Original RBL Reviews

Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening

Diana Butler Bass. HarperOne, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-200373-7

After presenting the dilemma of today’s preference for being spiritual over being religious, Bass (Christianity for the Rest of Us)analyzes America’s latest Great Awakening, the Fourth by her reckoning. She arranges her argument carefully: her strong observations of gathered parts make for a persuasive whole. Bass rightly reorders the basic design for community into belonging, behaving, and believing. Throughout, she offers data from multiple studies, stabilizes her conclusions with thoughts of theologians like William McLoughlin, and affixes them with headnotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bass blends colorful, relevant stories from the Bible and church history with explanatory anecdotes from her own life and work; this relaxed style calls on her professional skill as historian and her pastoral ability to read by old lights and new. Near the end of this well-wrought book, Bass suggests a way to nurture awakening: Churches, she writes, “must be more like ... holy flash mobs.” Bass ably analyzes the struggle for awareness and change that defines spiritual awakening. (Feb.)

America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great

Ben Carson with Candy Carson. Zondervan, $19.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-310-33071-4

Neurosurgeon and author Carson (Gifted Hands) veers from his usual motivational course in this hybrid memoir and political history book written with his wife. His writing about America’s political and Judeo-Christian roots echoes the sentiments of Republicans and neoconservatives who believe America’s status as a Christian nation has made it prosper above all others, though Carson says he has always been registered as an independent voter. His writing about the original Tea Party and its more modern iteration is clear though unfocused, as is his writing on the pros and cons of capitalism and socialism, morality and environmentalism. Carson answers readers who are curious why a doctor considers himself a political expert by noting that five signers of the Declaration of Independence were physicians. The book includes biblical passages to underscore patriotic principles. The writing is weakest in historical overviews, but most compelling when Carson relates personalvignettes about religious freedom, health care, and faith. (Feb.)

Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath

Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. New World Library, $19.95 (296p) ISBN 978-1-60868-075-7

Worldwide teacher Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche (founder of non-profit organizations to transmit Tibetan Buddhist wisdom and help Tibetan refuges) presents a collection of his teachings on abundant living, focusing on attention to the breath. His enthusiasm and confidence in the potential for spiritual growth are notable. Short reflections are collected into thematic chapters on meditation, impermanence, the self, clarity of mind, freedom, and other topics. Buddhist concepts such as the five poisons, the six perfections, and the four immeasurables are simply explained. Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche draws on the teachings of the Great Perfection (dzogchen) of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Clearly written with many easy-to-understand metaphors, this guide focuses on gentle, inspirational exhortations for change. Examples tend to be drawn from the challenges of material abundance. While full of wisdom, this book competes in a crowded field against fine books by other masters of the Tibetan tradition, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. (Feb. 7)

LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture

Lee Trepanier and Lynita K. Newswander. Baylor Univ., $24.95 paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-60258-327-6

This introductory text eschews more traditional approaches to Mormonism (founding stories, sacred texts, and religious practices) to investigate instead how Mormonism has changed America, and how its “simultaneous affirmation and critique of American values” has existed in a state of perpetual tension. The authors explore Mormonism’s impact upon popular culture, American politics, Christian theology, and the ideal, enshrined in the Jacksonian era that spawned Mormonism, of outliers who pull themselves up by the bootstraps to become accepted into the mainstream. Although this thesis provides promising scaffolding for an introduction to Mormonism, evidence and supporting examples are disappointingly thin in a book whose main text barely exceeds a hundred pages. It is strongest on politics (which is not surprising, as the authors are both political scientists) and impressionistic at best in the other areas, especially theology. Although it is accessibly written, the book skims the surface of too many topics and deals with historical complexities simplistically. Better choices for an introductory textbook include Richard Bushman’s Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, Douglas Davies’s An Introduction to Mormonism, and Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People. (Feb.)

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in Light of Creation and Evolution

Brendan Purcell. New City Press, $29.95 (370p) ISBN 978-1-56548-433-7

Priest and philosopher Purcell (The Drama of Humanity: Toward a Philosophy of Humanity in History) leads the way on a journey through the fields of human thought. While exploring the theories of Darwin, intelligent design, and the world’s religions, he takes the reader through the study of symbolism found in caves around the world. “If the Big Bang poses a boundary or threshold question about coming into existence, then the conception of each new unique human being is the Big Mystery,” Purcell writes. The most satisfying section in the book is his analysis of “the seven grace notes” of the human sonata: the genetic African Eve and Adam; our body plan, which is compatible with human culture; our meaning-oriented brain and vocal tract; symbol-making ability; language; human understanding; and freedom. These seven items are keys to solving the “Big Mystery” of human life. The author deftly uses history, philosophy, the arts, and science to tell his tale in a book aimed primarily at a classroom audience. (Feb.)

