Pool Landscaping

One of the most satisfying aspects of home ownership that I have experienced is designing and maintaining our landscape and gardens. All properties present their own challenges, some more extreme than others. For over fifteen years I struggled with a yard that sloped at about 35 degrees, from the street all the way to a small creek that served as the back property border. Most of the top soil had washed away long before I ever began working in that yard. At first I was attempting to plant in clay that was more like a brick patio than dirt. However, I also built my first and most natural-looking pond in a portion of that hillside behind the house with lush ornamental shrubs, perennials, and annuals surrounding the area. Of course, it took nearly ten years for my back to heal from that project.

Water features have always been a landscaping necessity for me, a subject I have covered before in this blog. My wife and I are currently living in a house in north Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We are fortunate to have national forest land in front and behind our house. It’s an ideal setting for various gardens within the landscape, as long as I keep spraying Liquid Fence to keep the deer from eating everything in sight. When we first moved to this location, I knew I wanted to incorporate a water feature. In an effort to avoid traction or surgery for me, we elected not to build a pond at this house. Instead, we contracted with someone to build a pool — not so natural in appearance but infinitely more versatile than a garden pond.

Pool waterfall plantings
Pool waterfall plantings

We splurged on the pool project with the use of natural stone around the border and in the retaining wall and by installing a waterfall made with boulders. We covered the ground inside the fenced area with river rock, and for the first year, the pool was functional but not necessarily attractive. What ultimately enhanced the backyard project and made the space come alive was the addition of a few decorations and some plants. We started with some containers next to the waterfall, which added bright color and contrast with the earth tones of the stone. Over the next few years, we added Knockout Roses along the edges of the pool decking. We also added more containers with annuals near the steps leading up to the deck above the pool level. A collection of large-leaf hostas fill a corner just beyond the table, chairs, and shade umbrella. A chimenea, globe lanterns, and landscape lights complete the accessories for the pool.

Poolside Knockout Roses
Poolside Knockout Roses

On the side of the pump house we hung an antique window that has a watering pot and flowers painted on the glass panes. This modest piece of art reflects our love for gardening and adds interest even during the off season. Just beyond the fence behind the waterfall we planted elephant ears, which create a tropical atmosphere close to the sound of running water. There is a row of dwarf nandina along the outside of the long section of the fence running the length of the pool, and they turn a deep shade of red and green during the winter. On the slope just beyond this section of fence, we have large clumps of ornamental grasses, several mountain laurel shrubs, taller nandina, and an expanding collection of butterfly bushes that attract their namesake, along with a few hummingbirds, all summer long. Finally, a row of loropetalum shrubs serves as a tall screen just beyond the fence next to the carport entrance to the pool. In less than four years, we have been able to create a little oasis in our backyard — a place of rest, relaxation, and escape. It was worth every penny.

Pool pump house art
Pool pump house art

Confessions of a Lazy Musician

Music has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother’s extended family members were faithful Southern Baptists, for whom music was the primary expression of worship and praise. I was raised in this environment and at an early age was encouraged to sing frequently, not only in church, but for elderly relatives on their sick beds, at occasional family gatherings, and during Christmas holidays. As a pre-adolescent, I became increasingly impressed with older teens who performed in church, especially those who played musical instruments. My older sister had taken several years of piano lessons, and we had an old upright in our dining room that she used for rehearsing. I was frequently scolded for “banging” on the piano.

In the early 1970s at around the age of eleven, I expressed interest in learning how to play the guitar, so my parents bought a starter instrument for me and located a teacher. My instructor was an old guy who loved folk music and wanted me to start with the basics by playing simple songs note by note. I was impatient, which in retrospect was unfortunate because this was my one chance to learn how to read music. Instead, I jumped ahead in my music books and began learning how to play open chords — the easiest ones such as C, D, G, Em, and Am. In a short time, I began picking out songs that were popular during that time from pop and folk singers, especially John Denver. I started out as an amateur musician at just the right time. Many of the songs that I loved during those years could be played well enough with 3-5 chords. I took guitar lessons for less than a year.

