September 2016 featured books
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Grace Without God:
Good Christian Sex:
How God Became God:
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Butler Bass argues that what appears to be a decline in religious observance, actually signals a major transformation in how people understand and experience God. The distant God of conventional religion has given way to a more intimate sense of the sacred that is with us in the world. This shift, from a vertical understanding of God to a God found on the horizons of nature and human community, is at the heart of a spiritual revolution that surrounds us – and that is challenging not only religious institutions but political and social ones as well.
Grounded explores this cultural turn as Bass unpacks how people are finding new spiritual ground by discovering and embracing God everywhere in the world around us—in the soil, the water, the sky, in our homes and neighbourhoods, and in the global commons. Faith is no longer a matter of mountaintop experience or institutional practice; instead, people are connecting with God through the environment in which we live. Grounded guides readers through our contemporary spiritual habitat as it points out and pays attention to the ways in which people experience a God who animates creation and community.
Rob Bell believes that each of us has a path, a calling—whether it’s writing a novel, starting a business, joining a band, or simply becoming a volunteer. But many people are afraid to start on that path. Who are we to do that? Bell counters, Why not you? We need to learn to turn off the internal and external critics and leap. The universe is alive to help us. And we can only discover passion and joy after we take off.
Interweaving engaging stories; lessons from Biblical figures; science, art, and business; honest personal experience; and practical advice, he offers invaluable insight on how to silence our critics, move from idea to action, take the first step, find joy in the work, persevere through hard times, and surrender the outcome. Leave boring behind and embrace the fulfilling lives we are meant to have.
In Isaiah 9:6, a divine utterance is given to us using four royal titles-Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Names for the Messiah ponders each royal designation and how the people understood it then, how Jesus did or did not fulfil the title, and how Christians interpret Jesus as representative of that title.
Christians have claimed from the beginning that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. In this 4 session study, Brueggemann tackles the questions: “What were these expectations?” and “Did Jesus fulfill them?”
Also by Walter Brueggemann:
- Sabbath as Resistance: Say No to the Culture of Now. Pbk. 89pp. ISBN 9780664239282. Westminster John Knox (2015). $28.50. [Allow 4 weeks.]
Meet “the Nones”—In this thought-provoking exploration of secular America, journalist Katherine Ozment takes readers on a quest to understand the trends and ramifications of a nation in flight from organized religion.
Studies show that religion makes us happier, healthier and more giving, connecting us to our past and creating tight communal bonds. Most Americans are raised in a religious tradition, but in recent decades many have begun to leave religion, and with it their ancient rituals, mythic narratives, and sense of belonging.
So how do the non-religious fill the need for ritual, story, community, and, above all, purpose and meaning without the one-stop shop of religion? What do they do with the space left after religion? With Nones swelling to one-fourth of American adults, and more than one-third of those under thirty, these questions have never been more urgent.
Ozment came face-to-face with the fundamental issue of the Nones when her son asked her the simplest of questions: “What are we?” Unsettled by her reply—”Nothing”—she set out on a journey to find a better answer.
Insightful, surprising, and compelling, Grace Without God is both a personal and critical exploration of the many ways non-religious Americans create their own meaning and purpose in an increasingly secular age.
The losses in our lives are both big and small, and cover a range of experiences. We leave home. We experience physical illness and disabilities. We struggle with vocation and finances. We may long for a spouse or child. We lose people we love to addiction or illness and death. All of these losses can build into questions and doubts about faith. We may experience depression or other mental health struggles. Where is God in the midst of our losses?
In this book spiritual director Beth Slevcove shares stories from her own life about losses and struggles. Along the way, she offers distinctive spiritual practices that can guide us back to God and, in the end, to ourselves.
In 2015 Matthew Fox was invited by the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, KY, to give a lecture on “Thomas Merton and Myself” to honour the centennial year of the legendary Catholic monk and writer’s birth. Fox likes to say that all the trouble he got in being excommunicated from his Dominican Order by Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict) in 1993 is due to Merton, since he is the one who sent Fox to Paris to study spirituality and eventually receive his Doctorate of Philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris.
