Review: Pleasant Valley

Pleasant ValleyPleasant Valley, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1997 (originally published in 1945).

Summary: The author, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, narrates his return from France to the area he where grew up, his purchase of several worn out farms, and his pioneering efforts in sustainable agriculture that restored the land to fertility, bringing health not only to the land but to those who made it their home.

One of my favorite parts of Ohio, my home state, are the lush rolling hills of north central Ohio, a mix of small towns, forest and farmland. Malabar Farm, once the home of Louis Bromfield, a 1927 Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, continues to this day as a working farm operated as a state park. I’ve camped on its land with my son’s Boy Scout troop and toured its Big House (Bogart and Bacall were married there) and outbuildings. But until now, I had never read the story of this place by Bromfield himself–having only just found a copy on a birthday trip to a used bookstore.

Pleasant Valley is Bromfield’s narrative of his return from France to fulfill a lifelong dream of farming in the valley where he grew up. He purchased several old worn out farms and began the process of restoring soils to fertility, putting into practice progressive agricultural practices like contour planting, using cover crops to hold and restore the soil, restoring woodlots, and tilling and disking his fields but not plowing to leave a cover which, along with manure, and cover crops would hold moisture and the soil itself. Eventually, he acquired roughly 1000 acres, and provided a sustainable life for the 35 or so people and hosts of pets and livestock who shared the land.

He described the building of the Big House, adding on to an original structure and creating a place that could accommodate a celebrity wedding, a study where he could write and think, and a home where children and his pet boxers could live rambunctiously and joyously. Through his description, we see the contoured strips of plantings, the healthy livestock, the pond where the boys went skinny-dipping. We share in his wonder as he discovers springs of water once again coming forth, a sign that the soils of his land are retaining water which is going down into the water table that feeds these springs.

Bromfield believed that the health of the soil was the health of the people. In addition to narrative, he gives us trenchant commentary contrasting living and dead farms, the follies of modern agriculture, and the potential to feed a far greater nation if only we would care for the foundation of our agriculture, the land. He was Ohio’s Wendell Berry, articulating a vision of attentiveness to the soil, and a sense of place, a generation before Berry began writing.

One of the most beautiful and poignant chapters in the book was his description of “My Ninety Acres”, the farm of Walter Oakes. He and his wife Nellie acquired this land at the time of their marriage, and together cared for it until Nellie died in childbirth. It was her wisdom that led to fence rows that were allowed to grow up, sheltering birds that fed on insects that in other fields would destroy crops. Bromfield and Oakes would walk the farm every Sunday, with Oakes sharing his wisdom in tending this small but prosperous farm. At the end of the chapter, and near the end of Walter’s life, after talking with son Robert about how Walter often seemed to conflate Nellie and the farm into a single entity, he wrote this beautiful account:

“As I watched that big work-worn hand caressing that stalk of corn, I understood suddenly the whole story of Walter and Nellie and the ninety acres. Walter was old now, but he was vigorous and the rough hand that caressed that corn was the hand of a passionate lover. It was the hand that had caressed the body of a woman who had been loved as few women had ever been loved, so passionately and deeply and tenderly that there would never be another woman who could take her place. I felt again a sudden lump in my throat, for I knew that I had understood suddenly, forty years after the woman was dead, one of the most tragic but beautiful of all love stories. I know now what Robert’s strange remark about Nellie and the ninety acres getting all mixed up had meant. Robert himself must once have seen something very like what I had just seen” (p. 154).

Louis Bromfield returned to Pleasant Valley seventy years ago. Yet this narrative has a timeless quality about it because it deals with one of the most basic and elemental realities from which we cannot escape. We discover in these pages the joy and deep satisfaction of caring for the land and the place that in turn gives us our life. Even those of us who live in cities have deep interests in this project, whether it is in the tending of our little garden plots and protecting against runoffs of fertilizers into our watersheds, or in the health of farms around us that provide us our produce, milk, meat, and eggs. All of us will either just use this place or love it. Bromfield inspires us to the latter.

Review: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy

unfinished odysseyThe Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, David Halberstam. New York, Open Road, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: This is a classic account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign tracing his decision to run, primary campaigns and evolving political vision that ended on the night of his primary victory in California.

We are entering primary season again. So I turned to this classic account by distinguished journalist David Halberstam, who traveled with Robert Kennedy during his 1968 campaign for the presidency, cut short on the night of his primary victory in California.

