Comment remains one of my favourite journals, publishing thoughtful pieces on a wide variety of subjects, often asking the questions of 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.
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark A. Noll (Eerdmans, 2011)
In 1994, esteemed evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote the much-talked about Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a bleak (even scathing) assessment of the state of evangelical scholarship. Christian colleges, campus ministries, think tanks and thought-leaders hosted confabs and conferences, study groups and symposia on his thesis. As you might imagine, Noll presented his exposé in rigorous detail, and it remains a standard in the field. In some ways, he showed why an anti-intellectualism has been at the populist heart of U.S. evangelicalism. Noll mostly confirmed the often-repeated Harry Blamires cry (from The Christian Mind) that “there is no distinctively Christian mind” (which I think I first read in the early 80s in Walsh and Middleton’s The Transforming Vision). The neocalvinist tradition and the various reformational networks that emerged from it in the later half of the 20th century in North America were prophetic in calling for robust and uniquely Christian scholarship, and Noll made note of that rich tradition. A few such spokespersons were seen as exceptions rather than the rule, however, within broader North American evangelicalism.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Noll explores how orthodox, creedal Christianity can supply motivation, guidance, and a solid framework for learning and the renewal of the life of the mind. There has been a lot of change in the world, in the settings of academia, and in the congregational life of most evangelical churches in the new millennium (including what some might consider a renaissance of interest in the relationship of faith and scholarship). We can rejoice that this highly respected author has given us a great gift, offering an up-to-date, candid evaluation. Dr. Noll draws on poets and sociologists, theologians and other historians, and brings an intensely Christological focus to our ongoing efforts toward thinking well and offering a thoughtful witness to the watching world. This is an honest book, but also a hopeful book. Noll remains a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.
A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good by Miroslav Volf (Brazos, 2011)
As Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Volf is increasingly known as a public theologian, one who uses his profound Biblical orientation to weigh in on the issues of the day. He has written wisely on nationalism, ethnicity, forgiveness, interfaith dialogue, and other topics. Here, he ruminates on two major questions: why and how should Christians work for human flourishing, and how can we do that in a way that is not coercive in our increasingly pluralistic settings? He uses the word “malfunctions” to describe both our past theological approaches and even some of our (admittedly) well-intentioned practices. This book may be Volf’s most important contribution (at least since his first award-winning work, Exclusion and Embrace). There are rave reviews on the back from Cardus friends Richard Mouw and Nicholas Wolterstorff, who call it “profound . . . and . . . full of wisdom” and “a wonderful guide for the perplexed in our time.”
(Editor’s Note: Look for Nicholas Wolterstorff’s full review of Volf’s book in the Fall 2011 Comment.)
Earth: The Operator’s Manual by Richard B. Alley (Norton, 2011)
It is a rare delight when a PBS documentary on climate change starts off with the author asserting that he is a soccer dad, a Republican, and a Christian. Oh, and that he is one of the world’s leading climatologists, who has also been whimsically described as “a cross between Woody Allen and Carl Sagan.” Alley has written a book—as a companion to the current TV documentary—that is wonderfully interesting, full of important science, and very well written (and popularizing good science is not an easy feat). He is seriously concerned about carbon emissions and the need to be better stewards of our environment, and yet he still seems utterly reasonable and not alarmist. The large debate in both Canada and the U.S. about the Keystone XL Pipeline is one more reason why those of us who care about the common good must learn more about climate change, a central controversy of our day. This is a fine and up-to-date overview, and highly recommended.
Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
While not every Christian journal has readers who would care about this book, surely Comment readers will realize the significance of this oh-so-down-to-earth topic: how learning about eating is vital for a committed, daily discipleship. And most Comment readers want more than foodie sentiment and simplistic rhetoric. Wirzba will not please everyone, I’m afraid, as he is radically committed to a creational faith and a sustainable, localized economy. Yet, this book may be one of the most substantive works yet done on this topic; the simple sounding title and subtitle should not lead you to believe this is short and sweet. It is mature, thoughtful, and serious—it is published by one of the oldest and most prestigious publishers in the world, after all. Wirzba is Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School and the editor of several other important academic works.
