Review: The Inconvenient Gospel

The Inconvenient Gospel (Plough Spiritual Guides), Clarence Jordan, edited by Frederick L. Downing, Introduction by Starlette Thomas. Walden, NY: Plough Books, 2022.

Summary: A collection of the talks and writings of Clarence Jordan, rooted in the teaching of Jesus, drawing out the radical implications this has for war, wealth disparity, civil rights, and true community.

I’ve known of Clarence Jordan for many years but it wasn’t until this collection of his writings crossed my path that I read him. I knew he was a Baptist preacher in the south, that he wrote his own paraphrase of the gospels, The Cotton Patch Gospels, and that he helped form an integrated farming community, Koinonia Farms, in the face of great opposition. One can learn all this and more in Frederick Downing’s fine introduction to this collection.

What I learned in reading this collection was that here was a man who really was formed more by his reading of the gospels than the culture and I think this comes through in every piece in this collection. He makes this radical claim in the first piece, “Impractical Christianity”: “For Christianity is not a system you work–it is a Person who works you. You don’t get it; he gets you.” In “The Meaning of Christian Fellowship,” he elaborates the meaning of koinonia: common ownership, distribution according to need, and the complete equality and freedom of every believer. In “What is the Word of God,” he emphasizes the priority of the living Word and that scripture must never be a prison for the living Word but rather a witness to him. He forcefully challenges White Supremacy in “White Southern Christians and Race” by contending 1) there is no scientific basis for inferiority or superiority of any race over the other, 2) there is no biblical evidence that God has favorite children, and 3) differences are differences, not signs of superiority or inferiority.

“No Promised Land without the Wilderness” sets out the challenge every true leader of God’s people will face–criticism when things are harder or don’t go the way people expected. In his talk at Goshen College on the Ten Commandments, he stresses the idea that the laws were given out of love–that we not so much break laws but break ourselves upon them. He emphasizes, in “Jesus, Leader of the Poor,” the kind of king Jesus was in sitting on a “mule whereon no man had ever sat,” humorously remarking on his own attempts to sit on such a mule, concluding that he was still “a mule whereon no man had ever sat”! Yet Jesus sits on this lowly yet recalcitrant animal. In “Love Your Enemies,” he recounts a confrontation with the insults of a segregationist with whom he could have easily mopped the floor. Asked why he didn’t, he said that he was trying to obey the command to love his enemies–or at least do him no harm, leading to a conversation on what it means to be a Christian.

“Jesus and Possessions” talks about the distorting power of possessions over us. “Metamorphosis” speaks of the transforming power of the gospel, one that takes two people who would have been at each other’s throats, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot and turns them into brothers. In “The Man from Gadara,” he explores how this demoniac could have come to lose his own self to a legion of demons. He raises questions about societal hypocrisy–why pigs in a land where no one is supposed to eat pigs?–and raises questions about teaching children not to kill and then sending them to war, and what that does to one, anticipating the traumas of PTSD we see with so many war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Things Needed for our Peace” was a talk given four weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and draws on Jesus’ words approaching Jerusalem, speaking to the needs for racial humility, for an understanding of violence, and that Christian faithfulness may lead, not to success, but the cross, and, if we survive, to a new attitude of servanthood and identification with the hurts of others.

The last in this collection, “The Humanity of God,” returns to the person of Jesus, the concern of Jordan throughout his ministry. He speaks of the attempts of Mary and his earthly family to control him and Mary’s relinquishment of Jesus at the cross, allowing him fully, and finally, to be about his Father’s business. From start to finish, the pieces in this collection face us with the uniqueness of Christ as fully God and human, his authority, and flowing from that his radical call for those who would follow.

This book is part of the Plough Spiritual Guides series. This, as well as the others acquaint us with the best of spiritual reading, which is always to take us into the heart of God to see both great love and unequaled authority. They remind us that there are really only two ways to live and that we can’t have it both ways and that the only good way is the way of the good news, as strange from a worldly view, as it seems. Jordan reminds us that it is both strange and good.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Nursing Home Murder

The Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn #3). New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (originally published in 1935).

Summary: The Home Secretary collapses of acute appendicitis during a speech on a key bill against radicals and is taken to a private hospital of an old doctor friend for emergency surgery, dying under suspicious circumstances soon after the operation.

Spoiler notice: The review includes a plot summary, without giving away the conclusion.