He begins with Kennedy’s struggle with the decision to run, which initially meant challenging the incumbent President in his own party. Veteran politicos still urged him to wait until 1972. Yet ever since Kennedy had broken with the Johnson administration on Viet Nam, many younger political advisers and many among the young and disaffected looked to him as a new kind of politician. Yet Kennedy kept waiting, allowing Eugene McCarthy to run a strong second to Johnson in New Hampshire. Halberstam traces the tormented realization that 1972 would be too long to wait. His entry and the continually eroding support for the war led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for another term.

Halberstam narrates the mad scramble to mount campaigns in Indiana and Nebraska, where Kennedy won victories. Then on to Oregon with neither the labor vote, nor large populations of disaffected. It was particularly chilling to read one narrative of Kennedy’s encounter with gun rights advocates who he accused of deception on the issue of passing gun registration and background check laws. He said,

“If we’re going to talk about this legislation, can’t we do it honestly and not say it does something that it doesn’t do? All this legislation does is keep guns from criminals and the mentally ill and those too young. With all the violence and murder and killings in the United States I think you will agree that we must keep firearms from those who have no business with guns or rifles.”

Halberstam’s comment is that the crowd “was not impressed.” I could not miss the ironic and almost prophetic character of Kennedy’s words, reading them a few days after the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon and the sadness that 47 years later and after a record number of mass shootings, we are still in the deadlock Kennedy faced in 1968.

The concluding chapter chronicles the exhausting campaign across California, Kennedy’s growing support among Blacks and Hispanics, his courageous engagement with radicals who tried to shout him down while they advocated anarchy, and the continued challenges of strategy as McCarthy turned more to media interviews rather than big but exhausting rallies. The book concludes with the Kennedy team plotting strategy to block Humphrey, who inherited Johnson’s delegates, while Kennedy headed to the hotel ballroom to give his victory speech only to be cut down by an assassin.

The “unfinished odyssey” was not simply about the tragically interrupted campaign. It was also about the evolution of Bobby Kennedy’s vision of and for America. As he distanced himself from the Johnson administration, he not only spoke out more against the quagmire of Viet Nam but also for the minorities struggling to find a place at America’s table. His family’s wealth freed him from the rich political patrons and enabled him to see the “other America”. We see his evolution from an aide to Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s and the oft-considered ruthless brother during John Kennedy’s presidency to an outsider with a breadth of vision and compassion that captured the imagination of the young and the disaffected. We’re left wondering what kind of president he might have been, where his odyssey would have ended, and how different America might be today.

The Open Road edition also includes a brief biography and photo spread chronicling the life of David Halberstam, who died tragically in an auto accident in 2007.

Reading this narrative is risky because one cannot help comparing Kennedy with today’s field. I suspect our judgments may vary with our political commitments. For me it reminded me of that tragic spring of 1968 (I was in eighth grade at the time) when we lost King and Kennedy. Read this if nothing else to understand the “Kennedy mystique” narrated by one of the great journalists and writers of this period.

Is It Time for Stricter “Man Control”?

mancardNo. I’m not into suspending civil liberties. But I’m struck that there is a common denominator in most of the mass shootings, gun violence in our cities, and sexual assaults. Young men.

Rather than a conversation about guns or sexual assault, which is difficult to have on social media, I thought we might talk about what is going on that so many young men are turning to violence, whether sexual or gun violence.

I could indulge in all sorts of discussion about how this is tied to warped ideas of manhood. I’ll leave this for the psychologists. What I wonder about is the sheer number of boys who really have no one helping them figure out this passage to manhood.

Many cultures have “rites of passage” that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. These often involve rituals, ordeals, and the mentoring of boys by men. Some of this may seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities but the impact was to clearly demarcate for young men that they had truly become men, and fully shared with other men responsibilities for the health of their society.

One of the few places I’ve seen anything like this happen in our society is in Boy Scouts. Adolescent boys are mentored by men. The Scout Law emphasizes qualities of character: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Scouts learn a variety of outdoor survival skills including orienteering, building fires, pitching tents properly, cooking food, and first aid.Two of the most important parts of Scouting are The Order of the Arrow and the Eagle Scout project. The Order of the Arrow is a kind of “ordeal” where a boy must camp out alone, create his own shelter, and not speak to anyone for 24 hours. Subsequently, Arrowmen are part of a brotherhood for life.

