Review: The Great Quest

The Great Quest, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: An invitation to the examined life in the pursuit of a meaningful existence, a well-lived life.

The meaning of life. It sounds like one of those discussions for a first-year intro to philosophy class as we are challenged by the dictum of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In response, we often joke about it. Or we make it an absurd joke, as in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the supercomputer Deep Thought computes the answer to the Ultimate Question of the Meaning of Life, The Universe and Everything, as 42.

Os Guinness believes the absence of meaning in modern life of significant concern. Citing the statistics of rising suicide rates and falling birth rates in the modern world, he believes the quest for meaning to be pressing:

The truth is that the urgent need of our times is a fresh seriousness about human existence and a renewed openness to ultimate questions. Answers to ultimate questions are not only vital to each of us as individuals but to whole societies and civilizations. Indeed, there are no great societies or civilizations without confident answers to ultimate questions, and such answers need to become vital again in our schools, our universities, and our public discussion as well as in our families.

Os Guinness, The Great Quest, p. 4

Guinness contends that one needs meaning as one needs oxygen and his plea as he introduces this book is that if we haven’t thought these things through, that we do so. He also identifies some of the reasons we fail to do so: distraction, bargaining that we’ll do it later, and the noise and interference of our busy lives. But for those serious about asking the questions and reaching the conclusions that come of an examined life, Guinness offers to be a guide on the journey.

Guinness lays his cards on the table. He is a convinced Christian, while respecting other religions and worldviews. He proposes to be as fair as possible because he wants people to think things through. He also asks of his readers a personal engagement in their search, ready to say, “here I am” if the transcendent comes calling. While welcoming reason, he eschews the ability of proofs to do anything more than suggest that a belief is reasonable.

With these preliminaries out of the way, he outlines four phases in our search

  1. A time for questions. Warning of the psychological objections to our questions and belief in finding meaning as “bad faith,” he notes the insatiable capacity of humans to ask and some of the perennial big questions: Where did we come from? What can we know? What are we? Where are we going? What can we hope for? The questioning may reveal the inadequacy of the beliefs, the view of the world we have embraced. We may find experiences in the world that shatter our conceptions, signals of transcendence that encourage us to look deeper.
  2. A Time for answers. We begin with conceptualizing, weighing different ideas and how they address our questions. We critically assess the differences and compare different “answers.” How would each shape the way we live if we thought the world that way. For Guinness, there are three main families of answers, those of the Eastern families of faith, those of secularists, and those of the Abrahamic faiths. As we work through these possible answers to the great questions, Guinness concludes, “Does any faith that you as a seeker may consider answer your questions? Does it do so in a way that switches on the light in the darkness and fits like a key in the lock…?”
  3. A time for evidences. One might think answers are enough. He contends that the only reason to believe anything is on the basis of reasonable evidence that it is true–Does it align with reality? Do the facts fit? In detail and as a whole?
  4. A time for commitment. Finally we must commit ourselves to whatever we believe is true. Guinness frames this in Christian terms of discovering “that loving and being loved [by God] is the very heart and soul of faith and the meaning of life” and saying “Here I am!” to that God. Whatever the “faith” one commits to, Guinness warns against the myth that it is about the search and not the destination–equating this to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to never dock but to sail forever.

Some may object to the Christian framing of this work. While there are statements by those of other “families” throughout, the preponderance becomes increasingly Christian in the progression of the phases. Guinness has warned us and certainly speaks in the terms he knows best, particularly when it comes to commitment where he speaks warmly of entering into loving relationship with God in which one finds meaning and purpose.

So, the reader must decide how far to go with Guinness as guide. Strictly following his four phases without being guided by the Christian examples, I could well see a person ending up in any of the three main “families” and any of the branches of those families. And to do so would certainly be to live an examined life rather than the muddled life of distracted modernity. Guinness can offer further guidance for someone wishing and willing to consider a thoughtful account for how one may embrace Christian faith. The illustrations from both his own life and others may well ring true with one’s own journey and help make sense of it.

