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The Night School: Lessons in Moonlight, Magic, and the Mysteries of Being Human

Maia Toll, illus. by Lucille Clerc. Running Press, $24 (272p) ISBN 978-0-7624-7429-5

“Magic is everywhere. To see it and the effects it has on your life, change the way you perceive the world,” contends spiritual teacher Toll (Maia Toll’s Wild Wisdom Companion) in this fun exploration of magic. Toll structures the volume as a curriculum split into two “semesters,” with such classes as “Divination Lab,” “Alchemy 101,” and “Energetic Engineering 101” covering the basics of night-related magic and how to interact with it. In “Philosophy 101,” the author lays out the beliefs that undergird her style of magic and posits, for example, that science and magic are two similar systems for describing the same phenomena and that energy flows toward the object of one’s attention. Toll suggests readers apply concepts with “homework” assignments that include using the moon to tell time, divining the future by interpreting the movement of smoke, and researching cultures that developed an equivalent of the “four elements” (fire, air, earth, water). The author affects the voice of a compassionate professor, charmingly addressing readers by the nickname “Firefly,” and the discrete “lessons” offer a clever way to organize the bounty of insight and exercises, even if the night theme sometimes gets lost. Additionally, the celestial illustrations of psychedelic night skies by Clerc wonderfully evoke the cosmic wonder of the material. The result is a delightful program with magic to spare. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age

Dale C. Allison Jr. Eerdmans, $21.99 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-0-8028-8188-5

“Numinous experiences may not be common, but they are not, even in our so-called secular world, uncommon,” contends Princeton theological seminary professor Allison (The Resurrection of Jesus) in this evenhanded analysis. He compiles accounts of supernatural episodes, including his experience of lights descending from the sky to surround him with “a calm ecstasy,” and suggests that there are phenomena science can’t explain that deserve to be studied. The stories—some shared directly with the author, others pulled from archives or articles—tell of people who have seen strange shadows, been inexplicably overwhelmed by bliss, or had near-death experiences. Positing that many angel encounters follow a script in which someone has their distress relieved by an apparently otherworldly stranger, the author asks, “Why, if there are no divine emissaries to be seen, natural selection has programmed so many of us to see them?” Allison’s willingness to doubt some supernatural accounts (“It is natural to have reservations”) and lay out the scientific explanations for others makes the cases he can’t explain more persuasive, as does his commitment to promoting inquiry over definite answers. A grounded entry in the supernatural encounters genre, this well-researched chronicle has the power to give skeptics second thoughts. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Strong in Battle: Why the Humble Will Prevail

Susie Larson. Bethany House, $17.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7642-3171-1

This contemplative volume by radio talk show host Larson (May His Face Shine upon You) offers advice on how to remain steadfast in one’s faith. Cautioning against the evils of Satan, Larson draws on the Bible and personal anecdotes to explore the qualities that will help Christians prevail in their personal spiritual battles. Chief among these qualities is humility, Larson contends, and she provides humbleness-enhancing exercises that include confiding one’s troubles in “someone who has the kind of faith you need right now” and contemplating passages from Ephesians and Isaiah. Larson counsels readers to “stay dependent” on God, recounting how she woke up one night seized by a conviction that her adult son was in danger only to realize she had let fear overtake her faith in God’s ability to keep her family safe. The author suggests staying alert to the influences of Satan in one’s life, which may manifest as complacency or excessive self-righteousness. Christians will appreciate the focus on prayer and the bounty of prayer prompts, including such meditations as “Whom do I need to forgive?” and “What in me still needs to heal?” This makes for a solid Bible study companion. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Exceptional Leader: Motivated to Succeed, Equipped to Excel

Stan Toler. Harvest House, $9.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-0-7369-8074-6

