Secular Buddhism, the Christian Right, Prison Ministries, Faith Memoirs | Spirituality & Religion Reviews

A challenging and conversant exploration of Buddhism; an illuminating and erudite history of the cross over time; Stellman's honest account will find resonance among fans of popular faith narratives; while it cannot stand on its own, this work can serve as a pocket companion to Day or a source of quiet meditation

Introspection and intimacy are recurring themes in this month’s selections. We see an unexpectedly intimate side of the relationship between journalist/activist Dorothy Day and God in The Reckless Way of Love. That association between the divine presence and action is taken up by Marcus J. Borg in Days of Awe and Wonder. Conversations, confessionals, and the complexities of daily life are investigated by authors such as Lauren Casper, Anna LeBaron, Jason J. Stellman, and Tony and Bart Campolo. Looking at the sociology of religion, Jenna Weissman Joselit uses the Ten Commandments as a touchstone to reflect on American culture in Set in Stone, Tanya Erzen examines the role prison ministries play in God in Captivity, and Robin M. Jensen explores the enduring legacy of the cross.


secularbuddhism.jpg31717redstarBatchelor, Stephen. Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World. Yale Univ. Feb. 2017. 296p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780300223231. pap. $27.50. REL

Batchelor (Buddhism Without Beliefs) has long advocated that Buddhism would flourish best in Western societies as a secular practice without such religious doctrines as karma or the cycle of rebirth. This anthology spans the 1990s to the present, showing the development of the author’s ideas and how the principles he proposes are lived. Although none of the articles in this volume go into the critical depth needed to evaluate his overall project of reimagining Buddhism, it’s clear from the literary methods he used to approach Buddhist texts (particularly the Pali canon) that the author is not intending to refashion Buddhism simply to meet his secular tastes. Even some of his most controversial contentions, such as a radical reevaluation of the Four Noble Truths, depend on an attempt to recover the texts rather than recasting a religion as a pragmatic philosophy. VERDICT Aimed at a broad audience, this work should appeal to anyone interested in exploring Buddhism within a rigorous framework that is both conversant with and challenging to a Western intellectual ­heritage.—JW

Erzen, Tanya. God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Beacon. Mar. 2017. 248p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780807089989. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780807089996. REL

Reminding us that the United States has an extensive system of correctional institutions, Erzen (religion, gender studies, Univ. of Puget Sound, WA; Zero Tolerance) suggests the shift in theological perspective that came with the Second Great Awakening, along with the theological justification of slavery in the South, had a profound impact on prison reform in the 19th century. She argues that these effects are still felt today within the conservative Protestant ethos regarding sin and redemption, crime and criminals, prisons and correctional institutions. In a series of case studies drawn from visits to various correctional facilities, Erzen provides the perspectives of those serving in prison ministries, prison officials, and (most particularly) prisoners themselves. Free of sentimentality, the author presents a picture of these three interests interacting and reinforcing one another, often to the detriment of the inmates and society at large. VERDICT Anyone interested in criminology, women’s and family studies, sociology of religion, or criminal justice reform will find this to be a powerful and thought-provoking study.—JW

Jensen, Robin M. The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy. Harvard Univ. Apr. 2017. 280p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780674088801. $35. REL

Jensen (theology, Univ. of Notre Dame) follows the cross from its ignoble Christian beginnings through its manifestations as a focus of art, poetry, and theater, into its reevaluation during the Protestant Reformation and up to modern perspectives from non-Christian groups. The cross has served as “artifact, religious symbol, miraculous agent, devotional object and mass-produced collectible,” resulting in a fascinating metaphor for the changing dynamics of faith and culture. For instance, in the seventh century, as emphasis on Christ’s physical agony on the cross grew, iconoclasm clashed with religious iconography of the crucifix, with the unadorned cross emerging as an acceptable image: “an abstract symbol, the simple cross is deemed acceptable for both liturgical as well as decorative purposes.” Rich in artistic imagery and well researched in both Western as well as Eastern Christian traditions, Jensen might be faulted for offering only a single chapter covering the New World as well as Islam and the modern era, each of which could have been an entire chapter. VERDICT This erudite history illuminates the social, cultural, as well as theological developments of the cross over time.—SC

Joselit, Jenna Weissman. Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments. Oxford Univ. May 2017. 232p. illus. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780190253196. pap. $29.95. REL