The Eagle Scout project involves attaining a series of ranks by meeting a number of requirements including badges that signify competency in a variety of skills. Then the Scout organizes a service project for the community, obtaining the needed materials and leading other Scouts and volunteers, and finally writing up and defending this project and his whole Scouting career before a board of review before being awarded this rank, which is also consider a lifetime achievement. One is always an Eagle Scout.

These are rites of passage that mark a transition from boyhood to adult manhood. They involve developing a capacity to endure some discomfort and to exercise self control, to work hard, to lead others and accept responsibility under the mentorship of adult men.

What I wonder about are the many boys who have no experience, formal or informal, like this in their lives, and no men, fathers and others, involved in helping them learn a richer idea of being a man than sexual and physical prowess. I also wonder if there are others whose only “adult” models are really boys in men’s bodies.

I suspect there are those who will accuse me of swapping one set of gender stereotypes for another. I would contend something different. I think many young men are more confused than ever about what it means to be a man. Sexual prowess and gun violence (real or virtual) are easy outs. What I would contend for is that a real man is an adult–someone who knows how to act with integrity, to work with excellence, to express his sexuality to love and serve and enrich another, and to handle conflict constructively and work with those who are different from him. And such an adult knows how to act and live well in the company of others, regardless of their gender identity or orientation, without posturing, power plays, or manipulation.

We can pass laws (or not) to control guns and establish policies to control sexual behavior (particularly on campuses). Fear or lack of opportunity may cut the numbers of assaults and maybe even deaths from guns. But until we take a hard look at how our young men are coming of age and what kinds of experiences are forming them into what kinds of adults, I think we will continue struggle with how to control boys in grown up men’s bodies. And frankly, I’m not sure we will ever be very satisfied with the results of that kind of “man control.” The best control is still self-control.

Review: The Soul of Atlas

soul of atlasThe Soul of AtlasMark David Henderson. Lexington: Reason Publishing, 2013.

Summary: Is there any way to reconcile the thought of Ayn Rand and the Christian faith? Through a personal narrative of dialogues with his two fathers, one a Christian, and one an adherent to Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism) the author explores what possible ground could exist between Objectivists and Christians.

Ayn Rand argued that we ought to pursue that which is of chief value, which is our own selves, validated in productive work. The universe is all there ever was. There is no God. Christians see our chief end as to glorify the creator God who made us in his image. Rand criticized the altruism and self-sacrifice she saw at the center of Christian ethics as weakness. Christians would argue there is no virtue in selfishness. It seems these two worldviews are poles apart and utterly irreconcilable.

Mark David Henderson was stuck with a dilemma. There are two men, both fathers, in his life. One he calls Dad and he is a Christian. The other is John, an adherent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. He deeply respects both men and has experienced the imprint of both men’s worldviews on his life, even though he has finally chosen Christianity over atheism, because as he explains in one place,

“In connecting my fathers’ world views to Meaning it became clear that Dad lives to glorify God and sees Meaning as dependent upon a Supreme Being. John sees existence itself as Reality. Along with Rand, he says that asking for anything else is a futile pursuit. Both men would consider their values objective, that is to say, true for everyone. The turn for me happened here. I found that John’s explanation didn’t satisfy, and while dissatisfaction itself didn’t validate dad’s answer, I felt myself leaning in his direction. I recognized there is plenty we may value in life that is not lasting. It may be meaningful, in a temporal sense, but if it came about by chance and it fades away, there is no ultimate purpose to it. Valued aspects of life may be meaningful, but this is not Meaning” (p. 127).

This gives you a flavor of his writing. I worried as I got into the book that the “two fathers” theme would get schmalzy but it never did. There was both feeling and intellectual grit in the discussion of these two men’s ideas about Sex, Money, Power, Meaning, Joy and more. Along the way he recognizes places of convergence, common grounds of a common humanity between two disparate world views. Neither man nor the beliefs they represented could accept a “hook up culture”. Both recognized the value in productive work and the monetary measures of this although each placed this differently in their values hierarchies. Both agree that the best government is limited government, whether this infringes upon the initiative of productive individuals or because governments are tempted to usurp the place of God.