My primary incentive in learning to play the guitar was to accompany myself to sing the songs that my friends and I were listening to on the radio. The more I played, the better my hearing became adapted for learning songs; therefore, I never went back to trying to read a musical score. I expanded my open chord portfolio, but I was not willing to push through the pain of playing bar chords, which continues to limit me as a guitarist to this day. Soon I was given opportunities to play and sing in church. By the time I reached the 10th grade, I was playing well enough to accompany choral groups at school and sing in talent contests.  My sister and I, along with one of our female cousins, formed a trio and played at nearby churches and for community groups. I was nervous playing in front of crowds, but I became better at listening to songs and reproducing them well enough for the average, uncritical audience. It was great fun, and it was a way for a short kid with not much athletic ability to find acceptance, approval, and even admiration from peers and adults.

Like most amateur musicians and singers from my generation, I also tried my hand at writing songs. My earliest influences were church music and pop/folk performers, so I began writing songs that I could sing and play for worship services and just for my own fulfillment. Some of them were good enough that I continued to sing them into adulthood. Others were absolutely horrible, and they are now thankfully forgotten. I have had the opportunity to perform original songs many times over the last thirty years, and my audiences have been quite gracious and accepting of my efforts. I continue even now to write songs, one of which I copyrighted and featured in this blog.

Sometime during my early college years, I began discovering chords on the piano. At the small community college I attended in the late 1970s, there were no restrictions on the use of the pianos in the practice rooms in the Department of Music. I would often head over in the late afternoons, when most faculty and almost all students were gone, and spend an hour or more discovering the triad configuration of the major chords and a few of the minors. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree, I had memorized all the major and minor chords, along with sharps and flats. I had learned how to make numerous augmented and diminished chords, the major and minor 7ths, and suspended chords.

Also, my ear was better allowing me to determine the, and I stress this adjective, necessary chords to reproduce melodies on the guitar, but even more proficiently on the piano. I was playing chords on the keyboard that I was never able to master on the guitar. Solely from a mechanical standpoint, the piano is easier for me to play, and I have always taken the path of least resistance as a musician. Soon, I was singing and accompanying myself almost exclusively on the piano for church services, and then several times a year at weddings. If I listened to a song and worked at it for a while, I could learn to play it well enough to accompany myself or someone else to sing it. In other words, I was faking it sufficiently for most audiences and the people who were either inviting me or paying me to perform.

In my early forties, a friend of mine invited me to come to band rehearsal with him. He played bass for a 5-member local band covering classic rock, Southern rock, and some easy-listening music. As it turned out, they were considering bringing in a sixth member to serve as a front man. He knew I had a fairly good singing voice because he had heard me perform at a wedding. I started practicing with them regularly, and within a few months, I was singing for them. Up to this time, their drummer was the lead singer, and he continued to sing about half of our set lists for the next ten years I was with the band. It was a good arrangement. The musicians in this group were all far more accomplished than I was, but occasionally I did play acoustic and even keyboards on a few of the songs I sang for the band. Playing in that band was such a rush and fulfilled a deep desire to perform the music that I loved so much. I will always be thankful for the opportunity.

Howard baby grand piano
Howard baby grand piano

I am also extremely grateful to my wife, who always encourages me and goes out of her way to convince me and others that I am not a lazy musician. Of course, I know better, but I love her to the moon and back for the confidence she gives me and the praise she pours on me every time I play music. She has also facilitated my musical endeavors in direct and significant ways through amazing gifts: a baby grand piano she bought for me ten years ago and a Takamine guitar as an anniversary present in 2012. The Howard baby grand is a beautiful instrument intended for someone with talent and skill that far exceed my own, but I am astounded at how my playing has improved on this piano. I hear sounds and find melodic movements that I never sensed on other keyboards. It may not be magic, but I also can’t explain it, so it’s magic to me.

Takamine guitar
Takamine guitar

 

My guitars
My guitars

The Takamine is hands-down the finest guitar I have ever played. It is an acoustic with a pickup and electronic tuner. I had the pleasure of playing it during the last year I was with the band, and I still enjoy playing it on my own now. It is the fifth acoustic I have owned, including my first learner model and a Stella 12-string I had in high school. Currently, I have a wood-grain Yamaha that I have had since college, a Fender with a deep blue finish that I bought from one of my band mates, and the Takamine. I need to play much more than I do, but what can I say? I’m a lazy musician. The most recent addition to my collection of instruments is a Roland FP-90 keyboard that features real wooden hammer-action keys, multiple banks of sounds (pianos, strings, organs, synth sounds, etc.), four on-board speakers, and inputs for a mic and an amp. I had a smaller Yamaha keyboard that I bought while I was with the band, but this Roland is like a Rolls Royce by comparison.