I suspect this book may work best as something two friends, who trust and can be candid with each other, may discuss, even if one believes and the other is seeking. I could see a process of working through the phases together that would leave neither unchanged. Indeed, one of my thoughts on reading was that reaching a place of commitment ought not end the living of an examined life, and it has often been the dialogues with seekers, skeptics, and those in deep pain that have driven me deeper into the questions, the answers, the evidences, and my own commitment.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review galley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: December 2021

It’s been a busy month at Bob on Books! I reviewed 18 books this month from T. S. Eliot to Louise Penny. Reviews ranging from children’s to crime fiction, from devotionals to memoirs, a couple books for Christians in higher ed, Revolutionary war history, evolutionary neurophysiology, natural ecology, and more!

Also, it was the time of the year to pick my Best Books of 2021 as well as the Top Viewed Reviews of 2021 (no overlap, by the way!). It was a great way to look back on my year of reading reviewing, 198 reviews in all! So here are the books I read as 2021 came to a conclusion.

The Idea of a Christian Society, T. S. Eliot. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 (First published in 1939). Three lectures given in 1939 putting forth Eliot’s ideas for a Christian society in the light of rising pagan, totalitarian governments in the pre-World War 2 world. Review

Beyond the White FenceEdith M. Humphrey. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021. A group of cousins visiting “Gramgon” and a neighbor boy have a series of adventures in which they meet their patron saints, passing through a portal just beyond the garden gate. Review

From Pentecost to Patmos, Second EditionCraig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal with Alicia S. Dupree. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2021. A New Testament Introduction covering Acts through Revelation, with introductory material and commentary, review questions and bibliography for each book, useful as a textbook or reference. Review

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Gamache #12), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016. Gamache returns to the Sûreté as Commander of its Academy, and finds himself at the center of a murder investigation of one of its corrupt professors. Review

Struggling with EvangelicalismDan Stringer, Foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. Traces both the author’s personal struggles with evangelicalism and a four step process of healthy struggle involving awareness, appreciation, repentance, and renewal. Review

The Parables: Jesus’s Friendly Subversive SpeechDouglas D. Webster. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021. A study of the parables of Jesus, why he used them, how they conveyed his message and what that message was, and what they mean for our preaching. Review

The Haygoods of Columbus: A Family MemoirWil Haygood. New York: Peter Davison Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1997 (The link is to a different, currently in-print edition). A memoir of Haygood’s growing up years in Columbus, his extended family, the glory and decline of Mt. Vernon Avenue, and finding his calling as a writer. Review

Thriving With Stone Age MindsJustin L. Barrett with Pamela Ebstyne King. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. An examination of the ways evolutionary psychology and Christian faith intersect in understanding what sets us apart as human beings and how human beings may thrive. Review

With Fresh Eyes, Karen Wingate. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2021. Sixty reflections of a woman born legally blind, who gains significant sight in one eye, seeing not only the world, but also the world’s Creator with new eyes. Review

Abundance: Nature in RecoveryKaren Lloyd. New York: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2021. A collection of essays describing both the loss of and recovery of abundance in the natural world, where people have caused harm and brought renewal. Review

Absence of MindMarilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. The text of Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, challenging “parascientific” explanations reducing the mind to nothing more than the physical brain. Review

A Sacred JourneyPaul Nicholas Wilson. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2021. A practical description the journey toward faithful Christian presence in secular institutions. Review

The British Are Coming (The Revolution Trilogy [Volume 1]), Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019. A history of the first two years (1775-1777) of the American Revolution, discussing the causes, personalities, and key battles. Review

Finding Your YesChristine E. Wagoner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. An exploration of what it means to listen for God’s invitations and say “yes” to them. Review

Singing in the Shrouds (Roderick Alleyn #20), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1958). Alleyn joins a ship bound for Cape Town seeking a serial murderer, one of nine passengers. Review

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021. A freelance writer faces some crucial life choices as she joins her software entrepreneur partner of fifteen years in Asia as he tries to launch an innovative open-source platform. Review

