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I Choose Victory: Moving from Victor to Victim

Cynthia Garrett. Salem, $16.99 trade paper (215p) ISBN 978-1-68451-051-1

In this spirited memoir, TV host Garrett (Prodigal Daughter) shares how to break free from the victim mentality and choose to live freely. She calls all who have ever felt victimized to arms: “We are called conquerors, overcomers, victorious, and loved. We are never called victims.” Garrett reveals her struggle to overcome victimization, as well as debilitating circumstances that she experienced during her career, including rape, sexual harassment, and cancer. By surrendering to Christ, she found peace and the freedom to live a “victorious life.” Garrett identifies three “war zones” that Christians encounter—personal, spiritual, and political—and devotes chapters to practices within each area, such as the dangerous effects lust and pride can have on one’s personal life. She explains how factors such as race and class can foster a victim mindset, and offers affirmations and suggested activities for rebuilding confidence. Drawing from personal examples and biblical references, Garrett shows readers how to recognize a “poverty of the mind” mentality, stop blaming others, and conquer fear while also confronting pride. Her authoritative prose encourages spiritual growth—even under dire life circumstances—and she reminds Christian readers of God’s unconditional love. While Garrett addresses women throughout, any reader can learn from her moving story of leaving behind brokenness to find inner healing. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything

Viktor E. Frankl. Beacon, $19.95 (136p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0555-2

Based on three public lectures delivered in Vienna in 1946, this slim, powerful collection from Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) attests to life’s meaning, even in desperate circumstances. Coming less than a year after Frankl’s liberation from Auschwitz, Frankl’s writings address a postwar “spiritually bombed out” audience that knows the evils of which humanity is capable. Frankl (1905–1997) claims that it is not humanity’s role to question life’s meaning, but rather it’s life that demands people reflect on their purpose. Frankl posits three ways in which humans find meaning: through work; through experiencing nature, art, or love; and through how they accept unwelcome circumstances. He offers an example of a patient of his who lived a meaningful life: a graphic designer who had fallen ill and, no longer able to work, enjoyed reading and music; when dying, he asked for his final morphine shot at the doctor’s convenience, thus thinking of others at his last hour. An afterward by Frank Vesely, Frankl’s son-in-law, attests to how Frankl’s own sense of purpose helped him survive both the Holocaust and subsequent losses. This lovely work transcends its original context, offering wisdom and guidance. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices

Casper ter Kuile. HarperOne, $26.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-06-288181-6

Ter Kuile, cohost of the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, demonstrates in his thoughtful debut how the nonreligious can “liberate the gifts of tradition” to foster greater spiritual connection in their lives. He argues that, while formal religious affiliation may be waning, spiritual practices remain relevant because they can cultivate bonds to the self, others, the natural world, and the transcendent. Ter Kuile explains the significance of a variety of religious practices, including pilgrimage, prayer, and meditation, and proposes ways to capture their significance through everyday activities (“anything can become a spiritual practice—gardening, painting, singing, snuggling, sitting”) by focusing on intention, attention, and repetition. This approach leads to inventive explorations of social trends; for instance, the famously cultish appeal of the Crossfit fitness program is explained in terms of vulnerability and community. In ter Kuile’s understanding, religious traditions are “inherently creative” and therefore good starting points for considering personalized, meaningful spiritual practices. The Jewish tradition of Sabbath, for example, is reenvisioned by the author as structured “alone time” He also discusses ways to apply the devotional practices developed for reading the Bible, such as giving blessings, to engage with literature more generally. Those who are beginning to explore spirituality will find many rich ideas. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them

Scott Sauls. Thomas Nelson, $18.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-4002-1655-0

Sauls (Irresistible Faith), senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., provides a fresh look at the Christian response to division and hostility in what he considers today’s “culture of suspicion, mistrust, and us-against-them.” Much of society has come to view some Christians as hypocrites and partisan political opponents, he writes. Worried about a decline in evangelism (included are statistics showing Christians to be increasingly unlikely to share their faith), he cites a lack of Christian empathy as the root cause for the current passiveness of many believers and argues for rejection of religious pride and emulation of Jesus’s spirit toward others: “Armed with a gentle answer, modeled and provided by our gentle Savior himself, it is time we got about the business of mending our fractured world with a presence that is less combative and more gentle and kind.” For readers apt to jump to righteous retaliation against wrongdoing or who feel forced to turn the other cheek, he suggests responding to criticism with grace, harnessing the energy of anger for good, and speaking out against injustices to strike a balance between righteous anger and forgiveness. Sauls’s ability to acknowledge the shaky reputation of Christianity without judgment is refreshing and welcome. This patiently argued work will appeal to Christians as a persuasive rebuke to defaulting to defensiveness. (June)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump

Sarah Posner. Random House, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-984820-42-6

Posner (God’s Profits), reporting fellow at Type Investigations, reveals in this trenchant study the modern white religious right as a group anxious about losing power in a changing country and determined to rebuild America with white Christians at its center. To many observers, Posner writes, white evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump is mysterious: after decades of championing moral values in politics, why would they back a liar and adulterer with no history of religious observance? Her answer is straightforward: evangelicals overlooked his less savory characteristics because he was committed to white Christian nationalism. This broader historical view posits that Trump is not an aberration but a fulfillment of 40 years of organized political strategy, and that many of his actions while in office—admiring foreign dictators, promoting views based in far-right extremism—are mirrored in the history of the American religious right. While Posner can get bogged down in the details, as in her meticulous debunking of the notion that Christian nationalism arose in opposition to abortion, overall she is convincing. Posner’s authoritative investigation will be a must-read for those interested in the connections between the Trump presidency and evangelicalism. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens: The Divine Feminine in the African Religious Traditions

Lilith Dorsey. Weiser, $16.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-57863-695-2

In this elegant, if peculiar, primer, Dorsey (Love Magic), a voodoo priestess, explores the oral traditions of African religions to reveal the strength and beauty of female deities. Structuring her study around divine spirits, goddesses, and voodoo queens, Dorsey presents mythological and historical backgrounds of orishas (West African gods) such as the water spirit Oshún, the creator Mami Wata, the goddess Erzulie, and folk saint Santa Muerte, who “holds a prominent place in the lives of many Afro-Latinx practitioners.” Dorsey details ways to create a sacred space and enhance one’s spiritual exploration by concocting potions, establishing rituals, offering gifts, designing cleansing waters, and cooking meals. For Dorsey, the feminine focus and mix of cultures and traditions embedded into these all-too-often hidden and suppressed faith traditions can help “navigate to an empowered future.” Those interested in African and pagan religions should enjoy this broad survey. (May)

Reviewed on 03/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Heroines of Avalon & Other Tales

Ayn Cates Sullivan. Infinite Light, $26.95 (258p) ISBN 978-1-947925-04-5

Sullivan’s passionate follow-up to Legends of the Grail explores women’s spirituality through retellings of six goddess tales from the King Arthur legend, among them mother goddess Arianrhod, independent Elen, and Dindraine, the “first person to achieve the Holy Grail.” Sullivan provides a breakdown of the symbolism, origin, and lineage of each story; includes her own short stories and poems that capture each goddess’s spiritual allure; and recaps their mythological lore. She then instructs women in ways to celebrate each goddess with rituals and meditation-esque visualizations intended to forge a spiritual connection between reader and goddess. Particularly enchanting is Sullivan’s section on “Ladies of the Lake”—Elaine and Nimue, goddesses of beauty and the moon, who serve as stewards into the ethereal realm—which provides visualizations and rituals meant to help readers attain greater “bodily awareness” and self-sufficiency. This approachable guide will be valuable to those interested in “goddess lore.” (Self-published)

Reviewed on 03/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World

Sharon Salzberg. Flatiron, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-31057-6

Salzberg (Real Happiness), cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, explores the intersection of social activism, mindfulness, and meditation in this discerning work. She argues that human beings have a basic desire for happiness and to serve others, but “reactions of fight, flight, or freeze... rule our patterns of communication... and the limits of imagination,” creating a cycle of self-defense, rejection, and fatigue. Practicing “mindfulness and lovingkindness,” Salzberg writes, should induce calmness and be a reminder of one’s agency and ethical values: “the point of developing these qualities is not to judge ourselves harshly when we are less than mindful or kind but to learn how to not be stuck in an automatic reaction.” Through interviews with activists, lawyers, community organizers, artists, and philanthropists, along with meditation practice instructions, Salzberg teaches readers how to transform feelings of stress or anxiety into catalysts for change and encourages reclaiming one’s agency and connecting with others who are engaged in social activism. Though no new ground is trod, Salzberg’s earnest call to put compassion into one’s social and political life will appeal to any Buddhist. (June)

Reviewed on 03/20/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather

Peter J. Thuesen. Oxford Univ, $29.95 (312p) ISBN 978-0-19-068028-2

In this stimulating exploration of religious responses to deadly weather, Thuesen (Predestination), a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, argues that “the unpredictable randomness of tornadic violence [has] engendered a special American anxiety” which has shaped American religious belief. In the seemingly random destruction wrought by tornadoes, he writes, early American thinkers saw God’s providence and moral judgment. But as 19th-century religious figures rejected the concept of a God who made individuals suffer “as part of some divine pedagogy,” Americans came to believe human intervention—through lightning rods, tornado reporters (writers dedicated to covering and predicting tornados), and even insurance—was an appropriate response to violent weather. Even as more recent theologies have found a greater place for “disorder, contingency, and change” in the divine, Thuesen proposes that current political opposition to recognizing climate change is rooted in religious beliefs that echo those early responses. Despite the broad implications of “American Religion” in the subtitle, the book’s analysis is entirely rooted in Christianity—mainly Protestant varieties—and, though it is thick with theological references, there are moments when Thuesen could have given more attention to the wide spectrum of theological responses to storms. Thuesen’s novel thesis and ability to explore nuanced complexities will make this dense work rewarding to any scholar of American religious history. (May)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness and More

Karen Stiller. Tyndale Momentum, $16.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-4964-4480-6

Stiller (Going Missional), senior editor of Faith Today magazine, wrestles with a role she didn’t expect to take on in this sharply funny memoir-in-essays. Stiller and her husband, Brent, had planned to help start a Bible college in Africa until Brent’s seminary training within the Anglican Church called for him to become a minister in rural Saskatchewan. Stiller speaks eloquently on friendship, the joy of newfound community, and the pleasures of Christmas: “I am the coach; Brent is the boxer; and the Christmas season is round after round of special services.” Stiller is also forthcoming about the struggles and rewards of being a minister’s wife, explaining the pain and joy of periodically moving along with her husband’s ministry. She also explores the triumphs (including affecting prayers she leads in her home with congregants, particularly after deaths or during large life changes) and disappointments (such as Brent not receiving a placement in New York) of church leadership. Christian readers will be particularly moved by Stiller’s deeply felt love for others and Jesus. Fans of Karen Swallow Prior will want to take a look. (May)

Reviewed on 03/13/2020 | Details & Permalink

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