My Roland FP-90 keyboard
My Roland FP-90 keyboard

I have spent much of my life attempting to entertain others at home, at church, at school, at work, and in restaurants and bars. I have sung and played for weddings, funerals, parties, dinners, meetings, and other occasions. Even when I was providing music at church, deep down it was my need to perform that inspired me as much or more than any religious conviction. I addressed this issue as honestly as possible in another blog post. Music has always been my most creative expression, and I am so thankful that I had some raw talent and the right people — family, friends, teachers — to encourage me at a young age. I only wish that I had taken the time and put forth the effort to learn to read music, which would have given me so many more opportunities to give people enjoyment. And, in the end, that is the reward for me of being an amateur performer.

Our Final Destination

One of the most magnificent places I have ever seen is Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming. My wife, younger son, and I combined a visit to this park with our exploration of Yellowstone during the summer of 2015. Formed by a series of earthquakes dating back about 10 million years, the Teton Range rises an impressive 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The jagged, rocky peaks are quite a spectacle and can be seen for miles across the expansive meadows, forests, and flood plains that make up so much of the park’s terrain.

Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge
Grand Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge

There are numerous options for staying overnight in the park, including campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. Jackson Lake Lodge is a full-service resort hotel that features a spacious lobby with two-story windows looking out on Jackson Lake and the 40-mile-long mountain range beyond. We didn’t actually stay at this lodge, but we spent some time in the lobby, out on the deck, and on the nearby trails where we could gaze at the ascending peaks still dressed in patches of snow even in July. As I wrote in a previous blog about this view, “Grand” doesn’t do it justice.

Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake
Grand Tetons near Jenny Lake

Human occupation of this region of the state began approximately 11,000 years ago when Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. The first euro-American explorer who may have entered the area was John Colter. He served as a member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition, but he left the expedition in the fall of 1806 and traveled through this region in the winter of 1807-1808. As America expanded westward, survey expeditions mapped the landscape, documented natural resources, and scouted for future railroad access. Congress created the original park in 1929 to protect the Teton Range and several lakes at the foot of the mountains. More land from the federal government and from private donors was added over the next few decades, and by 1950 the park was the size that it is today: 310,000 acres.

Just inside the southern entrance to the park is a place that holds special meaning for my wife and me. The tiny Chapel of the Transfiguration was built in 1925 on land donated by Maud Noble. It was constructed so that the early settlers would not have to make the long buckboard ride into the nearby town of Jackson for Sunday services. The structure also served guests and employees of the dude ranches that stretched north of Jackson along the base of the Teton Range. It is still a functioning Episcopal church and is operated by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. Services are held at the Chapel from late May to early September each year. A large window behind its altar frames the magnificent beauty of the Teton Range. A good friend of mine and a former Baptist minister of music once said, “It wouldn’t matter what the topic of your sermon was in that chapel. You’d always get an ‘amen’ at the end.”

Grand Tetons - Chapel of the Transfiguration
Grand Tetons – Chapel of the Transfiguration

My wife is a cradle Episcopalian, and I joined the denomination after we were married in 2008. We sometimes visit Episcopal churches when we are traveling, especially in historic locations. Although we did not attend a service at this little chapel, we were quite taken by its simple construction and its beautiful surroundings. In the summer of 2012, St. John’s created a Garden of Memories at the Chapel of Transfiguration for those who would like to repose their cremains on the grounds of this unique sacred place. Instead of being spread, ashes are poured into the ground and covered with soil. The names and dates of the deceased are inscribed on a plaque mounted on a large stone in the garden. We both decided a long time ago that we wanted to be cremated when we die, and after visiting this lovely place of worship in the valley below the Grand Tetons, we have chosen to make this garden our final travel destination.

Stacked Container Planting

I incorporate no less than twenty containers in our garden every season. They decorate the back deck, which is visible through french doors in our living room. I place pots on the stone retaining wall that borders our pool in the backyard. A couple of large, colored concrete pots are nestled at the edge of our evergreen shrub bed in front of our kitchen windows. There are a few pots of different sizes in the annual and perennial beds at the entrance to our front porch. One particular container that I enjoy planting each year is on the brick walkway leading up to that same front entrance.