Perhaps Henderson’s most significant insight, influenced by the writing of John Piper was to recognize convergence around the idea of rational self-interest. In fact, God is the greatest egoist of all, because he rightly puts himself and his glory above all else. What distinguishes the Christian from the egoist is simply the recognition that there is One greater than oneself of ultimate worth and indeed, the greatest Joy one can have in life is to place value in what is of ultimate worth.

What I liked about this book is that Henderson was not writing a work of syncretism–fusing Christianity and Randian Objectivism uncritically. Rather he recognizes that when it comes to some fundamentals, they are irreconcilable. Yet he does something else. He recognizes that we may differ without being utterly different. There are common grounds that may be found between those who differ and things we may deeply admire even in someone we might not agree with. His vision is one that recognizes how important such common agreement is to work in the public square to maintain the rule of law, basic human rights, and constitutional liberties. Most of all, though, I appreciated the insight that if Atlas represents Rand’s highest ideal for humankind, that it is in the gospel that this ideal, this deepest longing in the soul of Atlas finds its realization. And that just may reconcile the irreconcilable.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fallout Shelters

256px-United_States_Fallout_Shelter_Sign.svgRemember this sign? If you do, you probably grew up in the 50’s or 60’s or saw one that had never been removed from a designated fallout shelter. We saw these signs on Washington Elementary School, down the block from where we grew up. I remembered one we could see from the playground — an ever present reminder that our game of dodgeball could be interrupted by nuclear attack. We would have Civil Defense drills, where we would file from our classrooms to the basement of the school building. Others remember “duck and cover” drills hiding under school desks, which was better than going to the windows to see what was happening–marginally.

Duck and CoverWhere I lived on the West Side of Youngstown, we were within a mile or so of the steel mills, as were many living in the city. Given that we were the third largest steel manufacturer at the time, many considered the mills would be a prime target in case of a nuclear attack. Given our proximity to the mills, I’m not sure whether any of these measures would have resulted in our long-term survival, even if we survived the initial blast. What I do know is that these scared the heck out of us as kids. If nothing else, it got me to say my prayers at night!

October 1962 was an especially scary time. I was in third grade and I remember the night none of us did any homework, when President Kennedy came on all the national networks with photographs detailing the construction of missile silos 90 miles from the United States in Cuba. This brought us into a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union and Nikita Krushchev–only later did historians reveal how close to the brink we got to a nuclear exchange. Even with what they told us, it was enough to make us wonder if we would live to see another Halloween, let alone Christmas.

Atomic attackThe literature of the time talked about surviving nuclear attacks. No one discussed what kind of world there would be afterwards. I don’t know anyone who did this but people built their own fallout shelters and stocked them with supplies. Various agencies published pamphlets on what to do to survive a nuclear attack. My wife still has a couple of these, the covers of which I’ve scanned.

Most of the time, we pushed these fears into the background, although we often heard politicians talk then of “the Red Menace” as they do of “terrorists” today. Fostering fear often has been a good way to get elected. Remember the ads Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater showing a little girl picking the petals off a daisy against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud?

EmergencyBeginning in 1968, a series of treaties reduced our nuclear stockpile from nearly 30,000 to 7100 (with roughly 1600 actual warheads deployed and Russia having roughly the same). But it seems we’ve traded one set of fears for another in the years following 9/11, with Offices of Civil Defense being replaced by Homeland Security and “duck and cover” being replaced by airport screenings, “shelter in place” drills, and electronic and video surveillance of our lives.

Actually, I wonder if the attitude I saw in most of the adults I knew in Youngstown is the most healthy one. Being religious, they commended their souls to God and then went and did their work, cared for their families, enjoyed good food and drink and the other good things life brought, and didn’t pay too much attention to the scare-mongers. The real dangers in life were closer — a work injury, an auto accident, a cancer diagnosis. They didn’t spend too much time on the unthinkable and tried to make the most out of their lives when work was good and their families were healthy.

Maybe it is a more dangerous world today. No students ever died from nuclear war in the US, which we cannot say with regard to gun violence and mass shootings.  Yet I wonder if the commonsense approach to most fears by our parents under the cloud of nuclear war [which did include anti-war and anti-nuclear advocacy that made a difference] might be something we could learn from. They understood that the good life is not one controlled by fear. Might our working class parents have wisdom for our own day?