In this pleasantly unconventional outing, the late pastor Toler (The Power of Your Personal Impact), who died in 2017, opines on Christian leadership principles. The author offers dialogues between fictional characters Tim and his mentor Paul—contemporary stand-ins for the biblical figures—to impart leadership wisdom for “ministry, business, politics, education, or community service.” Tim, “an up-and-coming leader within his organization,” queries Paul on such matters as how to tell if someone is a leader and how to think like one, to which Paul replies that leaders are those others look to for solutions and those who instinctively troubleshoot problems. Toler sometimes breaks from his story to offer enumerated tips, such as his five points for pursuing an organizational vision, which include taking calculated risks and making sure followers keep the end goal in mind. The author also encourages readers to “use the Bible as a spiritual guide” because it instills conscientiousness that radiates out through the rest of one’s organization. The quasi-narrative framing makes for a nice tweak on the usual self-help fare, and the faith-oriented advice delivers. Christian leaders will find much of use in this astute program. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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On the Edge of Hope: No Matter How Dark the Night, the Redeemed Soul Still Sings

Mark Chironna. Chosen, $16.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-8007-6257-5

Pastor Chironna (The Dead Prophets Society) delivers an uneven Christian take on overcoming mental illness. The author shares how in 2007, he felt as if he had been hit by a “cosmic bus” that marked the onset of three and a half years of anxiety and depression. He turned to the Bible for advice and shares with readers what he learned: “Jesus loves you so fully and completely that He will be with you in the darkest, most seemingly Godforsaken emotional places.” The author reports fearing God’s judgment because he had lost sight of God’s loving nature, and remarks that though Job losing his children and belongings might seem like divine punishment, it actually reveals God’s goodness because Job learned that even in dire times “nothing could separate him from God’s love.” To heal, the author contends, one must face up to one’s sin and pain, and bring them before God for forgiveness. Chironna’s personal reflections are frustratingly vague (he enigmatically admits he “cannot share all the details and all the stories”), but the affirming advice will hearten weary Christians (“We can trust ourselves absolutely to the goodness and the power of God”). Readers who can look past the opaque autobiography will find some uplifting insights. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Make Room: Take Control of Your Space, Time, Energy, and Money to Live on Purpose

Jennifer Ford Berry. Baker, $16.99 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-5409-0215-3

The 29 Minute Mom podcaster Berry (Purpose Over Possessions) lays out a Christian approach to physical and metaphysical decluttering in this superficial volume. Pulling from scripture, she outlines “how to strip away what is less important (a.k.a. clutter) in order to make room for” spiritual fulfillment. The author contends that “there is a direct connection between outer order and inner calm,” and urges readers to collect wisdom, memories, and “ways to do God’s work” in lieu of physical possessions. To clean up “space clutter,” Berry recommends focusing on one small area at a time and getting rid of what one doesn’t use, then finding a “specific space” to keep each belonging that remains. Clearing “mental clutter”—such as worries, fear, and negative self-talk—requires figuring out what’s important in one’s life and making time for those activities, though the author provides little guidance on how to do so. Her suggestion that readers discover their “God-given purpose” by looking inward and studying the Bible also lacks in specifics. Berry brings a cheerful disposition, but readers may find themselves at a loss on how to implement the facile advice (“If you don’t like the way your thoughts or your actions make you feel, choose differently”). This comes up short. (July)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Power of Mind: A Tibetan Monk’s Guide to Finding Freedom in Every Challenge

Khentrul Lodrö T’hayé, trans. from the Tibetan by Paloma Lopez Landry. Shambhala, $18.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-64547-087-8

