dance’s peregrinating memoir will please fans of Jen Hatmaker. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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In Stone and Story: Early Christianity in the Roman World

Bruce W. Longenecker. Baker Academic, $32.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-5409-6067-2

In this bracing analysis, Longenecker (The Crosses of Pompeii), professor of religion at Baylor University, uses the archaeological remains of two cities preserved in Vesuvius’s 79 CE eruption to explore “the machinery of the world” in which early Jesus followers operated. In each chapter, Longenecker considers a pair of interrelated social factors, such as “Money and Influence” and “Sacrifice and Sin,” rooting his analysis in the material culture of Pompeii and Herculaneum, followed by a consideration of how the beliefs and practices of early Jesus devotees shaped the way they engaged with those aspects of Roman society. For instance, inscriptions listing the benefactors of Pompeii’s amphitheater and temples show that “it was clear to all that new money flooding Pompeii was linked to a pro-Roman agenda.” Some of the book’s most stimulating comparisons are drawn between the followers of Jesus and the members of other contemporary Roman subcultures that occupied similar ideological spaces. For instance, a resurgent devotion to the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis meant that Jesus followers were not the only minority religious group promoting a belief in life after death. Clear structure, along with helpful citations to digital versions of the artifacts discussed, makes this an enriching, accessible history for students and casual readers alike. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Basics of the Faith: An Evangelical Introduction to Christian Doctrine

Edited by Carl F.H. Henry. Lexham, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-68359-338-6

This collection of essays, all of which appeared in Christianity Today between 1961 and 1962, provides a handy sourcebook for evangelical approaches to foundational Christian doctrines. In a helpful introduction, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, professor of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, situates the essays as a “treasure trove of insights” gathered from an array of seminal evangelical voices, including Philip E. Hughes on inspiration, Anthony A. Hoekema on the nature of the divine, and Cornelius Van Til on original sin. With only white male authors included, the selections are a testament to the character of mid-20th-century U.S. evangelicalism. Addressing topics such as the holy trinity and “the person of Christ,” the authors remain grounded in their commitment to biblical proofs, if seemingly disconnected from some of the more pressing issues of modern theology. This highly specific focus is limiting, but it also helps to capture the essential emphases of evangelicalism in the U.S. during the 1960s. Readers interested in the underpinnings of contemporary evangelical belief and practice will want to take a look at this intriguing time capsule. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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High on God: How Megachurches Won the Heart of America

James Wellman Jr., Katie Corcoran, and Kate Stockly. Oxford Univ., $24.95 (344p) ISBN 978-0-19-982771-8

Religion professor Wellman Jr., sociologist Corcoran, and religion PhD candidate Stockly productively fuse several disciplines to deconstruct the success story of American megachurches in this crucial, wide-ranging work. The authors make clear from the outset that they will not be concentrating on religious belief, as many observers of religion do, but rather on human emotion and its dynamics, which megachurches successfully tap into with their song-filled worship. They then go step-by-step through features of megachurch culture, including the presence of a charismatic leader and outreach projects that “have the dual goal of serving a community need and evangelizing or saving souls.” A detailed appendix draws on brain research to look at the biochemistry behind religious ritual, which directly informs the title metaphor of being “high on God.” The authors’ analysis is complicated and won’t be easy going for general reader, but those who have familiarity with major sociological thinkers will find much to chew on. Extensive interviews with megachurch members and other detailed research strengthens the authors’ case. This pivotal book provides groundbreaking analysis of the motivating social behaviors within megachurches and will certainly ignite conversation among religion scholars. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/18/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

Mark Charles & Soong-Chan Rah. IVP, $17 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-8308-4525-5

In this trenchant analysis of the roots of white supremacy in American culture, blogger and preacher Charles (Reflections from the Hogan) and religion professor Rah (The Prophetic Lament) team up to examine the insidious legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, a set of 15th-century legal principles based on Catholic papal decrees. Rooted in a Christian movement advocating compassion for all of humanity, the Doctrine of Discovery also contains elements of the early transformation of the church under Constantine, who accepted “just war theory” (which approved of violence against non-Christians) and went on to undergird the driving narrative of American exceptionalism. The authors challenge numerous American mythologies, beginning with the Puritans’ self-perception as “chosen people” of pure Anglo-Saxon lineage “ordained by God to tame the savage world of the Natives of North America.” Examining the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the concept of manifest destiny, and the reputation of Abraham Lincoln, the authors offer numerous historical examples demonstrating how the narrative of “white American Christian exceptionalism” continues to have devastating effects on African-American and Native American communities. For instance, he argues that Lincoln understood the that 13th Amendment “simply redefined and codified” slavery “under the jurisdiction of law enforcement officers,” and that he didn’t believe “black people should be judges, jurors, or even be allowed to vote.” This sobering critique presents a disturbing yet welcome analysis of how the Doctrine of Discovery has split American church and society along racial lines, and makes a powerful argument for engaging in national dialogue around issues of class, gender, and race. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/11/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847–1947

Norman Lebrecht. Scribner, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-9821-3422-8

