Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

Wisdom is Made By Walking: a book review

I like a good pilgrimage. I’ve read books on it and have friends who have gone a sojourning.   But despite my interest, I have never gone on such a pilgrimage, outside of a couple of backpacking trips in the mountains.

9780819233493In Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Gil Stafford weaves together a story of a pilgrimage across Ireland coast-to-coast along the Wicklow Way. Stafford was a guide for a group of singing pilgrims, the Vox Peregrini. He weaves together his experience of walking, his own life journey from Conservative Southern Baptist College president to Episcopal priest-spiritual-wanderer, his family of origin, insights of Carl Jung’s depth psychology and alchemy as an archetype for spiritual transformation. Stafford writes, “To be on pilgrimage is to embrace the mission of a personal renaissance, to claim the inner beauty, the haunting, the frightening, the hated, the adored, the soft, the cruel, the humorous, the damaged, the hilarious, the pitiful—every sliver of conscious and unconscious—and a claim our self as our own who we are who we are becoming transformed into” (28).

Stafford invites us to this sort of journey toward spiritual transformation.  Chapters 1 through 4. Chapter 1 is about preparation and how the pilgrimage begins before we begin our walking, Chapter 2 describes the movement from the exuberant beginning of a pilgrimage to the ‘mundane ways of walking’ as the issues we carry come with us on our journey(18). Chapter 3 explores the experience of the pilgrim community, and how after 3 or 4 days of walking our defenses are down and we are vulnerable. Chapter four discusses the pilgrim at their most fragile when they feel like quitting (and this is the moment where spiritual transformation can happen).

These four chapters are broken up with ‘Interludes’—suggestions for equipment and physical, mental, and spiritual preparation of pilgrimage;  Ahmad, imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Arizona relates the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca; Crystal, (Stafford’s wife’s friend from high school), describes her Pilgrimage in Nepal; Greg’s transgendered pilgrimage as he journeyed toward becoming a transgendered woman (now Gwen).

In chapter 5, Stafford relates the story of his sister Dinah and his family’s pilgrimage with her as she lives with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Chapter 6 explores the experience of life, post-pilgrimage (Stafford describes this as a cross between a lovely afterglow and a bad-hangover), and the continuing journey of inner transformation.

Through the lens of Jungian psychology, Stafford’s description of pilgrimage focuses on this inner work of pilgrimage. The outer journey—tiredness and blisters, hunger and thirst and mundane walking, gives a context for a similar inner pilgrimage of transformation. Alchemy and the transmutation of base elements to gold become a poignant metaphor for the type of spiritual transformation envisioned by the pilgrim way. Stafford notes also, as a repeat pilgrim, that the inner process starts over with each pilgrimage because the process is cyclical. Though like a spiral staircase, we begin each journey upward at the same coordinates but with a new vantage point.

This was an enjoyable read. Stafford is a priest and a Christian and writes from a perspective of faith; however because the focus is on spiritual transformation, archetypes and inner work in a Jungian key, much of the insights that he explores here, are broadly applicable to anyone on a spiritual journey. You don’t actually have to go to Ireland (or wherever) to go on this sort of pilgrimage. I give this four stars -★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from the Publisher or Author via SpeakEasy in exchange for my meandering review.

Let Go and Let GOP: a book review

Every wonder why the Republican party is the party that self-consciously allies itself with the Christian Faith, even as its leadership has suspect moral values and betrays the OR Book Going Rougebiblical call to care for the vulnerable? According to Terry Heaton, the answer is Pat Robertson, the 700 Club, and his CBN empire.  Heaton writes:

When I worked with him the 1980s, we practiced and promoted a brand of Charismatic Christianity that was seen as a breath of fresh air to a faith that had grown stale in every aspect from its music to its preaching, and we worked long, hard hours to move hearts and souls in the way we felt was right. In so doing, we altered the course of political power in the United States, and it was as natural as our Christian calling. Taking positions on social issues formerly held by conservative Democrats such as the sanctity of life, religious liberties, patriotism, family, school prayer, and respect for individualism and tradition, we spoke to primarily rural and suburban Christians on behalf of the Republican Party. We presented as Biblical mandates or “laws” economic views that catered to a culture, teaching that being one of the haves was available for everybody. Our arguments and teaching helped move the GOP to the right on the political spectrum and created a following that continues to baffle even the smartest political analysts in the country who are confounded by how such people would act against their own interests in giving power to Republicans. (2-3)

