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All Religion & Spirituality Coverage

Investigate the power of habit, make delicious Chicano food or ponder a new approach to your lawn with this month’s trio of lifestyle reads.

★ The Power of Ritual

The “sacred” may seem conceptually distant from our increasingly secular lives, but it shouldn’t, says Casper ter Kuile in The Power of Ritual. He argues that any habit or practice can become sacred through ritual, allowing us to develop our own modern versions of spiritual life. Here he explores how reframing habits as rituals can help us build connection on four interweaving levels: with ourselves, other people, the natural world and the transcendent. “What I propose is this: by composting old rituals to meet our real-world needs, we can regrow deeper relationships and speak to our hunger for meaning and depth,” he writes. In a world that can frequently feel upside-down and precarious, this well-researched book may provide vital ballast.

Chicano Eats

Esteban Castillo grew up near Los Angeles, making frequent trips to his parents’ homeland of Colima, Mexico. When he later moved to Northern California, he found Humboldt County seriously lacking in the cuisine of his family, so he started a blog to celebrate that food culture. Chicano Eats brings his work to print in festive color, highlighting the ingredients, kitchen tools and playful hybridity of Chicano cooking—Mexican cuisine shaped by immigrants to America over generations, reflecting a community “who’s neither from there or here.” The perfect pot of beans, arroz rojo and salsa molcajete will get you started, and then it’s off to botanas (snacks) such as carnitas poutine, lots of tacos, several versions of pozole (a stew made with hominy and pork) and much more.

Lawns Into Meadows

Americans love lush, green lawns. But the truth is, all those manicured yards are hard on the environment. They guzzle water, chemicals and fossil fuels and do nothing to encourage a biodiverse ecosystem of pollinators, wildlife and microbe-rich soil. In Lawns Into Meadows, Owen Wormser shows us how to forgo grass in favor of native plant meadows, a more climate-friendly option for your green space. Wormser suggests 21 hardy, easy-to-grow perennials that will fill out in no time, like black-eyed Susan, golden­rod and purple coneflower, along with meadow-­making designs to suit a variety of yard sizes. If this is a topic that interests you, there are many more guides in the nifty Citizen Gardening series from Stone Pier Press.

Investigate the power of habit, make delicious Chicano food or ponder a new approach to your lawn with this month’s trio of lifestyle reads. ★ The Power of Ritual The “sacred” may seem conceptually distant from our increasingly secular lives, but it shouldn’t, says Casper ter Kuile in The Power of Ritual. He argues that any […]

When our relationships falter under the pressure of political or religious demands, when ambiguity more than certainty guides our lives, we may be tempted to succumb to our malaise. However, there is another option: We can stumble through the shadows, searching for some thread of meaning that will guide us out of the darkness. The authors of these books have chosen the latter path, peeling away the detritus of life to discover meaning—personal and political—and plumbing the spiritual depths that accompany their searches.


★ Thin Places

With humor and razor-sharp insight, Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places: Essays From in Between captures the visceral, palpable feeling of loss. The ways we inhabit space occupy many of these evocative essays, such as in a piece on an art installation at New York City’s spacious Park Avenue Armory, in which Kisner encourages readers to find someplace “big and empty” when they are “stuck somewhere small . . . somewhere unhappy or afraid or paralyzed or heartbroken.” In her celebrated essay “Thin Places,” she discovers the age-old concept of the space between the spiritual and physical world. This “thin place” is porous, a space where distinctions between “you and not-you, real and unreal, worldly and otherworldly, fall away.” It’s in these thin places that we can find ourselves, absorb glimpses of new meaning from another world and live in the moment. Kisner weaves together reflections on Kierkegaard, her early Christian conversion (and later “unconversion”) and waiting for the subway to gracefully guide us through our own emptiness in search of fullness.

The Great Blue Hills of God

Kreis Beall’s The Great Blue Hills of God explores in lyrical prose what happens when her life falls apart. Beall, who helped create Blackberry Farm, one of the South’s most heavenly resorts, appears to have it all: a loving marriage, great wealth, a beautiful family and a satisfying career. But the demands of building up several properties slowly erode her marriage, and she finds that her and her husband’s financial bank is full but their “emotional bank” is being emptied. As her marriage fades away, Beall falls, and suddenly her health is compromised, and she temporarily loses her hearing. She experiences further devastation when her son, Sam, dies in a skiing accident. Despite the loss of her family, health and wealth, she discovers glimpses of grace in her reading of the Bible, discussions with her pastor and friends and meditations on the nature of home. Throughout the book, Beall sprinkles in fruitful bits of wisdom, embracing the conclusion that, “to me, home is God, family, friends, and legacy. . . . A home is a heart. It is love, people, relationships, and the life you live in it.”