In preparing for the talk, Fox revisited his frequent intersections with Merton and immersed himself in Merton’s writings. He read through Merton’s journals, poetry, and religious writings, realising that this exploration was inspiring more than a talk. The result is A Way to God, a powerful work about Merton’s deep interfaith and ecumenical philosophies; about his contemplation, mysticism, and warrior-hood; and about how Meister Eckhart inspired in Merton a long journey toward a spiritual understanding similar to the creation spirituality that Fox has long espoused and written about.
A Way to God is personal and intellectual, semi-biographical and autobiographical. It presents Merton in a new light and with a direct link not only to Meister Eckhart but to the creation spirituality tradition that both Merton and Eckhart lived and taught. Readers will rediscover the beauty and depth of Merton’s thinking and his pioneering work in deep ecumenism, but will also discover a new dimension to Merton: his journey as a Creation Spirituality pilgrim.
Moving beyond the deep-seated cultural feelings of shame that have long fuelled the conflict between Christianity and sex—and the belief that there is only one right and valid way to practice one’s sexuality—this renowned University of Chicago pastor uses enlightening personal stories and examples from theology to show how sex is powerful and holy.
For years, Christians have been told to adhere to one singular path when it comes to sex: abstinence and purity. Yet this limited focus ignores the reality that people’s sexual and romantic lives differ widely, even among those who consider themselves devout believers. Church leaders have often refused to address the topic—or have preached in ways that are harmful to the emotional and spiritual growth of the faithful in the pews.
Pastor McCleneghan is determined to reshape the issue—and fundamentally transcend this disconnect between sexuality and spirituality that has left many Christians feeling guilty and sinful. Good Christian Sex combines humorous personal anecdotes with theological research to transform how Christians think and talk about this basic human need, offering a new understanding that reconciles human love and religious faith.
Breaking with outdated conventions, McCleneghan explains how the Bible and Christian tradition inform our beliefs about desire, pleasure, nudity, fidelity, premarital sex, and the variety of sexual practices, and encourages Christians to talk about their bodies, their sensuality, and their longings in a frank, positive, and realistic way. Warm, insightful, and honest, Good Christian Sex is a message of hope, that at last lifts the veil of shame felt by many religious people.
From an historical perspective, the Bible is shockingly, provably wrong – a point supported by today’s best archaeological and historical scholarship, but not well understood by (or communicated to) the public. Yet this emphatically does not mean that the Bible isn’t, in some very real measure, true, argues leading scholar of mysticism Richard Smoley.
Smoley reviews the most authoritative historical evidence to demonstrate that figures such as Moses, Abraham and Jesus are not only unlikely to have existed, but bear strong composite resemblances to other Near-Eastern religious icons. Likewise, the geopolitical and military events of Scripture fail to mesh with the largely settled historical timeline and social structures. Smoley meticulously shows how our concepts of the Hebrew and Christian Gods, including Christ himself, are an assemblage of ideas, which were altered, argued over, and edited – until their canonisation. This process, to a large degree, gave Western civilisation its consensus view of God.
But these conclusions are not cause for nihilism or disbelief. Rather, beneath the metaphorical figures and mythical historicism of Scripture exhibits an extraordinary, truly transcendent theology born out of the most sacred and fully realised spiritual and human insights of the antique Eastern world. Far from being “untrue,” the Bible is remarkably, extraordinarily true, as it connects us to the sublime insights of our ancient ancestors, and points to a unifying ethic behind many of the world’s faiths.
The renowned biblical scholar, author of The Misunderstood Jew, and general editor for The Jewish Annotated New Testament interweaves history and spiritual analysis to explore Jesus’ most popular teaching parables, exposing their misinterpretations and making them lively and relevant for modern readers.
Jesus was a skilled storyteller and perceptive teacher who used parables from everyday life to effectively convey his message and meaning. Life in first-century Palestine was very different from our world today, and many traditional interpretations of Jesus’ stories ignore this disparity and have often allowed anti-Semitism and misogyny to colour their perspectives.
In this wise, entertaining, and educational book, Amy-Jill Levine offers a fresh, timely reinterpretation of Jesus’ narratives. She analyses these “problems with parables,” taking readers back in time to understand how their original Jewish audience understood them. Levine reveals the parables’ connections to first-century economic and agricultural life, social customs and morality, Jewish scriptures and Roman culture.