Jesus joined the GOP because as Pat Robertson wagged on about God, he wagged the dog, diverting evangelicals toward partisan politics and Republicanism. Heaton tells this story in The Gospel of SelfHe had a front-row seat for most of this. In the 1980s, he was the executive producer of The 700 club, helping to transform it to its news-style format which would, in turn, influence the shape of conservative politics. Heaton sees their work at CBN as pioneering the sort of point-of-view-journalism which prefigured the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Conservative Talk Radio, and Fox news.

History will record that The 700 Club was the tap-root of that which moved the Republican Party to the right and provided the political support today for a man like Donald Trump.  A 2015 Harvard report concluded that right-wing media was driving the GOP, not Republican leadership, but this assumes that in order for people to behave as cultural radicals, they must be manipulated into doing so. This is a misleading interpretation of human nature and the power of personal faith. (12-13).

Heaton sees the work of CBN, and later right-wing media outlets, as instrumental in manufacturing political opinion.  Much of the book recounts the story of CBN’s success in the 1980s and the political genius of Pat Robertson. The book is called the Gospel of Self because of the evangelistic emphasis on self-interest in Robertson (and other evangelicals) which dovetailed with fiscal conservative concerns for personal, economic prosperity. Heaton describes the growth of Robertson’s empire, his influence, his nearly successful bid for the GOP nomination, before being investigated by the IRS (Heaton suggests the government pressure came because George H W Bush was Vice President and Robertson’s chief opponent).  In the final two chapters,  Heaton offers his critique of media manipulation and the return of real independent journalism, and his suggestions for the emerging church in the post-Christian/postmodern era.

This is a critical look at Pat Robertson and his influence, but Heaton is not vindictive or bitter about his experience at CBN. Like Robertson, he was convinced they were doing the Lord’s work. So even as he talks about the way The 700 Club’s sometimes exaggerated or manipulative claims of healing, or Robertson’s overstated prophesies,  Heaton also extolls the good. The ways Robertson and CBN impacted real lives and made a difference, Robertson’s genius, and fundraising and commitment to Christian mission. Heaton now advocates a brand of Christianity that is less top-down, more relational and less manipulative (204), but I didn’t feel like this book is out to smear Robertson’s character (even as he points at some glaring problems).

The real value of the book is the insider perspective that Heaton offers on Robertson. Robertson and his impact on Evangelicals in politics are highly significant for understanding American political landscape. Of course, Robertson was not alone. There was also Falwell’s Moral Majority, Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, and a host of other voices. Heaton doesn’t really tell their story (he briefly mentions Falwell, or segments Colson did on The 700 Club), but he was too close to the sun all other luminaries paled in comparison. Heaton linking Robertson’s 1980s empire to Trump did seem a bit tenuous, other than to point out ways in which conservative politics and Evangelical sociopolitical identity became entangled.  Though he does make some interesting suggestions on how motivated conservatives and evangelicals are by self-interest, and the ways social-care, a gospel prerogative, was short-shrifted by evangelicals (and the GOP).   A book like Francis FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals (Simon & Schuster, 2017) does a better job of tracing the movement of Evangelicalism towards the GOP and the rise of Trumpism, but Heaton’s perspective is interesting as one. I give this three-and-a-half-stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Pray for Revisal: a book review

I am a writer. Most days I believe it. I have that badge that all real writers have: rejection letters from magazine submissions failed attempts and false starts, a loud inner critic and writer’s block. But also, I have moments where I write something (often on my blog, but also for sermons) and I know my words hit home. I share myself and others find themselves in what I’ve written. I haven’t written anything long form, because I don’t know how —I’m afraid of it—I’ve never done it, and feel too scattered to engage a topic in a sustained way.  One day, I will find my literary muse and produce something beautiful to offer the world. Until then, all I have are my eclectic musings on faith and spirituality and vocational frustration (my most popular blog posts have been about making fun of Christian music and bad job interviews).