Scandalous Witness

Lee C. Camp’s Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians offers a brilliant summary and exposition of the ways that Christianity is a politic, not a religion. Camp (Mere Discipleship) asks a series of questions that frames Christianity as not just a private spiritual practice but a guide for our life together: “How do we live together? Where is human history headed? What does it mean to be human? And what does it look like to live in a rightly ordered human community that engenders flourishing, justice, and the peace of God?” In the end, the Christian community embraces its mission when it “sets captives free, demolishes strongholds, and . . . [sows] the seeds of the peaceable reign of God.” Camp’s manifesto is a must-read in a world in which Christianity has become either a bedfellow of political parties or an isolated, private practice.

I Am Not Your Enemy

Michael T. McRay’s I Am Not Your Enemy takes Camp’s idea to the personal level. We create meaning in the stories we tell each other, and if we tell a good enough story, we can convince others that certain individuals are our enemies. But just as stories have the power to cultivate hate, they also have the power to reconcile and redeem. Throughout his travels across Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa, and through his work as a conflict and resolution counselor, McRay hears violence-filled narratives with shattered endings. Yet, as he illustrates, not every story needs to end this way. McRay shares stories of a mother who refuses to seek vengeance for her son’s death, a community theater director who helps people who are marginalized find their voices and discover beauty in their lives and a woman who forgives the man who murdered her father. With the verve of a great storyteller, McRay regales us with spellbinding narratives that illustrate the power of words to change our lives and bring meaning to the world.

When our relationships falter under the pressure of political or religious demands, when ambiguity more than certainty guides our lives, we may be tempted to succumb to our malaise. However, there is another option: We can stumble through the shadows, searching for some thread of meaning that will guide us out of the darkness. The […]

Spring is the perfect time to freshen up your outlook—to cultivate new habits and attitudes that can lead to a more satisfying life. These four inspiring books are designed to help you thrive. Here’s to new possibilities!


Fear: We all submit to its grip every now and again. But if the feeling is getting in the way of your goals, it’s time to take action. Carla Marie Manly shows readers how to turn this emotion into a tool for growth in her new book, Joy From Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend. In this warm, welcoming guide, Manly, a clinical psychologist, digs deep into the subject of fear, exploring its connections to anxiety and childhood trauma. She also offers tips on how to constructively cope with worry, self-doubt and chronic stress—the forces that so often hold us back from happiness.

Breaking out of fear-based patterns is a crucial move on the journey to joy, Manly says, and she outlines a range of strategies, including visualization exercises and breathing techniques, for doing just that. Perhaps most importantly, she helps readers be receptive to “transformational fear”—a source of productive energy that can be a motivator for positive change, whether it’s making that dreaded doctor’s appointment or discussing relationship issues with a significant other. Sure, fear can paralyze, but it can also galvanize. Pick up a copy of Manly’s book, and prepare to feel empowered.

It may be small in size, but Diana Winston’s The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness brims with big-hearted advice on achieving inner peace. Winston is the director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. She describes natural awareness as the mind “at rest,” a condition of “simply being—without agenda.” Once you know how to tap into it, Winston says, natural awareness can help you shut out the pressures and demands of daily activity and increase your sense of focus. 

In brief chapters, Winston probes the meaning of natural awareness and leads readers through “glimpse practices” that can be performed at any point during the day or folded into a meditation routine. These simple prompts—including evocative word phrases and body-focused exercises—will help awaken natural awareness. Winston writes for both the experienced awareness-seeker and the novice, and she supplements her advice with insights into her own life and mindfulness evolution. When “you feel a sense of contentment not connected to external conditions,” Winston writes, you’re experiencing natural awareness. Her gentle instruction can result in a more open, responsive and balanced way of being.

Another take-action guide designed to bring about fundamental change is Shunmyo Masuno’s The Art of Simple Living: 100 Daily Practices From a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy. This international bestseller has helped people around the world quiet the chaos of everyday life, stress less and appreciate more. In the book, Masuno—chief priest of the 450-year-old Kenko¯-ji Temple in Japan—offers forthright advice rooted in the teachings of Zen, which, he writes, is “about habits, ideas, and hints for living a happy life.” 

