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Many thanks to fellow Twelver Tim Van Deelen for his generous shout-out to the Refugia Podcast, and especially for his account of episode 24 with Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, released on September 18. And thanks to RJ Editor Jeff Munroe as well for linking to the podcast in the RJ newsletter this week. I do indeed hope that Twelve readers will enjoy the nine episodes planned for this season. Episode 25 (Season 3, Episode 3), with Rabbi Dean Shapiro, releases tomorrow.  

Meanwhile, I thought Twelve readers might appreciate some book recommendations based on reading I’ve been doing recently, both for the podcast and for teaching. I am always puzzled by the folks who set themselves a book-reading goal at the beginning of the year and then keep tabs on the number of books they read. How do they keep count? I wouldn’t even know how to begin keeping track. What about books I half-read to see if they’re suitable for teaching? And do you count books you’ve read before numerous times?

It’s all too much bookkeeping for me. Like many of you, my life is piled high with books, books, books. It’s just an occupational hazard. I basically read like mad for a living.  

Anyway, here are some recent gems I would commend to you. If you can make it through the serious theology, you’ll get to a couple great novels at the end.

Leah D. Schade Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice, 2015) and Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

We’ll start with the books I read to prepare for the podcast episode Tim wrote about. Leah Schade is a Lutheran homiletician who teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. In both these books, Leah is working to answer a tough question: How can pastors broach “sensitive” subjects in the pulpit? Leah combines deep research in homiletics with practical experience as a pastor and ongoing studies into the experience of congregations.

Creation-Crisis Preaching is focused on the climate crisis, obviously. I was impressed with the deep engagement with eco-theology and the role of the preacher, all with a robustly Lutheran flavor. This one offers many practical examples, including sample sermons with annotations. Purple Zone analyzes why it’s so tough for church people to deal with “issues,” provides theological basis for a way forward, and introduces the sermon-dialogue-sermon method with case studies to demonstrate. The sermon-dialogue-sermon method is a field-tested technique for building long-term capacity in a congregation for addressing difficult issues together without blowing up the church.   

Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018)   

If you’re ready for a bracing, Christian call to action on the climate crisis, this one might do it for you. Jim is a UCC pastor who has been in the climate fight for decades. He has served as Conference Minister for all the UCCs in Massachusetts, and he continues to provide denominational, ecumenical, and interfaith leadership as well. The opening page of this book lays out the challenge the climate crisis presents: “I suggest that the enormity of this moral crisis constitutes a theological emergency” and “God is calling us to initiate a moral intervention.”

Jim emphasizes throughout “communal vocation” in this generation to respond to this moral imperative. Chapters on “The Marks of the Church in a Climate Crisis World,” discipleship, worship, prophetic preaching, and communal action shape a vision for a “repurposed church.” Jim combines Christian orthodoxy with an inspiring emphasis on action. As he writes in chapter 8, communal action as witness can “free us from fear.” (My interview with Jim will drop on October 16.)

Talitha Amadea Aho, In Deep Waters: Spiritual Care for Young People in a Climate Crisis (Fortress, 2022)

A page-turner about youth ministry? Yep, it’s true. Talitha is a Presbyterian pastor with long experience in youth ministry as well as hospital chaplaincy to children and young people. This book is a compelling glimpse into the minds and hearts of wise young folks struggling to connect faith with their fears for the future. Talitha’s context is Northern California, where devastating wildfires now regularly disrupt life. How do we help young people deal honestly with their grief, fear, hope, and wonder? How do we care for them well spiritually?

Talitha explores these questions through story after wonderfully honest story, depicting real conversations and experiences with the young folk in her care. I relished her combination of humor, empathy, openness, and respect for the spiritual wisdom of young people, modeling a faithful way to walk attentively and even joyfully alongside the next generation. Also, I want to go along on those ocean-science-based youth group trips. (My interview with Talitha and Sharon Delgado will air Nov. 6.)

Sharon Delgado, The Cross in the Midst of Creation: Following Jesus, Engaging the Powers, Transforming the World (Fortress, 2022).

We’ve had Lutheran, UCC, and Presbyterian authors. How about a Methodist? Sharon is a retired United Methodist pastor with a long history in environmental activism and peacemaking. This book is a deep examination of the “word of the cross.” What is that word speaking to us in an age of climate crisis and existential threats? Sharon reexamines atonement theology and explores a “deep incarnation” in which Christ’s work on the cross takes up the suffering of the whole creation.

The second half of the book invites us to follow Jesus “into the heart of the struggle for a transformed world,” reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in order to seek meaningful ways to “follow Jesus, engage the powers, and live into the promise of the gospel as symbolized by the cross.” Throughout, Sharon draws from a wide range of theological reflection, including Walter Wink, N. T. Wright, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and many others to emphasize nonviolent resistance and the power of the gospel. “Do we identify with the ruling powers or the suffering ones?” This book is a serious-minded look at the challenge and promise of facing that question.

Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible: A Novel (Norton, 2020).

Now for the novels! Who doesn’t love a good climate dystopia? This smart, weird little novel lured me in with its narrator’s voice—a teenage girl stuck with her parents, a bunch of their friends, and the friends’ gaggle of offspring at a remote resort house on the East Coast. Evie’s cynical, wiser-than-her-years attitude gets challenged when huge storms strand the group at the house for the foreseeable future and everyone has to figure out how to survive without the usual infrastructure of affluent life. The parents—a bunch of selfish, self-indulgent, immature partiers—collapse into helplessness and the kids have to step up.

Sound like a satirical parable? Yep, it is, and that leads to some weird moments I haven’t quite figured out yet, but I look forward to doing so with my students later this semester. This is a novel that makes you think seriously about the “what if…..?” questions we would rather avoid. Note: the “children’s Bible” aspect presents religion as an emptied-out husk—expect no traditional piety here. Not all readers like this novel, but it has won many awards, including being a finalist for the National Book Award.

Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land: A Novel (Scribner, 2021).

Even if you pass on every other book on this list, don’t neglect this one. I have taught this novel twice now to senior English majors (i.e., people with excellent literary taste), and each time they have positively swooned over it. I’m reading it for the third time and still swooning myself. One of my students summed the novel up as “an endearing, wise, and whimsical tale that keeps you guessing till the very end. It’s a long book that only sometimes feels long, but one that always feels big—big-hearted, ambitious, millennia in scope.”

Exactly. Doerr interweaves the stories of five main characters across three time periods, stitching their stories together with the fragments of a silly tale about a doltish, naive fellow who leaves his home to seek “cloud cuckoo land,” a utopian city in the sky. The delights of reading include watching Doerr masterfully spool out the connections among the characters, one delicious surprise at a time. References to Aristophanes and Homer, heroic librarians, and a menagerie of animal companions round out the pleasure.

At heart, this is a novel about the power of stories, the preciousness of texts, and our shared human longing to “slip the trap” of our suffering and seek the promise of elsewhere. While all the characters suffer grave hardship, Doerr somehow keeps our hearts light throughout, probably because he treats every character with such tenderness and empathy. For whatever makes your heart sore right now, this novel offers healing balm.

What’s piling up on your night table these days? Next up for me are Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life; Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment; Lisa Sharon Harper, Fortune; Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble; and more. Help!

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.

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