Music commentator Lebrecht (Why Mahler?) catalogues a century of important Jewish lives in this idiosyncratic and frantic cultural history. Each chapter centers on a single, pivotal year, allowing Lebrecht to weave together a collection of anecdotes and pared down biographical details of its subjects. He opens and closes his analysis outside the stated historical boundaries, beginning with Karl Marx’s 1843 publication of “On the Jewish Question” and ending with the events leading up to the establishment of Israel in 1948, focusing throughout on Jews in Europe and the United States. Chapters are sometimes thematic, such as one devoted to Jewish developments in the study of sexuality, or another on early-20th-century music, while others are a strange melange of unrelated ideas, such as one that jumps among the filming of Casablanca, a trial convicting God in Auschwitz, a litany of suicides within Nazi-occupied territories, and the invention of birth control pills. Most of the figures are well-known and male, though there are some less familiar names, such as Eliza Davis, who influenced Charles Dickens’s view of the Jews, or British rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who vigorously worked to expatriate Jews just before WWII. Lebrecht can tell an enjoyable story with verve, though the lack of clear trajectory or organization dilutes his points. While readers interested in 19th- and 20th-century Judaism might enjoy dipping in and out of these snippets from important people’s lives, this overfilled work founders as a whole. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/11/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers

Christine Colón. IVP Academic, $16 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-8308-5374-8

Colón (Writing for the Masses), professor of English at Wheaton College, Ill., delivers an elegant exploration of the role of Christian faith and community in the novels, plays, and lectures of Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), creator of the fictional aristocrat-detective Lord Peter Wimsey and his future wife, Harriet Vane. Raised in Huntingdonshire, England, Sayers’s early life as a “daughter of the Manse” (her father was a minister) shaped her Anglican faith and moral vision, and, in Colón’s telling, pushed her toward the tumultuous company of artists. Though Sayers’s novels were informed by her faith, Colón argues, she did not write them intending to present a theological perspective. Instead, she recognized the importance of preserving the complexity of “communities of action.” For instance, Lord Peter Wimsey needed to do more than find a killer; he needed to unleash the moral agency of the other characters. Colón’s section of how Sayers nourished “communities of joy” in her personal life is particularly moving as it reveals Sayers’s love of her friends and support for other writers. Sayers’s fans will definitely want to pick this up. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/11/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Take The Day Off: Receiving God’s Gift of Rest

Robert Morris. FaithWords, $22 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5460-1016-6

Pastor Morris (The Blessed Life) explores the Sabbath as an antidote for the weariness that comes from overwork in this enlightening guide. He draws on his own experience with burnout from running a megachurch and a personal breakdown to address what he sees as an epidemic of busyness in American society: “It’s about coming to a place of faith and trust that God is our provider and we can live a lifestyle of rest!” Morris discusses the need to regularly replenish the four “tanks” of one’s spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental reservoirs, which must be full in order to fill the lives of others—as Christianity dictates. He offers suggestions for experiencing spiritual connection, schedules for physical rest, passages to inspire emotional joy, and tips for “mental refreshment” during the Sabbath day each week, such as fasting, reading, and abstaining from news. Morris allows that it may seem impossible to take an entire day of relaxation every week, but he insists that readers prioritize such a thing by scheduling it as a standing appointment with God that cannot be rearranged. Christians will be won over by Morris’s persuasive argument that the best type of rejuvenation comes from standing firm in a weekly commitment to dedicating one’s mind, body, and spirit to holy worship and rest. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/11/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Enlightenment by Trial and Error: Ten Years on the Slippery Slopes of Jewish Spirituality, Postmodern Buddhism, and Other Mystical Heresies

Jay Michaelson. Ben Yehuda, $19.95 trade paper (270p) ISBN 978-1-9347308-0-5

Rabbi and columnist Michaelson (God vs. Gay) brings together 35 essays in this contemplative and gratifying collection. Each essay was published in the online magazine Zeek between 2002 and 2012, and together the pieces present what he calls a “postmodern heretical hedonist travelogue” that dwells deeply on the nature of spiritual realization and responsibility. Michaelson explains how, after a car accident in 2001 and his decision to come out as gay, he decided to pursue spiritual enlightenment. In the first section, he explores his work with meditation, which he felt helped him dissolve his ego and alleviate past pains—which freed him to help ease the suffering of others. The second section concerns his questions about religion, exemplified by “Religion and Insanity,” which exposes how religious beliefs in rapture or a physical devil seem disconnected from logical interpretation. The collection culminates with the standout essay “Rethinking Spirituality,” in which Michaelson divulges he no longer seeks “spiritual states,” but tries to integrate his spiritual learning into his everyday life. While not all essays resonate equally, Michaelson’s earnest voice will offer encouragement and wisdom to spiritual seekers who are struggling with a crisis of faith. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/11/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food

Edited by Aaron S. Gross, Jody Myers, and Jordan D. Rosenblum. NYU, $30 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-4798-2779-4

This informative anthology of 17 scholarly essays provides an accessible, detailed look at all aspects of Jewish food. The editors—who each work as Jewish Studies professors—divvy up the book into three sections: history, food and culture, and ethics. Myers’s section starts with an overview of the eating norms within the Hebrew Bible, including dietary restrictions, before considering contemporary standards (such as the evolution and spread of the eco-kosher movement) whose adherents require humane treatment of animals and the ethical treatment of the workers who produce kosher meat. Then, Rosenblum provides a survey of the cultural aspects of Jewish food across cultures, including many instances where recipes have become nationally known standards (such as in Hungary, where cholent, a traditional stew initially created to accommodate restrictions for cooking on the Sabbath, has become a popular, pork-infused staple). In the final section, introduced by Rosenblum, a range of ethical issues are addressed, including how Jewish food and traditions impact the global ecosystem, and provides an illuminating case study of a synagogue that addressed ethical concerns of its community by committing to sustainability and establishing a community garden during renovations. This rich, revealing collection will appeal to scholars and foodies alike. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/04/2019 | Details & Permalink

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