The Ten Commandments are, according to Joselit (Judaic studies, George Washington Univ.; The Wonders of America), something of an American curiosity. They hold a pride of place enjoyed by few other texts, yet few can actually enumerate them. Using media in which the commandments have been set forth—stone, stained glass, and celluloid—Joselit presents narratives of how they have been woven into American culture and identity from the mid-19th century into the 20th century. Delving into the Jewish immigrant experience, the author examines the tension between maintaining one’s heritage while embracing an American identity. She then explores how the Commandments worked as metaphor and guide to forge a sense of a common civic virtue. Final essays deal with Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments, both the 1923 and 1956 versions. These are an exercise in contrast between how the laws functioned after World War I and later, when Americans faced the horror of the Holocaust and perceived threat of communism. VERDICT While not providing an explanation for the commandments’ prominence in the American imagination, Joselit has unearthed themes in the collective psyche, showing them to be more ubiquitous than one might have thought.—JW

Mack, Burton L. The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth: Restoring Our Democratic Ideals. Yale Univ. Feb. 2017. 320p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780300222890. pap. $28;

ebk. ISBN 9780300227895. REL

That the United States is a Christian nation and its status as such should be upheld is almost an article of faith for some in the Christian Right. Mack (theology, Claremont Sch. of Theology; Myth and the Christian Nation) counters that while the story of Christianity is embedded in the nation’s social psyche, the United States has never been Christian, and that the Christian myth is inadequate for a democratic society. He argues that the religion as it developed from the time of Constantine served the needs of an empire and a feudal system. While the myth was largely quiescent in earlier U.S. history, it started to reemerge with the onset of the Cold War. However, this framework has been unable to inform or address the ideologies found in science or capitalism. The author uses a number of concrete examples to underscore his theoretical argument. VERDICT This study requires attentive reading. Those with an interest in anthropology or the sociology of religion along with readers inclined to social or national policy will enjoy.—JW

spiritual growth

Alsup, Wendy. Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture. Multnomah. Mar. 2017. 224p. notes. pap. ISBN 9781601429001. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781601429018. REL

Blogger and writer Alsup (Practical Theology for Women) offers what she calls “a Jesus-centered” approach to the Bible in order to redeem the trenchant misogyny often associated with its stories. Her reading of both testaments is thoroughly intertextual: “no outside commentary offers as much insight on Scripture as the Bible offers about itself.” Her methodology employs a generalized spiritual allegory through the lens of the Christian message. For example, marriage as given in Genesis 2 is not merely for procreative purposes, but rather presents an imperfect human image that finds its ultimate perfection in Christ, where we read that “Jesus is the only true Groom.” A woman’s value, seen in the light of Pauline patriarchy (“she shall be saved in childbearing” 1 Timothy 2:15), is not in reducing her to a womb, but instead as the hope of salvation which comes through women, thereby redeeming the fallen Eve. VERDICT Thoroughly orthodox in her approach, Alsup’s latest work will appeal to Christocentric communities seeking to accommodate a less gender-bifurcated faith.—SC

Borg, Marcus J. Days of Awe and Wonder: How To Be a Christian in the 21st Century. HarperOne. Mar. 2017. 288p. notes. ISBN 9780062457332. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062457356. REL

daysofawe.jpg42117Borg (religion & culture, Oregon State Univ.; Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) may be best known for his association with the Jesus Seminar. However, this collection of sermons, book chapters, articles, interviews, and blog posts is only tangentially connected with that endeavor. Instead, it addresses questions that informed Borg’s scholarship and practical convictions. Borg’s focus is on wonder, that deep-seated conviction and experience that there is more to life than we can know or hope to know, and though beyond our grasp, this knowledge is available to us. Borg, who died in 2015, was a mystic, and his experiences with the numinous animate his writings. His kind of mysticism embraces reason, as evidenced by discussions over the divinity of Jesus, religious pluralism, the new atheists, and issues of social justice. Although Borg starts to repeat himself, the volume manages to portray a Christianity that is reasonable, full, expansive, and life affirming. VERDICT For those interested in Borg’s scholarship, this work provides a hand-held guide for understanding him and his critics. It is also valuable for those wishing to engage their own spiritual aspirations.—JW

Campolo, Tony & Bart Campolo. Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son. HarperOne. Feb. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9780062415370. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062415424. REL

It is all too easy for believers and secularists to caricature each other. Such an easy out was not available for the Christian apologist Tony Campolo (emeritus, sociology, Eastern Univ.; The Kingdom of God is a Party) and his son Bart (Humanist Chaplain, Univ. of Southern California; Kingdom Works), who have been grappling with issues of faith and reason for decades. While each aims at persuasion, they also take on the daunting task of affirming the other’s intellectual integrity, honesty, and human decency. With father and son alternating chapters, one gets the feeling of a conversation developing new points of view. Each account is personal, charged, and sometimes pointed, but leaves readers wishing that the dialog would continue. It is clear that each intends to listen to and learn from the other and to hope (and work for) the best. VERDICT With the son articulating to his father his place in the world, and the father seeing the world he bequeathed to his son being realigned, both Campolos invite readers into something deeper than a simple clash of ­worldviews.—JW