The Month in Reviews: September 2015

This month’s list of books reviewed clearly is a reflection of my (odd, eclectic?) reading tastes. A good dose of biblical studies and theology with books on Mark 13 and Ephesians, universalism and substitution. Books on restoration and renaissance–topics of interest for one who hasn’t given up on the possibility of Christians having a truly redemptive influence in society. There’s historical fiction, a book by an environmental writer and the late Oliver Sacks on music and sci-fi based on Mars. In case you missed any reviews in September, they are all here, with links to the full review and publication information in the book title:

AgincourtAgincourt, Bernard Cornwell. Through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, we see the massacre of Soissons, and the English invasion of France under Henry V including the frustrating seige of Harfleur, and the miraculous victory at Agincourt.

Evangelical UniversalistThe Evangelical UniversalistGregory MacDonald. This book provides the biblical, philosophical and theological arguments for why the view that all will finally be saved is consistent with evangelical theology and also includes additional appendices responding to issues raised since the book’s first edition.

Wild IdeaWild Idea: Buffalo & Family in a Difficult Land. Dan O’Brien. Dan O’Brien continues the story begun in Buffalo for the Broken Heart, describing the growth of the Wild Idea Buffalo Company, the move to a new ranch, and the challenges of a maturing daughter, an aging friend, and the struggle to build an ethical and ecologically sound business on the ever-challenging Great Plains.

Jesus the Temple and the Coming of the Son of ManJesus, The Temple, and the Coming Son of Man, Robert H. Stein. This commentary on Mark 13 sorts through the complex interpretive issues concerning the fall of the temple, apocalyptic events, and the return of the Son of Man.

Restoring All ThingsRestoring All ThingsWarren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. This book narrates the impact of mediating institutions and efforts by Christians in bringing restoration into some of the most challenging situations faced by our society today.

Drama of EphesiansThe Drama of Ephesians, Timothy G. Gombis. This book approaches Ephesians as a drama of the victory of God over cosmic powers in opposition to Him through Christ and through a redeemed and transformed church that acts as Divine Warrior. I also posted an interview with the author here.

MusicophiliaMusicophiliaOliver Sacks. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.

RenaissanceRenaissance, Os Guinness. Against the doomsayers speaking of the darkness of the times, Guinness remains hopeful for a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the west, rooted in the power of the Christian message; and he charts the tasks of faithful witness that precede this and the contours of such a renaissance.

Reading C.S. LewisReading C.S. Lewis: A CommentaryWesley Cort. This book provides an undogmatic look at C.S. Lewis, considering the influences upon his life and writing, and a commentary on Lewis’s major Christian works.

Defending SubstitutionDefending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, Simon Gathercole. Gathercole defends the oft-maligned doctrine of substitutionary atonement, responding to the criticisms and challenges raised and demonstrating from key biblical texts that it can be argued from scripture that “Christ died in our place.”

The MartianThe MartianAndy Weir. Mark Watney, left by his crew for dead on Mars, survived a potentially fatal incident and must find a way to survive on Mars alone until he can be rescued.

Beyond AwkwardBeyond Awkward: When Talking About Jesus is Outside Your Comfort ZoneBeau Crosetto. Talking about faith with others often feels awkward and is why most of us don’t do it. This book explores how to press through that awkwardness to important and life-changing conversations.

Best Book of the Month: I rarely choose a religious book as my best book of the month but I found The Drama of Ephesians by Timothy Gombis particularly compelling for its fresh perspective on Ephesians that highlights the spiritual warfare aspect of the book. I also appreciated that Gombis combined good scholarship with clear writing that could be grasped by any thoughtful student of the Bible and applications set in the life of real congregations.

Best Quote of the Month: This is from The Drama of Ephesians:

“In the logic of Ephesians, the two groups are not the saved and the damned, the in and the out. The two groups are those whom God is transforming by his love and those to whom the first group is sent in order to embody God’s love” (p. 77).

Among the things I’m currently reading are a couple books on environmentally sustainable agriculture by an early exponent, Ohio novelist Louis Bromfield, a book seeking to reconcile the philosophy of Ayn Rand and Christianity, a thoughtful work on ways we abuse scripture, and an account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign by David Halberstam. Last month,I mentioned the Zaleskis’ book on the Inklings. I hope to start it before the month is out. Whether I do or not, isn’t part of the fun of reading the anticipation? At any rate, happy reading!

