Wisdom & Scripture, Activism & Faith, Engaging the Work/Life Balance | Spirituality & Religion Reviews, July 1, 2016

Angel opts for tradition with a book of everyday wisdom; Bowler explains Christmas in the Crosshairs; King's call to action is a welcome addition; a helpful study in self-transformation; Steindl-Rast’s efforts prove a worthy guide

With only five months left until Christmas, you may already be stressed out by the impending holiday. If so, Gerry Bowler provides an entertaining history of the season with Christmas in the Crosshairs. For those interested in everyday spirituality, Marc D. Angel’s The Wisdom of Solomon and Us and Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise offer guidance to employ in daily life, while other books contain various perspectives on how to engage individual beliefs, whether through activism (Sarah Withrow King’s Vegangelical), holism (David Steindl-Rast’s The Way of Silence), or yogic practices (Sadhguru’s Inner Engineering). Lastly, more books are discussing the connection between faith and mental health as evidenced by Gillian Marchenko’s powerful memoir, Still Life.

Engaging the Traditions

Angel, Marc D. The Wisdom of Solomon and Us: The Quest for Meaning, Morality, and a Deeper Relationship with God. Jewish Lights. May 2016. 224p. notes. ISBN 9781580238557. pap. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9781580238601. REL

The wisdom that Angel (rabbi emeritus, Congregation Shearith Israel; Maimonides, Spinoza, and Us) has in mind is from the three books attributed to Solomon in the Hebrew Scriptures. Instead of examining these texts through the lens of critical theory, Angel opts for the tradition of the Talmud and Midrash. The result is a reflection on passages that provide a glimpse into Orthodox Jewish wisdom and spirituality over the past two millenia. The author begins by considering the order in which Solomon composed his books to help determine the progression of his spiritual insights. The arrangement Angel arrives at is Ecclesiastes (a philosophical thesis on one’s place in the world), Proverbs (a guide to human flourishing), and Song of Songs (a poetic analogy of one’s life in God). Within this framework are short chapters that could each serve as daily reflection or meditation. While some material may be unfamiliar, none of the information is either esoteric or forbidding. VERDICT A book of everyday wisdom that invites readers to bring the commonplace in harmony with the profound.—JW

Bowler, Gerry. Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday. Oxford Univ. Oct. 2016. 336p. illus. notes. ISBN 9780190499006. $29.95. REL

christmasincrosshairs.jpg62816The Christmas holiday seems to have conquered the world, and in doing so has met with those who passionately hold that the celebration fails to live up to its ideals and those who maintain that those ideals are precisely the problem. Bowler (history, Univ of Manitoba; Santa Claus: A Biography) explains that this antipathy has existed since before the tradition was first observed. The author begins by describing the development and controversies surrounding Christmas from the early third century CE to the mid-20th century. This portion is not only fascinating but also significant because those arguments continue to work themselves into the holiday and popular imagination. Later chapters detail the various groups who wish to exploit, reform, reappropriate, or completely dispense with Christmas as well as those who Bowler maintains take the occasion too seriously. VERDICT This scholarly, informative, and entertaining work is a wonderful antidote for anyone sick of all of the fuss who wants to enjoy Christmas, or at least tolerate it with good humor.—JW

Fox, Matthew. A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey. New World Lib. May 2016. 304p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781608684205. pap. $18.95; ebk. ISBN 9781608684212. REL

Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) and, more recently, Thomas Merton (1915–68), periodically reemerge as people rediscover Western spirituality and mysticism. Former Dominican and now Episcopal priest Fox (Christian Mystics) attempts to demonstrate Eckhart’s influence on Merton and to show how Merton’s thought fits into Fox’s own beliefs. After explaining the personal contact and impression that Merton had on the author’s early life, Fox then outlines his spiritual path using Merton’s copious and diverse writings as a guide. He continues with a list of the charges he claims precipitated his expulsion from the Dominican Order (the actual series of events are in dispute) and counters that these accusations are aligned with Merton’s thought. This work finishes with a critique of religious hierarchy and a call to see everything as sacred. Throughout, Fox contrasts creation spirituality with asceticism and the philosophy of Saint Augustine. VERDICT Fox’s exploration of Eckhart and Merton is both challenging and intriguing. His critique of Augustine, however, is superficial. Evoking Merton into the author’s own controversy with the Vatican distracts from the thrust of the study.—JW

