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Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God

Sarah Bessey. Howard, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-5011-5546-8

“I will learn what it is to be an ordinary miracle,” Bessey (Out of Sorts) declares as her goal in this intimate, contemplative investigation of how she rediscovered God in her daily life. By sharing fears, insecurities, and flaws, Bessey will draw readers into her emotional story, which she was inspired to write after a terrible car accident left her with head and spinal injuries and soft tissue damage down her left side. As she begins her recovery, Bessey ponders her relationship with God. While she’s expected to fully heal, her convalescence takes longer than she anticipated. She eventually travels to Rome to briefly meet the pope, where she also encounters miraculous healing during an encounter with two priests. “The pain evaporated like a bad dream upon waking,” she writes. Believing that God had blessed her with a “new normal” Bessey struggles with continued pain and her own stubbornness in believing that she must participate in her healing, as well. She eventually dedicates herself to self-care, including keeping doctor appointments, taking medication and vitamins, and adjusting to what her body tells her. “I began to experience God as mother in my life,” she says. In the end, she learns “to clasp hands with miracles as the spiritual discipline they were perhaps always meant to be.” Bessey’s moving exploration of how trauma changed and strengthened her relationship with God will appeal to fans of Barbara Brown Taylor. Agent: Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary Management. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt

Alec Ryrie. Belknap, $27.95 (272) ISBN 978-0-674-24182-4

This brief, entertaining volume from Ryrie (Protestants) explores the experience and practice of “unbelief” as it emerged in the modern Western cultures. He defines unbelief as a state of dissociation from or dissatisfaction with a dominant Christian religious narrative, and categorizes these responses as either an emotional story of anger or an anxiety that individuals put upon themselves. The former he considers a reaction against an overwhelmingly homogenous Christian society; the latter as the inability to keep one’s faith as sturdy as one feels it should be. Ryrie begins with a careful discussion of the history and changing definitions of atheist and unbeliever, and his reasons for using these particular terms. The bulk of the work concerns unbelief in Western Europe in the centuries around the Reformation, through the experiences of Protestants, Catholics, and various breakaway groups that sought to locate belief outside the organized church. Wrapping in and analyzing the writing of Machiavelli, Christopher Marlowe, and Walter Raleigh, as well as lesser-known figures such as Hannah Allen, Ludovic Muggleton, and Caspar Schwenkfield, Ryrie’s comprehensive research makes this a masterly piece of work. Ryrie’s deeply researched work is an enlightening ramble through intellectual history of opposition to Christian belief that will appeal to any reader interested in religious scholarship. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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A Month of Sundays: Thirty-One Days of Wrestling with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Eugene H. Peterson. WaterBrook, $16.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-6014-2982-7

Peterson’s excellent posthumous devotional, gleaned from sermons he gave during his tenure as pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Md., provides a month-long journey toward spiritual renewal. Pairing scripture from Peterson’s popular paraphrase of the Bible , The Message, with excerpts from his homilies, he challenges readers to wrestle with familiar (albeit complex) spiritual concepts, such as sin, repentance, and righteousness. With a mix of personal stories and quotes, Peterson evens out the heavy scriptural sections of close reading. Though he retired from the pulpit in 1991, his topics remain relevant; especially timely are several readings focused on how God continues to love the world, while many of his followers seem to be either fearful of it or angry. Peterson’s answer to this dilemma (and counsel for life in general) is to learn “to live all of the details of our lives in the company of Jesus.” Since Peterson offers more theological insight than practical application, figuring out how exactly to achieve this goal is left for readers to process on their own. Regardless, fans of Peterson’s work and newcomers looking for an easy entry point will enjoy these soothing sermons. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Done with That: Escape the Struggle of Your Old Life

Bob Merritt. David C. Cook, $17.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8307-7710-5

