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The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age

Steven Weitzman. Princeton Univ., $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-691-17460-0

In this multicourse intellectual feast, Weitzman, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, tries to explain how the Jewish people began while exploring various approaches to the question. Given that the Bible is no longer regarded as a reliable historical record, Weitzman tries to determine what can be ascertained with any certainty about the first Jews, noting that the issue is complicated by the lack of consensus as to how the Jewish people is defined: “a nation, a race, a religion, an ethnicity.” He then approaches the mystery through genealogy, paleolinguistics, psychoanalysis, and genetics. He concludes that the “history of the Jews has to start somewhere, but it is not clear whether, after many centuries of trying and failing to establish that starting point, scholarship has developed or will ever develop the ability to do so.” Weitzman’s facility with making complex points accessible to the lay reader, and his ease with synthesizing a wide range of research and prior analyses, make this an invaluable resource for both novice and scholar. His rigorous critiques will resonate even for those readers with little or no prior interest in the book’s central questions. (June)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Truth: The Mastery Trilogy, Book 2

Paul Selig. TarcherPerigee, $17 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-17571-8

Selig (The Book of Mastery)—an seasoned intuitive who claims to receive clairaudient messages from “the Guides”—continues to share his passion in book two of his trilogy that builds on his goal to “teach the teachers” of humanity, leading the reader away from the self that is connected to fear and attachment to the physical world to become aligned with the higher vibrations of the divine self. Selig defines this as “the ‘I Am’ presence, if you wish, announcing itself in purview, ‘I am here, I am here, I am here,’ which is the claim of the Divine as you in full broadcast.” He writes that everyone has the option to reach this higher plane of full realization of the divine, but this book is not for novices or those who are beginning a spiritual path. The ideas will be beneficial to his intended audience, but the author too frequently uses metaphors and aphorisms to illustrate his points, and sections or chapters conclude with an exhortation to be true to yourself and some variation of the command, “Stop now, please. Period. Period. Period.” For those who have read the first volume or are familiar with Selig’s work, parsing his sporadically explained terms will be second nature and his thoughts will be beneficial guides on the journey to enlightenment, but new readers will be lost. (June)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything

Rob Bell. HarperOne, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-0621-9426-8

Bell (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived), a sometimes controversial but undeniably popular author, speaker, and pastor, has written an introduction to the Bible that is one part biblical theology and interpretational principles and one part spiritual travelogue. Intermixing exegetical wisdom with reflections on life, spirituality, and the universe’s abundance of divine prompts and promises, Bell shares why and how readers might encounter the Bible in a whole new way by considering the relevance of its lessons to daily life as well as to larger life decisions. Bell is an expert in reading Scripture and known for cracking open the context, language, and background of both familiar and obscure Bible stories, but his work can still come off as shallow and glib. Despite not being an in-depth theological treatise, this popular presentation prompts readers to see the Bible as a thoroughly human production meant to elicit questions and connection rather than provide firm answers or theological foes. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion

Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia Relf. Univ. of Wisconsin, $26.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-299-31130-8

Conservative Christianity has become synonymous with opposition to abortion, but before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized it in the U.S., clergy organized to protect pregnant women and direct them to safe abortions. Dirks and Relf explore this extraordinary and little-known history through detailed first-person interviews and extensive research with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy who, between 1967 and 1973, created a pregnancy counseling service and national underground network to provide women with options for adoption, parenting assistance, and pregnancy termination. At the time, deaths from botched abortions, including self-induced ones, were estimated at 5,000 a year—though they were likely much higher—and were disproportionately among women of color, who had the least financial resources. These clergy pioneered the first “counselor-oriented clinics” and proved abortion could be a safe outpatient procedure. Dirks and Relf provide critically important social history that too many in today’s abortion wars have never known or chosen to forget. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Finding the Lost Art of Empathy

Tracy Wilde. Howard, $24.99 (195p) ISBN 978-1-5011-5629-8

When Wilde, a fifth-generation preacher, was in the midst of grieving her boyfriend’s mysterious death (police eventually ruled it a suicide), she longed to genuinely connect with others. “All I wanted, all I really needed (at least in the beginning), was empathy,” she writes in this Bible-based exploration of the forgotten skill of empathizing. Many times it’s hard to know what to say when a friend is going through a difficult time, especially if one hasn’t walked in similar shoes. Wilde offers practical advice and explains why it’s of utmost importance to reach out to those who are hurting. In a conversational tone infused with self-deprecating humor, Wilde explores how social media has ironically caused a problem of emotional disconnection, but also demonstrates how technology can be of help if people use it to become more self-aware instead of self-obsessed. Drawing on passages from the Bible, such as the stories of the Good Samaritan and Joseph being betrayed by his brothers, she leads readers on a journey that will help them take Christ’s message and put it into practice. A lack of empathy, Wilde claims, comes from a belief that we are more important than others. Her book offers an insightful, intelligent education on the importance of “loving our neighbor” on a deeply personal level. Agent: Whitney Gossett, Fedd. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Unscripted

Ernie Johnson Jr. Baker, $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8010-7410-3

