New Books You Should Know (October 2018)

Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the ChurchCover of prayer by John Onwuchekwa

John Onwuchekwa

9Marks/Crossway

One of the best, most helpful books on prayer I’ve read. Onwuchekwa’s focus is corporate prayer, but his excellent instruction can’t help but affect individual prayer also. Not one of those books designed to shame you into praying more, but a positive, profitable guide to better prayer that actually leaves you passionate to experience it more. An excellent contribution to 9Marks’s series and a pleasure to read. Buy a case of them to distribute in your church! [Read 20 quotes from this book here.]

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great BooksCover of On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Brazos, 2018

If you have any affinity for reading “great books,” this is a book you won’t want to miss, and it’ll likely teach you to read better. Prior first shows us how to “read well,” and then through a survey of a dozen classics she helps us learn the virtues they display in the lives of their characters. An engaging read, this new book is sure to do well. [Read TGC’s full-length review and an interview with the author.]

That Little Voice in Your Head: Learning about Your ConscienceCover of That Little Voice in Your Head by Andrew David Naselli

Andrew David Naselli, author

Julie Carter, illustrator

Christian Focus, 2018

Parents of young children won’t want to miss this excellent new book. Naselli employs the story of a young girl who stole to help children understand the nature of conscience . . . and the gospel. A wonderful teaching tool. Highly recommended. [Read a TGC article by Naselli on this topic.]

Love Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for AdventCover of Love Came Down at Christmas by Sinclair Ferguson

Sinclair B. Ferguson

The Good Book Company, 2018

Christmas in its first instance was about lovethe saving love of God in sending his Son to save. And in 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul tells us about love at some length, describing how love ought to be evident in our own behavior. Sinclair Ferguson brings these concepts together in this marvelous exposition of Paul’s famous “love chapter.” Warm expositions, so typical of Ferguson, are challenging but with an eye to that love most eminently displayed in the Lord Jesus. Excellent. Wonderfully rich yet brief readings for 24 days. Very highly recommended!

Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature Cover of Finding Favour in the Sight of God by Richard P. Belcher

Richard P. Belcher Jr.

IVP Academic, 2018 (New Studies in Biblical Theology)

Don Carson has been editing this series a while now, and this latest contribution demonstrates its continued value. Belcher’s clarification of the nature of Old Testament “wisdom” itself, as well as his treatment of the wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, and (for my money) especially his closing chapter on “Jesus and Wisdom,” all make this a must-read for anyone taking up the subject.

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How Art Can Reveal Truth

When one imagines West Texas, celebrated poets rarely come to mind. Yet that’s exactly what the region has produced in Christian Wiman, an artist described by Marilynne Robinson as writing with a “purifying urgency that is rare in this world.” Wiman, professor of the practice of religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, grew up on a diet of rugged Texas violence as well as a charismatic Christian faith he abandoned after leaving home. By his late 30s, he married his wife, held the post of editor at Poetry magazine, and reconnected with his faith only to receive a diagnosis of a rare and incurable form of blood cancer. Since then, Wiman has written extensively on the intersection between art and faith, especially as it relates to the deeper experiences of life, like death and suffering.

His latest work, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, revisits such themes to ponder a specific question: What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? While his book never quite reaches concrete answers, it provokes readers to consider the essential value of art for life. Can poetry teach us about our faith in ways that systematic theology cannot? To what (or whom) does humanity’s creative impulse point? Does the practice of theology require more than simply a sharp mind?

He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art
Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2018). 128 pp. $23.00.

What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? And how do we make that hunger productive and vital rather than corrosive and destructive? These are the questions that animate Christian Wiman as he explores the relationships between art and faith, death and fame, heaven and oblivion. Above all, He Held Radical Light is a love letter to poetry, filled with moving, surprising, and sometimes funny encounters with the poets Wiman has known. He Held Radical Light is as urgent and intense as it is lively and entertaining—a sharp sequel to Wiman’s earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss.

Ode to Poetry

To the casual reader, Wiman’s book might appear to be little more than an ode to poetry. And it’s certainly that. Thanks to his tenure as editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013, he befriended numerous well-known poets and collected handfuls of charming stories. He recalls the time A. R. Ammons paused halfway through a reading to tell his audience, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” abruptly concluding the evening. Then there’s the time he accompanied Mary Oliver who, on her way to an event, pocketed a dead pigeon in her hunting jacket, where it remained for the entirety of her reading.

Woven among such anecdotes, Wiman quotes poems and poets at length, musing on their meanings with piercing precision. But his ode frames a larger meditation on the value of art. In a post-Enlightenment world, even the church isn’t immune from the tendency to relegate creative works to the realm of the rational, stripping them of ambiguity and systematizing their perceived beauty. Wiman argues that we lose something when we do so, as some truths require more ambiguous modes of communication to be truly understood.

Embracing Mystery

Halfway through the book, he writes, “One of art’s functions is to give form to feelings that would otherwise remain inchoate and corrosive, to give us a means whereby we can inhabit our fears and pains rather than they us.” Art, like life, is a complicated experience, and there are times when creative forms of silence are our most effective communicators.

Art allows us to engage theologically with our whole person as opposed to limiting our practice solely to a cognitive realm. That said, Wiman doesn’t dismiss more systematic terms of thinking. Rather, he insists on a fuller practice. And he reiterates at multiple points that art is a means, but to what end? Is our creative hunger merely an appetite for God? An expression of our faith? In a sense, yes, but Wiman warns against such simplicity, like suggesting “Jesus” is the correct answer to any Sunday school question. The answer may be correct, but Wiman wants readers to take the time to understand why.

Still, the artistic hunger is an appetite that both feeds and must be fed. Near the end of his final chapter, Wiman quotes a poem from Frank Bidart with these verses: “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” Only something other, something external (read: “God”) can satisfy that beast, and plenty of forgeries can sicken it. But there are edges to reality that can only be perceived, Wiman argues, when “the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception.” Then, the abstract of art can speak the truth to us in ways that will keep the beast at bay.

He Held Radical Light reads like a math problem. Some will long simply to arrive at the conclusion, but Wiman, like a proficient classroom instructor, wants to show the work it takes to arrive there. It offers much in the form of conversation and goads readers to embrace mystery without producing concrete answers to the questions he raises. But perhaps that’s the point. As he writes repeatedly, art is essential to our human experience, but it isn’t enough. It’s a necessary guide, but an incomplete one. Yet it sharpens our attention along the way until we arrive, at last, in the presence of the Source of all mystery, the only One who truly satisfies.

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