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Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon

William L. Davis. Univ. of North Carolina, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-46965-566-6

Davis, an independent scholar, successfully depicts in his engrossing debut the sociocultural milieu of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and the 1829 creation of the Book of Mormon. Davis explores 19th-century composition techniques for sermons and speeches, such as the practice of “laying heads” (a brief oral outline) or using “concealed outlines” (limits for any given topic), and argues that the Book of Mormon, created from transcriptions, is “one of the longest recorded oral performances in the history of the United States.” Rejecting the idea that Smith was uneducated, Davis paints a picture of him as a man of pastoral appeal, trained as a lay Methodist “exhorter” in a time of religious revival and burgeoning new religious movements. Davis claims that Smith “preached the Book of Mormon as much as he composed it” and demonstrates how the Book of Mormon must be seen within the wider context of premeditative, semi-extemporaneous Protestant preaching during the period. At the same time, Davis takes pains to respect that Smith believed the Book of Mormon was written with “divine inspiration and guidance.” Readers interested in Mormon studies or mid-19th-century American religions will be enlightened by Davis’s thorough analysis. (May)

Reviewed on 02/21/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Way of Gratitude: A New Spirituality for Today

Galen Guengerich. Random House, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-525-51141-0

Guengerich (God Revised), senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York, speaks to “spiritual but not religious” readers seeking meaning, joy, and transcendence, in this well-reasoned manifesto for a spirituality based on gratitude. The author draws on his experience—he left the Conservative Mennonite Church in which he was raised—as well as stories from his congregants in constructing a system of beliefs and practices based on prayer, personal relationships, and “shared human dignity” that move one beyond “what we need or want, maybe what we hope to get away with—to the awareness that we are part of a larger whole.” For Guengerich, “the longing for a comprehensive sense of meaning and a deep sense of purpose... remains unmet by secularism.” To fill this gap, he proposes that gratitude can provide connections, create beauty, and maximize human dignity. The author also borrows from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to answer basic theological questions about why things happen, for example, how does the history of religion inform one’s understanding of God? “When I use the term God,” Guengerich writes, “I do so in this sense—as the experience of ultimate belonging... God is the experience of possibility.” At the end, he follows his more abstract considerations with concrete suggestions for meditation and fasting. This deceptively simple work will appeal to spiritual explorers of any stripe. (May)

Reviewed on 02/21/2020 | Details & Permalink

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For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion in a Shattered World

Emily M.D. Scott. Convergent, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-593-13557-0

Lutheran pastor Scott asks in her exceptional debut: if you strip from church all “the creeds and the chasubles,” what would be left? The answer, for her, became St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York City, which she founded in 2008 as a place for queer, marginalized, artistic, nerdy, and often lonely lovers of God to gather for bread, wine, and the words of Jesus. At Scott’s “dinner church,” everyone is involved in cooking and cleaning, and whoever arrives is provided with “holy food for holy people,” as Scott likes to put it. She details daily foibles and moments of inspiration that come with working with her congregation, including early years when she conducted services in a friend’s apartment, Christmas caroling adventures, and establishing a permanent home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Scott’s writing is leavened by a healthy dose of self-awareness, and her stories capture the humanity of her mission and community with a light sacramental touch, focusing mostly on the joy and solidarity found in the shared space. Fine observations (“We are holy not because we are good but because we are loved”) and the terrific use of quotes from Joy Harjo, Pablo Neruda, and Flannery O’Connor guide readers through Scott’s life within the church. Those who delight in the voices of Nadia Bolz-Weber, Katie Hayes, and Rachel Held Evans will welcome this powerful work. (May)

Reviewed on 02/21/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Better Life: Slowing Down to Get Ahead

Rebecca Smith. Zondervan, $18.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-310-35757-5

