My Top 6 Books of 2012 So Far...(plus 4 more to look forward to)

6 Best Books of 2012 (So Far)...

1. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner— Winner has long been a favorite of mine. I loved the sparse, colorful prose of Mudhouse Sabbath and Girl Meets God, and I’ve always admired (okay, envied) Winner’s fierce intelligence and ability to speak knowledgeably about such a broad range of subjects. In Still, Winner continues to dazzle with her writing, but this time she shares a different kind of wisdom, for she writes from what she calls “the middle.” Her honesty about the uncomfortable realities of life and faith—the unresolved, the disappointments, the mysterious, the gray, the hopeful, the routine, the failures, the valiant efforts—give this book a more conversational and intimate feel than any of her others. It feels more grounded, more relatable. But Still is far from an indulgent glorification of religious doubt. Instead, it challenges the reader to stay connected with the church, committed to the spiritual disciplines, wary of cynicism, and mindful of pride. If you resonate with this blog or with Evolving in Monkey Town, you will likely love Still

2. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed—Two words: Trust Oprah. She nails it again with this fabulous pick for her book club. Beautifully written, suspenseful, and inspiring, this story will suck you in within minutes. I’m not even halfway finished, and already I feel comfortable offering a hearty recommendation. 

3. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins by Peter Enns—This book came along and just the right time for me. As I’ve said before, Enns is one of my favorite scholars because he somehow manages to be thorough, personable, and readable all at the same time. In the Evolution of Adam, Enns demonstrates that the author of Genesis and the apostle Paul wrote to ask and answer ancient questions for ancient people; the fact that they both speak of Adam does not determine whether Christians can accept evolution. This may seem like an impossibly complicated topic to cover in a mere 147 pages, but Enns manages to do so with astounding clarity and insight.  In The Evolution of Adam, you’ll find accessible introductions to everything from source criticism to the New Perspective on Paul, which will make you feel oh-so-caught-up on all the important trends in biblical scholarship.  Try not to show off at parties. 

4. A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle by Sara Gaston Barton— With a writer’s eye and a teacher’s heart, Sara Barton weaves together stories from Michigan to Uganda, Texas to ancient Israel, to bring the conversation about women and ministry to life.  These are stories you can taste, touch, smell, and feel, stories that will make you laugh out loud, roll your eyes, cry like a baby, and offer quiet prayers of thanks.  Sara’s passion for encouraging women to teach is matched only by her stubborn commitment to Christian unity.  It is positively brimming with wisdom and honesty and grace.  This book changed me in ways I never expected it would, and I am grateful for it. 

5. Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life by Lois Tverberg. In this excellent book, Tverberg explores the cultural context of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the Jewish idioms, sayings, debates, and rabbinic literature that help make sense of some of his most perplexing words. (What did he mean when he said “the eye is the lamp of the body?” What does it mean to “hallow” a name? How did first-century Jews understand the concept of “judging not”?) But what makes this book different than others on the same topic is Tverberg’s gift of guiding the reader through practical application. Reading this book has changed the way I pray. It has changed the way I speak about others.  It has changed the way I judge.  It has changed the way I think about my giving.  Simply put, this book has helped make me a better follower of Jesus because I better understand his teachings.  I cannot recommend it enough. 

6. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer—I expected this book about the science behind creativity to be informative, but I never expected it to be so practical. Lehrer (author of the best-selling How We Decide) explains why we get our best ideas in the shower, shatters the myth of the muse, descries creative working environments that increase productivity, and tells story after story about the ways in which the world’s most creative people work. This book has made me a better writer because it has helped me identify which of my work habits are helpful and which are destructive, when it’s best to take a break and when it’s best to press on, what color to paint my office (blue!) and how to overcome writer’s block (travel!). A must-read for you creative types. 

