The Good Books

Published 26 November 2017

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette offers up the first six of its 12 selections suggested for gift-giving in its annual roundup of religion books.

This year's choices span faiths and topics of interest and touch upon Advent and Christmas, religious poetry and song, historical figures and artifacts. Not all have been published this year but have been chosen with all in mind -- and several of this week's selections are complemented by others that will be featured next week.

Your Light Gives Us Hope: 24 Daily Practices for Advent by Anselm Grun (Paraclete Press, $16.99)

Translated from German, Your Light Gives Us Hope is separated into short chapters that direct readers to practice mindfulness during the hectic weeks leading up to Christmas. Readings connect the Rule of Benedict with Scripture and tales of the angels, prophets and the saints -- including St. Nicholas -- and emphasize the need to embrace "wholeness, the desire that marks Advent as the 'overture' to the larger symphony of the church's year."

Grun, a German Benedictine monk and author, notes Advent as a "premature celebration of Christmas" and -- keeping mindfulness in mind as a practice in addition to a theory -- most of the chapters give suggested practices to connect with God through stillness and reflection that tie into the day's theme, all the way through to the end of Advent, which Grun marks as a new beginning.

Grun's afterword is notable in its length and in its reach to address some of the deeper spiritual and psychological factors that drive addictions and compulsions, which can prevent starting anew, drawing on his experience as a counselor and emphasizing beginning again through healing.

Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography by Andrea Grosso Ciponte and Dacia Palmerino (Plough Publishing House, $19.95)

Translated from the original German version released in 2016, Renegade chronicles the life of Martin Luther -- the man whose call for change in the Catholic Church marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago -- in graphic-novel form.

Renegade is Palmerino and Ciponte's seventh collaboration as author and illustrator, respectively, and their first in English. Their renderings of Luther's life from the time of his birth through his time as a student and then monk set the stage for readers learning about the timeline of events leading up to his decision to write and nail his "95 Theses" to a church door in Germany and -- through dialogue and dramatic artwork -- to give a thorough, frame-by-frame rendering of the events that unfolded into the Reformation.

Grace Without God by Katharine Ozment (Harper Wave, $15.99)

Watching a religious procession in front of her home with her then 9-year-old son who asks, "What are we?" Ozment answers "We're nothing," which sets the journalist and former senior editor of National Geographic on a course to find a more complete answer to his question.

Ozment's five-year odyssey of researching and writing about the "nones" -- defined by the Pew Research Center as those who answer "None of the Above" when asked about their religion -- brings her to cross paths with people religious and not, those who have formerly belonged to a faith community, religious leaders and experts. Extensive interviews and personal narrative help shape Ozment's findings on what religion brings to people's lives, and secular ways to experience spirituality and a sense of community.

The book also includes a guide for those seeking to develop and declare their secular and spiritual beliefs and a well-rounded set of resources for readers to learn more about secularism, morality, philosophy, religious history and interfaith dialogue. Another set of resources is set aside for parents and couples, and for children by age group.

Grace Without God has won several awards, including first place in the 2017 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Religious Books.

7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, $16.99)

It was works such as Plutarch's Lives and Foxe's Book of Martyrs that inspired the New York Times best-selling author to write biographies of abolitionist William Wilberforce and theologian and German resistance member Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book is an expansion on Metaxas' inspiration, in writing about the lives of seven Christian men who serve as modern-day role models for men of all ages.

Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer are two of the people featured in 7 Men, along with George Washington, Eric Liddell, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Charles Colson -- the last for whom Metaxas worked in the 1990s and got to know personally before Colson's death in 2012.

Whether or not each is primarily known as a religious figure, Metaxas discusses how Christianity influenced their lives -- from George Washington's morning and evening devotions and acts of charity, to shared Scripture between Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers' General Manager Branch Rickey that helped influence Robinson's decision to join the Dodgers.

Metaxas notes historical constructs of manhood and then strives to define God's idea of maleness through the examples of these seven men.

My Soul Waits: Praying With the Psalms Through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Martin Shannon (Paraclete Press, $14.99)

As with Your Light Gives Us Hope, My Soul Waits is predicated in St. Benedict's writings that emphasize Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. Shannon describes the trading of vestment colors and adjustments to the liturgy in the weeks leading up to Christmas as outward signs of Christmas approaching, but emphasizes that "the meaning is in the waiting."

This book of Psalms is divided by chapter and preceded by brief descriptions of the background and context of each, to which Shannon adds personal reflections and ties to Scripture, along with quotes from Christian theologians including Augustine, Cyril and Jerome.

The psalms are presented in no particular order (in keeping with life's randomness, Shannon notes) other than by the the themes as listed in its title, and its 41 psalms take readers beyond Christmas and into early January.

Poets of the Bible: From Solomon's Song of Songs to John's Revelation (W.W. Norton, $35)

Barnstone opens his examination of prose as poetry in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles with a number of examples of how these sacred texts have inspired modern poets, musicians and authors. Poet Walt Whitman, the son of Quakers, would later write verses resonant of prose in the Old Testament; the title of Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises would be borrowed from the phrase "The sun also riseth" in Ecclesiastes.

Writings of the prophets, Barnstone contends, was poetry and was treated as such long before it was typeset as rhyme, and he writes with Christians and Jews in mind as he finds examples of poetry in the texts. Each chapter is prefaced with connections Barnstone makes to more current authors and cultural references before laying out poems in stanzas, organized by author.

Barnstone does not delve into explanations about meter, rhyme and verse in the poems, instead allowing the reader to take in each as it would otherwise appear in the Bible.

Religion on 11/25/2017