From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism by D.G. Hart (Eerdmans, 2011)
Hart is renowned for his curmudgeonly critiques of simplistic American evangelicalism and his jabs at a shallow and trendy neoconservatism. Yet (now as professor of history at Hillsdale College), he brings his serious, Reformed convictions to this fascinating question: does evangelicalism, as most deeply understood and practiced, really have the ability to sustain its current involvement with conservative politics? With provocative insights, Hart examines the Christian Right and argues that evangelicalism has been a bad fit with classic “small government” conservatism. As he says in the introduction, “The star power of Rick Warren and Sarah Palin, along with the limits of Red State-Blue State analysis, have obscured this disparity between evangelicalism and conservatism. To be sure, many evangelicals in the pews continue to vote consistently for Republicans, but their reasons for doing so are morally thick and politically thin . . . ” Hart asserts that most true evangelicals simply do not think or act like conservatives. Iconoclastic and fascinating, this book will surely be of interest to those wanting to continue to ponder how best to give witness to fidelity in citizenship.
Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential (Revised and Expanded) by Gordon T. Smith (IVP, 2011)
I have long been a fan of the books about spiritual formation by Gordon Smith. (He is a Canadian Christian Missionary Alliance pastor who is an expert on Ignatian spirituality; what’s not to like?) I am also regularly inspired by books on vocation and calling. Smith’s book has been a staple: clear, passionate, detailed, substantive. But with this new edition it has rocketed up near the top of my “must-read” book list on this topic. Nearly every chapter of the older edition has been expanded or edited. There are two new chapters and two that are significantly expanded. He has integrated new insights from educational theory and his experience in spiritual direction as well, helping readers “steward their lives” and seek congruence among their various offices, obligations, work, and inner character. He invites us to “think vocationally” and develop a “capacity for continuous learning.” This is a very thoughtful and expansive book with a warm new cover. Kudos to IVP for bringing out this new version!
CD: The Gift of Genevan Psalmody for Today Sprung From Its Historical Context by Calvin Seerveld (Toronto Tuppence Press, 2011)
Dr. Seerveld is renowned the world over, but he is particularly beloved in Cardus and Comment circles for his long-standing support of winsome but intentionally neocalvinist journalism. His profound insight about the arts and the allusive aesthetic aspects of daily life are legendary. Seerveld also has had an equally long-standing interest in mature worship, in opened-up possibilities of richly sung congregational music, especially using the Psalms. He has often drawn on the 15th century Genevan Psalms in his talks and in the worship services he has curated. After studying the Song of Songs (and offering his own translation), he put it to choral arrangements that have been performed throughout the world. Although retired from teaching philosophical aesthetics, Seerveld is used by God to encourage a renewed interest in the Psalms in worship. In this brand new CD, Seerveld lectures—or is it preaching? or testifying? —between each recorded piece, helping us learn how music was sung in the late medieval world (from Gregorian chant to polyphonic songs through simple laudes) and into the Protestant Reformation. Space does not allow me to explain the many stops along the way, but the commentary is vintage Seerveld: very detailed, colourfully worded, historically knowledgeable, and honourably ecumenical. He tells us not only the historical context, but also the style of the music—noting something to pay attention to, a chord or cadence—and guides us from Gregorian chant to German Lutheran hymns to Calvin’s own preferences for Psalms designed to be sung regularly by the common person in the vernacular. (They sing two versions of Psalm 42, one by Palestrina, another as written by Louis Bourgeois.) The excellent recordings of nine pieces by the (Mennonite) Pax Christi Chorale are truly stunning, comparable to the Tallis Scholars or Cambridge Singers. This music/spoken word audio runs just under 80 minutes, and you will listen to it repeatedly.
The books listed above are all available from Byron Borger’s bookstore—Hearts & Minds Books.