4 To Look Forward To...

1. Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee (releases November 13, 2012, available for pre-order)—This one is a game-changer, folks! I had the privilege of reading an advance review copy, which I devoured within two days before passing it along to Dan, who also loved it. This book comes along at just the right time, in just the right spirit, and with just the right mix of honesty, wisdom, and grace. Justin’s story reads like a conversation with an old friend. It is personal, yet accessible; persuasive, yet charitable; deeply honest, yet patient and restrained. Like all good stories, it leaves you changed. This is the most important book I’ve read in years, and it will be the first I recommend to anyone interested in bridging the divide between the LGBT community and the church. Justin has given us a precious gift with this story. May we receive with the same courage and faith with which it was delivered. Note: We will be discussing this one! (See our interview with Justin Lee)

2. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (releases November 6, 2012, available for pre-order)—Kingsolver's new novel takes place in a small-town Tennessee and tells the story of a woman who must confront “her family, her church, her town, her continent, and finally the world at large.” Sound right up my alley! 

3. Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World by Brian McLaren (releases September 11, 2012, available for pre-order)—I’ve nearly finished reading my advance copy, and McLaren is at his finest with this one: pastoral, provocative, challenging, and somehow comforting. This one should generate quite a conversation online. 

4. A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. (Releases October 30, 2012, available for pre-order.) That’s right. I’m recommending my own book. Because I worked really, really hard on it, and because I wrote it for you!  The good news is that Phyllis Tickle recommends it too.  She describes A Year of Biblical Womanhood as “a bitter-sweet cocktail of wisdom and absurdity that will charm you, entertain you, seduce you and, finally, instruct you...Funny, droll, charming, and deadly serious, all in one set of covers.”  (I’ll be sharing more of these endorsements in the weeks to come.) 

***

So what is your favorite book so far in 2012? What books are you anticipating?

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Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: Review and Giveaway

People often ask me for book recommendations suitable for personal devotion or group study—you know, something challenging but not too controversial, something that stretches the heart and mind but isn't too scholarly. I usually scratch my head and mumble for a while, before recommending a few old standbys (which I would name here if I weren't afraid of forgetting one). 

Well now I can say with full confidence that I’ve got a fantastic new recommendation for your personal devotions or group study:  Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg. 

Transient

Tverberg is the co-author of the bestselling Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How The Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith, which many of you may have read and which I will be ordering from Amazon asap. She holds a PhD in physiology and is a respected scholar who has been writing and teaching about the Jewish background of Christianity for the past fifteen years. Her knowledge of Jewish customs, scholarship, language, and culture is astounding, and her writing style is lively and accessible. She is definitely a woman of valor. Eshet Chayil! 

In Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Tverberg explores the cultural context of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the Jewish idioms, sayings, debates, and rabbinic literature that help make sense of some of his most perplexing words. (What did he mean when he said “the eye is the lamp of the body?” What does it mean to “hallow” a name? How did first-century Jews understand the concept of “judging not”?) But what makes this book different than others on the same topic is Tverberg’s gift of guiding the reader through practical application. 

Reading this book has changed the way I pray (particularly The Lord’s Prayer and the Shema). 

It has changed the way I speak about others. 

It has changed the way I judge. 

It has changed the way I think about my giving. 

Simply put, this book has helped make me a better follower of Jesus because I better understand his teachings. 

I cannot recommend it enough. 

(Next step: Track Lois Tverberg down and get her on the blog!) 

The great news is: I’ve got an extra copy from Zondervan to give away!  Just leave a comment with your first name and your hometown at the end of the post, (ex: “Carrie from Minneapolis!”), and you will automatically be entered to win a free copy of Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus.(Be sure to log into DISQUS in such a way that I can find your email address if you’ve won.) I’ve got one copy to give away so there will be just one winner. The contest will run for 24-hours. I’ll close the comment thread at 10 a.m.. EST on Thursday, May 3. 

Good luck!

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Review: Bob Goff and the Virtue of Whimsy (Enter to win a free book!)