Bookstore Review: The Bookstore at Vineyard Columbus

The Bookstore at Vineyard Columbus

The Bookstore at Vineyard Columbus

I visited an unusual bookstore the other day. It was located inside the campus of Vineyard Columbus, located at 6000 Cooper Road in Westerville. Roughly 8,000 people attend services at this church each weekend and The Bookstore is located just inside one of the main entrances off of the south side of the building.

Jeff Baker, the Bookstore Ministry Coordinator sat down with me and explained the mission of this bookstore and some of the strategies they pursue to encourage reading as part of the efforts of this church to disciple people toward Christian maturity. Very early in the church’s life, in the late 1980’s, they established a booktable to sell books to equip their congregation. This morphed into The Bookstore when they moved into their current location and Jeff has served as Coordinator since 1998,

Jeff Baker, Bookstore Ministry Coordinator

Jeff Baker, Bookstore Ministry Coordinator

Jeff described his passion as one for using books to help equip believers for growth and transformation. One of strategies he, and bookstore clerk, Meg Kuta (who formerly worked with a major bookstore chain) work on is finding “entry level” books that they can sell at prices as low as $5.00 a copy that are easy reads but have quality content that appeal to the non-reader, which he estimates might make up 80 percent of the congregation (pretty much what is true of the general adult population). He gave shout-outs to Zondervan/Harper-Collins and Tyndale who are publishing a number of titles in this vein.


Gifts, Theology, and Children’s Books!

At the same time, as I looked around the store, I was impressed with the quality content available and the amount of the store given over to books as opposed to gift items, stationary, cards, and other non-book items. You can find meaty Bible study tools, theology texts. serious biographies, like the new one on Tom Oden. There is also a delightful children’s section. The store stocks resources for small group leaders, the diverse ministries of Vineyard Columbus, and books related to current sermon themes. All Vineyard leaders are able to purchase books at a 20% discount and Jeff works with ministry leaders to find resources to enhance the efforts of each ministry.

We talked about how Jeff works with the pastors to order books that they will be mentioning in sermons. He observed that the way books are recommended in a sermon have a big effect. Recently, for example, a speaker talked about the devotional guide Search the Scriptures and wove the impact of using this guide throughout his sermon. As a result, the store sold 150 copies! More offhand recommendations may sell five or ten copies to the really interested.

Like many bookstores, The Bookstore will host author events with local authors as well as national authors visiting to speak at services or conferences hosted by the church. This coming year, they are planning to host a series of author events with local seminary professors. According to their website, they also host a writers group and a C.S. Lewis discussion group.

I asked Jeff what he most and least likes in Christian publishing. Vineyard Columbus is an ethnically diverse congregation and one pet peeve which he has engaged publishers on are books with only white people on the covers. He also has problems with the “end times prophecy” books which he feels nurtures idle speculation rather than serious discipleship.

Positively, once again he spoke warmly of the deeply discounted “entry level” books that Zondervan/Harper-Collins and Tyndale publish. He also spoke of the growing level of cooperation he is seeing among authors, publishers, publicists, and booksellers, all who have faced challenges in the changing landscape of bookselling.

Finally, we discussed some of the books that are his “bookseller’s picks”. Several times in our conversation he mentioned Gordon Fee’s Paul, The Spirit, and the People of God, a book deeply consonant with Vineyard’s theological commitments. Two other books Jeff and Meg are recommending these days are John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat and Michelle DeRusha’s 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.

While The Bookstore’s primary clientele are Vineyard members, the store is open to the public. Jeff contends that their prices are often better than you-know-who. They also have a Frequent Buyer program that offers a 10% discount on all purchases, email notices of featured books and specials and has no annual membership fee.

Their hours are as follows:

Monday Closed
Tuesday-Friday 12-5pm
Saturday 5:30-8:15pm
Sunday 8:45am-1:45pm
Additional contact information for the store and other resources including an extensive list of book recommendations by topic are available on their website.

Some Questions About Banned Books Week

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

This is Banned Books Week (September 27 to October 3). Schools, libraries, and booksellers are proclaiming the evil of attempts to ban books, publishing lists of the top banned books of the past year (here is one), and featuring these books prominently for lending or buying.