The Home Secretary, O’Callaghan, has put the final touches on a bill against anarchists and the Prime Minister’s cabinet is ready to press it forward. It will be dangerous for O’Callaghan, who will lead the effort. People have been assassinated for less. But O’Callaghan is fighting enemies on other fronts. He is suffering from the symptoms of appendicitis but is trying to gut it out until passage of the bill. Then there is the woman he’d had a sexual liaison with. Both were approaching it with a progressive attitude, except the woman, Jane Harden, cannot. She has fallen in love and written both touchingly and threateningly in several letters. Then a doctor friend, Sir John Phillips, who runs a private hospital nearby (the “nursing home” of the title) visits, not knowing O’Callaghan is ailing, and confronts him about the affair with Jane Harden, who is his theater nurse, and with whom he is in love. Jane will not consider him, having “given herself” to O’Callaghan. The meeting concludes unsatisfactorily, Phillips warning him, “You do well to keep clear of me” and threatening if he has the opportunity to “put him out of the way.”

His hypochondriac sister Ruth tries to help, pressing on him various patent medicines from her pharmacist friend as he tries to ignore the pain and get the bill through. Lady Callaghan remains more distant, not unsympathetic but letting him do what he must. But when he gets up to make a major speech on the bill, he collapses and under Lady O’Callaghan’s direction, unaware of the recent confrontation, is taken to Dr. Phillips hospital. He diagnoses a burst appendix, requiring immediate surgery. He wants to get another surgeon but Lady O’Callaghan insists he operate.

Dr. Philips is assisted by Dr. Thoms, an eccentric anesthetist Roberts, Sister Marigold, the head nurse, Nurse Banks a gruff nurse active in communist agitation and outspoken in her antipathy for O’Callaghan, and Nurse Harden. Various injections, including hyoscine, used for abdominal pain, are given. Phillips personally prepares the hyoscine injection and administers it. The operation comes off but O’Callaghan’s pulse is weak, his condition worsens and he dies shortly after.

It was thought this was due to the neglect of the appendicitis but Lady O’Callaghan suspects foul play, having come into possession of the letters from Jane Harden and learned from O’Callaghan’s personal secretary, Jameson, that Phillips had spoken threateningly to O’Callaghan. She speaks to Alleyn, who had been handling security on a discrete basis for the Home Secretary, and he is persuaded there is credible cause for an autopsy and inquest. The coroner finds he’d received on overdose of the hyoscine, enough to easily kill him.

Beyond the obvious suspect, Dr. Phillips, Alleyn must consider a host of possibilities. Jane Harden certainly had motive. Nurse Banks hated what O’Callaghan stood for and was active in the communist party. Was she part of a plot to kill him? Roberts was also at the party meeting. Dr. Thoms happened to talk about the lethal dose of hyoscine. Was Ruth an unwitting accomplice in his death? What was in the patent medicines mixed by the pharmacist, who also happened to be part of the local communist party?

In addition to the intrepid Fox, Alleyn draws upon the help of his newspaper friend Bathgate and his girlfriend Angela, who help with a bit of undercover work at a party meeting. None of this seems to bring him closer to the killer, although Alleyn has growing suspicions, until a fluke event exposes the killer.

This is classic Marsh–a host of suspects, an effort to follow movements to see who really had motive, means, and opportunity, with a lot of cogitating with Fox and Bathgate. It can seem a bit formulaic at times, although I’ve always liked the books with Bathgate. But formulas can be like recipes, it’s the little “extras” that keep the dish from being ho-hum. The batty siater, Ruth, the crusty communist, Nurse Banks, the eccentric Roberts with his crazy theories, and the noble Roberts who we so want not to be guilty and to find love with Nurse Harden, that makes it all interesting.

Review: Cultivating Mentors

Cultivating Mentors, Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds., foreword by Mark R. Schwehn. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A collection of articles on the theological foundations, goals, and practices of mentoring in Christian higher education with a particular focus on generational dynamics.

Higher education institutions interested in both academic excellence and faculty and staff retention are paying increased attention to mentoring, particularly of junior faculty and staff. This is especially true of the Christian college context out of which the contributors of this volume write but many of their observations and recommended practices have applicability in the secular academy as well.

The collection opens with a foreword by Mark R. Schwehn, one of the most thoughtful commentators on academic life. He observes that in the present moment the differences between mentors and mentees offers the opportunities for mutual learning around technology and various forms of diversity. In the present era, concerns about mentoring in the context of diversity and inclusion are vital in welcoming increasingly diverse faculties .

The editors then offer an introductory essay laying out the emphases of this collection: attention to characteristics of the rising generation as they relate to mentoring, what the Christian tradition offers in terms of mentoring and the academic vocation, and the ideas and practices that follow for mentoring in scholarly contexts.