Pastor Merritt (Get Wise) explains how to use the continuous process of spiritual growth to rid oneself of negative behaviors, such as emotions of anger or fear, in this comforting scriptural study and memoir. Coming from his own personal struggle with sin and while acknowledging that all people sin, Merritt uses personal anecdotes to illustrate how readers can “flip the script” by finding their “signature sin.” For Merritt, it is “verbal misconduct” or “saying hurtful or offensive things”; to be more conscious of this flaw, he learned to slow down, ask questions first, and remember to “cycle back” and apologize when he feels a blunder has been made. He also provides powerful metaphors crafted from real events, such as rescuing a hummingbird trapped in his vacation home as an example of how God may rescue those who choose to trust Him. Believing that lasting change can only happen through a relationship with Jesus, he warns against the constant influx of information and encourages readers to take steps to “purify the stream” by balancing secularized media with faith-based works: “I balance my love for Vince Flynn and John Grisham novels with a constant flow of Christian books.” He recommends reading the Bible, reducing noise from distractions (like television and phones), and divulging sins to loved ones. Christians interested in living into God’s teachings will relish Merritt’s candid, insightful work. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Morrigan: Celtic Goddess of Magick and Might

Courtney Weber. Weiser, $16.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-57863-663-1

Tarot adviser and social activist Weber (Tarot for One) introduces the often paradoxical aspects of the Celtic goddess the Morrigan in this eye-opening guide for beginners. She starts with explaining the complexity of describing a goddess whose identity is shrouded by both Christian influences in Ireland and the unstable nature of the deity herself—even to the point where “Morrigan” might be the title for a collection of divinities rather than an individual. Through myths and personal experiences, Weber explores the Morrigan as a warrior, foreteller of death, faery, reigning sovereign, shape-shifter, and fertility goddess. These facets spark useful discussions of modern misconceptions about the Celtic belief system, such as her careful explanation of the terrifying nature of Celtic faeries or the complicated gender roles of Celtic women. While each chapter has a template for invoking the Morrigan, the final chapter dives deeper into ritual practice, offering several clear options for worship. Weber demonstrates her consistent warnings that the Morrigan is powerful and sometimes unpleasant with mythic and personal examples of the havoc she can bring. This alluring book will intrigue practitioners of Celtic spirituality and those searching for stories of the feminine divine. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Start Here, Start Now: A Short Guide to Mindfulness Meditation

Bhante Gunaratana. Wisdom, $9.95 trade paper (170p) ISBN 978-1-61429-627-0

Gunaratana (Mindfulness in Plain English) offers a straightforward and informative introduction to mindfulness meditation, walking a fine line between familiar secularized instructions and careful guidance through difficult experiences that may challenge one’s worldview. On the surface, Gunaratana’s clear lessons provide the basics for sitting meditation, walking meditation, breath counting, the observation of negative and positive mental states, and other practices. There is little deviation from the forms of practice here, with no talk about personal experiences or analysis of Buddhist teachings; everything serves the practical purpose of teaching and guiding a meditation practice. These practical, simple instructions are rooted in the Buddhist tenets of emptiness, impermanence, and dissatisfaction that afflict the human experience, and Gunaratana spends the second half of the book discussing the implications of such thinking. Because “meditation takes gumption,” Gunaratana sees meditation as an inherently difficult practice that requires a steady commitment to observe, study, and watch whatever arises in one’s experiences, no matter how difficult or undesirable it may be. To this end he includes sections on “making pain the object of meditation” and dealing with distraction, restlessness, and boredom: “True mindfulness is never boring.” Beginners will find a highly accessible and insightful guide to mindfulness meditation, and even experienced practitioners may find this text useful for revisiting the basics. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts

Karen Armstrong. Knopf, $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-451-49486-3

