The Month in Reviews: March 2020

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This has been a weird and scary month for us, no matter where on the planet we live. Suddenly, the world shifted into discussions of attempting to flatten exponential curves in country after country, in whole economies shutting down, and of infections and deaths. Suddenly, the number of books we read, or even what we were reading seemed far less important. We struggled with not being able to focus. Yet there were hours at home, and eventually we had to get away from the grim news. Losing ourselves in a good book sometimes was the one of the things (perhaps second only to prayer) to help us preserve our sense of sanity and some sense of perspective. Some of the books on this list even took on a relevance I hadn’t thought of when I requested them for review–things like community, the “bonus time” all of us are living each day, and praying in a distracting world.

paul's idea of community

Paul’s Idea of Community (3rd Edition), Robert J. Banks. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. A study of how Paul understood the nature of community in the churches he planted, considered against the cultural backgrounds of first century AD Greco-Roman culture. Review

Loving Your Community

Loving Your CommunityStephen Viars. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. A pastor whose church has developed a number of community-based outreach ministries, describes their journey into this work, and the variety of ministries that have resulted. Review

living in bonus time

Living in Bonus TimeAlec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.” Review

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.  Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples. Review

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943). A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn. Review

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958). A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real. Review

Running for our Lives

Running for our LivesRobb Ryerse (Foreword by Brian D. McLaren). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.  A northwest Arkansas pastor decides to run in a primary against one of the most powerful Republican representatives in a grassroots campaign to restore a say in government to ordinary citizens. Review

Three pieces of glass

Three Pieces of GlassEric O. Jacobsen. Grands Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. Focuses on loneliness and belonging and the influence of cars, television, and smartphones on the experience, and even design of community and the choices we may make to foster belonging. Review

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him. Review

the big fella

The Big FellaJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2018. A biography of Babe Ruth, with the narrative of his life connected with a day by day account of a barnstorming tour of the country after his home run record-breaking 1927 season. Review

From Nature to Experience

From Nature to Experience, Roger Lundin. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Using two essays by Emerson, “Nature” and “Experience,” traces the shift in American moral and cultural authority during the last two centuries. Review

the possibility of prayer

The Possibility of PrayerJohn Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life. Review

Best Book of the Month: I’m going with an American classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I can understand how this coming of age story was a favorite of soldiers in World War 2. For soldiers coming out of the Depression, I could see how this story of a family struggling through poverty, and a young girl’s dreams and aspirations, and the evocation of place that all come together in this story.

Quote of the Month: Most of us live in a tension between longings for a deeper life with God, and wondering whether prayer is really a productive use of our time. John Starke challenges the thinking at the heart of this tension:

The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).

What I’m reading: I discovered Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache recently, but made the mistake of starting with book ten. Since then, I’ve picked up the first five and am nearly finished with Still Life, the first in the series–and I’m loving this introduction to Gamache, Beauvoir, LaCoste, and Three Pines. I also started into Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. I’m not sure picking up dystopian fiction was the best choice in this season, but Butler creates an interesting scenario of the breakdown of American society in set in the years following 2024, and the visionary response of a young girl trying to survive in an increasingly violent and changing world. I’m also reading a collection of writings by Benjamin B. Warfield, one of the Princeton theologians who both affirmed the inspiration, authority and trustworthiness of the Bible, yet did not think, with some qualifications, that evolution need not conflict with the Bible. To round it out, I’m working through a new commentary on one of my favorite Bible books, Philippians.

Reading is different right now. Sometimes it is escape. But at other times, it is an effort to understand the times, and gain perspective to live in this time as each day unfolds. I hope this will be so for you as well and that you are granted health in body and spirit in this time. Stay safe, friends. By grace, I hope to meet you here with another month’s tally when we get through the month of April.

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