In the Vanishers’ Palace – Aliette de Bodard
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 Stars)
After seeing a number of my friends toting around Queering Lent, I decided to pick up the slim volume of devotional poems penned by a nonbinary pansexual Presbyterian pastor. Written as a spiritual practice over the course of last year’s Lent, the highly personal poems touch on interwoven themes of suffering, identity, and empathy burnout, all while employing classical mystical language of God as Lover.
Independent publishing can be a toss-up, so when I find something that shines in the lackluster mire of self-published titles, I’m quick to promote it. Queering Lent gleams despite its unpretentious packaging, and while some of the poems are unremarkable, many have a sort of understated profundity to them that’s hard to forget. In particular, I found the poetic sermon on binaries, the expansiveness of God, and the upside-down kingdom of Heaven in the back of the book to be particularly stirring, and I’ll be returning to it again and again in this Lenten season and beyond.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Slats a number of times, and they’re a truly unique artist and ardent lover of God who has a way of infecting atmospheres with joy. If you’re interested in learning more about the creative process behind Queering Lent, you can check out this feature on Slats over at Sanctified Art. You can buy a copy of Queering Lent on Amazon, and 100% of the proceeds go to organizations committed to supporting queer and trans people in the church.
Title: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
Genre: Christian Nonfiction/Memroir
Rating: ★★★ (3/5)
John Pavlovitz is a widely-read Christian blogger known for the generous hospitality of his theology and his commitment to championing honesty within the church. However, this wasn’t always the case. Pavolovitz was raised in a culturally homogeneous, shame-based Christian culture, and it wasn’t until he moved to Philadelphia in college that he began to experience humanity in all its colorful, dynamic diversity. As Pavolovitz came to love his black and latinx and queer and poor and atheist neighbors, all while discerning a call to ministry, he also began to form a vision of the table of God to which everyone was truly welcome and truly accepted.
Like many works of Christian nonfiction, A Bigger Table juxtaposes anecdotes from the author’s life and ministry with more theoretical theology. This, for the most part, works, and I enjoyed the stories about Pavolovitz’s Catholic Italian family and the troubled pastors and gay youth he has counseled throughout his career. Overall, the message of “radical hospitality, true diversity, real authenticity, and agenda-free community” comes across loud and clear, and is well supported by examples from the life of Christ. The chapter on the lies pastors are forced to tell in order to be accepted by their boards and congregations was particularly strong, and I appreciated the way Pavlovitz – though openly left of center – critiques and encourages both sides of the isle in an effort to build true Christian community.
However, the book ultimately suffers from a meandering structure and lack of concrete ways readers can help build the “bigger table”. Very little practical advice was given amidst all the excitement about doing church in a more authentic, healing way. The full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians into the church is a central theme of the book, but the chapters regarding it were separated in a way that felt random, and it seemed as though the author couldn’t decide how much time he wanted to spend on the issue. In addition, despite drawing from the life of Christ to support his model of radical hospitality, Pavlovitz effectively ignores most of the Bible, and I think he could have enriched his position by bringing in Second Testament writings and stories from the First Testament.
Despite its weaknesses, The Bigger Table will be soul-soothing to anyone beaten down by the partisanship and fake warmth of so many Christian congregations. I would recommend it to anyone looking for straight-talk from a pastor who wants to see the lavish love of Jesus spread more liberally through the world.
Note: I received a copy of A Bigger Table in exchange for an honest review.
Title: Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David P. Gushee
Genre: Spiritual Memoir
Rating: ★★★ ★ (4/5)
David P. Gushee has been at the forefront of nearly every schism, controversy, and watermark moment in American evangelicalism over the last 50 years. From his teenage mountaintop conversion, to his time as a professor at a fundamentalist Baptist seminary, to his successful career speaking out against torture as a Christian ethicsist, to the publication of his hit book Changing Our Mind, which shook up the evangelical world by championing the full inclusion of LBGTQ people in the church, Gushee has been red, blue, popular, derided, conservative, liberal, and everything in between. Still Christian accounts ongoing Gushee’s love affair with Christ and resulting divorce from evangelicalism with candor, temperance, and humor.