“There is only one invitation it would kill me to refuse, yet I’m tempted to turn it down all the time. I get the invitation every morning when I wake up to actually live a life of completely engagement, a life of whimsy, a life where love does. It doesn’t come in an envelope. It’s ushered in by a sunrise, the sound of a bird, or the smell of coffee drifting lazily from the kitchen. It’s the invitation to actually live, to fully participate in this amazing life for one more day. Nobody turns down an invitation to the White House, but I’ve seen plenty of people turn down an invitation to fully live.” 
Bob Goff, Love Does

Bob Goff’s new book, Love Does, is an invitation. 

It’s an invitation to live with a little more playfulness, a little more whimsy, and to actually go out and do something with the teachings of Jesus. 

“I’ve come to understand more about faith as I’ve understood more about whimsy,” writes Goff. “What whimsy means to me is a combination of the ‘do’ part of faith along with doing something worth doing.” 

Through masterful storytelling, Goff—a successful lawyer, professor, Honorary Consul for the Republic of Uganda to the United States, and founder of Restore International—gives readers a glimpse into the life that has made him something of a legend among those who know him. He writes about the sixteen days he spent sailing the Pacific Ocean with five buddies and a crate of canned meat, the time he took his kids on a world tour to eat ice cream with heads of state, his stubbornness in getting into law school by sitting on a bench outside the dean’s office for seven days until they finally let him enroll, his “office” at Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland, the flowers he sent to the elderly woman who nearly killed him running a stop sign, the work he’s done to free Ugandan children from prison. 

But somehow, Goff manages to share these stories without showing off.  His writing style—no doubt influenced by his good friend Donald Miller—is down-to-earth and self-depreciating. He shares the spotlight with others who have influenced and inspired him, and he writes with an odd, but refreshing, combination of playfulness and urgency. He lives a big life, and he wants you to live a big life too. That's what the book is about. 

Now I confess that, occasionally, the cynic in me would pipe up and say, “Sure, Bob. I’d love to hop on plane and fly to London on a whim. Sounds like fun! But, unlike you, I don’t roll around in my money at night; I’m just barely paying the mortgage.” 

(Goff, as far as I know, does not in fact roll around in his money at night.) 

But, despite my cynicism, Goff’s message must have broken through, because ever since I finished reading Love Does, I’ve been acting a little weird. 

For example, yesterday, Dan and I were both at home working. It was a beautiful spring day, but we had a lot to do. Suddenly, I got the urge to go on a hike. But this time, instead of talking myself out of it, I urged Dan to come along on a mini-adventure. So we hopped into the Explorer and headed out to Pocket Wilderness. (I’ll take you there if you ever come to Dayton to visit. It’s beautiful!) We only stayed for about an hour, but we had a wonderful time together, taking pictures of flowers and bugs, and throwing sticks into the creek just to watch them float away. It seems like a small thing, but it was actually kind of big. We’d added a touch of whimsy to an ordinary day, and it helped us love one another better. 

“The language of love is laced with whimsy,” writes Goff. “It sometimes borders on the irrational. Like I’ve been saying, though, love is a do thing. It’s an energy that has to be dissipated.” 

So, if you want to start acting weird too, leave a comment with your first name and your hometown at the end of the post, (ex: “Carrie from Minneapolis!”), and you will automatically be entered to win a free copy of Love Does. (Be sure to log into DISQUS in such a way that I can find your email address if you’ve won.)

I’ve got two copies to give away, so there will be two winners!

To add a touch of whimsy to the whole experience, I’ll include a postcard from my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee (home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925), and a note, in each package. I think it would be neat if we passed this book around a bit—each winner reading the book, and then mailing it to a friend with postcards from the previous owners included.  Obviously, if you win, you can do whatever you want with the book. But I suggest having some fun with it!

The contest will run for 24-hours. I’ll close the comment thread at 1 p.m. EST on Saturday, April 21. 

If you don’t win, do yourself a favor and buy Love Does...or, I suppose you can wait and see if it mysteriously arrives in  your mailbox one day! :-) 

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Doubt Riddled With Faith – A Review of ‘Still’

“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone..."
"And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of hope keep interrupting my gaze.”
Lauren Winner, Still (xiv)

I get a lot of books in the mail these days, but this one, I am reading slowly, deliberately. I put it down after ten or fifteen minutes just so I won’t finish it too soon. I am savoring every word, every paragraph. And I find myself thinking about those words, those paragraphs, long after I’ve moved on to new ones. 

