Archives For *Brief Reviews*


I have been on the road for the last couple of weeks with my Slow Church co-author John Pattison, talking with churches throughout the southeastern U.S. about that book and my new book, Reading for the Common Good.  It’s been good to get the new book into people’s hands and to begin conversations about it.

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish
C. Christopher Smith

Paperback: IVP Books, 2016
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle


I am deeply grateful for these great reviews of the book that have been posted within the last couple of weeks. Here are some clips (with links to the full reviews)…

Joe Johnson:

“Working for the flourishing of churches, neighborhoods, and the world cannot be done without the empowering work of the Holy Spirit, and I think it’s a reasonable proposal to argue that reading is an important means by which the Spirit works. Reading for the Common Good makes a very interesting case for the communal importance of reading and conversation, and it paints a portrait of what local church life can be like that is well worth pursuing. I recommend it.”
[ Read the full review ]

Continue Reading…


The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

A Review of 

Spiritual Sobriety:
Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad

Elizabeth Esther

Paperback: Convergent Books, 2016
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Kristin Williams
I didn’t want to be moved by Elizabeth Esther’s new book, Spiritual Sobriety.  I started reading it with a little notebook beside me, thinking I could keep track of all the ways I disagreed with what Esther was saying.  I don’t have a story of what Esther calls “good religion gone bad” and I didn’t even think I believed a person could be addicted to religion.  It sounded a little hokey to me so I was prepared to find a lot to dismiss and nothing I could relate to in this new book.

Then I read the first chapter and kept seeing myself.  Elizabeth Esther spends the first chapter defining spiritual sobriety and, in large part, the definition revolves around what it is not.  She describes her first religious high, the first time she asked Jesus to live in her heart and how she wanted to keep experiencing that high and so she asked Him into her heart again the next day.  She kept seeking that high in many of the same ways I looked for spiritual highs: knowing all the answers, winning “sword drills” in youth group and surging forward at the decision time of conferences and concerts.  She, and I, used God for how He made us feel and also, perhaps, for the blessings we were sure He would pour out on us because of the displays of devotion that we offered God.

Continue Reading…


The Tough Work of Living a Story

A Review of 

One Ordinary Sunday:
A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass
Paula Huston

Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2016
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]


Reviewed by Callie R. Feyen


Paula Huston was one of my first writing teachers, and without a doubt, the toughest. I would send her pages and pages of gorgeous description, witty dialogue, and hefty characters and she would send them back with comments like: “No conflict!” Something needs to happen.” “Dig deeper.”

I didn’t want to write conflict. Conflict made me uncomfortable. I wanted to write what I knew, and I didn’t trust that I’d be able to resolve an essay or a story if I brought up a problem. However, under Huston’s mentorship, I slowly began allowing space on the page for conflict, and learned to endure and eventually enjoy coming to the story and looking at it again and again. I believe I am a better writer after studying with Huston, but it wasn’t until I read One Ordinary Sunday that I considered looking at and embracing conflict as a spiritual practice.

Continue Reading…


I wrote brief reviews of the following books that were released in the last couple of weeks:

by C. Christopher Smith, editor of The Englewood Review of Books


The Very Good Gospel:
How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right

Lisa Sharon Harper
* * * * * (out of 5 stars)

A rich depiction of the flourishing life God intends for creation!

Many Christians, especially in the Evangelical tradition, are quick to identify with the gospel (i.e., good news) of Jesus. But why exactly is it good news that God’s kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven? This is the question that Lisa Sharon Harper sets out to answer in her superb new book THE VERY GOOD GOSPEL. Focusing on the scriptural concept of shalom, a Hebrew word that is often translated as “peace,” but is much broader than our typical understanding of peace, Harper explores the fullness of the shalom that God intends for creation and why it is indeed good news. The very good news is that God desires us to have shalom with God, shalom with ourselves, shalom between the genders, shalom with all creation, shalom for broken families, shalom in the midst of racial injustice, shalom between nations, and more.

This is a very accessible book (and it includes reflection exercises to help readers engage with it), and it provides one of the richest depictions of the flourishing life God intends for creation. Lisa Sharon Harper will undoubtedly stir our imaginations with her case for why the gospel is extraordinary news!
Continue Reading…


Paul’s Office

A Review of 

The Louder The Room The Darker The Screen: Poems
Paul Ebenkamp

Paperback: Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Colin Chan Redemer

“The Louder The Room The Darker The Screen,” as a phrase, reminds me of the adage, “empty vessels make the most noise.” The book of poetry by Paul Ebenkamp, despite its title and noise, is hardly an empty vessel. Rather it is stuffed with playful language, humor, and unlooked-for depth. I seriously enjoyed it even though I’m not the type of reader to describe anything as a “saw-wave feed of resonant channels” as Elaine Kahn does of this book on the back cover. Rather, I’m the kind of reader who uses a common adjective to emphasize my pleasure at reading. If you’re more of a Joe-six-pack reader, grab this book, skip the back cover’s artsy blurbs, and jump right in.