David Kinnaman, utilizing Barna research, stresses mentoring as a crucial formation process, addressing mentoring solutions for mental health, for trauma, mentoring toward vocational discipleship, and relational mentoring.

Tim Clydesdale writes on leading integrated lives and the role mentoring can play in navigating personal and professional commitments. He focuses on vocation and stresses reflection, practice, and community and the role these play in the “summoning” of vocation.

Margaret Diddams observes that in mentoring, the focus on the individual needs to be complemented with focus on the organization of which they are part and how they might flourish within that context. She examines three models of mentoring in the organizational context and their strengths and weaknesses: the institutional, the interactionist, and the inclusion models, concluding that an approach that draws on all of these may be best.

Edgardo Colón-Emeric focuses on the increasingly diverse academy and how we mentor toward a new we. He highlights the pilgrimage of pain and hope that is the mestizaje experience in transcultural engagement.

Rebecca C. Hong considers the transition that we are in the midst of from boomers to zoomers with a focus on the increasing human-centeredness of work, including the end of the office, home as work place, and the challenges of burnout, languishing, and the great resignation that have been consequences of the pandemic. She then returns to a focus on human-centered work design that values persons, nurturing flexibility, creativity, and innovation.

Tim Elmore explores generational differences and the intentional practices involved in mentoring with shortened attention spans, the dangers of being isolated behind screens, the prevalence of mental health issues, the changing landscape of technology, and the consumer experience. He argues for the cultivation of resourcefulness and resilience with mentees and suggests different forms of mentoring and crucial experiences that foster these qualities.

Beck A. Taylor discusses lifecycle mentoring across one’s academic career reflecting on his own journey from his undergraduate preparation, graduate school mentorship, his early academic career, his move into administration, and his path to university presidency. Beyond personal character, he believes rising leaders are marked by mission orientation, service to others, professional intentionality, and openness to mentorship.

Stacy A. Hammons concludes with a summary of key threads and important practices. She summarizes key challenges and five propositions addressing a theology of formation and calling, organizational change for effective mentoring, the recognition of the needs of Millenials and Gen Zers entering the academy, the needs of professionals transitioning to academic roles, and seriously addressing issues of diversity.

I appreciate the comprehensive and culturally relevant mix of articles in this collection addressing the theology of mentoring around vocation and formation, the institutional setting, the academic lifecycle, the particular characteristics and needs of those entering academic professions, and the vital issue of diversity. I think something more on the qualities of the effective mentor, and perhaps a bit more on what mentees should expect to invest in a good mentoring relationship would be helpful. Beck Taylor’s essay discusses this to some degree, but my own sense is the effective relationships occur when both come as active learners and listeners. I also think that material on finding mentors when one’s institution has not structured such opportunities could be valuable. However, this is an excellent, far-reaching discussion that points people to other writing while offering a number of practical recommendations on both the personal and institutional level.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Deluge

The Deluge, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

Summary: A novel imagining the interaction of accelerating impacts of climate change and the unraveling of societies.

I should say at the outset that there are a number of reasons not to read this book:

  • It’s long–880 pages
  • It’s scary, because it reads like our news feeds on steroids–both in accounts of extreme weather and other climate change impacts and societal unraveling.
  • It involves movement back and forth in narrating the lives and actions of a disparate set of characters, all a part of a growing crisis intermixed with collages of news articles, fictional op-ed columns, and magazine articles. It’s not always easy to keep track of it all.
  • It’s raw with graphic descriptions of violence, of various iterations of sex, and adult language.

Yet, despite all this, I could not put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it. The lead character in this book is really our planet–its ice sheets, its oceans, its atmosphere, and its weather. Markley portrays in vivid detail the extreme weather events we already are seeing–in even greater extremes. Unprecedented snow storms. An atmospheric river flooding California (certainly written before the recent actual weather events). Monstrous hurricanes with 250 mph winds. Fires that destroy Los Angeles. Sea levels inundating coastal cities. Midwest flooding. Triple digit heat domes a routine summer event. Melting permafrost and ocean floors releasing methane, leading to cascading increases in global warming.

