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“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

March 14, 2013

honoring god in redI think it was very strategic of Amy Black and Moody to get together for the publication of Honoring God in Red or Blue. If it had been published elsewhere, I really think it would’ve gotten buried, read mostly by those who are drawn to the more controversial political works of folks like Ron Sider or Jim Wallis- the kinds of people Brett McCracken wrote about in Christian Hipsters. And that would’ve been a shame, because reading Honoring God isn’t like reading Fixing the Moral Deficit or God’s Politics, though fans of those titles would probably appreciate this book too. Moody was a perfect publisher of this book, and the choice of this publisher tells us something about the author. Her audience isn’t politicians or graduate students–though if they read this, their time would be well spent! This is a title  for any voting-age Christian. In all seriousness, it might even make a great gift for an eighteen-year-old in your life!

Black’s book seems to have been written with a genuine concern that Christians learn how to navigate the often ugly terrain of politics and political discussions. Rather than trying to convince the readers that they should think one way or another about a particular policy, she’s straightforward about her aims: “First, I want you to be a faithful witness for the gospel as you interact in politics. Second, I want you to develop your own thoughtful and faith-informed perspective on political issues” (p. 10).

Black’s equipped to do this. She has her PhD. in political science from M.I.T. and is currently an academic chair in the political science department at Wheaton. Reading her book, which is written on a popular level, you probably won’t be able to figure out where she lands on the political spectrum, and that’s because Black is more interested in helping you getting a handle on the spectrum itself. After a quick overview of the political terrain, Black gives the reader some helpful resources for having constructive political conversations, and also, for making decisions.

Key to “honoring God,” in Black’s estimation, is loving one another. If we revert to name calling and hasty caricatures of “the other side,” we’ve quit honoring God, both in our voting and in how we talk about politics. The full title is Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason. Can we compare that to some of the other political titles on the market today? Here’s a sampling: Arguing With Idiots, Demonic, The Wrecking Crew, Gangster Government, What in the World is Going On… I could go on!

This book is under 200 pages and a great introduction for political involvement to those who are convinced that apathy isn’t the right response to the mud-slinging that we see on television during election years. Ultimately, it’s optimistic- it’s possible to be involved with politics and maintain civility, and even integrity, in Black’s estimation. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do it, but it will take a little effort, and might mean looking for more information on an issue than what your preferred news media outlet tends to provide.

Humility, grace, and reason. Is there anything more refreshing?


Desiring Books, Desiring God

March 7, 2013

I haven’t finished reading Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction yet because, well, I’ve been distracted. Recently this book popped back onto my radar after a friend of mine–a fairly new mom–mentioned that she sometimes listens to Jacobs’ lectures or talks while she’s nursing. That was pretty inspiring, and I made a mental note to find a talk of his online to listen to while doing data entry at work (it’s not all party planning and reading, you know).

I came across an interesting talk Jacobs gave at New St. Andrews on books– the media of books throughout history- from scrolls to codices to smaller, more portable bound books to e-readers. In general, he discussed how technology regarding books has always been advancing, despite what some Luddites would like us to think-books have always been books, but they’ve always come in different formats, and those formats, those mediums-have indeed affected the message, but if you’re thoughtful about it, then it’s okay. E-readers might not give you the smell of an old book or the pleasure of an unusual typeface, but the easiest thing to do on an e-reader is to turn the page. Chalk one point up to the e-reader for making it easy for you to keep reading, instead of putting the book down, or closing the window (on the computer), or whatever it is that makes it easy for you to lose interest.

Anyway (and that’s a big “anyway;” I’m going to  shift gears now), the talk made me like Jacobs, who I’ve never heard speak before, and I decided to revisit The Pleasures of Reading after getting a feel for his voice.*

The point in The Pleasures of Reading is that Jacobs has noticed that reading, in general, has more or less become relegated in the American psyche to the category of “Things I should probably do in order to be a better person,” alongside other dutiful activities such as eating spinach and exercising out of a grim sense of shame and remorse instead of, well, joy. Rather than something we do for pleasure and delight, reading, and especially reading long lists of things we feel like (or are told) are things we ought to read, has become ultimately a means of American bootstrap-pulling self-improvement, rather than something we do because we enjoy doing it.