Refuge ReimaginedMark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville, Foreword by Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A case for welcoming refugees based on the biblical ethic of kinship, and the responsibility of kin to provide a home for those who have none, with applications to the church, the nation, and the international community. Review

The Vocation of the Christian ScholarRichard T. Hughes, Foreword by Samuel L. Hill. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005. An account of the calling of a Christian scholar, emphasizing drawing deeply on the theology of one’s own and other faith traditions, and living in the paradoxical tension of one’s faith and one’s disciplinary scholarship. Review

Best Book of the Month. I consider Dan Stringer’s book, Struggling with Evangelicalism, an extremely important discussion. So many of those I know who would identify in some way with this religious stream within the American church have wrestled with whether to stay or leave. Dan has as well and shares his process. He distinguishes between “brand” and “space” in a way that is helpful to me. There is so much with the “brand” I cannot embrace, but the core convictions and values have shaped me, and I won’t leave that space, even as I’ve learned to value other streams. This book gave me language for my own struggle.

Best Quote of the Month. Karen Wingate lived most of her life legally blind until eye surgery vastly improved the vision in one eye. I loved how she described in her new book, With Fresh Eyes, the moment she came to grips with the change this would mean for her, which her doctor described as “better than ever”:

“Despite low vision, God had given me all I needed. I could fill pages with stories of how God provided me transportation to travel all over the country even though I don’t drive. A Bible seminary that didn’t have services for disabled students recruited undergrads to read textbooks to me. At every point when work and my poor eyesight collided, computer technology took a leap forward, relieving the strain of seeing. I had an education, a family, a career, and a good ministry. God had answered my childhood prayer to help me live my life despite poor eyesight. I had learned to be content and grateful for the vision I did have.

And now this. Better Than Ever” (pp. 36-37).

She offers sixty reflections on seeing the world better than ever and the spiritual lessons that came with this improved vision.

What I’m Reading. This week I’ll be reviewing Os Guinness’s new The Great Quest (and interviewing him on Wednesday!), as well as a Graham Greene classic Orient Express and an award-winning collection of essays by Eula Biss, Notes From No Man’s Land. Over the holidays, I decided to tackle several longer books that I have long wanted to read: Raymond E. Brown’s magisterial study, The Birth of the Messiah, David Wenham’s Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, and Louis Menand’s The Free World, a sweeping survey of the intellectual history of the twenty years after the end of World War 2, when I was born and growing up. Finally, I’m taking a dip into a Heinlein novel I never read, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and just starting a book by a good friend and former colleague, Robbie Castleman, Interpreting the God Breathed Word. It is on how to read and study the Bible–something I always hope to grow in even as I teach others.

Well, there you have it! Maybe these offer some ideas for what you might read in 2022. And if you need more suggestions of reading goals, check out my Bob on Books 2022 Reading Challenge. Happy reading!

The Month in Reviews is my monthly review summary going back to 2014!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — New Year’s Grit

One of the more interesting books I’ve read in recent years is Angela Duckworth’s Grit. The book explores how grit is a combination of purposeful passion and perseverance. As I read the book, I thought about how much I learned about grit by growing up in Youngstown. I think about how many of those winter snowstorms we dug out of–and then went to school. We hardly ever had snow days. We watched our parents go to work, often to hard, physical, and sometimes dangerous jobs. We had parents who struggled through the Depression. And many of us had to reinvent ourselves when the big employers pulled out of the city. Some of the city’s sports heroes are football players like Frank Sinkwich or boxers like Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini. If you were knocked down, you got up. Or you knocked the other guy down first. Grit.

We’ve faced a hard couple of years. Youngstowners don’t sugarcoat things. We buried people we love. We got sick and recovered. We saw businesses struggle. But if we are reading this, we survived (and hopefully will, to the end of this thing). That’s no small thing. As I think of the year ahead, this seems to be a time for Youngstown-strong grit–even as we have lived with grit through the pandemic.