The novel moves between the stories of a collection of characters. A passionate environmentalist, Kate Morris, founds a creative movement, Fierce Blue Fire, starting both local community development groups and a national lobbying effort to pass environmental legislation, ultimately gutted by carbon interests. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of Matt, her partner in an “open” relationship–the terms dictated by Kate. Tony Pietrus, is a scientist who discovers and models what happens when underwater methane is released through oceanic warming. Then there is the Pastor, a has-been actor who undergoes a conversion and becomes a religious alt-right charismatic figure who eventually runs for president as a tool of the carbon lobby. Jackie is a savvy ad exec, who crafts the media strategy that guts the climate legislation Kate had fought so hard for who goes on to join her partner, Fred, in building a global investment fund leveraging the changing energy and social situation to make lots of money for investors at the expense of the world’s poor–until she regains a conscience. There is a group of climate radicals, 6Degrees, committed to using violent means to stop big coal and corporate America that through compartmented protocols and infiltration of computer networks, evades detection while staging a series of increasingly violent bombings. Keeper, an ex-addict trying to put his life back together with the help of an immigrant pastor in a small town community and gets swept up in 6 Degrees activity. And there is Ashir, who writes memoranda to a congressperson that are really personal narratives. He is a brilliant analyst and mathematician whose predictive algorithm ends up being exploited by everything from sports betting to the investment fund Jackie and her partner, Fred, manage.

All of these characters’ stories unfold against the backdrop of an unraveling country. States seceding, An irreconcilably divided political environment controlled by powerful lobbies. A tanking economy. Food and power shortages. Increasingly violent and aggressive militias. And a similarly unraveling international situation. A series of “martyrdoms” lead to what seems an awakening and embrace of the actions needed to stabilize an ever-warming world, but one requiring generations of brave effort to do so.

While one might find faults with the book, its length, structure, and character development, I thought it all worked in the end. I found myself actually caring about many of the people. As I said, I couldn’t put it down. And it made me ask the question–could all this really happen? I find myself very troubled by the fact that I have no good argument to say, “it can’t happen here?” A society that threatens public health and political officials over wearing a piddly little face mask during a highly infectious pandemic strikes me as ill-prepared or disposed to enact radical and long term societal-wide changes to reduce global warming. Despite all we know and all the talk about energy-saving and renewables our U.S. carbon emissions went UP 1.3 percent in the last year.

Can fiction speak to what all our white papers and models have not? What Markley does is take a holistic look at what happens to a society when increasingly extreme weather disrupts the fabric of our lives on an increasingly pervasive scale. The picture isn’t pretty. He bids us to look into the abyss. While some act with nobility and courage, for many others, the worst nature dishes out brings out the worst in humans. He raises profound questions about whether our democratic republic can survive these stresses. There are indications that he hangs on to hope even while portraying how challenging the world will be for our children and grand-children. And perhaps that is where we need to be–both clear-eyed, and passionately hopeful. Lord have mercy!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi. New York: Random House, 2016.

Summary: The memoir of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgery resident who becomes a patient when receiving a diagnosis of state IV metastatic lung cancer, the ways he and his wife respond at various stages, the care he receives, and his reflections on his illness and impending death.

You are a talented neurosurgery chief resident with a focus on research with brilliant job prospects ahead. It’s been a long journey from Kingman, Arizona, that began with avoiding embracing his father’s profession of medicine. Studies in both English literature and biology confront you with varying answers about the meaningful life, and avenues to pursue such a life. In the end, you come back, not only to medicine but neurosurgery, as you recognize how inextricably human consciousness, one’s “soul” is connected to the structures and functions of the brain. You subject yourself to the rigors of long days, developing precision in the surgical skills critical to his sense of calling. You are close to completion…and then. There is the persistent cough. The fatigue. The weight loss. The back pain growing more acute. Your mind goes to cancer but earlier X-rays didn’t reveal anything. Maybe it’s just the strain of the work. Until a visit to friends reveals how much you are in pain and fatigue. And you voice your fears.

The prologue of the book opens with Paul Kalanithi and his wife Lucy, also a resident, looking at CT scans of tumors in lungs, spine, and liver. From a hospital bed. As a patient. Preparing to meet his doctor. The narrative breaks off here to recap the journey that brought Paul to this residency, the advance of his skills, his hopes, and the strains on his marriage, much outlined “above. He recounts learning to treat his patients as people. One way he articulates this is when he says, “Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.”

Now as patient, his own doctor, Emma Howard, asks him the same questions. It is not only the character of his cancer, but his own character, that will shape his course of treatment, and, just as no two cancers are alike, so there are no two people who can answer these questions in quite the same way. Does he want to try to return to work? Or step away? What does he value. He could live six months, two years, or even ten years. His physician refuses to say, focusing on next steps and what Paul values. He wrestles with how one makes decisions about such things. At first he thought this was the end of it all. And then a drug, Tarceva, shrank his tumors and he regained strength–enough to return to surgery and finish his residency. Do he and Lucy have a child using the sperm they had banked before he began treatment?