Jacobs’ thoughts? Mostly, read what you enjoy reading, most of the time. You may discover that there’s virtue in reading with no other motivation than pleasure, because what you like and desire leaves impressions on who you are in a deep and powerful way. And consider getting an e-reader, because the simplest operation on a e-reader is to keep moving the pages forward- to keep reading. In many ways, they minimize distractions. Minimizing distractions is important because it’ll maximize enjoyment, interaction, and the subtle interior transformation that occurs when you wholly give your attention to something you find really pleasurable.

Oh man, this book is so good. I gotta say- I’m really enjoying it.

Reading The Pleasures of Reading got me thinking about another old classic in the Christian publishing canon: Desiring God. Piper’s familiar refrain, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” keeps rolling around in my brain as I turn the pages of Jacob’s little book. More and more I’m convinced that what we love says so much more about us than what we think or say we believe.piper-desiring-god

I don’t know if many people put Jacobs and Piper in the same boat, but I think they’d firmly agree on this point: our affections represent the deepest part of who we are. But what do we do when our affections are morally corrupt? Do Piper and Jacobs and the rest of the Augustinian camp think we should just pursue our desires regardless of their ethical ambivalence?

Well, we shouldn’t pursue all of them. Since our hearts bear the image of God, they are still capable of wanting good and true things-the things they were designed to want by their creator. But nobody denies our need for some serious-dare I say it? Renovation of the Heart.

I may be the only person ever to list these three authors with each other, but in my analysis, it just makes sense. Jacobs, Piper, and Willard all address, in their own way, issues of the heart; of our desires and our wants and the connections those things have to our identity. As Christians, all of these guys would assert that our hearts are mixed bags- they bear the image of God, and they are also infected with an evil disease (sin. The disease is sin- we’re all aware of this at one point or another).


And I think this is where Piper, Augustine, Willard and  Jacobs would point to the hope laid out in Ezekiel 36- that is, the hope of a new heart, with new affections, and an inclination in the deepest part of ourselves to love God.  This new heart, with new affections and desires, is a gift from God, available to us through Jesus and sealed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit transforms our hearts in such a way that eventually, we begin to want the things we ought to want, or as Willard puts it, “We don’t just do loving things. We become loving people.”

Can we cultivate these loves, these right desires? Absolutely- Willard discusses this cultivation process in Renovation of the Heart, which addresses, among other things, the role of spiritual disciplines in conjunction with meditating on Scripture (reading it! What a novel idea!).

Is your heart sick, or your attention faltering? Can you even enjoy the good things you say you enjoy? Do you want to want to love the things you’re meant to love? To love God?

That’s a fine starting place. Ask God for help, and he’ll respond. He might even direct you to a few well-timed books or authors to help you along as you think through these things.

If you stop in and want to pick up one of these books, tell the cashier that Valerie said you could get 25% off on any of them (this offer will be good till April 7, 2013). 

*Who knows why, but it’s often easier for me to get interested in a particular author after hearing him or her speak. This happened with Walter Wangerin, Lauren Winner, and NT Wright, all of whom write exactly like they talk- at least in their popular-level stuff.

Congo Dawn

February 27, 2013

Check out Jeanette Windle’s guest post at the Tyndale blog on Congo Dawn.

congo dawn


August 17, 2012


We want to thank everyone who made it a point to stop by the Ministry Development Series this week. I think we can honestly say this was one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done at the store- one of the most substantial, meaningful, and enriching events we’ve had the pleasure of hosting. Every evening was packed with excellent content and interesting conversation.

If you were here, you had a lot of fun with us talking about John Walton’s theo-centric reading of the Bible versus Michael Williams’ Christ0-centric interpretation. The back-and-forth from those two nights had my husband and I talking into the wee hours about how to read the Bible, how to think about the events and the narratives that happened in light of these two Old Testament professor’s thoughts.

John Walton’s thoughts on Job made me, for the first time in my life, want to buy a commentary for no other reason than just to read it and add it to my library (no paper to cite it in, no talk to prepare for). What if the book of Job isn’t supposed to be answering the questions about why the righteous suffer? Maybe Job addresses something else entirely. Maybe it’s addressing a different question than what we think it’s addressing.

You’ve heard me rave about the Bible Story Handbook already, so I won’t go there again, but suffice it to say we’re convinced more than ever of the importance of revisiting how we teach the stories of the Bible in the church, and how we think about the Bible in general.

Michael Williams got us excited about the redemptive arc of the Bible- how it all finds its focus in Jesus. We had a great conversation with him about how to find Jesus in every book of the Bible and why it’s legitimate to do so.