This book is good for the soul. 

If, like me, you resonate profoundly with the excerpt above, you will love Lauren Winner’s newest, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. 

Winner has long been a favorite of mine. I loved the sparse, colorful prose of Mudhouse Sabbath and Girl Meets God, and I’ve always admired (okay, envied) Winner’s fierce intelligence and ability to speak knowledgeably about such a broad range of subjects. In Still, Winner continues to dazzle with her writing, but this time she shares a different kind of wisdom, for she writes from what she calls “the middle.” 

 “Whether you feel a wrenching anguish or simply a kind of distracted listlessness, the middle looks unfamiliar when you get there,” writes Winner. “The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding."

Winner speaks frankly about the things that brought her to “the  middle”—her divorce and the death of her mother—but she never indulges. Instead, her honesty about the uncomfortable realities of life and faith—the unresolved, the disappointments, the mysterious, the gray, the hopeful, the routine, the failures, the valiant efforts—give this book a more conversational and intimate feel than any of her others. It feels more grounded, more relatable. 

 Winner does a masterful job of providing images and stories with which to understand “the middle”—a face jug lost in the divorce, a pie social at church, a protest at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, an elderly couple sharing communion, a Purim celebration, a prayer, a poem, a bookstore in Machester-by-the-Sea. She incorporates just the right amount of poetry into her story—from Ann Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and W.S. Merwin, among others—and tempers this with frank and funny stories about with which any person of faith can relate.

But what has surprised me the most about Still—(I still have about a quarter of the book left to read)—is how challenging I’ve found it. The chapter entitled “Busyness During Lent,” Winner writes this: 

“Busyness is the new sloth...Busyness, my BlackBerry, the feeling of never being caught up, the fantasies about myself that busyness fosters—this busyness is just as disorienting, just as deadly as the traditional seven....I am too busy to go to church, too busy to pray; there’s not enough time to pray, not enough time to hold body together, let alone soul. I am too lazy to do what’s important, or hard, so I stay busy with everything else.” 

That last line has lodged itself in my brain and will not come out. It changed how I made some of my decisions this week, and I’m grateful.

So Still is far from an indulgent glorification of religious doubt. Instead, it challenges the reader to stay connected with the church, committed to the spiritual disciplines, wary of cynicism, and mindful of pride. I noticed that a lot of people who order Evolving in Monkey Town on Amazon go on to order Still, and I could not think of a better companion book.  Just please read Monkey Town first...cause no one wants to sing after Joshua Ledet on American Idol.  :-)

What have you been reading lately? 

Have you  had the chance to check out Still? What did you think?

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Engaging The Hunger Games

I confess to squealing just a wee bit when I first saw the trailer for "The Hunger Games" movie. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy was the first foray into fiction I enjoyed after a year of research and writing for "A Year of Biblical Womanhood", so I surrendered myself totally to the unfolding stories and, like so many others, lost a lot of sleep as I worked my way through The Hunger GamesCatching Fire, and The Mockingjay.  

(Dan bought me the series for Christmas, and we were supposed to read the books together, out loud, as we had done the entire Harry Potter series, but Dan kept falling asleep after a few pages, which was completely UNACCEPTABLE to me, so I went on without him. Marital devotion has its limits, I suppose.) 

So this is the big week in which the Hunger Games hits the big screen, which means fanatics are indulging themselves in all-things Katniss, Peeta, and Panem. 

You can get a Hunger Games tattoo. You can make mockingjay cupcakes. You can check out the latest styles of the Capitol designers at Capitol Couture. You can figure out which district your hometown would fall into in Panem. (I must say, I loved these maps. I think I live in District 12!)  You can buy a truly awful Christian t-shirt to wear to the theater.  You can even burn calories through a Hunger Games-inspired workout.