Kalanithi takes us through the journey so many cancer patients with metastatic cancer go through. The promising results from a drug…until it stops working. The rigors of chemo, temporarily stopping tumor growth, but nearly killing. The decisions of how long to go on, and how to spend the time that remains. A significant moment is when he relinquishes being the consulting physician and relinquishes his care to Dr. Howard. Paul chooses to write this memoir, and spend time with Lucy and his baby daughter and family…until the cancer takes him. His last words? “I’m ready.”

All but the epilogue was written by Paul. He had helped patients face death. Now he had to figure out how to do that himself–to face death with integrity. He turned to the literature he loved, references to which run through the work. This is such a good and important book. One not to wait to read until facing a diagnosis like Paul’s. We already know we will die–even if we are in denial. What was important was for him to answer the questions of meaning and value that would enable him to make most of the time remaining–whatever the length of that time. And so it is for all of us.

Review: Garden City

Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human, John Mark Comer. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

Summary: An argument that our work is an important aspect of what it means for us to be human, setting our work in the context of the arc of God’s work taking humanity from the garden to the new garden city in the new creation.

I’ve often heard it emphasized that we are human beings rather than human doings. John Mark Comer challenges this truism in Garden City. He contends that what we do is a vital aspect of what it means for us to be human. What he proceeds to do is offer a theology of work within the arc of God’s redemptive purposes. And he does so in a conversational series of chapters that read like blog posts to millenials.

The first part of this book concerns our work. We were created kings and queens, partners with God in ruling over his world. He placed the first humans in a place called Delight–Eden. It’s an untamed wilderness and God bids them “make a world.” So how do we discern God’s calling in this “world-making” calling. He suggests a series of questions: what do you love? what are you good at? what does your world need? what does your world need? does it make the world a more garden-like place? Then he challenges the idea of the sacred/secular split. He observes that in Hebrew, there is no word for spiritual–it’s all spiritual and matters to God, and all may reflect the glory of God. And this leads to working with excellence. Yet work isn’t always what we would hope for it. Instead of ruling over the serpent, Adam and Eve allow the serpent to rule over them. And one of the consequences is the curse that falls on work, which becomes hard, sometimes futile, sometimes frustrating but also drives us to God.

The second part of the book is about rest. We were not made to work all the time. God rested. We rest. God is the anti-Pharaoh. The Exodus restores a day of rest to former slaves never permitted to rest and becomes a day celebrating God’s deliverance. Sabbath is made for us. And it points us toward the future.

The future is the focus of part three. It is not a return to the garden but an advance to the garden city of the new creation. Following N.T. Wright, Comer writes about life after heaven, life in the new creation in God’s new garden city as resurrected people. Comer discusses the hope that it will not all burn up, that the works done to God’s glory will endure into the new creation–a motivation to God honoring excellence. And greatness in this world is turned upside down. The giving of a cold glass of water may outshine seemingly heroic acts. The big thing is answering the call of the king.

I mentioned the conversational character of Comer’s writing style. But this is not theology-lite. Comer offers as substantive a theology of work, of rest, of calling, and of our destiny as I’ve read in far more abstruse works. He advances ideas and gives us space to ponder and absorb them. He is one who allows a few words to do the work of many. This is a “back list” book and I have noticed from his website that he has several he has published since. Because of this book, I’ll try to read them if I get the chance.

Review: Hardness of Heart

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature, Charles B. Puskas. Eugene, Cascade Books, 2022.

Summary: A study of the words and texts in which they are used referring to hardness of heart holding in tension both the refusal to heed God and the purpose of God in the hardening of hearts.

In reading the Exodus narratives, we read both that Pharaoh hardens his heart and that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. There is both a what seems a purposive failure to communicate and a willful refusal and resistance to what is communicated. We want to ask which is it? Charles B. Puskas shows that this is a pattern that recurs both in many Old and New Testament texts. Later in the Old Testament, it is Israel that is hardened. In the New Testament, there is a similar phenomenon with the hearers of Jesus who see but do not see, hear but do not hear. At times, even the disciples hearts are hard, but do not remain so. Later, the apostle Paul speaks in Romans of the hardening of the Jews until the full number of Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:26).

Puskas takes us through a careful study of the words used and the various texts in both literary and historical context, looking at both the world behind the texts and their reception, and subsequent interpretation. One of the observations he makes is that hardness is not limited to hearts, but also to ears, eyes, face and forehead, neck, shoulder, and back. He considers the question of what hope there is for the hard of heart with a God who would have none perish. And he wrestles with the questions of free will and predestination.

