Christians are sometimes thought of as “answer people,” answers that may be simple or even simplistic. Three of the books in this month’s reviews focus on questions, and the paradoxical or upside-down character of Christian belief and practice. C. Christopher Smith’s new book on how the body of Christ talks explores how we get beyond the superficial “chat” that characterizes many of our churches. Another book, co-authored by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas exemplified that rich sort of conversation, and the inclusive hospitality that welcomes the mentally disabled. Alister McGrath’s book also contends that better conversations between theology and science result in a richer view of reality. Henry Reichman contends for “conversational” freedom in higher education in his defense of academic freedom. This month’s reviews also include my much-belated memoir of Malala Yousafzai, a study of one chapter in Ezekiel, biblical theology of death and the afterlife, Tommy Orange’s blockbuster novel, a classic Agatha Christie, and a wonderful collection of poetry.
The Future of Academic Freedom, Henry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university. Review
Death and the Afterlife (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Paul R. Williamson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. A discussion of the biblical texts concerning death and what follows: the state of the dead post-mortem, the resurrection, judgement, hell, and heaven. Review
I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. A memoir describing a Swat Valley family committed to education, including the education of girls, Malala’s shooting by a Taliban fighter, and her recovery from near death. Review
How the Body of Christ Talks, C. Christopher Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019. A discussion of how substantive conversation can be central to the growth and transformation of our churches and the people who are part of them, the ground rules and spiritual practices that enable such conversation, and how conversation might be sustained as conflict arises. Review
Saved By Grace Alone: Sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018. Fourteen sermons on Ezekiel 36:16-36, demonstrating from this text that salvation is by grace alone, due to our inability because of sin, and God’s loving initiative for his glory and our salvation. Review
Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936). Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was. Review
Live the Questions, Jeffrey F. Keuss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. Proposes that a deep and satisfying life is closely related to the questions we ask, how we pursue them, and to whom they lead us. Review
There There, Tommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. The narratives of twelve “Urban Indians” making their way with various motivations to a powwow in Oakland. Review
Living Gently in a Violent World, Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018. Essays by the two authors reflecting on the practice of gentleness in the L’Arche communities where assistants and the disabled live in community, and the theological and political significance of this witness in a violent world. Review
The Power of Christian Contentment, Andrew M. Davis. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019. A biblical study of Christian contentment, exploring in what it consists, how it may be found and learned, the great value of contentment, and how contentment is sustained in one’s life. Review
Don’t Knock the Hustle, S. Craig Watkins. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019. An investigation of the ways young entrepreneurs are combining tech savvy, hard work, and social capital to create the careers, with a special focus on the inclusion of under-represented populations in tech fields including women and people of color. Review
Surprised by Paradox, Jen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019. In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity. Review
The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry, Jane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019. A collection of the poetry of Jane Tyson Clement, a member of the Bruderhof Community, interleaved with biography and comments by musician Becca Stevens, who has set several of Clement’s works to music. Review
Enriching our Vision of Reality, Alister McGrath. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2017 The natural sciences and Christian theology can enrich each other’s understanding of reality and help us better understand this strange world in which we find ourselves. Guest Review
Upside-Down Spirituality, Chad Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019. Highlights nine areas in which Christian faith turns cultural conventions on their head, turning the world “upside-down.” Review
Best of the Month: The Heart’s Necessities: A Life in Poetry traces the life of Jane Tyson Clement through her exquisite poetry which explores the matters and longings of the heart, from her growing love for the man who would be her husband to her love of nature offering glimpses of the transcendent. I’m trying to read more poetry and this was a wonderful book, enriched by the reflections of musician Becca Stevens, and gorgeous photography.
Quote of the Month. A rival for my best of the month was Vanier and Hauerwas’s Living Gently in a Violent World. I thought this quote by Vanier summarized with simplicity and beauty the profound work of the L’Arche Communities:
“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence” (p. 69).
Current reads and upcoming reviews. I just finished David Lyle Jeffrey’s Scripture and The English Poetic Imagination, a collection of Jeffrey’s essays showing the profound influence of the poetry of scripture on poetry in English from the 8th century to the present. It is coincidence that I picked up Presidents at War by Michael Beschloss as our current president has engaged in brinkmanship that could lead to war with Iran. One theme is that Americans have granted extraordinary powers, both foreign and domestic, to presidents during war, something that gives me great pause. Priscilla by Ben Witherington III is an imaginative rendering of the story of this significant woman in the New Testament, casting light on the persecution of Christians, the ministry of Paul, and everyday life in the Roman world. Balm in Gilead is indeed balm for any lover (including yours truly) of the work of Marilynne Robinson. It reflects papers given at the Wheaton Theology Conference in 2018, and includes an interview and a discussion with Robinson. Finally, I’ve seen a lot of acclaim for the debut effort of fantasy author R. F. Kuang in The Poppy War. I’ll let you know if it lives up to its press for me.
To cold drinks, a shady spot with a good breeze, and a good summer read!