Continue Reading…


The Sanctity of the Mundane
A Review of 

How to Be Here:
A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living

Rob Bell

Hardback: HarperOne, 2016
Buy now: [ Amazon ]   [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Josh Morgan
Rob Bell, in his latest book, How to Be Here, explores how to create a life worth living through being present in the here and now. It addresses ideas that are becoming quite popular, likely because of their relevance for our modern culture and way of living. Bell continues with his strong, engaging writing style and story telling, so fans of his approach will likely appreciate this text, as well. His style should open up ideas to new audiences. At the same time, the book could be better organized to make his point clearer and send the message “home” more effectively.
Continue Reading…


Creating a More Sustainable, Just and Equitable World for all

A Review of 

The Wisest One in the Room: How you can benefit from social psychology’s most powerful insights
Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross

Hardback: Free Press, 2015
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert

Poet William Stafford wrote, “Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why…” and I’m sure his words could well serve as an epigraph for this fine and indeed, “wise” book by social psychologists, Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross.  Between them, they have over 80 years of experience in the two fields which define the scope of this book:  social psychology and judgment and discernment with both fields explored in depth and with precision in terms of both analysis and application.  Their exploration of what it means to be wise and to apply it in response to both ordinary and extraordinary questions and situations is both disciplined and practical. They persuasively make the case that what they consider the very heart of human psychology and, consequently, human folly–the reflexive belief that our perceptions bear a one-to-one correspondence to reality, often going a step further in the presumption that our own personal perceptions are especially accurate and objective—is malleable and amenable to alteration. This observation—one familiar to most of us however sheepishly we might respond to its veracity—forms the foundational thematic element of the book and is, then, a recurring point of reference throughout. Gilovich and Ross make a compelling case for understanding not only why we do what we do and how we can transform knowledge, experience and insight into wisdom, it offers direction in harnessing this powerful amalgam in personal, social and political situations towards the objective of creating a more sustainable, just and equitable world for all.  In this, they succeed admirably and while there are minor suggestions that can be made regarding the structure of the book, it is a compelling and worthwhile addition to the library of anyone interested in the pragmatics of applied social psychology.

Continue Reading…


How to Address the Issues of the Day?
A Review of

Preaching Poilitics:
Proclaiming Jesus in an Age of Money, Power, and Partisanship

Clay Stauffer.

Paperback: Chalice Press, 2016.
Buy now:  [  Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Bob Cornwall
*** This review originally appeared on the writer’s blog,
     and is reprinted here with permission.

I was raised in a politically active household. My father was chair of the Siskiyou County Republican Party and had a regular radio spot. He even made it into Who’s Who in American Politics. I did my part as a child going door to door handing out brochures and buttons for candidates ranging from local to national. I even imagined becoming a politician. I’ve really never been as politically active as I was at age fourteen.

I remain extremely interested in politics, but as a pastor I must temper my political activities. That is, I have to remember that I serve a congregation that isn’t politically homogeneous. While I do engage in community organizing and address prophetically (hopefully) important issues that have political implications, I don’t bring a partisan vision into the pulpit. Preachers often walk fine line when it comes to politics. Many of us believe it is important to speak to controversial issues, but we also must take a pastoral approach. At a time when the body politic is increasingly polarized this becomes incredibly difficult. This especially true when the conversation involves money.

Continue Reading…


A Gloriously Impractical Invitation

A Review of

Teaching and Christian Imagination 
David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch

Paperback: Eerdmans, 2016
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]  
Reviewed by Dan Schmidt


As one who’s been pastoring for a while, and more recently adjuncting at a local college, I’m on the lookout for ways to improve what I bring to the classroom and sanctuary. One of my strategies has been to pay attention to those who are really good at what they do.
So when the opportunity to review Teaching and Christian Imagination, by David Smith and Susan Felch, came along, I jumped. Yes, I saw “Imagination” in the title, and I read the back cover blurb—but I figured that sooner or later, the authors—specialists as classroom teachers and theorists—would get down to bullet points and portable techniques. It only took a few pages of reading, however, to realize that this wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, Smith and Felch (along with several others) want to draw readers into the what if’s more than the how to’s. What impressed me as I read was the sense that by giving attention to the former, one is much better prepared to manage the latter.

Continue Reading…


I wrote brief reviews of the following books that were released in the last couple of weeks:

by C. Christopher Smith, editor of The Englewood Review of Books
Paging Through History

Mark Kurlansky
* * * * * (out of 5 stars)
Essential reading for bibliophiles and those who work in the written word
Kurlansky once again proves himself to be one of our finest popular historians. PAPER is a delightful, global history of paper as a technology. Paper, Kurlansky observes follows from the social practice of written language. Kurlansky deftly weaves social and technological history from ancient times to the modern era, righting a number of crucial misconceptions about how technology works.

PAPER will be of interest to history buffs and to those who are interested in the history of technology, but especially to bibliophiles and those who work in the written word. Kurlansky gives us pause to consider the writers who went before us, and the technologies and costs associated with the recording of their words.


Christian Practical Wisdom:
What It Is, Why It Matters

Dorothy Bass, et al.
* * * * * (out of 5 stars)
Important reading for pastors and theologians
This important book explores the significance of “practical wisdom” — that which Aristotle referred to as phronesis — in the Christian tradition. “Christians blessed with practical wisdom…” the authors write, “are attuned to the concrete and the actual, but they also cherish and yearn for what they know more generally and more abstractly. They can see what is going on, and they respond with good judgment as need in particular situations.” (9-10). The authors present a corrective to theological education that is largely incapable of articulating a way of knowing rooted in practical wisdom, and they succeed in framing a conversation about practical wisdom and the vital role that it plays in our formation and transformation as Christians. They explore how practical wisdom has been erased not only from theology, but from Western culture at large, and offer the hope that in our churches we already cultivate this sort of wisdom, and should be more attentive to this process and learn to articulate from it an epistemology and a theology grounded in practical wisdom.

This is important reading for pastors and theologians, but especially for those afflicted with a growing discomfort for the abstract sorts of theology that they have inherited.

Continue Reading…