I saw a story yesterday on WKBN’s website about the Westside Bowl and the couple who have turned it into a popular entertainment venue. It exemplifies Youngstown grit. The old Gran Lanes was our favorite spot on the West side for bowling. Then it sat vacant for years. A West side couple, Nathan and Jami Offerdahl had a dream, then spent three years between 2015 and 2018 working out a business plan. They opened with a small downstairs venue for 200, then took out half the lanes, created a larger upstairs venue, kept half the alleys, and served good pizza and booze. When COVID hit, they came up with a “pay it forward” pizza promotion that allowed them to pay the bills.

Grit is disciplined passion. It is just plain hard work from planning a business to renovating a venue. It perseveres during down times. It keeps finding a new way to do things. And grit sticks to its values. The Offerdahls created an intimate, artsy venue that bands love and refuse to tear out additional lanes to make the upstairs venue larger. (From the Gallery pictures, it really looks like a great concert venue.)

Rather than resolutions, which I don’t think Youngstowners are big on, I wonder if this is a good year to get on our Youngstown grit. That doesn’t mean being mean and nasty or hard-hearted. I think the ICU personnel caring for our sickest are among the grittiest people we will encounter. They are tired but they keep showing up, shift after shift. Grit can mean caring for an aging loved one–Youngstowners take care of family.

Maybe this is the year you decide to pursue a passion you’ve long thought about, like the Offerdahls. Surviving a pandemic can have a wonderfully focusing effect. It could be giving yourself to volunteer work that makes some part of the world a little better place. Maybe it is pursuing a business or creative venture. And think how good it will be to persevere in developing a skill or launching a new venture when you’ve had all that practice in persevering with social distancing, quarantines, masks, and the like!

Gritty people know how to celebrate. Their celebrations aren’t empty celebrations just to have fun. From weddings to wakes, we knew how to celebrate, enjoying the fruits of work, the efforts of raising kids, and the preciousness of life and family. No wonder we insist on good food and plenty of it at our gatherings!

I’ve written so much in this series about the gritty people who built Youngstown from the early settlers to the laborers, the civic and cultural leaders, and the builders of industries, and even some of the great buildings of the city. Whether we still live in the Valley or make our homes elsewhere, this is a time for grit and resilience.

I look forward to sharing more stories of Youngstown and the character and grit that shaped our city. I wish you a Happy and “Gritty” New Year!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Vocation of the Christian Scholar

The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Richard T. Hughes, Foreword by Samuel L. Hill. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Summary: An account of the calling of a Christian scholar, emphasizing drawing deeply on the theology of one’s own and other faith traditions, and living in the paradoxical tension of one’s faith and one’s disciplinary scholarship.

Richard T. Hughes is concerned less with the idea of “Christian scholarship” and more concerned with how one is to live out one’s calling as a Christian scholar. For him this involves two elements. One is having “an identity that informs every other aspect of our lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated.” The other is learning to embrace paradox, as we hold both to an faith informed by our tradition and others, and the perspectives of our discipline.

He describes his own journey of growing up in Restorationist churches, complemented subsequently by studies of Lutheranism and Anabaptism, learning to hold the paradox of grace and discipleship together. He turns his attention to the life of the mind and its requirements of a disciplined search for truth, genuine conversation with diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and intellectual creativity. He contends that this applies to thinking theologically as well as thinking about one’s discipline, so that one’s work is grounded in one’s faith.

Drawing upon the work of Sidney E. Mead, he outlines how both the political leaders and college leaders of the American republic modelled this approach of embracing paradox, holding both to theistic or deistic ideas as well as engaging the Enlightenment thought of the time. They recognized human finitude and the rule of God over human institutions. He moves on the advocate both for understanding the particularities of one’s faith tradition and why we ought move beyond them: the nature of God, the nature of the Bible, the core of the gospel that must not be displaced by particularities, our neighbors in faith who must not be excluded by particularities, and dying to our egos, acknowledging our finitude.