But enough 511kqidf2b2bl-_sx260_about me. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review? You are right. The book is called Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. She teaches memoir, essay, and journal writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, is the recipient of the Minneapolis State Arts Board artists’ fellowship and has been a Minneapolis Book Award finalist. She is the author of Writing the Sacred Journey, On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood and Holiness and the novel Hannah, Delivered. 

Andrew has a heap of helpful advice for would-be-authors on writing,—clarifying and communicating the story, and the whole revision process. By this, she doesn’t mean revision in the sense of copy editing, getting your grammar in order, all your “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed and your modifier’s grounded.  Instead, Andrew speaks of revision as the complicated but profound journey of creativity, where a writer engages their work and dares to see it anew.  This involves both holding our work lightly and engaging it wholeheartedly. It means doing the inner work required to know what we are trying to say, what we are afraid to say, and what we dare not say. In the end, revision helps us clarify our message and transcribe our truth to the page in a way that is both self-aware and inviting.

Andrew has thirteen chapters which guide her readers through the writing process—from the rough first draft, through rewrites and enduring discomfort, reframing, strengthening, restructuring, and attention to language. She has us ask hard questions of our writing, like what is the inner story and subtext? And what is our story asking of us?

So, I took uncharacteristically too long reading this book—in part because I didn’t have a piece of writing I was currently working on. However, I did write some shorter things (e.g. sermons, blog posts, book reviews) and did use some of her suggestions. One of the insights from Andrew that I found particularly helpful is her idea that writer begins their drafts and the work of reworking of projects under a cloud of privacy and unknowing (63), but as we engage the work of revisioning, we increasingly open ourselves to our audience. So the act of writing is a pregnant solitude which allows us to press in to our creative flow, but the re-writes and revision bring about a context for communion with our readers. She writes:

Here’s the trick to sustaining a joyful, healthy relationship with writing through revision and beyond publication. Never abandon your space of curiosity, freedom, and love. Our work may travel outward to meet an audience. We may meet the audience as well, which is a tremendous privilege. But the source of a writer’s well-being is that safe place where we can be intimate, honest, and adventurous. We neglect it at our peril (66).

This was a profound insight for sermon writing (did I mention that Barbara Brown Taylor writes the forward?).

Throughout the book, are toolboxes designed to help authors engage their work, and exercises to do in your writer’s notebook to engage the process of writing—e.g. wrestling with your inner critic and discovering what your story is asking of you. Because I didn’t have a sustained project I was working on, some of these exercises weren’t helpful for me, though I underlined a butt ton and there are things I’ll come back to when I have something to work through.  The ‘spirituality’ piece is the inner-work necessary for good writing to emerge. One day I’ll get there.   I give this four star. – ★ ☆ ★ ☆

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author or publisher, via SpeakEasy, in exchange for my honest review.

Do You Mind? a book review

My own interest in mindfulness is spiritual. Sure, it has its roots in Buddhism and I am very much on the Jesus-y Christian end of the world religious spectrum, but as my spiritual director observed, “All prayer begins with something like mindfulness”— paying attention to yourself, your world, and God. So, I picked up Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary in the hopes that it could help me move past my own anxious feelings and my Spiritual ADHD.

mindyourlifecoverMeg Salter is a mindfulness coach and Integral Master Coach™ who explores how mindfulness can help each of us experience life more fully, be more present and have greater resilience. She tells the story of her own mindfulness journey, and shares stories of how others journeyed toward greater mindfulness, discusses its benefits. She also offers a “Unified Mindfulness System” composed of three attentive skills, three types of practices and a variety of practices, related to the three types (83). The three skills are (1) concentration, (2) sensory clarity and (3) equanimity (allowing experiences to come and go without a push and pull or trying to manipulate them). The three types of practices involve appreciating ourselves and our world, transcending our self and world and nurturing our positive selves and our world (95). Three chapters (chapters 7 to 9) describe a variety of practices as they relate to each of the practice types.

There are some super-duper benefits to mindfulness. When you begin to practice it, you are more alert, more resilient, less anxious, less stressed and you get a good night’s sleep because you have no insomnia. You even smell better. Okay, I made up that last one. People who practice mindfulness may still smell bad, but because of their non-judgmental stance toward themselves, they feel a lot better about it.