Divided into four parts, the book provides practical steps for becoming more present, as well as suggestions for building confidence and letting go of anxiety. Masuno’s tips are easy to execute. Simple changes—like waking up 15 minutes earlier than usual to savor the morning, or creating a pocket of quiet at work by doing a “chair zazen” (sitting up straight and breathing slowly)—will make a difference in your daily flow. Spare, evocative line drawings by artist Harriet Lee-Merrion accompany each lesson. Through this inspiring guide, Masuno shows that every step you take on the path of personal growth, no matter how small, can have a major impact.

Personal growth can be a faith-based process—one that often involves unexpected changes of heart, as bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor demonstrates in Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. Taylor, a professor of religion at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, is candid about the ways in which teaching has informed her faith. Over time, her own Christian views have shifted. 

“I found things to envy in all of the traditions I taught,” Taylor writes. In Holy Envy, she shares stories of spiritual discovery from campus and beyond, mixing accounts of classroom life into astute considerations of the world’s differing belief systems. She wants her students to recognize that “religion is more than a source of conflict or a calculated way to stay out of hell. Religions are treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia.” On field trips, Taylor and her students visit houses of worship in their many forms—synagogues and mosques, shrines and centers for meditation—and the excursions prove transformative. Heartfelt, thoughtful and beautifully written, Taylor’s book will give readers who are undertaking their own spiritual journeys a sense of purpose and perspective.

Spring is the perfect time to freshen up your outlook—to cultivate new habits and attitudes that can lead to a more satisfying life. These four inspiring books are designed to help you thrive. Here’s to new possibilities!

You've got goals, and we've got the books to help you achieve them. Tackle your resolutions with these 10 books.


The Formula: The Universal Laws of Succes
By Albert-László Barabási

RESOLUTION: Work better, not harder, to reach your goals.
FRESH TAKE: If life were a fair fight, talent plus work ethic is all you’d need to succeed—but we’ve all been passed over for opportunities we’re qualified for. With this data-driven book, Albert-László Barabási explores the universal forces that affect our likelihood of success or failure.
GOOD ADVICE: The differences among top contenders in any category are so tiny that they’re essentially immeasurable—which means wine connoisseurs only know so much, and a nice Pinot can come at any price.


Love for Imperfect Things: How to Accept Yourself in a World Striving for Perfection
By Haemin Sunim

RESOLUTION: Practice self-love (beyond just buying bath bombs).
FRESH TAKE: In this gentle, kindhearted guide to inner peace, the Zen Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim argues that if one begins with self-acceptance, one will have greater empathy for others and an easier time adapting to life’s trials.
GOOD AVICE: When beset with negative emotions, observe your own feelings and then try to trace them back to their roots. You might realize that a bad experience in your past or a subconscious insecurity is influencing your behavior.


How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment—the Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life
By Sophie Hannah

RESOLUTION: Embrace your negative side.
FRESH TAKE: Novelist Sophie Hannah believes that nursing one’s grudges can lead to greater self-knowledge, personal growth and healthier boundaries.
GOOD ADVICE: By using Hannah’s hilarious grudge-grading system, you can channel your angry feelings into a deeper understanding of your own values and set necessary boundaries.


No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work
By Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy

RESOLUTION: Feel great about your work.
FRESH TAKE: Two former tech workers offer a fresh, funny approach to handling workplace relationships. By leaning on emotional intelligence, you, too, can navigate the pitfalls of modern office life. 
GOOD ADVICE: Establish context and trust with colleagues by using “richer communication” channels like voice chat before relying on written, and often misinterpreted, methods like email and instant messages.


Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More
By Elizabeth Emens

RESOLUTION: Overcome invisible labor.
FRESH TAKE: From disputing bills to planning a vacation, Elizabeth Emens introduces readers to the concept of admin, our sometimes onerous daily to-do list. Through relatable anecdotes, she breaks down the types of admin in our lives and offers advice on balancing tasks and relationships.
GOOD ADVICE: Talk with your partner about how to divvy up household duties before moving in together or getting married.


Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age
By Mary Pipher

RESOLUTION: Chart the course for the next phase of your life.
FRESH TAKE: Women face many challenges as they age: misogyny, ageism and physical changes. Yet psychologist Mary Pipher shows that most older women are more content than their younger selves. Pipher offers warm, empathetic guidelines for navigating aging and for recognizing its unexpected gifts. 
GOOD ADVICE: Every life stage is filled with pain and difficulties. The challenges and changes presented by aging are different, but they also present new ways to learn about yourself and cultivate empathy. 