And then the third night- Ruth Barton’s conversation about the urgency of discerning God’s will, of being a mature Christian if you’re a Christian in leadership, and how that maturity doesn’t necessarily come about by being successful on the world’s stage, but rather through slowing down and listening to God through practices like solitude and silence, and corporate prayer.

What was so great about the MDS was that these conversations–about biblical interpretation, teaching, and spiritual formation–weren’t happening in a graduate school or a seminary; they were happening here, at a bookstore. We love being a venue for dialogue about the Bible, about how to know God- some of the most urgent questions people are asking need to break out of the four walls of a university classroom or the intimidating structure of a church building. Maybe your friends are asking some of these questions but they can’t afford a $10k graduate level theology degree, and they aren’t comfortable going to a church. We’re here, now. They can ask those questions here.

It’s our hope to host more events of this quality in the future. If you’re not yet liking us on Facebook, do so: you see us chattering all the time about what we have on the calendar. Make sure to sign up for our eblasts and catalogs as well, because we send postcards and mailings out inviting folks to these events.

Meanwhile, keep coming by and asking important questions. Sit down with us and talk about books. There’s nothing we like better.



Ministry Development Series Aug 14-16

August 10, 2012

Want to share the MDS with your church or friends? Here’s a link to the pdf of this flier: mindevelseriespdf and another one for good measure: MDS_postcard– feel free to distribute it far and wide! Remember, these events are completely free.


On how a business can be a venue for transformation

July 10, 2012


Thanks to what happened at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables the Gospel to go forth in spite of opposition, feeble messengers, and sin. We know we’re a business, but we also believe that a business can be a venue for the proclamation of the Gospel (the Wind blows wherever It wishes- even into the doors of retail spaces and shops here in a mall in Wheaton, Illinois).

Among the many things our staff is passionate about is our local community (did you see us marching in the 100+ degree heat at the Glen Ellyn Independence Day parade?), and especially this: the local church.

And of course, those two things are connected. I hope you see your church as God’s channel to reach our local community with the transforming message of the Kingdom of Jesus. There are plenty of people in DuPage County who have yet to encounter the resurrected, living Jesus, and to surrender their lives to him.

In order to more fully live out our vision of equipping the church, we’re lining up a series of authors in August to deliver some insights (for free) to any and all who would wish to join us as we brainstorm how to better serve in our churches. You saw me rave about John Walton’s book earlier this summer, and Michael Williams’ before that. You haven’t yet heard me talk about Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together, but be assured that this book is important, valuable, and that the organization that Ruth started, The Transforming Center, is quietly and powerfully positioning leaders in DuPage County and around the world to be deeply transformed by the power of the Gospel (yes: another local author to burst our buttons about- and a good customer, too!).

There have been many eloquent and helpful reviews on Pursuing God’s Will Together. I’ll just say a few words on it: if you ever feel like working behind the scenes at your church is like watching sausage being made, you would appreciate the value of this book.

Through her experiences in researching and counseling ministry leadership groups, Haley Barton has come to recognize that leading the church is unlike leading anything else. Churches are empowered by the Holy Spirit and are motivated by Kingdom purposes. When those key distinguishing factors about the church are forgotten, leaders of ministries go the way of the world- they are inclined to pursue worldly (instead of godly) agendas (and seriously- aren’t we all?). Maybe those agendas are masked with a veneer of Christian sensibilities, but underneath, they are, at their core, agendas of personal grandeur or financial gain.

However, when leadership groups submit themselves to the transforming power of the Spirit and immerse themselves in Scripture, when they commit, together, to discern God’s will apart from their own agendas and desires, and when they detach themselves from the outcome, willing instead to do whatever God wants them to do, they start to sail in the wind of God’s Spirit. They start to go where he leads, and this can actually be an enjoyable experience.

Skeptical about that? So burned out from the pettiness of committee meetings and e-mail convos that you want to toss in the towel on church leadership? Show up to our Ministry Development Series. You might be surprised at what you find.

Feel free to download pdfs of these and share them with the staff and volunteers at your churches: mindevelseriespdfmindevelwoodcutpdf . We’ll see you in August!


Summer: The Season of the Kid

June 18, 2012

Summer is the Season of the Kid. During this time of year, our store starts smelling like sunscreen as kids from the community pool wander in and cool off in the a/c after spending the morning under the sun. Just a whiff of that smell coming from our children’s section makes me want to sprint for the door and hunt for wide, open spaces (and plenty of water and sand, of course). It’s hard not to be jealous of kids in the summertime.