I appreciated this book. Mindfulness practices (e.g. cultivating awareness of our breath and body in sitting practice, or taking note on our internal experience throughout the day) easily maps upon a variety of Christian practices, even if this is not an explicitly Christian book (it isn’t explicitly anything, except integral spirituality™). I made several notes in the margins and flags some of these practices to try to press into later. Her sitting practice aims at about 10 minutes of intentional practice (which is more doable than the 20-25 other mindful authors tell you to aim for).  I also appreciate that Salter pulls out of her coaching arsenal an exercise of creating a ‘mindfulness topic statement’ to help clarify both our future hopes for mindfulness and our present discomfort (there is a worksheet in the book, to create one, three different times). I give this book three-and-a-half-stars ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

The Missional Grace of Together: a book review

Missional is one of those plastic terms and it can mean anything depending on who’s saying it (the way Emergent used to mean that people had couches and candles in their megachurch-GenX-service). So when I picked up Larry Duggins’s Together: Community As a Means of GraceI wasn’t sure what I would get. I mean, I knew it was part of the “Missional Wisdom Library,” and that Duggins was the Executive Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation. I also knew that Duggins was an elder in the United Methodist Church. But I felt like these facts didn’t tell me all that much. I hadn’t heard of the Missional Wisdom Foundation and Methodists are all over the map.

9781532613050What did Missional mean when Duggins said it? Was it just a strategy or a formula for outreach? Was it a “whole new way of ministry?” Did it just mean pub church and community gardens? Or was Duggins pointing to a more robust theological understanding of what it means to be missional?

Duggins does like community gardens but there is, indeed, rich theological reflection here. Duggins sets to work casting a vision in which to root mission. He does this through the concept of community.

In chapter 1, Duggins discusses the  perichoretic community of the Triune God—and the relational dance of God. Chapter 2 explores the nature of humanity. Duggins posits that humans were created with a need for community. Genesis 1:27 describes the mutual Divine image bearing of female and male persons(9), whereas Genesis 2 underscores how it was “not good” for man to be alone:

It is noteworthy that the first thing that God points out as “not good” is the lack of community, not original sin! God sees that humans need other humans to be “good” as God intended (10).

So, Duggins argues, community with other people is an integral part of what it means for us to be human.

In Chapter 3, tells the story of Grace— human fallenness (beginning in Genesis 3) and God’s loving action and presence in effecting our deliverance (culminating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection). However, using a Wesleyan understanding of ‘means of grace,’ Duggins describes the ways Jesus lived in concert with God’s grace in daily life, commending Christ’s example to us (18-22).

At the close of chapter 3, Duggins describes  John Wesley’s understanding of prudential “means of grace” as activities, that is activities that bring us deeper into communion with God’s grace but “are not drawn directly from the life of Christ” (22). For Wesley, these were class and band meetings, love feasts, and covenant renewal movements. In chapter 4, Duggins digs deeper into Wesleyan’s communal examples of prudential grace and suggests implications for mission today:

Imagine Christians joined with others in communities that are important to people of this day and age, living as followers of Christ ready to be the hands and feet of Christ in the lives of those who do not yet know how to express their “spiritual but not religious feelings. Christians sharing their stories and experiences with people who are truly their friends, not to push them into conversion or membership, but because, as a friend, they want to share what is important to them. Christian people who model love & inclusion in community. Christians who are willing to help others see the presence of Christ in their midst.” (30-31)

In the remainder of the book, Duggins connects these theological understandings of community (community rooted in Trinity, the Imago-Dei, and Wesleyan Spirituality) and describes the variety of ways communities form today. Duggins doesn’t indicate a particular strategy or format(so no push for pub-church in particular) but he gives examples of theological-rooted communities in: traditional church contexts, in workplace communities, in communities that are centered around food, children’s schools or various affinity groups, and  he commends creative re-imagining discipleship and evangelism.