King, Sarah Withrow. Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith. Zondervan. Jun. 2016. 176p. notes. ISBN 9780310522379. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780310522386. REL

vegangelical.jpg7516King (assoc. fellow, Oxford Ctr. for Animal Rights) extends the same perspective found in Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger toward a radical reappraisal of our relationship to animals. Starting by laying out a general biblical perspective that would resonate with many evangelicals, King argues for a full range of animal rights. Consequently, “vegangelical” is a misnomer, since the author not only argues for a vegan diet but also critiques the pet industry, zoos, vivisection, and the use of animals for clothing. King also strives to counter opposing biblical arguments within a common evangelical framework. In this she is not always successful and occasionally admits to not having a solid answer, as in the passage in John’s Gospel in which the risen Jesus is depicted eating broiled fish. VERDICT Even if one does not agree with every conclusion in this work, the plight of animals is an ongoing concern, and King does a fine job of illustrating this point. Her call to address the situation is a welcome addition.—JW

Solovyov, Vladimir. The Burning Bush: Writings on Jews and Judaism. Univ. of Notre Dame. Jul. 2016. 456p. tr. from Russian by Gregory Yuri Glazov. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780268029890. $65. REL

Poet, theologian, and philosopher Solovyov (1853–1900) was responsible for a renaissance in Russian philosophy and poetry in the early 20th century. Translator Glazov (biblical studies, Immaculate Conception Seminary) suggests that Solovyov was possibly the model for novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s moral agent Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov as well as a Russian analog to Saint Thomas Aquinas and theologian John Henry Newman, with respect to the dignity of the conscience. In addition, Solovyov fiercely defended Judaism against Russian Orthodoxy’s complicity in the virulent anti-Semitism of his time. Here, Glazov has provided an exhaustive commentary of many of these ecumenical works, including letters to and memoirs from family and friends which highlight Solovyov’s religious and philosophical ideas. Pages of academic and textual citations as well as footnotes and references suggest this work is for scholars. However, Glazov succeeds in bringing another aspect of Solovyov’s intellect into Western scholarship. VERDICT A definitive work for Russophiles of the 20th century.—SC

Williams, Rowan. On Augustine. Bloomsbury Continuum. Jun. 2016. 240p. notes. index. ISBN 9781472925275. $42; ebk. ISBN 9781472925282. PHIL

Some of Saint Augustine’s weightiest tomes have the most generic titles. Former archbishop of Canterbury Williams (Master of Magdalene Coll., Cambridge Univ.) acknowledges this in a dense but lively work under such an unassuming heading. Drawing from Augustine’s own works and recent scholarship, Williams ranges about topics as diverse as the nature of the self, society, evil, the Trinity, and more, tying them together into a greater whole. This is no introduction, however. There is an expectation that readers are familiar with the material. Even so, the author’s aim is not antiquarian. Behind all of the arguments and expositions is a vision of what it means to be human, how we should live in society, and our place in the world before God. The last chapter is a sermon Williams gave in 1987; readers may wish to refer to that chapter for a bit of perspective. VERDICT Serious readers of medieval theology will welcome Williams’s book, and anyone who has ever wondered what life could be found in drier topics of Christian theology will get at least an inkling of an answer.—JW

Advice & Self-Help

Beaty, Katelyn. A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World. Howard. Jul. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9781476794099. $22.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476794167. REL

Beaty (managing editor, Christianity Today) offers a youthful perspective for Christian women dealing with the many competing claims upon their identities. This book is dedicated to “all women who dream of taking their hands to the plow of life and creating something good.” To accomplish this, Beaty surveys women as well as current literature, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, to extrapolate upon these ideas. Unfortunately, the author’s sample set is limited to mostly Protestant, college- educated white women. In this regard, Beaty is unable to engage the dynamics of women of color, immigrant experiences, single parents and poverty, or even the lives of women in religious orders who have actively worked in the fields of faith and justice for decades. Moreover, there is a jejune tone here; when comparing how aesthetics in college dorms rose because of women, one might wish Beaty had engaged more salient issues, such as how Christian women respond to violence against women on college campuses, sexual consent, and a host of other more pressing insights. VERDICT A slow start to a larger conversation on how Christian women balance work, life, and faith.—SC