I expected a little more theological unpacking of the choice to “leave” American evangelicalism from Gushee, as this book as been lauded as an anchor in a swirling sea of moral bankruptcy and theological confusion in the evangelical church. Instead, the book was quite simply a mid-career memoir, but a very good one, and one that cast a lot of light on the schisms and inner tensions that have been whittling away at American evangelicalism since the seventies.
Still Christian is delightfully dishy and covers enough scandal to keep even those well acquainted with the rise of the Moral Majority and push-back from writers and theologians on the Evangelical left interested, but Gushee deals with all people and events mentioned with humility, grace, and love. The heart of Christ is kept at the center of Still Christian, even if Gushee is all too aware how rarely the institutions in charge of seeking it out keep their promises.
Note: I received a copy of Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism in exchange for a fair review of its contents.
Title: Still Evangelical? Ten Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. Edited by Mark Labberton
Genre: Essay Anthology/Christian Nonfiction
Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)
The evangelical movement is in crisis. After the missions boom of the seventies, rise of the right-wing Moral Majority in the eighties, decline in cultural influence in the nineties, and the fracturing of the movement after the 2016 presidential election in which 81% of white evangelicals voted for a man widely considered to not demonstrate Christian virtues, journalists are sounding evangelicalism’s death knell. In light of this crises, ten influential voices in evangelism have come together to unpack the election, talk social justice and spiritual renewal, and debate whether or not the label “evangelical” can truly be redeemed.
Full disclosure: I came of age in churches shaped by the evangelical movement, and remained evangelical for much of my life before being received into the Episcopal church in my first year of seminary. My feelings towards the evangelical movement are complex, and obviously, I had reasons for leaving. Despite this, I have close personal and professional ties with many in the evangelical church, and I’m interested in keeping my finger on the pulse of evangelicalism, especially in light of the huge sway it has held in the American church in the last fifty years.
I was worried this book might devolve into defensive protection of evangelicalism’s interests. But after reading the prologue, which incisively recounted the movement’s rise to power and subsequent decline after disastrous political collusion and the twilight of many of its central personalities, I was put more at ease. This is a book that intimately understands not only what is at stake for the evangelical movement, but the diversity of values within the movement and the innumerable wrongs the movement has been tied to theologically, politically, and socially.
There are traditional and progressive evangelicals here, and plenty of authors much harder to categorize. Jim Daly, president of the highly conservative Focus on the Family, is present, but so is Shawn Claiborne, a neo-monastic inspired by Christ to speak against war and the death penalty, and Lisa Sharon Harper, a black woman theologian with a passion for racial reconciliation. Together, the ten authors featured put forward a program that renounces political partisanship while upping political engagement, elevates the voices of minority and Majority World evangelicals, and sets aside church models predicated on stadium worship and cults of personalities. I didn’t agree with every opinion within the book, but I think that’s what made it for me: voices were held in tension without sacrificing their varying convictions or allowing ideological extremism to flourish. The presence of more women would have been welcome, but perhaps the lack of female writers represents the general trend evangelicalism has towards being a “boys’ club”.
Ultimately, the book urges readers to stick with the evangelical mission despite the loss of evangelical credibility in the eyes of most Americans. I can’t advocate for this choice either way, but I recommend this book to anyone interested in what went so wrong in evangelism and what evangelicals are doing to try and become better. It didn’t send me running home to the movement that raised me, but it did give me hope.
I received an advance review copy of Still Evangelical? from Intervarsity Press in exchange for an honest review. Still Evangelical? is set to drop in January 2018 and can be pre-ordered directly from Intervarsity Press or purchased on Amazon.
Title: Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity by James Hughes Reho
Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)
I went into Tantric Jesus not knowing what to expect and fearing the book might be full of poorly reasoned new age platitudes, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book was beautifully written, accessible, and genuinely thought-provoking. As someone who is always looking for the next big title in emergent spirituality or postmodern Christianity, Tantric Jesus was a treat.