Summer is also the time of year when churches start scrambling for volunteers and curricula to support their Christian ed. ministries throughout the school year. It’s an exciting time but also an overwhelming one- it’s our experience that most folks who are coordinating children’s ministries are over-extended volunteers who don’t have very much time to sort through and evaluate the resources that are available to them. This is a shame because children’s materials need to be engaged with the same attention to detail and concern that we give any other text, and arguably, we need to be MORE careful about what we teach children precisely because they haven’t developed the same kind of critical filters adults have. Added to the developmental limitations of the learners is the gravitas of the context- this is the stuff we’re teaching children in church. Remember what Jesus said about steering children astray? Something about a millstone around your neck, if I recall correctly. Not to overwhelm you more, but the point is, what you teach to children matters. God will continue to pursue these children even in spite of our teaching errors, but we’re still called to be responsible about what we’re feeding to the kids on Sunday morning.

Interestingly, the way the Bible is taught in Sunday school or during a children’s program is a pretty good indicator of how lay people in the church read the Bible. My thought is that it’s mostly lay people (and let’s be honest; women) who are teaching Sunday school and directing children’s ministries. How valuable would it be for a pastor to sit in every once in a while on the children’s ministries at church? I bet there’d be some major revelations in store for him through how the Bible is taught to the kids, how hard questions are answered- the kinds of deep theological conversations that happen over Play-Doh and crayons (if you don’t think kids are capable of asking some pretty difficult theological questions, you obviously aren’t volunteering to work with them in church).

One book that I want to point out to you, if you’re someone blessed with the responsibility of sharing God’s Word with the next generation, is The Bible Story Handbook by John and Kim Walton (Crossway, 2010). I love this book. I use it every Sunday with the early elementary aged kids at our church. No matter what curriculum you’re using, or what Bible story you’re telling, this resource would be an invaluable addition to your library, if only to help you avoid some of the common mistakes that people make in teaching little ones about the Bible.

Here’s an example. When you think of the story of Noah and the ark, what do you think of? Is it an animal adventure story? A story about being true to what God tells you to do even if other people laugh at you? Or is it a story about God’s judgment and mercy?

And here’s the clincher: is this story about Noah or about God?

One of the Waltons’ major critiques of the plethora of Bible story books and children’s curricula out there is that, very, very frequently, narratives in the Bible get reduced to character studies of this or that individual, and how we are (or aren’t) supposed to be like him or her. Though there is a place for striving to be like those who have gone before us in the faith (Hebrews 11), the Bible is God’s story and about what he is up to. Walton challenges us to avoid reducing Bible stories into morality lessons. Often, there are moral implications of hearing a story, but there’s always something that God is communicating about himself through the Bible.

Other common teaching mistakes that the Waltons warn against are what they call the promotion of the trivial (turning up the volume on a comment made in the text louder than it was intended to be), illegitimate extrapolation (“God protected Daniel in the lion’s den, so he will never let anything bad happen to you”), reading between the lines (over-speculations on the text), and missing important nuance (pp.23-25).

I don’t mean to make it sound like the book is one giant criticism of common ways that Bible stories are taught; this is just one of the aspects of the book that I’ve valued in particular. Each story is numbered, with the book, chapter, and verse next to it. Then, there’s the lesson focus (the major points of the text), lesson application (how this text can be applied), the Biblical context (so interesting, really!), a list of the interpretational issues in the story (ie, does “image” in Gen. 1:26 mean we look like God physically? ). There’s also further background information and last of all, a list of mistakes to avoid when teaching a particular story.

Generally, the sorts of people that write Sunday school curricula are either super strong in content or they’re super strong in method. If you’re using a curriculum that has top-shelf method, but the content is sometimes dubious, this is a resource that can help you bridge that gap.

If you’re curious about the Waltons’ credentials, he is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton and she’s been teaching Sunday school for a couple of decades. Not to mention the fact that they are parents.

Here’s what we’re really excited about. John Walton will be coming to our store later this summer to discuss this book (and some others) with our customers. If you’re planning on serving in your church’s children’s ministry (or just in engaging with the Bible any time soon), you will REALLY value this time with him as he discusses the Bible Story Handbook. As far as I can tell, there is nothing at all out there on the market like this resource. It’s been a long time coming.

Mention this blog post at Johnsen & Taylor and get 25% off The Bible Story Handbook.  (offer good until July 14, 2o12).

photo source: here