Sadhguru. Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy. Spiegel & Grau. Sept. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780812997798. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780812997804. SPIRITUALITY

YouTube star and TED speaker Sadhguru (founder, Isha Fdn.) provides this opening salvo: “As a guru, I have no doctrine to teach, no philosophy to impart, no belief to propagate.” Instead, he argues that joy, as one’s constant companion, is the path to self-transformation and that it should not be confused with self-improvement, a less worthy and more limiting exercise. To achieve joy, one must cultivate the path of inner engineering, based in large measure upon the yogic practice of pranayama, or breath control. The development of this awareness is simply paying attention to our “inner mechanism,” but for Sadhguru, joy now becomes the basis for a life of well-being, rather than a spiritual goal. Peppered with personal anecdotes, spiritual exercises, and detailed explanations of yogic practices, this work encourages readers to recognize the “borderless unity” that lies within each of us, where all human experience is self-generated and therefore, “the only way out is in.” VERDICT A helpful study in self-transformation for spiritual seekers already inclined toward Eastern mysticism.—SC

Steindl-Rast, David. The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life. Franciscan Media. May 2016. 176p. bibliog. ISBN 9781632530165. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781632530172. SPIRITUALITY

Notable author and Catholic Benedictine monk Steindl-Rast (Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer) continues his concern for interfaith understanding and transformative spirituality with this work, which puts Eastern spiritual practices from Zen Buddhism and Hinduism in conversation with Christian ideals in order to produce meditative aliveness, even in silence. “There is nothing wrong with speaking from inside of one tradition, as long as we do not absolutize our particular perspective, but see it in its relationship to all others.” The author draws from standard Christian tropes such as Trinitarianism (“a great Circle Dance”), asceticism (“training in detachment”), and God the Word (“God manifest is God unmanifest”), and provides Buddhist and Hindu analogs as a means to diffusing theological distinctions, which he maintains keep some Christians from fully appreciating the richness of non-Christian mystical practices. VERDICT Those who strongly adhere to the distinctiveness of their faith traditions won’t be convinced by Steindl-Rast’s efforts, but those interested in a more holistic spiritual experience will continue to find the author a worthy guide.—SC

Memoirs & Biographies

Marchenko, Gillian. Still Life: A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. IVP. May 2016. 192p. ISBN 9780830843244. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780830899241. MEMOIR

Marchenko (Sun Shine Down) offers a bleak insider’s perspective on what it means to suffer from the crippling throes of clinical depression. Married to a Protestant pastor from Ukraine, Marchenko explains the relentlessness of depression while raising four young daughters, two of whom have Down syndrome. “I think of depression as a visitor who comes more often, uninvited, unwelcomed, and stays longer than ever before.” Therapists and family try to either confront or comfort the author as she retreats further into herself, sleeping away hours and days at a time. This unflinching gaze can at times become unbearable; hope is hardly ever mentioned as Marchenko strains to find her way. The comfort of religion is not a panacea but rather one component of her struggle to overcome the power of destructive thoughts and physical inertia. VERDICT A valuable memoir of depression for those both inside and outside its grasp.—SC

Additional Spirituality

redstarTippett, Krista. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living. Penguin. Apr. 2016. 304p. index. notes. ISBN 9781594206801. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780735221468. SPIRITUALITY

Tippett (host, Minnesota Public Radio’s On Being; Einstein’s God and Speaking of Faith) utilizes threads and patterns of conversation drawn from over 13 years of radio interviews to weave a wondrous tapestry of spiritual thoughts. The author states that she has “come to think of virtues and rituals as spiritual technologies for being our best selves in flesh and blood, time and space.” She then reflects on five key themes: words, flesh, faith, love, and hope. Tippett fashions a fabric using her life story and ideas as well as excerpts of interviews. The resulting meditations reveal the breadth and variety of current spirituality. For instance, the conversation centering on love clearly defines it not as romance but rather compassion. In the present cacophony of ethnic, religious, economic, and political turmoil, this clear melody of understanding for “the other” rings true and clear. Each theme also features endnotes reproducing additional portions of interviews. A full list of these “conversation partners” is included and the audio is archived online. VERDICT This work will appeal to Tippett’s listeners and general readers interested in spiritual thought today. Recommended for all libraries.—Ray Arnett, Fremont Area Dist. Lib., MI

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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