Editors Landry, Ibby Caputo, and Paul Gustafson assemble in this superb manual the oral teachings of Tibetan monk T’hayé on lojong (“mind training”) practices in Buddhism. T’hayé expounds on the Buddhist text The Seven Key Points of Mind Training and distills its wisdom on “taming the mind” and “refining away mental afflictions until we aren’t ruled by our circumstances.” He proffers advice on how to follow each of the “key points” (which include practice, transformation, and commitment), suggesting that to integrate Buddhist teachings into one’s everyday life (point four), readers should adopt a mindset characterized by a resolve to develop such qualities as generosity and diligence. To practice taming one’s mind (point two), the author recommends continually reminding oneself that everything is an illusion and a construct of one’s perception. Practitioners will appreciate the emphasis on practical application and enjoy the thoughtful guided meditations on such questions as “What does it mean to have freedoms?” and “Does everything have a cause and is everything a result?” This sage volume offers something for Buddhism students of all levels. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Uncommon Influence: Saying Yes to a Purposeful Life

Tony and Lauren Dungy. Tyndale House, $19.99 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-4964-5889-6

In this inspiring manual, former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony and his wife Lauren Dungy (Uncommon Marriage) provide advice on living out God’s plan. Inspired by Jesus’s entreaties to help those in need, the Dungys started taking in foster children about 20 years ago and have cared for dozens of kids since then, housing as many as 15 at a time. The authors share stories and lessons they’ve gleaned along the way about how to “fulfill the specific service role that God has in store for you.” Touting the merits of perseverance, the authors recount how they committed to raising their adopted son Jordan even after a doctor suggested they return him because he suffered from a difficult to treat disorder, reckoning that God had brought him into their lives for a reason. The Dungys discuss using prayer as their central tool for managing their large household and recommend that readers “learn to reflexively pray” in the course of day-to-day life. The authors have a knack for distilling their wisdom into pithy one-liners, such as “We can’t bash and bless someone at the same time” and “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Cogent advice and heartwarming anecdotes make this sure to please aspiring “Hall of Faithers.” (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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How to Deal with How You Feel: Managing the Emotions That Make Life Unmanageable

James Merritt. Harvest House, $14.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-7369-8534-5

This sensible if simplistic work by pastor Merritt (Character Still Counts), former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers Christian guidance on controlling one’s emotions. Drawing on scripture, the author “outlines God’s blueprint for how to deal with your emotions.” Merritt looks to the Bible for advice on coping with such “life takers” as anxiety, anger, and loneliness. For example, he recommends readers follow the stress management strategy exemplified by Isaiah as he awaited the fall of Jerusalem: “Look up at the unequaled God, listen to the unlimited God, and linger with the unfailing God.” Examining how to embody such positive emotions as joy, hope, and gratitude, he contends that “giving thanks is a big deal to God” and suggests that Christians might give thanks for their literacy, religious freedom, and the roofs over their heads. Some solutions can feel trite—such as the four-step plan for dealing with anxiety: celebrate, appreciate, pray to, and meditate on God—but the scriptural analysis offers some keen insights into how biblical figures used God’s grace to master their feelings, as when Merritt discusses Jesus’s teaching that “worry is an insult to God. It’s a slap in his face.” Christians will find some wisdom in this handy if lightweight volume. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Twist Your Fate: Manifest Success with Astrology and Tarot

Theresa Reed. Weiser, $18.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-57863-768-3

Tarot card reader Reed (Tarot) delivers career guidance based in astrology and tarot in this accessible work. The author uses techniques from her practice to tell readers “how to find potential paths best suited for your cosmic makeup and how to groove with the current movement of the cosmos.” She explains how to interpret one’s sun, moon, and ascendant signs, and provides a modified birth chart in which the traditional “houses” representing the different areas of life have been replaced by such professional considerations as “public image/brand” and “work environment.” Delving into tarot, Reed walks through how to use tarot “spreads” to gain clarity on questions; for example, she explains that in a spread of her own creation, the first card pulled from the deck “shows the energy around the question,” the second indicates “what you need to know,” and the third offers advice. Reed skillfully balances informativeness and entertainment, using playful prose (“I have a red-hot Scorpion Moon temper—and when I get angry, watch out!”) that will keep beginners onboard as she explores more advanced material. The result is a fresh and fun fusion of two esoteric traditions that has something new for novice and experienced practitioners alike. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/27/2022 | Details & Permalink

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