Stacked container planting
Stacked container planting

This planter is almost like a separate garden to itself because it is actually a collection of three containers. The base is a large, artificially-aged concrete bowl that we purchased in Cherry Log, a little hamlet in the hills of north Georgia, when we were still living on a lake near the center of the state. Its shell is thick enough that the pot can be overwintered outside, even when temperatures dip down close to zero degrees Fahrenheit. We decorate it for several holidays during the off-season. It is quite heavy, even when empty. I fill this container with potting soil up to about two inches from the rim. On top of the soil in the center, I place a shallow blue glazed pot with a cream-colored interior and matching rim. It is almost completely filled with soil, and on top of it I place a matching blue pot that is taller and narrower than the one below it.

The plants I use in this terraced garden vary from one season to the next. Typically I use annuals that flower profusely and don’t require deadheading (self-cleaning), such as vinca or begonia. In the top pot I almost always plant something with vertical interest, like ornamental grass. Along the edge of the base bowl that faces the house and the entrance from the driveway, I always plant two green potato vines that will trail over the side and down to the brick walkway. Between these two vines I insert one of my favorite “inorganic” elements of our landscape: the little sign that greets us and all our guests to our garden. Have you tried a stacked container garden? They add so much interest and are fun to experiment with year after year.

Celebrating Ten Years in Sedona

Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.

Casa Sedona Inn
Casa Sedona Inn

My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!

 

Javelina
Javelina

For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.

Sedona's red rocks from Devil's Bridge Trail
Sedona’s red rocks from Devil’s Bridge Trail

 

Scenic views from Devil's Bridge Trail in Sedona
Scenic views from Devil’s Bridge Trail in Sedona

Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic  energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.

The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village
The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village

On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.

Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross
Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

 

Blooming cacti near Sedona
Blooming cacti near Sedona

On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing  water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.

Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek
Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek

 

Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch
Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch

Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

During our vacation in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, my wife requested I find some interesting sites in the area that intrigued me for us to explore one afternoon, along with our close friend who graciously hosted us in her home for the week. My love for waterfalls led me to pick out a few attractions that advertised that particular element, and we were pleasantly surprised at what we found in this sprawling desert city. My favorite was the Ro Ho En Japanese Friendship Garden located directly behind the Irish Cultural Center just north of Portland Avenue. The garden covers 3.5 acres and includes a tea garden and tea house. According to the garden’s website, “This tranquil and beautiful setting features more than 1,500 tons of hand-picked rock, stone footbridges, lanterns and more than 50 varieties of plants.”

Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

I have written about the value of public gardens before, and this one is definitely on my list of favorites. The idea for the garden began in 1987 by a delegation from Himeji, Japan. Phoenix and Himeji have been sister cities since 1976 and participate in business, governmental, cultural, and educational exchanges that promote international goodwill and understanding. The garden is the shared cultural vision of both cities. The construction of the garden was completed in 2000, and it was opened to the public in 2002. Neither my wife nor our friend, both long-time residents of Phoenix, knew anything about this little treasure. The visit was a treat for all three of us.

Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

In addition to maintaining a beautiful, serene Japanese garden in the heart of the city, the nonprofit organization that operates the facility provides educational and artistic programs and events that continue to deepen East-West relationships and celebrate the rich history and culture of Japan. Authentic tea ceremonies for the public are held on the third Saturday of each month from October through June. The ceremonies are presented by Tanko Kai tea group, wearing beautiful kimonos in the Musoan tea house. Guests are met at the entry gate and conducted to the tea house by a docent who explains features in the tea garden and other interesting facts about the tea house itself.

Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

As we strolled around the pond, by the waterfall, and along the garden paths, I was reminded once again how the desert southwest is so often misrepresented as a barren region with little life and no real beauty. True, the Japanese Friendship Garden is an artificial oasis, but there are plenty of natural places just this lush and soothing located throughout Arizona and its neighboring states. The fortunate people who live in the apartment building next to the garden have one of the best views in the city: a luxuriant landscape below combined with desert mountain vistas in the distance. For all visitors to Phoenix, and even for those who call the city their home, I highly recommend a therapeutic retreat to the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)