What I appreciate in this study is that Puskas conclusion is that we see both human willful refusal and failure of communication that reflects the hardening purpose of God. He cites the work of John Feinberg arguing for free will within divine causation. He also points out that it is God who takes away hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, that is, receptive hearts. Hardening as God’s purpose is to fulfill his saving purposes, whether it is the deliverance of Israel, or later the salvation of Gentiles. But Puskas never resolves the tension between free will and predestination with regard to hardening, Do humans harden their hearts? Does God? Puskas would say “yes.”

In an appendix, he discusses Romans 9-11 further and advances the argument of Robert Jenson against supersessionism–“the idea ‘that the church succeeds Israel in such a fashion as to displace from the status of God’s people those Jews who do not enter the church.’ ” He concludes with his own translation of Romans 11:17-18 as the Jews being “some of the branches [were] bent down.” The tone and inference here is an irenic one of hopefulness for Israel with deep regard for honest and respectful dialogue.

This work, derived from a doctoral thesis, is a careful piece of scholarship. I appreciate Puskas’ restraint in being governed by the textual evidence, as complex as this may be. In the end, he reminds us of our utter dependence on the sovereign purposes and great mercy of a God who not only may harden a heart but also make it receptive.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: This Day

This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013.

Summary: A compilation of several volumes of Berry’s sabbath poems.

We learn in the preface and introduction to these poems that they were composed by Wendell Berry during his Sabbaths, which he observed each Sunday. He tells us that many of them were written out of doors. Some of the poems even record Berry reclining in the woods near his home and falling asleep. Some, as the introductory poem suggests, were written looking out the window from his study, looking down the sloping property that is his farm to the river that flows into the Ohio.

He records the work of caring for the healing of his sloping lands. He writes in the introduction of having hoped the pasture would revert to forest, but rather his ewes ate the tree saplings. Instead, he tends the pasture in 2005, X “Mowing the hillside pasture–where.” He describes the Queen Anne’s lace, the milkweeds, butterflies, voles, and the contours of the healing slopes for which “He sweats and gives thanks.” In the next poem he speaks of imparting these experiences to his grandson, remembering when he was the young boy waving to an old workman in a pasture.

It is little wonder with someone so committed to the attentive care of his land that many of the poems celebrate the wonders he observes on his farm or the neighboring woods and streams. In 1998, IV, “The woods and pastures are joyous” describes the coming of another spring, the sheep and cattle “like souls in bliss,” the abundant growth and birdsong, and asks, “Who now can believe in winter? In winter who could have hoped for this?”

It also wouldn’t be Wendell Berry if he weren’t decrying the destruction of the land. His poems of 2007 describe this and his struggle to hold onto hope. He returns to his own land and finds hope amid the hopelessness in the renewal of life he witnesses.

Some of the poems are in the voice of characters from his novels, the Port William Membership, including Andy Catlett, Burley Coulter, and Jayber Crow. In others, he speaks of himself in the third person, as in 2011, VII,”A man who loves the trees” where he walks among his “elders” when he sees “a dogwood flower-white lighting all the woods.” In some, he adopts the voice of the Mad Farmer, as in the concluding poem of the collection, 2012, XXI, “As a child, the Mad Farmer saw easily” recounting the captivating vision of the star and the angelic host announcing the Christ child to shepherds that captivated him as a child, fading in the horrors of modernity and fears for what is to come. Yet as a pilgrim, “He sets out.”

I was surprised by the number of poems remembering friends who have died and reflecting on his own advancing years. In 2005, VII, Berry makes an observation that would find many of us nodding our heads in agreement: “I know I am getting old and I say so/but I don’t think of myself as an old man./I think of myself as a young man/with unforeseen debilities.”

Some of the most touching poems are those marking anniversaries and talking about what it is like for two people to love one another in all the ways couples love for many years. He celebrates the power of the marriage vow in 2009, VI “Our vow is the plumb line.” It is a line that seems to separate as both speak, “but vanishing as only we two know when we indeed are one.”

A final theme recurring in many poems is Berry’s piety. He doesn’t “wear this on his sleeve,” filling his poems with references to faith, When he speaks, it is powerful as in these six lines from 2005, I:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.