Smith, founder of Better Life Bags, a Detroit company that recruits employees from low-employment communities, debuts with a marvelous ode to grace and empathy. When Smith first moved into Hamtramck, Mich., she struggled to find her place, doubting if she could ever feel at home there. But she learned to “stand down” and wait for God’s direction even when her inner turmoil demanded that she take action: “I’ve realized through this waltz of moving and swaying and standing that God was then—and is today—orchestrating a wonderful and beautiful and amazing path to my dreams and desires.” Smith recounts how her business started as an Etsy shop selling custom handbags and, as it grew, she made it a point to hire women of different faiths, backgrounds, and circumstances. Drawing from the lessons she has learned, she emphasizes the importance of small beginnings on effecting change at a larger scale and explains that it is not necessary to know the end results before taking the first step. She reminds readers that God has a plan for their lives that doesn’t require striving or hustling. This uplifting memoir will encourage Christian readers to slow down and appreciate life in the moment. (May)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Five Archetypes: Discover Your True Nature and Transform Your Life and Relationships

Carey Davidson. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 trade paper (288) ISBN 978-1-9821-4171-4

Holistic health teacher Davidson provides a framework for living a more mindful and fulfilling life in this comprehensive analysis of five archetypes of behavior. Originating in traditional Chinese medicine, the five archetypes correlate with natural elements and are intended to allow people to tap into the nature of their strengths, challenges, motivations, and preoccupations. Wood represents the trailblazer who encourages people to change; Fire, the optimist who entertains people; Earth, the caregiver who is a teacher and supporter; Metal, the architect who is considerate; and Water, the philosopher who is shy and seeks meaning. Davidson provides instructions on performing a self-assessment to determine one’s primary and secondary archetypes, then explains strengths, needs, and relationship-building activities for each. For example, Fire types are glass-half-full spiritualists who are emotionally aware, while Water types focus on wisdom and problem solving but are also skeptics. Readers well-versed in mindfulness exercises and Chinese medicine will be most interested in these pragmatic exercises for making lasting life improvements. Agent: Jane von Mehren, Aevitas Creative Management. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Beikirch, Medal of Honor Recipient

Marcus Brotherton. WaterBrook, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-525-65378-3

Brotherton (Tough as They Come) relates the story of Medal of Honor recipient Gary Beikirch, who went from aimless teen to wounded soldier to man of faith, in this riveting biography. Beikirch came of age during the 1960s before enlisting in the Army and training to become a Green Beret. He was deployed in 1970 as a medic in Dak Seang, a Vietnamese mountain village, and was severely wounded during a firefight, but continued to render aid to his fellow soldiers, and rescued one from an exposed location while under heavy fire. After being sent home, he underwent treatment for the gunshot wounds he’d suffered. His journey to faith in Christ began with a chaplain’s care, and, as he struggled with what is now recognized as PTSD, he began to turn to the comfort of God to guide his mental recovery. Only after retreating to the Appalachian wilderness was he able to heal and discover his calling to minister to fellow veterans. Brotherton relies heavily on Beikirch’s personal recollections and collaboration, bringing an intense immediacy to the narrative. This gripping story of courage, honor, and faith will appeal broadly, both to readers interested in war accounts as well as those seeking an affecting tale of recovery and redemption. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Confessions of a Gay Priest: A Memoir of Sex, Love, Abuse, and Scandal in the Catholic Seminary

Tom Rastrelli. Univ. of Iowa, $19.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-60938-709-9

Rastrelli, a former Catholic priest, recounts in this fraught debut memoir his struggles with sexuality, mental health, and disappointing leadership. As a student and aspiring actor at the University of Northern Iowa, Rastrelli had given up Catholicism until a sermon by the campus priest Scott Bell blindsides him with a sense of being called. He begins to pursue ordination in the mid-1990s, and Bell’s mercurial, demanding affections morph into an ambivalent sexual relationship. Concurrently, Rastrelli begins an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against a pediatrician who he claims sexually abused him. Leaving Iowa, Rastrelli finds new friends and real joy at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, though he often overworks himself to avoid confronting his sexuality. There, he describes a guilt-laden sexual relationship with a fellow priest on the cusp of his ordination. Rastrelli’s ordination in 2002 coincides with the exposure of the Boston clergy sex-abuse scandal, and his mental health deteriorates after moving back to Iowa, with hefty pastoral duties and an emotionally abusive, hard-drinking supervising priest. Though the writing is stylish and smooth, the narrative sometimes drags with too much frivolous detail and disappointingly skips over his decision to leave the priesthood. This forceful memoir will immerse readers in the strain of priesthood and the difficulties of living a double life. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Allah: God in the Qur’an