Flirting with the Forbidden: Finding Grace in a World of Temptation

Steven James. Revell, $12.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-8007-3428-2

James (The Pawn) is an author better known for his novels than his non-fiction. Asserting that “the stuff that’s really important to me is only important because of the stories that surround it,” the author aims to spotlight the significance of biblical narratives about temptation by re-tooling the stories of some of the Bible’s most beguiled or beguiling individuals. James’ storytelling abilities shine as he builds on foundations laid in biblical text, relating the temptations experienced by well-known figures such as Eve, Solomon, and the apostle Thomas. He also presents lesser-known characters, such as Pontius Pilate’s wife and a funeral flautist present at the healing of Jairus’ daughter, using a first-person viewpoint. With touching realism and helpful cultural references, James brings these often piously presented individuals to credible life in a way that readers can easily relate to. This personal touch adds weight to James’ own admissions and theological reflections on temptation and Christian living. While his talent for theology is not as robust as his storytelling, his riveting portrayal of biblical characters’ struggle with sinful enticement proves powerful enough to support his points and make this book merit space on a Christian’s bookshelf. (Feb.)

Sneak Peeks: Religion Book Reviews Coming in PW February 13

Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life

Nancy Sleeth. Tyndale House, $14.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-4143-2699-3

After years of American-style consumption, Sleeth and her family decided to live more simply. From eliminating a car to gardening and line-drying laundry, her life began to resemble that of the Amish—a greener, calmer existence. Sleeth (Go Green, Save Green), co-founder of the nonprofit Blessed Earth, offers ideas for a simplified lifestyle backed by biblical principles and Amish and Mennonite ideologies. In much the same vein as the Mennonite classic Living More with Less (Sleeth wrote an introduction for its anniversary edition), the book serves as a guide for a range of behaviors. The author idealizes days gone by, when children played outside and respected their elders. “Being behind the times can indeed have its advantages,” she writes, as she warns about the use of cell phones, video games, and motorcycles. While Sleeth does not totally condemn progress, the book may not connect with younger audiences for whom technology is an indisputable fact of life. She is at her best when she sticks to the subject of sustainability, an important topic in a down economy. (Apr.)

The Other Side of Suffering: The Father of JonBenét Ramsey Tells the Story of His Journey from Grief to Grace

John Ramsey with Marie Chapian. FaithWords, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-89296-385-0

Ramsey (The Death of Innocence), who along with second wife Patsy was thrust into a media firestorm after the murder of their six-year old daughter JonBenét in 1996, writes a comprehensive memoir he refers to as his “untold faith journey.” Despite the titular indication that Ramsey has overcome his life’s tragedies, he spends a substantial amount of time rehashing previous claims regarding JonBenét’s murder. His persistence seems to indicate that he still feels compelled to explain himself, and perhaps he is not quite past the point of caring what other people think of him. While Ramsey is quick to draw similarities between his life and that of the biblical Job, his tendency to jump time frames makes it difficult to determine exactly when he went from being a superficial, immature Christian to a man of deep faith. On occasion, Ramsey, a businessman who served a stint in the military, disconcertingly speaks with unexplained authority regarding profiling child abusers and the use of medication for dealing with grief. Still, Ramsey’s reflections on other issues, including the death of an older child and Patsy’s losing battle with ovarian cancer, come from a place of obvious deep personal anguish. (Mar.)

A First Look at the Stars: Starred Reviews Coming in PW February 13

Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief

Justin L. Barrett. Free Press, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4391-9654-0

The debate over nature vs. nurture has been around at least since the time of Shakespeare, and thrived under Charles Darwin and his sometimes controversial discussions of human evolution. Barrett (Why Would Anyone Believe in God?), senior researcher at Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, presents a masterful discussion of whether children are born with a natural ability to exercise faith in God. The author systematizes the phenomena accompanying the belief process, offering a fine overview of recent research and scholarly discussions on the subject of children and belief. His studies transcend national and religious boundaries, bringing together the commonalities among Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other believing communities in ways that support the idea that religious belief, while sometimes considered childish by some post-Freudian rationalists, is, in fact, “a fundamental and healthy part of human existence, springing from cognitive systems that if removed would remove our humanity.” Barrett’s analysis represents a major addition to the literature discussing the natural bent toward belief, and it should be widely read. (Mar.)

Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget

Ronald J. Sider. IVP Books, $15 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8308-3795-3

Basing his economics on biblical principles, Sider (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) lays out proposals for solving the fiscal problems confronting the U.S. He rejects both capitalist imperatives to maximize profit and socialist desires to level wealth. Instead, he charts a middle course that recognizes the severity of economic problems and yet emphasizes the biblical mandate to protect the poor and vulnerable. For Sider, the country suffers as much from a moral as a fiscal deficit. His ideas include shrinking the national debt, instituting a more progressive tax code, decreasing the influence of money on politics, and reducing the defense budget by at least $100 billion a year. Sider makes a strong argument that by following such a moderate course, the U.S. can slowly but surely climb out of its economic hole. In a political culture arguably gone awry, Sider’s succinct merger of religion and economics is well worth reading. If nothing else, Sider argues credibly and with clarity that by adopting a moral vision, the country can find an economic path that is both stable and humane. (Mar.)

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Alain de Botton. Pantheon $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-307-37910-8

In this highly original and thought-provoking book, philosopher and atheist de Botton (How Proust Can Change Your Life) turns his critical eye to what religion does well and how non-believers might borrow from it to improve their own lives, institutions, and practices--without believing in God. For example, de Botton praises religion for satisfying the universal needs for community, comfort, and kindness and for its recognition that all people are imperfect and in need of help and healing. Some of what he suggests seems unattainable--de Botton calls for colleges and universities to shift from preparing students for careers to training them in “the art of living,” something he says religion does well. But other suggestions are more exciting for their plausibility--would not a Day of Atonement, drawn from Judaism, benefit all relationships? De Botton will no doubt annoy militant atheists who believe religion not only has no use but is essentially evil, but his well-reasoned arguments should appeal to the more open-minded non-believer. And de Botton is a lively, engaging writer. Agent: Nicole Aragi (Mar.)

Children’s Religion/Spirituality

Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions

Marilyn McFarlane. Beyond Words/Aladdin, $11.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-58270-304-6

McFarlane offers a World Religions 101 for kids. Primarily a travel writer, she organizes and retells selected stories from the world’s religions, also providing short summaries of key teachings in seven religious systems. Young readers can learn about the Buddha, Prince Rama, and the turtle that holds up the world, dipping their toes in the rich waters of diverse religions and cultures. McFarlane’s intention, and her even-handedness in presenting religions, are certainly commendable. That’s the good news. But the book has problems: some of its information is wrong. No Christians worship Mary, the mother of Jesus, or consider her divine. Midrash in Judaism is not a book per se, though there are books of midrash, which interprets and comments on scripture. Stories from traditions children are unfamiliar with will seem fresh and instructive, but this book needs a better foundation in religious knowledge in order to simplify and summarize for children. Ages 9-up. (Mar. 6)

The Wooden Sword: A Jewish Folktale from Afghanistan

Ann Redisch Stampler, illus. by Carol Liddiment. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-8075-9201-4

Once upon a time, an Afghani shah disguised himself in servant’s clothes to mingle among the common folk, and he came upon a poor Jewish man and his wife who seem improbably happy. “If one path is blocked, God leads me to another,” the man tells the Shah, “and everything turns out just as it should.” Impressed but skeptical, the Shah tests the Jewish man’s faith and discovers that his subject remains steadfast, sunny, and clever to boot. It’s an intriguingly prickly story with an august lineage and comic climax worthy of Jack Benny or Mel Brooks. But this telling feels as if it’s been smoothed over to a fault, perhaps in the interest of ecumenical harmony. The two characters are merely pleasant narrative devices, and Liddiment’s (How Many Donkeys?) illustrations, while admirably evoking the aesthetic traditions of Islamic culture, have little dramatic tension. Still, it’s not a total miss. Stampler’s (The Rooster Prince of Breslov) storytelling has an assured, old-fashioned sense of pacing, with just the right amount of detail to draw readers in. Ages 5–8. Agent: Brenda Bowen, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Illustrator’s agent: The Organisation.(Mar.)

First Prayers: A Celebration of Faith and Love

Illus. by Troy Howell. Sterling, $12.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4027-6454-7

The prayers in this compilation are generic and classic. Many of them are drawn from literature (Robert Browning, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and will likely appeal for literary rather than spiritual reasons. The real draw of the book is its illustrations. Howell did the covers for the U.S. editions of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and he has clearly looked at animals often and intensely. His birds sing full-throatedly; his mice are wee and beady-eyed. His palette includes lots of calm blues, a perfect say-your-bedtime-prayers-and-go-to-sleep color. The text itself doesn’t necessarily say a lot about the divine, but God, as ever, is in the lovely, original visual details. Agent: Sara Crowe, Harvey Klinger Inc. Ages 3-7. (Feb.)

On the Virtual Shelves: Web Exclusive Religion Book Reviews

Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Soft Skull [PGW, dist.])