Berry advises, “I hope some readers will read them as they were written: slowly, and with more patience than effort.” A friend who has read this collected comments that she loved taking these on sabbath walks, and reading and pondering one each sabbath. That may be a good approach to these poems that direct our thoughts to the most important matters of our lives as well as the sheer wonder amid which we move, that we often miss in our distraction and hurry. But then, is this not why we sabbath?

Review: Necessary Christianity

Necessary Christianity, Claude R. Alexander, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: In a culture of options, focuses on the necessities of the Christian life by looking at the “must” statements in the gospel associated with Jesus.

Bishop Claude R. Alexander, Jr. makes a trenchant contrast between our culture and a vibrant Christianity. We like to think about our options, our possibilities. Alexander contends that the mature follower of Jesus is shaped by the necessities of undivided loyalty to Jesus. Alexander organizes his book around the “must” passages associated with Jesus, six in number that lead to six “musts” for the maturing disciple of Jesus:

1. I Must Focus. (Luke 2:40-52) “I must be about my Father’s business.” Jesus was intentionally focused on his mission and his relationship with his father from the age of twelve. He pursued his calling as one who would teach about the Father’s way even as a young man, declaring implicitly that carpentry would not be his life.

2. I Must Progress. (Luke 4:38-44) “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also…” Life with Christ is dynamic. It is life lived on assignment, no matter the context.

3. I Must Be Directed. (John 4:1-30) “He needed to go through Samaria.” Jews ordinarily avoided Samaria. Jesus needed to go through Samaria because God directed him to do so to encounter the Samaritan woman, and through her to see a town believe. We learn that we may be directed to those others shun and called into things others don’t understand.

4. I Must Be Clear. (Matthew 16:13-27) “…Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” The maturing disciple is clear that following Christ may entail suffering and that God’s purposes may be unpopular and will face opposition. The disciple also embraces the whole plan and purpose of God, not only suffering and death but also resurrection and glory and is not deceived by the enemy.

5. I Must Be Diligent. (John 9:1-5) “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day.” Jesus discerns the moment and meaning of his encounter with the man born blind. He acts with urgency, realizing it will not always be day, maximizing every moment. He challenges us to live in this way. Even on the cross, Jesus forgives and promises paradise to the thief, arranges for the care of his mother, quenches his own thirst with God’s word, takes on himself the judgement of God against sin, and accomplishes our redemption, and can declare “It is finished.”

6. I Must Yield. (Matthew 26:46-54) “Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” Jesus refuses to avoid God’s purpose for his life, even when able, he has exercised patience from age 12 to his death, knowing all that time this was God’s purpose. Jesus took God’s way as his and accepted that only he could walk it–others would flee. The assurance is that God will stand by us. He raises the Son and he will raise us up as well.

Alexander has this way of writing in simple declarative sentences that convey the sense that “this is just the way it is for those who set themselves to follow Jesus.” There is neither bombast nor subtle nuancing. It’s simply, “this is what Jesus knew were the “musts” in his life, and so they are for us. We often “complexify” our lives and use that to evade the call of Jesus. This book strips discipleship down to the necessities. And therein is life.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Winter 2023 Christian Book Preview

As you can see from the stack, it’s been a while since I’ve done a book preview. Here are some books that have come in recently that I will be reviewing over the next few months. If we have a snowstorm or two, I’m all set. But you might find something in this list that looks so good that you may want to pick it up sooner. I’m sure the author, publisher and bookstore won’t mind a bit. The links, as always are to the publisher’s website. I prefer people make their own decisions about where they buy their books rather than being directed to an online site. I personally prefer buying from Hearts & Minds Books, which meticulously packs and ships books and is committed, as I, to promoting the best that is being thought and written in Christian literature.

The Inconvenient Gospel, Clarence Jordan. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2022. A collection of writings on war, wealth, race, and religion by this Baptist preacher from the south during the Civil Rights era.

A Just Passion, Ruth Haley Barton, Sheila Wise Rowe, Tish Harrison Warren, Terry M. Wildman, and others. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. A collection of readings for the six seeks of Lent drawn from InterVarsity Press books on justice and our hope in the redemptive work of Christ.

The Hope of Life After Death, M. Jeff Brannon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series this explores how the hope of life after death occurs throughout scripture, coming to its fullest expression in the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of those who follow him.

Epic Science, Ancient Faith, Dan Guenther. Ellensburg, WA: Truth in Creation, 2022. Important attitudes to making sense both of God’s works in creation and God’s words in the Bible for anyone who has questions about science and Christian faith.

The Emotions of God, David T. Lamb. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022. We’re not always sure we want to associate emotions with God. Lamb examines seven divine emotions: hate, anger, jealousy, sorrow, joy, compassion, and love.