Yesterday, when I spotted Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdene on the cover of People Magazine with the headline “THE HUNGER GAMES” in bold white letters, I couldn’t help but wonder if Suzanne Collins set all of this up to remind us of how closely our culture can resemble that of The Capitol—what with our excess, our reality shows, our glorification of violence, and our compulsive need to shove every good story through our celebrity-obsessed media machine. 

That’s one of the things I liked best about The Hunger Games. The series, while entertaining, also raises some serious questions about oppression, violence, materialism, entertainment, and justice.

At Red Letter Christians, Marty Troyer wrote an excellent piece about The Hunger Games from a pacifist perspective. Monica Selby, at Her.Meneutics, wrote about why we need dystopian tales. Amy Simpson, for Christianity Today sees Jesus in The Hunger Games.

But my favorite analysis of The Hunger Games has come from the delightful and wise Julie Clawson.

Not only has she written a couple of fantastic articles about The Hunger Games, she’s written an entire book entitled The Hunger Games and the Gospel released this week by Patheos Press.

I admit I am usually skeptical about books that claim to offer a "Christian perspective" on popular culture. But I trust Julie Clawson. And she does not disappoint. Not unlike the Hunger Games series itself, I readThe Hunger Games and the Gospel in one sitting. Clawson does a fantastic job of reminding readers that Collins’ world of occupation, oppression, excess, and poverty is not so far removed from our own, and that it is exactly the kind of world in which Jesus himself lived. 

Writes Clawson: 

"Hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence and lack of freedoms are not just elements of fiction, but daily realities in our world. In light of such realities, consider the emotional (and political) impact Jesus must have had when he showed up in Nazareth, a region with a long history of oppression, and proclaimed that he had come to fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic words by releasing the captives and setting the oppressed free. Those words would have been charged with meaning for people living in fear under the Roman tribute system just as they are for people desperate for liberation today. Oppression orchestrates compliance by crushing all hope. Yet Jesus came offering hope and the blessing of the Kingdom of God to those whose spirits had been broken.”

Clawson skillfully and creatively connects the story of The Hunger Games to The Sermon on the Mount with a series of essays that follow the Beatitudes. Check out the chapter titles: 

Chapter One: The Poor in Spirit: Living in the United States of Panem
Chapter Two: Those Who Mourn: Remembering the Things It Would Be a Crime to Forget
Chapter Three: The Meek: Supporting One Body, Many Districts
Chapter Four: Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness: Loving Like the Boy with the Bread
Chapter Five: The Merciful: Recognizing the Humanity of Others
Chapter Six: The Pure in Heart: Looking Past Artificial Exteriors
Chapter Seven: The Peacemakers: Subverting the Games of Violence
Chapter Eight: The Persecuted: Finding One’s Voice in a Distracted World

And because Clawson is one of the smartest ladies you’ll ever meet, she’s include a few tidbits, like this one, that you can use to impress your friends:  

“It was in frustration at this shallowness among his fellow Romans that the 1st-­?century C.E. satirist Juvenal coined the terms 'panem et circenses' (bread and circuses) to mock those who were too distracted to care about justice or the needs of the oppressed. The handful of Hunger Games readers who happened to take Latin in high school would have been clued in that the series was directly referencing the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. Early on, we read that the country itself is named Panem (bread) and has a tesserae system that provided the districts both food and a higher chance at a ticket to the games (but as participants, not as spectators). But it isn’t until the final book that Plutarch, the ex-Head Gamemaker turned rebel, explains to Katniss that 'in the Capitol, all they’ve ever known is Panem et Circenses,' and, like the Romans, they 'in return for full bellies and entertainment . . . [gave] up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.'"                        

This was a challenging and engaging treatment of The Hunger Games from a gospel-centered perspective that I highly recommend, especially to Hunger Games fans.  You can purchase The Hunger Games and the Gospel here

So, are you a Hunger Games fan? 

What sort of stories, articles, and essays about The Hunger Games have you found particularly fun or engaging over the past few weeks?

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