With this revitalised understanding, she interprets these moving stories for the contemporary reader, showing how the parables are not just about Jesus, but are also about us—and when read rightly, still challenge and provoke us two thousand years later.
St. Paul is known throughout the world as the first Christian writer, authoring 14 of the 27 books in the New Testament. But as Karen Armstrong demonstrates, he also exerted a more significant influence on the spread of Christianity throughout the world than any other figure in history. It was Paul who established the first Christian churches in Europe and Asia in the first century, Paul who transformed a minor sect into the largest religion produced by Western civilisation, and Paul who advanced the revolutionary idea that Christ could serve as a model for the possibility of transcendence.
While we know little about some aspects of the life of St. Paul—his upbringing, the details of his death—his dramatic vision of God on the road to Damascus is one of the most powerful stories in the history of Christianity, and the life that followed forever changed the course of history.
Also by Karen Armstrong:
- Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Pbk. 518pp. ISBN 9780307946966. Anchor Books (2015). $34.00. [Allow 2-3 weeks.]
How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Is God Violent? an Exploration from Genesis to Revelation. John Dominic Crossan. Pbk. 263pp. ISBN 9780062203618. Harperone (2016). $32.50. [Allow 2-3 weeks.]
Acclaimed Bible scholar Crossan grapples with Scripture’s two conflicting visions of Jesus and God, one of a loving God, and one of a vengeful God, and explains how Christians can better understand these passages in a way that enriches their faith.
Many portions of the New Testament, introduce a compassionate Jesus who turns the other cheek, loves his enemies, and shows grace to all. But the Jesus we find in Revelation and some portions of the Gospels leads an army of angels bent on earthly destruction. Which is the true revelation of the Messiah—and how can both be in the same Bible?
Crossan explores this question and offers guidance for the faithful conflicted over which version of the Lord to worship. He reconciles these contrasting views, revealing how different writers of the books of the Bible not only possessed different visions of God but also different purposes for writing. Often these books are explicitly competing against another, opposing vision of God from the Bible itself.
Crossan explains how to navigate this debate and offers what he believes is the best central thread to what the Bible is all about. He challenges Christians to fully participate in this dialogue, thereby shaping their faith by reading deeply, reflectively, and in community with others who share their uncertainty. Only then, he advises, will Christians be able to read and understand the Bible without losing their faith. (HC)
Also by John Dominic Crossan:
- The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. Pbk. 259pp. ISBN 9780061875700. Harperone (2013). $31.00. [Allow 2-3 weeks.]
Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel. NOW IN PAPERBACK John Shelby Spong. Pbk. 394pp. ISBN 9780062362315. Harperone (2017). $32.50. [Allow 3-4 weeks.]
Spong explains why a literal reading of the Gospels is actually heretical, and how this mistaken notion only entered the church once Gentiles had pushed out all the Jewish followers of Jesus.
A man who has consciously and deliberately walked the path of Christ, Spong has lived his entire life inside the Christian Church. In this profound and considered work, he offers a radical new way to look at the gospels today as he shows just how deeply Jewish the Christian Gospels are and how much they reflect the Jewish scriptures, history, and patterns of worship. Pulling back the layers of a long-standing Gentile ignorance, he reveals how the church’s literal reading of the Bible is so far removed from these original Jewish authors’ intent that it is an act of heresy.
Using the Gospel of Matthew as a guide, Spong explores the Bible’s literary and liturgical roots—its grounding in Jewish culture, symbols, icons, and storytelling tradition—to explain how the events of Jesus’ life, including the virgin birth, the miracles, the details of the passion story, and the resurrection and ascension, would have been understood by both the Jewish authors of the various gospels and by the Jewish audiences for which they were originally written. Spong makes clear that it was only after the church became fully Gentile that readers of the Gospels took these stories to be factual, distorting their original meaning.
Here Spong illuminates the gospels as never before and provides a better blueprint for the future than where the church’s leaden and heretical reading of the story of Jesus has led us—one that allows the faithful to live inside the Christian story in the modern world.
Also by John Shelby Spong: