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Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God

Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Robert Erlewine. Plough, $12 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-0-87486-351-2

In this illuminating collection, Erlewine (Judaism and the West), professor of religion at Wesleyan, arranges 12 excerpts from the theological writings of Abraham Heschel (1907–1972), a Polish American Jewish theologian, thinker, and civil rights activist. The selections emphasize Heschel’s major themes, including the primacy of deed over thought and collective responsibility. For example, the excerpt from God in Search of Man (1955) contends that a concrete act always has intrinsic meaning because “its value to the world is independent of what it means to the person performing it. The act of giving food to a helpless child is meaningful regardless of whether or not the moral intention is present.” By eliminating spiritual purity as a prerequisite to helping others, Erlewine contends, Heschel enables more practical good to be done. He also targets inaction, maintaining that in a civilized society (such as the U.S. in the 1960s, with respect to racist oppression), “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Prologues by Erlewine, and Heschel’s daughter Susannah, a Jewish Studies professor, provide useful context. Those new to Heschel will appreciate this accessible introduction. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pagan Portals: Hellenic Paganism

Samantha Levers. Moon, $10.95 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-78904-323-5

Witchcraft blogger Levers debuts with a breezy guide to mixing ancient Greek spiritual practices with paganism. Levers begins with basic explanations of Greek mythology before considering forgotten or controversial practices and ways to modernize them. For example, she explains that animal sacrifice was not common in Ancient Greece, but when it did occur, the ritual provided meat to communities. In updating the practice, she adapts ideas of animal sacrifice by fashioning figures out of wax or clay to use in rituals. Other suggestions for merging concepts revolve around finding common symbols and basing rituals around both the Attic calendar and pagan Wheel of the Year. (One can, she writes, incorporate Greek deities into equinox and solstice rituals.) Following the belief that “research, dedication, observation of the world around us and intuition and practice can be applied to any path,” Levers’s Greek-inspired rituals are open to any type of pagan practice. Witchcraft practioners interested in mythology will enjoy Levers’s spin on folding Hellenistic beliefs into ritual practices. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair

Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson. Brazos, $24.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-58743-450-1

In this persuasive debut, Kwon, lead pastor of Grace Meridian Hill in Washington, D.C., and Thompson, research fellow at Lincoln University, argue that white supremacy’s “enduring effect” in America is the theft of Black wealth and power, and that Christians must respond by participating in reparations. Christians, in their estimate, have a unique capacity to contribute to the project of reparations because the ideas at its core—the ethics of restitution and restoration—are a part of Christian beliefs and practices, specifically the stories of Zaccheus and the Good Samaritan. The authors present these scriptural models alongside theological treatises on theft that have informed Christian practice for centuries and firmly assert that “restitution for the thefts of White supremacy” is a goal “older than America itself,” often explicitly rooted in Christian beliefs, as with the abolitionist movement. At the end, Kwon and Thompson provide “practices of repair” directed toward churches, including acknowledging and memorializing history; bolstering “vocational, relational, and financial power to our Black neighbors”; working with economic institutions to remove barriers to wealth; and transfers of wealth to “Black households, institutions, and communities.” Kwon and Thompson’s eloquent reasoning will help Christians broaden their understanding of the contemporary conversation over reparations. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder’s Meditations on Hope and Courage

Steven Charleston. Broadleaf, $17.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-5064-6573-9

These words of encouragement from Choctaw elder and Episcopal priest Charleston (Sanctuary of the Spirit) offer a hopeful perspective on fixing a troubled world. Charleston describes the Native American place of worship know as the kiva, a hole dug into the ground that’s “a womb. It is a place of origins. It is where, according to my ancestors’ teachings, life first began.” To escape the primordial darkness of fear and worry about failing political, judicial, and societal institutions (which he compares to the original kiva), Charleston tells readers to “climb up the ladder into the light.” Each rung of the ladder contributes to a spiritual process—faith, hope, community, renewal, and transformation—that calls one to find clarity, transform reality, and promote justice. Charleston recommends that, rather than sugarcoating societal problems, humanity needs faith to imagine a better world. He proposes taking action together for a common good through interreligious cooperation, prioritizing truth, embracing change, and championing dignity and inclusion for all people. Readers will appreciate Charleston’s pride in Native traditions and his optimism that humanity can heal the scars of the past and rebuild what has been broken. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Rumi’s Little Book of Wisdom

Rumi, trans. from the Persian by Maryam Mafi. Hampton Roads, $15.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-64297-025-8

Mafi (The Book of Rumi) aims to introduce 13th-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, to Western readers, in this handy yet cursory compilation, excerpting around 200 quotes and parables from his teachings and lectures. The quotes center on human nature controlling thoughts and ego, and the search for the divine: “When our minds decide to go to a new place, our/ hearts travel there first to check out the terrain/ later rerunning to convey our bodies there.” Mafi opts for crisp yet colloquial language, making for easy reading: “You searched the whole world, but it wasn’t to find/ Truth! So now you have to start all over again and/ rediscover the world.” The book also features simple, evocative ink illustrations that enhance the beauty of the text’s language. Most of the entries are taken from Rumi’s The Discourses, a work containing long philosophical inquiries, conversations, and lectures. But by keeping the excerpts short, Mafi strips Rumi’s thoughts of context, leaving just simple aphorisms behind. While a few of the included parables are worth pondering, overall this works better as a curiosity for Rumi completists rather than an introduction to the thinker. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Making Biblical of Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth

Beth Allison Barr. Brazos, $19.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-5874-3470-9

In this trenchant blend of memoir and analysis, historian Barr (Faith and History) challenges the Christian evangelical belief that male dominance and female submission are required of the faithful. In 2016, Barr and her husband were fired from their work in youth ministry because of their rejection of the theological argument that “gender hierarchy [is] divinely ordained.” Barr channeled her anger into examining church history in order to better understand the origins of that belief and the related concept of “biblical womanhood,” or female submission to male authority. What she found was that “textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it.” Barr centers much of her criticism on late-20th-century evangelical movements, such as pastor Russell Moore’s insistence on the benefits of “Christian partriarchy” and a 1998 statement from Southern Baptist Convention that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the serrvant leadership of her husband.” Barr argues that, far from being a part of God’s plan, patriarchy is a sin, and the notion of “biblical womanhood” is a 20th-century artifact. “Historically,” Barr observes, “women have flourished as leaders, teachers, and preachers—even in the evangelical world.” This is a powerful work of skillful research and personal insight. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/15/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Spiritual Entrepreneurs: Florida’s Faith-based Prisons and the American Carceral State

Brad Stoddard. Univ. of North Carolina, $24.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-46966-308-1

In this vibrant study, Stoddard (Stereotyping Religion) unpacks the complex inner workings of Florida’s faith- and character-based correctional institutions, or FCBIs, facilities administered and funded by religious volunteers for approved prisoners. Stoddard argues that Christian programming “premised on neoliberal capitalism” predominates in FCBIs, and his attentive analysis also reveals unveils “multiple subcultures” in the institutions: there are evangelical chaplains swamped with paperwork, a Wiccan group of inmates that summons the demon Astaroth to protect them from Christian correctional officers, and “inmate facilitator” Ibraheem, who provides accountability to fellow Muslims: “You don’t see Allah... but you do see me, and I’m watching you as well.” One memorable profile is of volunteer Bob Rumbley, who once opposed the building of a prison in his neighborhood, but now teaches classes at an FCBI and runs “a Christian reentry home for formerly incarcerated men.” While Stoddard is highly critical of the ways in which the Christian right and policies of discipline and punishment dominate FCBIs, stories like that of Rumbley’s change of heart from a “tough-on-crime Christian” to volunteer advocating for prison reform brings a human touch to the proceedings. It’s an intelligent take on an under-the-radar niche in the American prison system, and one that will raise eyebrows with readers interested in the intersection of faith and justice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A New Christian Identity: Christian Science Origins and Experience in American Culture

Amy B. Voorhees. Univ. of North Carolina, $29.95 trade paper (328) ISBN 978-1-4696-6235-0

Independent scholar Voorhees debuts with an excellent study of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science Church. Voorhees argues that Christian Science blurs the lines traditionally used to understand religion in modern America by relying on pseudoscience and “healers” who claim to cure ailments (both physical and spiritual) with techniques based on Eddy’s 1875 Science and Health with Key to the Scripture. Voorhees establishes Eddy as a key figure in the religious life of America in the late 19th and early 20th century—and Christian Science as a pivotal shift away from mainstream denominations for many Christians who felt disenfranchised. While Voorhees meticulously details Eddy’s life, she focuses on the period between 1865 and 1900, when Eddy’s development of the dogmas of Christian Science followed her own “revelatory” healing from debilitating “nervous inflammation and digestive problems” diagnosed as “neuralgia of the spine and stomach.” Her conviction that Jesus had saved her launched her lifelong work to “find and explain the gospel truth operating on human individuality to effect the cure” of any ailment. Voorhees has done exceptional work among the archival and primary sources, including close comparison of the many editions of Science and Health. This definitive look establishes Eddy as a major figure in America’s faith history. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Unhindered Abundance: Restoring Our Souls in a Fragmented World

Ken Baugh. NavPress, $19.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-64158-194-3

In this informative guide, Baugh (The Quest for Christ), president of the Institute for Discipleship Training, shares the biblical principles that have helped him find greater joy and peace. After losing his job as a pastor for “lacking the leadership skills to take the church to the next level,” Baugh felt frustrated by his lack of spiritual growth. From that low point, Baugh expounds on the spiritual disciplines that brought him closer to God and helped heal his heart, such as seeking out solitude (when “we invite the Holy Spirit to examine our heart”), engaging in deep prayer, and practicing confession. He offers guidance on using scriptures to rewire negative thoughts, and examines gratitude as a motivational tool. A highlight is Baugh’s explanation of the three core components of “Christ-formation,” which requires Christians know scripture and the revelations of Christ, build relationships with other Christians, and “directly participate” in one’s faith community. In contemplative“Restoring My Soul with God” and “Restoring My Soul with Others” sections at the end of each chapter, he provides prompts for working through forgiveness or remembering key life events and the emotions they inspire. Christians who are feeling spiritually stuck will be drawn to Baugh’s useful suggestions. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone

James Martin. HarperOne, $27.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06264-323-0

Jesuit priest Martin (The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything) argues prayer is for people of all religious traditions and denominations in this astute work. While Martin acknowledges that prayer and similar practices can be a cathartic “way to unburden ourselves when we’re feeling sad, angry, stressed, or frustrated,” the goal of prayer should be to deepen one’s relationship with God. By examining rote prayer, petitionary prayer, and a variety of techniques unique to his Catholic tradition, he seeks to move the reader toward “conscious conversation with God.” Martin invites readers focus on the “emotions, insights, memories, desires, images, words, feelings, and mystical experiences” one might encounter while praying. When potentially knotty theologic material appears (such as the difference between apophatic and the kataphatic prayer), the author does an excellent job of explaining it in simple language. Martin does not privilege any single form of prayer over another and frames his suggestions as “practices and preferences rather than rules and regulations.” He also addresses common questions such as “What happens when we don’t get what we pray for?” and “What does it mean to ‘feel’ something in prayer?” Those wanting to deepen their prayer practice should take a look. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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