Please understand: I think attempts to ban access to any books are both unconstitutional and stupid. Unconstitutional because of the First Amendment, which provides broad protections of speech, even speech which is offensive. Many call this our First Freedom and for good reason.

It’s also stupid. Nearly all challenges to books fail, and only spotlight the very books people are trying to ban. It strikes me that attempts to ban books take the focus off the quality of the book and make the author something of a “martyr” and give the book the allure of forbidden fruit.

But I have some questions about the “banned books” phenomenon, which strikes me as “the outrage of the week”.

  1. Is this really the big deal it is made out to be? In 2014, there were 311 reported challenges of books. That is less than 1 challenge for each million people in this country and only a bit over 6 per state. Yes it could be argued that any challenges are too many but is this really a big deal?
  2. How many books are actually “banned” in the US? I am unable to find statistics on this. The American Library Association’s Banned Books website indicates that “most” challenges are unsuccessful and most materials remain accessible. At very least, it might be more honest to call this week “Challenged Books Week” because I suspect that is mostly what it is–although I understand the alliteration and rhetorical value of the term “banned”.
  3. It is striking to me that a number of the “challenges” are by parents to school curriculum. I would observe that curriculum may be distinguished from libraries in public discussion. Curriculum is what students must read, study, and intellectually engage to accomplish educational objectives. Every curriculum includes–and excludes–certain materials based on these educational objectives and this is not regarded as censorship because those materials excluded are still accessible in libraries or via booksellers. Parents, whose taxes or tuition support the schools, are stakeholders in these decisions, along with educators, and local and state boards of education. Are all questions by parents about the educational merits of books to be labeled as “censorship”–particularly if the effort does not seek to ban access to the book in question in school or public libraries? Access implies choice of what one will read. Curriculum is generally mandated, with some opportunities for “opt outs” or “alternatives”–a very different thing.
  4. I would argue all attempts to challenge and ban books in libraries are wrong. Period. But I would also observe the librarians make decisions about the acquisition of materials and the suitability of materials, particularly for children. In acquiring materials, I suspect librarians weigh a combination of factors including community preferences as well as some basic values that probably result in excluding materials that are blatantly racist, intolerant, or simply represent inferior aesthetic or intellectual value. There is only so much “shelf space” in any library. Are the librarians themselves using their institutional power to “ban” books in what they decide not to acquire? Most of us would say “no” but this argues for a legitimate form of discrimination in selecting what librarians deem the “best” books for their clientele.
  5. Finally, I wonder if both those who attempt to ban books, as well as those who vehemently defend them divert us from the more important discussion, which is an assessment of the quality of a given work. And I suspect that in the “banned” lists there are both works of great artistic excellence and those which time will judge as mediocre.

What I would propose is that the focus on banned books (by ban-ners as well as defenders) may keep us from focusing on better books. Granted, we may have different ideas of what is better, and we should allow the difference, and access to the different choices. But that discussion might just elevate, even a bit, the choices we make, which might just elevate us as people. Better books, not banned books–now there’s an idea…

[Postscript: The issue of banned books and limits on free speech is a real issue in many countries. I also wonder if a more constructive use of the energy that goes into a week like this would be to work with legislators, those who administer foreign policy, the press, and others to press for greater speech freedoms in these countries, a basic human right.]

Review: Beyond Awkward

Beyond AwkwardBeyond Awkward: When Talking About Jesus is Outside Your Comfort ZoneBeau Crosetto. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Talking about faith with others often feels awkward and is why most of us don’t do it. This book explores how to press through that awkwardness to important and life-changing conversations.

Beau Crosetto thinks it is worth it to press beyond the awkwardness of speaking about one’s Christian faith. To begin with, he contends that there are people who are waiting for us to show up. Taking risks is worth it when one experiences the awesome privilege of helping someone else believe. That said, there are differences between good awkward and just plain weird and the most important thing is waiting on God and looking for openness. We often think we need to know lots of information when what many are looking for is how can faith in Christ transform a life. What Crosetto shares here in the first part of his book is not necessarily a lot different from other books on Christian witness.

it is what comes next that sets the book apart. Crosetto contends that when we engage in witness, we may be called to engage in spiritual warfare–a word of discernment, a prayer of healing or the demonic confronted. He contends that God can speak to us in these situations and gives help for discerning God’s voice. Using Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, he argues that God’s role is to send us and set up situations, and our role simply to follow in obedience. That doesn’t mean we are passive but rather that we take risks to explore whether God is opening up opportunities with people without forcing unwanted conversations. He deals with how to discern between genuine care and pushiness and concludes with a lengthier chapter on turning conversations toward a discussion of Christ and inviting a response.

