Comment remains one of my favourite journals, publishing thoughtful pieces on a wide variety of subjects, often asking how best to think as Christians and what practices emerge from our reflections about God’s redemptive work in the world. Readers care about a lot of stuff, and want to learn how to live in these times fruitfully and faithfully.
Of course, as a bookseller, it is a joy to talk about books that might be of interest to this exact sort of engaged, open-minded, and discerning reader. Here are a few choice titles that Comment readers might enjoy.
Practice and Profile: Christian Formation for Vocation by Johan Hegeman, Margaret Edgell, Henk Jochemsen (Wipf & Stock, 2011)
Have you ever read a book and wanted to tell others about it, but were fully aware that not too many friends would be interested in it? Many of the best books, I think, may be like that; they are great in a specialized field, but are not really appealing to everyone. I am confident that although this book is a bit of an arcane study of a complex topic, it will resonate with many Comment readers. Comment seeks to inform leaders about God’s reforming work, particularly as they take up vocations and callings within the myriad institutions in which they find themselves. The authors of Practice and Profile have written a fascinating book about how to more profoundly mentor college students into the vision and practices of a distinctively Reformed worldview in ways that lead to character and virtue within their professional callings.
However, I don’t think this book is only for college teachers or administrators. Who doesn’t have some concern about the gap between belief and behaviour? Who doesn’t realize that we must not only inspire but help shape younger adults towards a deeply moral approach to their professional careers in the marketplace? As Peter Blokhuis (Chair of the Department of Journalism at the Dutch Christelijke Hogeschool Ede University of Applied Science) has summarized it, “This is a very special book about the relationship between persons and vocations. It bridges old gaps between the technical side of professions and worldviews.” It is a demanding book, covering fields of pedagogy and spirituality, philosophy and ethics, development and higher learning. It shows how to move towards more integrated professional conduct and competency, even as we long to be people of integrity and influence. This proposal is a fascinating read about how to effectively communicate and monitor the effectiveness of teaching some of the very stuff Cardus and Comment are all about. Granted, it may not be for everybody, but among those reading this review, this book may be a wonderful, serious gift. Hegeman is a professor of Ethics and Social Sciences at Christelijke Hogeschool Ede and Henk Jochemsen holds the Chair of Reformational Philosophy at Wageningen University, both in The Netherlands. Edgell is Associate Professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Kudos to them for this fine collaboration.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2011)
It is not often that I describe what might be called a “self help” book here at Comment. But it is not often that a book in that genre comes along that is as deserving of our attention as this brand-new release by the respected pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Keller, along with his wife Kathy (who also penned a few chapters), has seen a lot of serious, active young adults who, like Tim and Kathy, are “tired of listening to sentimental talks on marriage.” The book attempts to provide a different approach, noting how the institution is grounded in God’s creation order and is both glorious and difficult. It explores the deepest meaning of relationships; talks about how the gospel makes a difference in marriage; looks at friendship, sexuality, theology; and offers a fairly nuanced approach to the Bible’s teachings about headship and submission. There are few books that are as wise and thoughtful and useful for those wanting something deeper than the simple handbooks—married or not. As you can imagine, it is a bit counter-cultural; that is, it debunks the popular cultural images, both the sentimental and the cynical. Certainly, it reminds us of Ephesians 5:32: marriage is, indeed, a “profound mystery.” The Kellers do not back away from the mystery of it all, but they do unveil a bit. This is very, very helpful and highly recommended.
Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes (Russell Media, 2011)
When a journal—like Comment—is designed to foster public intellectual engagement and nurture good skills of discernment and conversation, it offers book reviews and recommends resources that become open doors for dialogue. This new, attractively designed hardback is designed just for this sort of ongoing discussion and debate. The format is simple: two feisty friends square off on a variety of foundational topics (the role of the state and the contributions of civil society, especially business) and public policy questions (welfare, energy, immigration, and the like.) The two authors both do a good job telling of their distinctive journeys and offering their passionate convictions. Harper is a Sojourners-esque African-American leader who tends to favour more liberal policy proposals, while Innes is very articulate conservative, himself an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and professor of Politics at The King’s College in New York. Both marshal Bible verses and theological insights to explore their points and counterpoints. The first pages of the book include numerous rave reviews from important authors representing a variety of quarters from within the U.S. evangelical movement. Brief forwards were written by Marvin Olasky (WORLD) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners). I believe this is a very useful book, interesting and in some ways quite fresh. I do wish, however, that a third voice had been included, someone saying a principled “no” to both views and to the whole bipolar continuum that commonly frames this whole conversation. Still, this is a remarkable project and a good tool, and it clearly represents the strengths, weakness, and limitations of typical evangelical civic views, especially in the United States.
Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between by Jeff Sharlet (Norton, 2011)
Sharlet, who once identified himself as a Christian but no longer does, is renowned for his investigative pieces (often overstated and sensational, in my view) against small movements within the Christian right in the U.S. This book expands his view as he writes stunning essays about all manner of extremists, passionate believers, free-thinkers, and visionaries. Some of the religiosity, or anti-religiosity, which he colourfully describes is truly extraordinary (sometimes even bizarre), and yet he imbues his subjects with such dignity as he tells of their views and lifestyles, their hopes and their fears. This is one rollicking ride through the underbelly of North American cults and cultures, beautifully written—stunningly so at times. It is commendable because it is so well written, because it gives voice to fellow citizens in their (unusual) efforts to find meaning and hope, and because it does allow us a glimpse into the “faith and faithlessness” in this postmodern era. Beliefnet.com says it is “breathtakingly good.” Another reviewer says he is a “visionary in the lineage that runes from Twain to Robinson Jeffers to Sam Shepard and Joan Didion.” I don’t know about that, but he certainly “scours the desert margins of our culture, politics, and religion, training his eye on outlaws, anarchists, fanatics, and saints.” What a book!
The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard by Andreas Widmer (Emmaus Road, 2011)
This is a brief book, easy to read, with a clever story and more wisdom than many books twice its size. Widmer was a member of the Swiss Guard that served the Pope, and out of his behind-the-scenes perch he came to know John Paul II, whom he calls “the most authentically human person I’ve ever met.” His memories of those years and the witness of John Paul shaped the man who would become an international business executive. Indeed, Widmer recounts his personal experiences serving in Rome and the secrets of successful leadership that he learned from the Pope. This is more than a human interest story, though, and even more than a study of leadership lessons offered and learned. The Pope and the CEO is an accessible introduction to complex Catholic social thinking, the John Paulian critique of both Marxism and unfettered capitalism, and how our embodied, reasonable faith can, and must, make a difference in various social sectors, including business and the political economy. For those interested in virtue studies, business ethics, or successful entrepreneurship, this is a helpful glimpse of an integrated life. George Weigel, papal biographer and Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has a brief but illuminating forward in which he describes three big ideas that shine through Pope John Paul II’s social theories. Widmer learned them in his vocation, sometimes the hard way. Happily, we can too, easily, in this lovely little book.
The books listed above are all available from Byron Borger’s bookstore—Hearts & Minds Books.