While I appreciated this latter part of the book, and Duggins’s refusal to prescribe just one form of community but instead describe the variety and experience of communities he’s known, for me, it is the theological visioning stuff at the front that I really liked. I found as I read on, I underlined less and less; yet, it is the latter half where we hear contemporary stories of missional community today and the practical outworking of theology.

This is a short book, less than 90 pages, without a lot of footnotes and extraneous references. It is accessible enough for lay leaders. This is the kind of book that a church leadership team or elder board could read together without feeling bogged down in anything too heady. While it starts with a Trinitarian, biblical, and theological reflections on community and means of grace, this is, in reality, for only 30 odd pages. The rest of the book gives practical examples of what this may look like in different contexts. This could be good fodder for discussion. I give this book four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Tantra JC, GRRR! a book review

This is an odd book for me to review. Generally speaking, when it comes to world-faith traditions, I draw water from my own well (Proverbs 5:15). I am a big believer in Christian particularity. Jesus was the unique Son of God, sent to save the world, because of God’s great love for us. That isn’t to say I think other faith traditions are wholly false. I have benefited from mindfulness practice, and some authors I respect (e.g. Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Dorothee Sölle) have drawn on the ‘perennial mystical tradition’ (Rohr’s term) and there is a such thing as fruitful interfaith-dialogues.
9781620555613_1 So in a spirit of equanimity, I decided to give Tantric Jesus a hearing (even if I regarded the premise as somewhat suspect). James Hughes Reho is an Episcopal Priest, with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, a yoga teacher, and a Tantra initiate. He contends that Jesus himself, and the early Christian community with him, taught a tantric spirituality. Reho notes that in the West, “Tantra often conjures up pictures of arcane mystical practices or acrobatic sexual escapades. In reality, Tantra is a philosophy of life, love, and being—grounded in practice—that can help us re-engage the deep and life-transforming truths of Christianity in a fresh way” (10). So Reho explores Tantra—its gods, sacred myths and practices—in order to discover resonances with the Christian tradition.

Reho’s exploration unfolds in two sections. In part 1, he explores he explores what he sees as the shared Christian, Tantric religious vision. He recapitulates ‘The Five Roots of Tantra’ into the ‘Five Roots of Christian Tantra.’ They are:

  1. The world is real and good.
  2. The Divine Feminine.
  3. The human person, embodied, is the divine temple.
  4. Spiritual practices are rooted in Eros and antinomian behaviors which point toward love and compassion rather than law and obligation.
  5. Both traditions advocate living relationships with a guru/teacher.

Let me say, in general, these five ‘roots’ seem like good things to me, but I felt a little lost in Reho’s descriptions of Tantra/Hindu theology.

In part 2, Rehu explores what Tantra has to teach Christians about spiritual practice. Specifically, he examines the prayer of the heart, the Jesus prayer, praying with icons, gazing at another person, sacred foot washing, and sacred sexual union.

Reho sees resonances between Christian Tantric practice and the Christian mystical tradition; however, the examples he cites, at least on the Christian theology side, would be at best a minority tradition. He cites the gospels alongside gnostic gospels (e.g. Thomas and Philip), Celtic spirituality, heretics like Pelagius, and cherry-picked quotes from Eastern Orthodox saints. So while he cites the Cappadocians to describe the concept of theosis and divinization in the Christian mystical tradition, I am fairly certain Tantra was not what Gregory of Nyssa had in mind.

Nevertheless, I appreciated some of the things Reho said. He challenges the gnostic hatred of embodiment that has cast a shadow over Western spirituality (even as he cites gnostics and Christian Neo-Platonists constantly). He takes Ander Nygren to task for his denigration of Eros as incompatible with Divine love (Christian love can be true without being devoid of self-interest). I also appreciated hearing some of Reho’s own mystical and spiritual journey and what practices he found personally nourishing. Part of this text is biographical. It describes practices and theology that Reho himself has found helpful.

But his highlighting of marginal, decontextualized voices, makes this a difficult book for me to recommend. I do not know enough about Tantra and Hinduism to know how faithful Reho is to that tradition (though I understand Tantra as a marginal theology within Hinduism). I do know Reho’s claims about Christianity aren’t really all that orthodox. In the end, I’ll give this two stars. I struggled with it, but I finished it. – ★★

. Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.