I suspect that some who read this will balk as they come across the supernatural material–if they are from Western countries. Others might still find Crosetto “pushy” but what struck me was his stories and how his risks came out of relationship, how he was willing to wait when others weren’t ready, and how his trust that the Spirit of God was in this venture was vindicated over and over by people appreciative that he had raised issues they were struggling with, with the offer of hope in Christ’s transforming work.

In the academic circles I work around, it is easy to get drawn into a world of subtlety, nuance, and indirectness about matters of ultimate importance. Furthermore, I think we often fail to account for the ways spiritual warfare works in darkening minds and obscuring truth. The forthrightness and spiritual discernment this author writes about is vital in this world, even if it may sometimes seem jarring. What won me over in this book is the winsomeness of a person who cares deeply to share with others the reality that can transform others for good and who is willing to be at God’s disposal.

Review: The Martian

The MartianThe MartianAndy Weir. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.

Summary: Mark Watney, left by his crew for dead on Mars, survived a potentially fatal incident and must find a way to survive on Mars alone until he can be rescued.

The story of this science-fiction novel is a thriller in its own right. Self-published e-book by nerdy programmer becomes best-seller and is not only picked up by a major publisher but also picked up by a movie studio for a film, soon to be released (October 2 in the US), starring Matt Damon, as the main character, Mark Watney.

I have no idea if the movie will live up to the hype, but I understand the excitement. Andy Weir has created the killer combination of a page-turning plot and a likable space engineer in a modern day Robinson Crusoe story where death by food or oxygen starvation or catastrophic equipment failure seems the most likely outcome.

Quick summary of the plot: The Ares 3 mission to Mars is progressing well until a violent sandstorm necessitates a crew evacuation of the planet. As the crew makes their way to the launch vehicle, Watney is speared by a wind-blown antenna, piercing his suit. Telemetry indicates he’s lost pressurization and life signs. Unable to locate the body without risk to the crew, the rest launch. Only Watney isn’t dead, and when he regains consciousness, he also realizes he is alone on Mars and facing a survival challenge. Fundamentally, he does not have enough food to survive until a rescue mission can be mounted. He cannot even communicate with earth, although their Mars satellites eventually provide mission control with the information that he is alive.

Watney is an engineer and the next couple hundred pages essentially reflect his efforts to “work the problem” including setting up a potato farm in the “Hab” where he lives, recovering a probe that allows him to communicate with earth and eventually modifying a Rover-type vehicle to make a hundred day journey to a launch vehicle so that he can attempt a rendezvous in space with his crew who has taken an extra loop through the solar system to attempt picking him up, risking their own lives. A series of mishaps and an unforgiving environment at various points mean losses of food, communication, and even jeopardize rendezvous.

And this leads to the second strength of this book, a likable character who just keeps picking himself up (literally at several points) and who brings a very creative engineering mindset to bear on his problems. Much of this also reveals the technical expertise of Weir who figures out what would be available on such a mission and how to use it to survive. Through all of this we see a character who combines dry humor with shrewd intelligence, not only in his ingenious fixes but also in relating to the crew who left him behind and struggles with their guilt in doing so.

It has been a long time since I read Robinson Crusoe, but my sense of what distinguishes the two books is that this is a page turner, but that it lacks the interior depth of Defoe’s Crusoe, in his reflections on the human condition. Watney spends his free time watching ’70s re-runs, reading Agatha Christie mysteries (not a bad choice) and complaining about his commanders love of disco. I suspect most audiences will relate more readily to Watney than to Crusoe, a commentary in itself.

Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for Watney, turning the pages to see what fix he would come up with next and whether it would all turn out alright in the end. It was a wonderfully diverting experience to read this page-turner that was so well-researched.

[One interesting side note is that the critical event that sets up the whole plot, the catastrophic sandstorm, could not happen in Mars’ thin atmosphere. In an NPR interview on September 27, 2015, Weir acknowledges this scientific inaccuracy, of which he was aware. This was a case of deliberate artistic license, setting up the remainder of the plot which was not.]