The Monkey Is the Messenger: Meditation and What Your Busy Mind Is Trying to Tell You
By Ralph De La Rosa

RESOLUTION: Finally get into mindfulness and meditation.
FRESH TAKE: Everyone knows we should be meditating, but what if your thoughts just won’t shut up? Ralph De La Rosa draws on Buddhism, neuroscience and psychology to posit that instead of growing increasingly frustrated with these intrusive thoughts, we should accept them as a part of ourselves and use them as a tool to understand ourselves better. 
GOOD ADVICE: Try not to allow circumstances to dictate your emotions. Instead, accept circumstances and view them as an opportunity for growth and learning. 


Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol
By Ruby Warrington

RESOLUTION: Be more mindful of your alcohol intake.
FRESH TAKE: Going without alcohol may sound like an extreme lifestyle change and, frankly, a really dull one. But Ruby Warrington is here to tell you, nonjudgmentally, that cutting out alcohol doesn’t mean you’ll become boring, and it can lead to a happier life, filled with better sleep, health and relationships. 
GOOD ADVICE: If you’re worried about all the fun you’ll miss out on while sober, remind yourself of the phenomenon known as “euphoric recall,” in which an experience is misremembered in a far more positive light than the reality. That epic bachelor party five years ago? It perhaps wasn’t as epic as you remember—but the hangover you’re forgetting no doubt was.


Craftfulness: Mend Yourself by Making Things
By Rosemary Davidson & Arzu Tahsin

RESULTION: Pick up a creative hobby.
FRESH TAKE: Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin have crafted (sorry) a well-researched guide to the meditative, restorative and mood-lifting effects of working with your hands on a craft or creative pursuit. Filled with advice on how to let go of the pressure of Pinterest perfection, how to make time for crafting in your busy schedule and even a couple of quick beginner projects to get you started, this book is as warm as the scarf you’ll be knitting.
GOOD ADVICE: For too long, we’ve all been focused on the finished product of our artistic pursuits, which can often lead us to abandon less than perfect-looking projects. But there’s joy to be found in the process of making and mending, regardless of our perceived abilities.


If You Ask Me: Essential Advice from Eleanor Roosevelt
Edited by Mary Jo Binker

RESOLUTION: Sail through life with presidential aplomb.
FRESH TAKE: In 1941, the outspoken first lady Eleanor Roosevelt started an advice column. For 20 years, she doled out clever, pithy advice on love, etiquette and issues like gender and race equality. These lovely columns, collected and annotated by Mary Jo Binker, provide sound advice as well as a look into the life and thinking of a legendary first lady.
GOOD ADVICE: Roosevelt was adamant about gender equality in her personal life, writing that she thinks “people are happier in marriage when neither is the boss” and that all relationships are best built on “unselfishness and flexibility.” 

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

You've got goals, and we've got the books to help you achieve them. Tackle your resolutions with these 10 books.

Rich in material for spiritual seekers, this diverse selection of titles invites Christians, Jews and Muslims to explore aspects of their own faiths, while allowing them—and curious students of religion in general—to look outward at the beliefs of other traditions.

Rooted in her own Christianity, Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope can be read through the lens of any, or no, faith community. Inspired by the wish that her late father had “written down everything he had learned here, whose truths he was pretty sure of,” Lamott boldly sets out to share “almost everything I know.” In the 14 essays that compose the book, she veers from the intensely personal to the philosophical, highlighting some of the ways joy and pain are close companions in life.

Lamott is nothing if not ecumenical, drawing on sources that include the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, a Coptic minister in Cairo and the Dalai Lama. Her breezy, self-deprecating style, as when she refers to her “nice Jesusy beliefs,” makes her insights simultaneously memorable and easy to appreciate. But don’t mistake Lamott’s casual tone for a lack of seriousness. She’s not afraid to grapple with some of life’s most tragic aspects and profound mysteries, as she does in the moving essay “Jah,” the story of her friend Kelly’s lifelong battle with alcoholism. Anyone reading with an open mind and heart will come away with more than a few nuggets of useful wisdom.

A SURVIVOR’S MORAL LEGACY
Before his death in 2016, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel produced a large body of work exploring themes of faith and doubt, much of it shadowed by his experience as a Holocaust survivor, which he chronicled in his memoir Night. Rabbi and scholar Ariel Burger had the privilege of a close personal and professional relationship with Wiesel spanning 25 years, including time as his teaching assistant. Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom is the account of their relationship and the changes it wrought in Burger’s life. In chapters organized around memory and activism, Burger describes his experience observing Wiesel’s classroom discussions, in which he drew on classic works of literature from writers like Dostoevsky, Kafka and Camus to challenge and gently shape his students’ thinking.