Gabriel Said Reynolds. Yale Univ., $30 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-0-300-24658-2

Reynolds (The Qur’an and the Bible), professor of Islamic studies at Notre Dame, tackles the character of God as detailed in the Qur’an, revealing a forceful but highly merciful entity in this astute analysis. Starting with comparisons between the biblical God and the Qur’anic God—going so far as to call the Qur’an a “homily”—Reynolds expounds deeply upon the nature of Allah. Reynolds is chiefly concerned with examining the tensions between justice and mercy; Allah’s interventions with mankind, whether blessing the righteous or leading unbelievers astray; and the purpose of heaven and hell within Islam. To illustrate his points, Reynolds quotes extensively from the Qur’an, but also bolsters his arguments with extra-scriptural commentary from the Muslim tradition, and acknowledges notable debates where original texts are ambiguous. With lucid prose and impressive erudition, Reynolds provides a distinctive approach for reading scripture, organized around a literary investigation of a central question, such as is the character of the God in the Bible the same as the God of the Qur’an? This capable, fresh work of history and theology will be of interest to scholars of the Qur’an or scriptural interpretation more generally. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/14/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The 21 Divisions: Mysteries and Magic of Dominican Voodoo

Hector Salva. Weiser, $18.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-57863-681-5

Dominican voodoo priest Salva brings to lay readers his vast knowledge of his Las 21 Divisiones (or the 21 Divisions) practice in this comprehensive work. Salva shares the history, beliefs, knowledge, and rituals of the 21 Divisions (a syncretic Caribbean voodoo), which was originally passed down orally to “a group of elevated and Divine beings known as Misterios.” The 21 Divisions believe in a monotheistic God whose eminence emerges through the material world and Misterios. Only Brujos (initiates, such as Salva) can connect with and act as conduits for the Misterios. Readers learn how Spanish colonialism, slavery, and Catholicism contributed to the 21 Divisions and the traces of Catholicism that remain in the practice. Salva delves into eight divisions (realms of the spiritual world), including two from the major divisions: Black (the death and ancestral division) and Blue (the water division). The book’s sensual anecdotes and stories of rituals and well-known Brujos create intimacy and resonance, but uneven pacing and the large amounts of information conveyed slow the reading experience. Despite this, Salva brings forth Dominican voodoo’s beauty and complexity. Readers interested in voodoo or wanting to learn more about world religions will enjoy. (May)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Seven Transforming Gifts of Menopause: An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

Cheryl Bridges Johns. Brazos, $17.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-5874-3439-6

Johns (Pentecostal Formation), a professor at Pentecostal Theological Seminary, takes a theological approach to menopause in this encouraging study. She argues that menopause is a developmental process that opens the door to the later stages of a woman’s life, bringing what she calls “gifts” and opportunities for growth and fulfillment. She weaves together findings from science about the biochemistry of menopause with observations from such thinkers as Christiane Northrup and Carol Gilligan. That forms the backdrop for the stories she tells about herself and other women going through the “storm of perimenopause” and all that ensues. She recommends “leaning into the storm” of hormones and emotions by opening the door to repressed memories, allowing oneself to grieve, enlisting support of others, acknowledging any feelings of depression, allowing oneself to ask “what if?” questions, and finally forgiving oneself and others. Johns’s strength is her candid and pastoral storytelling, making this powerful book stand out as a treatment of the spirituality of menopause among the many medical manuals that describe this time of life. The author’s frame of reference will be most familiar to more conservative evangelical Christian readers, but any Christian reader confronting menopause will find much in Johns’s reassuring advice. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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