Casper, Lauren. It’s Okay About It: Lessons From a Remarkable Five-Year- Old About Living Life Wide Open. HarperCollins. May 2017. 240p. notes. ISBN 9780718085421. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718085537. REL

Blogger Casper ( has taken some of her homespun insights on family and parenting and presents them here, organized around the simple wisdom of her special-needs son, Mareto. After suffering from infertility, Casper and her husband eventually adopted two Ethiopian children: one with recognizable issues, and one with unknown issues that over time led to a diagnosis of autism. The overarching theme—life doesn’t always go the way you thought it would—resolves into a generalized sense of “Let go and let God.” The author’s unaffected voice is reflective of a realized, everyday spirituality. Many of her ideas find common cause with new parents walking the path of discovery as their children mature into their unique selves, if only parents take the time to stop and notice. That idealized parental expectations often have to conform to each child results is a subtle and simple joy. VERDICT A personal account of Christian parenting for those who are harried yet hopeful.—SC

Day, Dorothy. The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus. Plough.

Mar. 2017. 149p. ed. by Carolyn Kurtz. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780874867923. pap. $8; ebk. ISBN 9780874867930. REL

Day (1897–1980) is remembered as a radical and the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, but one sees very little of that here. These snippets from nearly a dozen larger collections explore what animated Day. While the sources are noted, it is better to take in this title before consulting others. What emerges is the portrait of a woman of deep but conventional Catholic piety. Professional theologians might dismiss Day’s reflections as unsophisticated until being brought back to her extraordinary personality. Day had no patience with those who called her a saint. Saints are not like the rest of us, but the Day in these pages is. Her reflections leave one wondering whether what made her so fascinating was that she took the simple teaching of her faith at face value and to heart. VERDICT While it cannot stand on its own, this work can serve as a pocket companion to Day or as a source of quiet meditation.—JW

Stellman, Jason J. Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-Pastor. Convergent. Mar. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9780804140621. pap. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780804140614. REL

While the subtitle teases that this is a confessional of sorts, in truth, social media personality Stellman’s (cohost of Drunk Ex-Pastors podcast) book is hardly memoir-as-confessional, since readers learn little about the author. For that information, it seems one should become familiar with his podcast. What Stellman does confess is his conversion from rigid, Bible-thumping evangelical to an incarnationally informed lay Catholic who better tolerates the ambiguities and paradoxes of faith. His misfit faith—loosely characterized in cheeky vernacular as “sucking at something awesome rather than being awesome at something that sucks”—is his artless defining apologia against unyielding Protestant dogmatism in light of his fresh Catholic perspective. The author transfers his considerable missionary fervor to defending a liturgically and sacramentally informed faith, which encodes his self-definition as a “crash and burn misfit.” However, he turns Evangelical Protestantism into a straw man in a manner that communicates much more about his faith journey than Protestantism in general. VERDICT This honest account will find resonance among consumers of popular faith narratives.—SC

Memoirs & Biographies

LeBaron, Anna with Leslie Wilson. The Polygamist’s Daughter: A Memoir. Tyndale House. Mar. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781496417558. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781496417589. MEMOIR

Similar to recent memoirs (Elissa Walls’s Stolen Innocence or Carolyn Jessop’s Escape) about life within and ultimately leaving a cult, LeBaron’s account tells of being one of 50 children of rogue polygamist Ervil LeBaron. Her story is one of maternal disaffection, geographic dislocation, and an appalling paucity of education and meaningful relationships until she breaks away at age 13 to live with one of her nonpolygamist sisters. While her personal courage is laudatory, this work lacks historical context, raising such questions as how her father and mother came to embrace this radical Mormon belief system, and whether her father was an originator of the cult’s blood atonement justification for the murder of wayward members. Also missing is enough personal introspection to transform the retelling from life vignettes into a sustained narrative, rendering this a superficial sharing of events and feelings from her childhood perspective. Verdict Only for exhaustive readers and collectors of faith memoirs.—SC

Sandra Collins (PHD, MLS, Univ. of Pittsburgh) is Library Director and Professor at Byzantine Catholic Seminary, PA. James Wetherbee (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity Sch.; MSLS, Univ. of Kentucky) is Network and Library Systems Administrator at Wingate University, NC, and Library Liaison for the departments of religion and philosophy

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