Wiesel the literary scholar, as portrayed in these pages, is both wise and compassionate, but Burger is quick to point out that his mentor’s mild demeanor should not be mistaken for passivity. Time and again, Wiesel returns to the importance of “reading literature through an ethical lens,” intending, through this process, to awaken his students and inspire in them the moral clarity and courage to speak out against oppression and injustice. “Listening to a witness makes you a witness” becomes almost a mantra in Wiesel’s tutelage. Burger leaves little doubt of his own commitment to transmit Wiesel’s teachings to a new generation of students.

A STORY OF FINDING SOLACE
Elaine Pagels, a distinguished professor of religion at Princeton University, is best known for her scholarship on the Gnostic Gospels, the secret religious texts discovered in Egypt and the Dead Sea region in the 1940s. In Why Religion?: A Personal Story, she brings to bear that scholarship to help narrate the tragic story of losing her young son and husband—one to a chronic illness and the other in a mountain-climbing accident—within the space of barely a year.

Born with a heart defect, Pagels’ son, Mark, developed pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal condition at the time, and died at age 6. Some 14 months later, while hiking a familiar trail near the family’s Colorado vacation home, Pagels’ husband, Heinz, an eminent physicist, plunged to his death when the path beneath him gave way. Either one of these tragedies would have been sufficient to upend Pagels’ life, and the doubled nature of these events devastates her. In this memoir, she describes an eclectic and personal religious history that exposed her to everything from evangelical Christianity to Trappist monasticism. In the face of these painful events, Pagels has an extraordinary, dawning realization that the texts to which she has devoted her professional life might also spark a personal exploration. As she notes, it “compelled me to search for healing beyond anything I’d ever imagined.”

All this is summed up in a moving and transcendent final scene, as Pagels receives an honorary doctorate from Harvard, her alma mater, and finds spiritual peace.

AN OUTSIDER ON ISLAM
In books like his Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography, Jack Miles has shown he’s willing to tackle big subjects. God in the Qur’an is the third in a trilogy of books about holy writings. Despite identifying himself as a practicing Episcopalian, Miles, who currently teaches at Boston College, approaches these works “not as a religious believer but only as a literary critic writing quite consciously for an audience crowded with unbelievers.” Above all, he’s determined to puncture the myth that every Muslim is a terrorist-in-waiting simply because they honor the Qur’an as sacred scripture.

In each chapter, Miles engages in a detailed textual comparison of a familiar story from the Qur’an and either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. One chapter examines Moses and the account of the Exodus. In the biblical version of the well-known Passover narrative, Miles points out the emphasis on the drama of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage and the start of their journey to the land promised to them by Yahweh. The Qur’an’s version “mutes the centrality” of that story, stressing instead Allah’s concern for Moses’ role “principally as a prophet of the eternal, unchanging message of Islam.” Miles’ book should inspire curious readers to engage with this sacred Muslim text.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Rich in material for spiritual seekers, this diverse selection of titles invites Christians, Jews and Muslims to explore aspects of their own faiths, while allowing them—and curious students of religion in general—to look outward at the beliefs of other traditions.

How do you convincingly dismiss most of civilization’s beliefs in the hereafter and still arrive at fresh optimism about the meaning of our all-too-human existence? Bestselling author and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer does a fine job of it—and much more—in his absorbing 15th book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

As the subtitle promises, statistics and studies abound in this thoroughly researched book. Believers, philosophers, scholars and physicians all have their theories and “proofs” for life after death, methodically examined and just as respectfully refuted by Shermer.

But wait—don’t we already know there is little credible evidence of life after death? Who, after all, has died and returned to tell us about it? And if there is no life after death, how does one find purpose in life? Allow Shermer to introduce you to the singularitarians, Omega Point Theorists, transhumanists, extropians, cryonicists and mind-uploaders. The quest for utopia here on earth has inspired communities as diverse as Jim Jones’ deadly cult and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

If the pursuit of immortality in an afterlife or utopia proves elusive, Shermer concludes by offering a cogent argument for seeking answers in a purposeful life. “Heaven and hell are within us, not above and below us,” he insists. “We create our own purpose.” Find meaning in love, family, work and involvement both socially and politically. Ultimately, Shermer is a believer in the power of our unique souls. He suggests, compellingly, that we seek heaven here on earth.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

How do you convincingly dismiss most of civilization’s beliefs in the hereafter and still arrive at fresh optimism about the meaning of our all-too-human existence? Bestselling author and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer does a fine job of it—and much more—in his absorbing 15th book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

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