When Emmy-winning sports broadcaster Johnson was an eight-year-old in Atlanta, Ga., a Little League game on a hot summer day took an unexpected break when two players in search of a ball discovered a blackberry bramble and enthusiastically ate it clean. That story—which he heard recounted innumerable times by his father and namesake, who was the voice of the Atlanta Braves for more than 30 years—is the theme of Johnson’s affecting autobiography: pay attention to life’s unexpected blackberry moments, as they can change you and become your most treasured memories. Johnson writes with humility and humor, devoting attention in particular to the oldest of his adopted children, Michael, a Romanian boy who has severe learning differences and emotional and physical problems and requires 24-hour care. Unfortunately, Michael is the only one of Johnson’s adopted children to get much space on the page, and his story is mostly used as a vehicle for discussing resilience in the face of challenges. Johnson’s poignant chapter detailing his two biological children’s weddings will not leave a dry eye, but he all but ignores his adopted daughter Carmen, now in her early 20s. The religious component of Johnson’s book generally remains in the background, but his conversion from lapsed Catholic to Bible-studying Wesleyan and his relationship with his pastor are described in detail. The book is recommended regardless of religious affiliation and great for Father’s Day. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Real Paul: Rediscovering His Radical Challenge

Bernard Brandon Scott. Polebridge, $27 (261p) ISBN 978-1-59815-154-1

Whatever you might think you know about Paul the apostle, prepare to be surprised, advises Scott (The Trouble with Resurrection), the Darbeth distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla. Scott explains that he follows the recent work of other New Testament scholars in challenging the “Augustinian/Lutheran interpretation” of a “guilt-ridden” Paul that dominates Christian interpretation. In the easily readable style of an experienced teacher, Scott shows the anachronism of claiming a religious conversion for Paul, which helps readers understand why (the Jewish) Paul so focused on the paradox of Jesus’s crucifixion as victory against Roman ideology. Plumbing the nuances of Paul’s Greek leads to provocative conclusions (modeling “the faithfulness of Jesus” rather than having “faith in Jesus,” for example) that may cause Christian readers to reconsider their own assumptions and beliefs. Some readers might find that enduring questions of some letters’ authorship undermine Scott’s argument, but that’s a small problem in the face of a fine contribution to Pauline scholarship and understanding. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving

Barbara Mahany. Abingdon, $18.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-5018-2727-3

In her second collection of essays, former Chicago Tribune writer Mahany (Slowing Time) reflects on what it means to be a mother, combining intimate reflections on her own experiences mothering two boys and ruminations on how learning to mother is learning to love radically “as instructed in the Gospel, the Torah, the Qur’an, and every holy book ever inscribed.” Mahany’s journalistic eye for detail and lyrical prose breathe new life into the seemingly simple, almost mundane aspects of motherhood—wet washcloths on feverish foreheads, rainy afternoons spent looking for worms, and cold winter mornings spent stirring porridge. She beautifully captures how mothering—loving deeply day in and day out, even when stretched to emotional and physical limits—can itself be sacramental. Motherhood is a subject that often falls prey to trite tropes and gender essentialism. But Mahany frames the term motherhood as simply the nurturing and selfless care for another, carefully demonstrating that her conception of mothering transcends gender and biology and is open to both women and men. This wonderful book on the beauty of loving well will be appreciated by anyone interested in how mothering can be informed by Christ’s selfless love. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Pierre Hotel Affair: How Eight Gentleman Thieves Orchestrated the Largest Jewel Heist in History

Daniel Simone, with Nick Sacco. Pegasus Crime (Norton, dist.), $27.95 (408p) ISBN 978-1-68177-402-2

Simone’s less than compelling account of a daring 1972 robbery of Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel reads like fiction, and in the absence of any explanation of his sources and methods for recreating events from more than 40 years ago, he inevitably invites skepticism about the truth of his story. In particular, Simone (The Lufthansa Heist) presents lines of dialogue—including from background characters whose words would not have had lingering relevance even at the time—as if they are accurately represented word for word. More significantly, he does nothing to support his hard-to-believe representation that legendary Manhattan DA Frank Hogan not only assigned the high-profile prosecution to a relative novice but eventually agreed to a sweetheart plea bargain for those who were arrested, a deal that encompassed the theft of millions of dollars in jewels and granted “unconditional immunity for any known or unknown crimes they may have committed, abetted, conspired, or implicated in.” Coauthor Sacco, the only surviving participant in the robbery, weighs in only intermittently, in asides that add little to the narrative. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Who I Am

Charlotte Rampling, with Christophe Bataille. Icon, $22.95 (128p) ISBN 978-1-78578-193-3

This slim, intimate book by English actress Rampling (Swimming Pool) and French novelist Bataille (Annam) bears little resemblance to a standard celebrity memoir, with scarcely a mention of Rampling’s movie career. Instead she discusses her uneasy youth (“Childhood is its own small battleground”) and a family secret that she has carried for decades. More of a “ballad” than a biography, as Bataille explains in the introduction, the memoir traces Rampling’s upbringing in a secretive, enigmatic family. Her father, an “impenetrable” man who won an Olympic gold medal in track in 1936 and served in the British artillery, moved the family seven times in 13 years. Rampling’s mother enjoyed elegant parties and journaling, and seemed deeply concerned with her fragile older daughter, Sarah, who was Rampling’s close friend as well as her sibling. The two girls attended boarding school together and remained close until Sarah eventually married and moved to Argentina, where she died young. In elegiac prose, Rampling recreates the longing associated with the loss of her sister, and paints a portrait of a family that buries pain only to find that it reemerges later in life. Rampling’s fans and other readers will be captivated by this introspective tale of sisterly devotion. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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