Religious historian Armstrong (A History of God) examines the world’s major religions to make her case that modern humanity has lost track of what scripture meant in the past and, in the process, departed from the compassionate heart of those faiths in her most profound, important book to date. She notes that scriptural narratives had never claimed to be accurate factual accounts; therefore, dismissing them as having no value because they don’t conform to “modern scientific and historical norms” is a mistake. Armstrong traces the development of scriptural canons in India and China, as well as in the monotheistic faith traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and how religions grappled with social inequity, which she views as inevitable in preindustrial economies—and inexcusable now. Along the way, she shows how “in all cultures, scripture was essentially a work in progress, constantly changing to meet new conditions,” a rebuttal to contemporary rigid literalist readings. Both nonbelievers and believers will find her diagnosis—that most people now read scripture to confirm their own views, rather than to achieve transformation—on the mark. “It is essential for human survival that we find a way to rediscover the sacrality of each human being and resacralise our world.” This is an instant classic of accessible and relevant religious history. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change

Emily Sigalow. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-691-17459-4

Sigalow, sociologist and executive director at the UJA-Federation of New York, uses fresh sociological concepts to shed light on the relationship of contemporary American Buddhism and Judaism in America in this probing debut. She begins by reclaiming the idea of religious syncretism, describing religious mixing without judgment about authenticity of religious contents. Sigalow’s work openly contests this “pejorative” understanding of syncretism and “challenges the dominant paradigm within sociology that suggests that religions adapt and change in this country by assimilating into the majority, and taking on the characteristics and organizational forms of liberal Protestantism.” She argues that “Jewish social location” as a “distinctively left-liberal, urban, secular, and upper-middle-class religious minority” was similar to that of American Buddhism, allowing for distinctive and fruitful interactions throughout the 19th century. Her extremely close focus at times misses larger forces at work—specifically the overall decline of institutional religion over the past century, which has allowed beliefs and practices to mix. Nonetheless, Sigalow detailed investigation offers new insights about the mechanisms by which religions evolve in multireligious America. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Letters to a Dead Friend about Zen

Brad Warner. New World Library, $16.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-60868-601-8

Through letters composed to a close friend after his death, Warner (Hardcore Zen) provides an intimate, candid reflection of his Zen practice and his career as a writer and speaker in this touching work. When Warner arrived in Germany for a Zen speaking tour in 2017, he learned that his close friend Marky Moon had died of cancer. Memories of Marky and reports of his touring experience serve as launching pads for a basic exploration of Zen Buddhist teachings on impermanence, attachment, and practice, as well as commentary on contemporary questions about the status of Zen Buddhism as a religion, sexual misconduct by Buddhist teachers, and the role of wealth and power in Buddhist institutions. Warner attempts to merge the genres of fictionalized memoir and religious/spiritual primer, which can be awkward and disorganized. Honest and forthright, Warner’s trademark irreverent voice is present throughout: “There’s still real punk and real metal out there if you look for it. Same with Zen... Luckily I got introduced to Zen by one of its wild men.” Those who are grieving may be the best audience for Warner’s close study . (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/23/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Will of God: Understanding and Pursuing His Ultimate Plan for Your Life

Charles F. Stanley. Howard, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-1-9821-0479-5

Stanley (Relying on the Holy Spirit), senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, offers advice in this hopeful work for Christians who feel unsure of God’s plan for their life. For Stanley, a relationship with God through daily connections to the principles of Christianity is critical. In sermon fashion, he outlines God’s communication methods: communication (through scripture and prayer), counsel of fellow Christians, conscience (one’s inner voice is the voice of God), common sense, and contentment (finding the divine in the ordinary). He lists factors such as personal desires, sin, fear, doubt, anger, self-worth, ungodly influences, and guilt that influence choices and interfere with being able to ascertain the will of God. He cites examples in his personal life where he felt God’s will, such as when deciding to buy a car (did he really need it?) and whether to accompany young friends to a pool hall (though he was tempted, he knew he needed rest). Many of the scriptural passages he quotes are meant to offer encouragement to readers who feel distance from God’s message: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Stanley’s fans will enjoy these simple, clear ideas for discerning God’s plan. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/16/2019 | Details & Permalink

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