Finding Phoebe, Susan E. Hylen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023. Uses first century sources elaborating cultural backgrounds to illuminate what the women of the New Testament were really like.

The Power of Group Prayer, Carolyn Carney. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2022. Praying together isn’t easy. Carney talks about how we move from “just another prayer meeting” to effectual prayer for revival and a deeper life with God.

Why the Gospel? Matthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023. We may know what the gospel is, but why has God issued this royal proclamation and how should this shape our lives?

The Wonders of Creation, Kristen Page with contributions from Christina Bieber Lake, Noah J. Toly, and Emily Hunter McGowin. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. What we learn from the fictional landscapes of Lewis and Tolkien about the stewardship of creation. Part of the Hansen Lectureship Series at the Wade Center.

The Back Side of the Cross, Diane Leclerc and Brent Peterson. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022. How the doctrine of atonement speaks to those who have been wronged, abused, and abandoned.

Reading the Bible Around the World, Frederico Alfredo Roth, Justin Marc Smith, Kirsten Sonkyo Oh, Alice Yafeh-Deigh, and Kay Higuera Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A global team of scholars shows the value of reading and interpreting scripture in different cultural contexts.

Untrustworthy, Bonnie Kristian. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022. Explores the knowledge crisis at the root of divisions within our culture and corrupting the church and how we think about truth.

Being in God’s Image, Carmen Joy Imes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023. Imes explores the significance of being created in God’s image to what it means to be human–what it means for our work, our gender relations, our care for creation, and our eternal destiny. 

Mapping Atonement, William G. Witt and Joel Scandrett. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. A study of the various streams of atonement theology throughout church history, focusing on key theologians for each view.

Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2022. Explores both the weekly practice of sabbath within a rhythm of work and rest and the taking of more extended sabbaticals.

A Bond Between Souls, Coleman M. Ford. Bellingham: Lexham Academic, 2022. A scholarly study of friendship in the letters of Augustine, which he understands as the overflow of love.

The Trinity in the Book of Revelation, Brandon D. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A study of the theology of the Trinity in John’s Apocalypse in conversation with theologians from the early church.

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature, Charles B. Puskas. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022. A study of key texts throughout scripture to understand why people are obstinate toward God and whether there is hope for change.

Humble Confidence, Benno van den Toren and Kang-San Tan. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. A global, intercultural introduction to Christian apologetics presenting a model of apologetics as crosscultural dialogue and accountable witness.

The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect, Jamie Davies. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2022. An introduction to the Apocalyptic reading of the Pauline letters, explaining the rationale for this approach.

Cultivating Mentors, Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. “Drawing on traditional theological understandings of the mentee-mentor relationship, they consider what goals should define such relationships and what practices make their cultivation possible among educators.”

Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World. David F. White. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2022. On the role of beauty and creativity in Christian formation.

Tell Her Story, Nijay K. Gupta. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023. Another book discussing the first century context of women and focusing on women leaders in the church as revealed in Paul’s writings.

Anchorhold, Kristen Pinto Gfroerer. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2022. Reflections in the form of letters on the Revelations of Divine Love, addressed from the author to Julian of Norwich.

Flood and Fury, Matthew J. Lynch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023. A study on violence in the Old Testament focused on the flood and the Canaanite conquest.

A Christian Theology of Science, Paul Tyson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022. “This book reframes the discussion between Christian theology and contemporary science, arguing that it is good both for religion and for science when Christians treat theology as their first truth discourse.”

Doing Asian-American Theology, Daniel D. Lee. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Explores how Asian-American identity might shape the language and methodology used in doing theology.

The Apostle and the Empire, Christoph Heilig. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. A study of ways that Paul implicitly and explicitly criticizes the Roman empire in his writings, often overlooked in past scholarship.

The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church, Richard E. Averbeck. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022. Explores the law in its original context, the New Testament perspective and its relevance today.

The Kingdom Among Us, Michael Stewart Robb. A comprehensive account of the theology of the late Dallas Willard, centered around his understanding of the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Whew! That’s quite a stack–thirty books, actually. Books on the gospel, science and faith, women in the first century church, Pauline studies, the theology of the atonement, challenging biblical and contemporary issues. I’m of the conviction that growing Christians are reading Christians, reading scripture first of all, good spiritual literature and substantive theology. Furthermore, to be God’s people in our time requires not only discerning the times, but discerning and applying truth. I hope one or more of the books I’ve previewed might be helpful to you in your journey with Christ. That’s an important reason for me to do this blog that keeps me going!