Dr. James Hughes Reho is an Episcopalian priest, yoga instructor, and spiritual director who holds a PhD from Princeton University. Tantric Jesus is the obvious fruit of hard work, personal devotion, and painstaking research. The book seeks to uncover the mystical, body-positive roots of early Christianity and bring them into conversation with the ancient tradition of tantric yoga. For those who think tantra is all about libertine sex acts and spooky rituals, don’t be alarmed. Reho presents tantra as a radically matter-positive worldview that celebrates the divine face of the feminine, connects us on a deep level to creation and the Creator through intentional embodied practices, and taps into the truly erotic (here meaning not just sexual, but holy and deeply rooted) desires of our heart.
Reho shares anecdotes about his travels to monasteries, ashrams, temples, and churches, and about his personal tantic practice as well as his devotion to Christ. He blends these anecdotes with theology about Jesus, the physical embodiment of God who participated in the world by breaking societal taboos, re-invigorating the spirituality around him, and urging his disciples towards greater deification or Christ-likeness. Instructions for spiritual practices are included at the end of most chapters, so the reader can experience the deep indwelling of the divine through foot-washing, breath-work, icon-gazing, or sacred sex with a covenanted partner.
It’s obvious that Reho has done his research, both into the philosophy and practices of Tantra and into the writings of the early church fathers and mothers. That’s one of the reasons the book is so compelling; every time I quirked an eyebrow at an idea that seemed a little far-fetched, Reho provided supporting sources. He’s really plumbed the depths of Christian mysticism and early Christian writings to cast new light on Christianity both as a religious identifier and a state of being. His theology is strong, though those with a very high Christology might be put off by his middle one, and those who recoil at the first blush of syncretism will probably not enjoy his integrated east/west Christian framework either.
As with any religious work that draws upon the practices of a variety of worldviews, the temptation to cultural appropriation is there, and though Reho seems to deeply understand and honor his subject matter, I’m not sure it’s advisable to a reader to pick up this book and jump right into yogic practices without reading up more on the culture and religious philosophy of India. However, Reho is a temperate and wise guide who urges moderation and discernment in all things, and I do believe that is what makes such a risky topic fruitful and worth exploring.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Tantric Jesus in exchange for writing an unbiased, honest review of its
Title: The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Divine Dance in exchange for writing an unbiased, honest review of its contents.
I don’t often re-read nonfiction books, but I’m confident I will return to The Divine Dance in the future, simply because the wisdom it has to offer is so rich and multilayered. Finishing this book marked one of those sought-after seconds of clarity in life when you really seem to “get it”, or at least glimpse with clear eyes some party of the Cosmic Design. No, seriously.
Richard Rohr is Franciscan priest, mystic, and spiritual director who has authored over thirty books on contemplation, Catholicism, and the Christian life. Mike Morrell, a talented author in his own right, is the publicity mastermind behind the The Wild Goose Festival, the Buzz Seminar, and the commercial success of such literary game-changers as The Shack. Together they make an sharp team particularly well suited to delivering one simple truth about the Godhead: the Trinity is eternally creative, eternally vulnerable, and eternally loving, no caveats needed.
Rohr and Morrell spend 200-odd pages unpacking the implications of this statement with the reader, walking alongside you in love as you wrestle with what the nature of the Trinity might mean for your life. Here’s a taste of some of these stunning potentialities: God loves you entirely because you are in and cosmically indistinguishable from the life force that binds the members of the Trinity, religious pluralism is both ethical and holy and can exist without sacrificing Christian identity, and “the foundation of authentic Christian spirituality is not fear, but joy” (123).
Let me assure you, this breaking open of culturally accepted ways of doing Christianity are not a modernist innovation. Its deeply rooted in orthodoxy and sound spiritual practice, and there are seven contemplative practices offered in the last chapter in order to give readers tangible ways of participating in the life of Trinity. The style is simple, almost conversational, and makes good use of anecdote and theory in equal measure. Furthermore, the authors dont shy away from critiquing the failings of the church, the damage done by a divided political system, and the emptiness of modern hyper-individualism without giving into the temptation to point fingers. The result is incredibly life-giving.
In summary, The Divine Dance proposes a new way of doing life, of viewing God, and of inhabiting one’s own body in light of truths that have been in front of our eyes for a very long time, but perhaps hidden from true sight. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in spirituality, meditation, or 21st century religion despite their religious background.