This does not mean denying the power of the traditions we call our own. Hughes goes on to describe appreciatively the contribution of Roman Catholicism, the Reformed Tradition, the Anabaptist Model, and the Lutheran traditions, showing the substantial spiritual and intellectual resources these offer for the life of the mind. Drawing on these ideas, he considers how one may teach from a Christian perspective. I would have liked to hear some discussion of church traditions outside the dominant white culture. He observes that because of the paradoxes within our faith, we are uniquely positioned to foster an atmosphere of comfort with paradox and ambiguity essential to good inquiry. He contends that his work is not to give students “pre-digested answers” but rather to “inspire wonder, to awaken imagination, to stimulate creativity….” It is also to help them explore ultimate questions. Drawing on Paul Tillich, he identifies three:

  1. How do I cope with the inevitability of death?
  2. Am I an acceptable human being?
  3. Is there any meaning in life, and if there is, what is it?

He believes that the values of the upside down kingdom ought shape our choices of what to teach, and how he recognized these values in Howard Zinn’s work, even though Zinn is not a Christian. He addresses the concern about the distinctiveness of his scholarship as a Christian. He contends that the depth of his commitment to Christ cannot help but shape his scholarship, just as Madeleine L’Engle answered a young writer who wanted to become a “Christian writer.” L’Engle told her that if she was a thorough-going Christian, her writing would be Christian.

He follows with a chapter on the vocation of a Christian college. His argument is that Christian colleges ought be shaped by a shared theological vision, all pragmatic considerations aside. He also proposes a theological vision combining Lutheran and Anabaptist perspectives, one both of radical grace and radical discipleship. This is a vision of both radical Christian engagement in society and radical dependence on God. He then ends the book with a postscript of how tragedy can uniquely shape the Christian mind, including a personal narrative of his own near-death encounter.

While this work is grounded in the Christian college setting, I think it is also useful to Christians called to scholarship in the secular setting. The essence of his argument is the importance of a life deeply grounded in a theological tradition and an embrace of paradox. While this may not enjoy institutional support outside the Christian college setting, one may find community with other Christian scholars. I also appreciate the focus on the calling of the scholar rather than “Christian scholarship.” Rather than forced expressions of faith, these are allowed to develop organically as one both deeply cultivates one’s faith, understanding one’s own niche in the great story, and pursues one’s research and teaching. I loved the focus on wonder and ultimate questions, although I’d be curious how he might work out the latter in STEM fields. This is a worthwhile work for any Christian wanting to integrate their scholarly calling into their faith.

Review: Refuge Reimagined

Refuge Reimagined, Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville, Foreword by Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A case for welcoming refugees based on the biblical ethic of kinship, and the responsibility of kin to provide a home for those who have none, with applications to the church, the nation, and the international community.

In 2019, 79.5 million people in the world had been forcibly displaced from their homes. Causes range from political and religious persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and the breakdown of the rule of law. In 2020, the United States admitted just 11,814 of these people, less than the 18,000 places allotted. Similar numerical disparities exist in many countries while poorer neighbors often absorb higher numbers, many in refugee camps.

Faced with these great needs and the reality that sending many people back to their homes is a sentence to a quick or slow death, many countries are closing their borders to refugees, claiming they have more than enough to do caring for their own people. Many church communities support these restrictive policies, citing scriptures supporting the rule of law and even the idea that the passages about welcoming the alien and stranger apply only to “legal” immigrants.

The authors of this work are involved in a community, Kinbrace, in Vancouver providing refugee housing and support. Out of their careful reading of scripture and their experience, they argue that the biblical idea of providing kinship hospitality runs through scripture as God provides a home for Israel as slave-refugees and enjoins this hospitality with others, exemplified beautifully in the story of Ruth. In the New Testament, the story is one of reconciliation both to God and across all human boundaries. The shared table, feasting together as the family of God is a prominent symbol of that reality.

They then build on their biblical study to address three areas where kinship may be practiced. First is the church and they explore a variety of ways churches can practice this ethic in worship and welcome. Then they turn to nations. They consider what it is for nations to practice justice with refugees, and address the objections of maintaining national identity and the argument that scripture only requires care for those who enter the country “legally.” They show that no such biblical warrant exists. Finally, they address the climate of fear that tinges these discussions, reminding us in the words of Marilynne Robinson: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Finally they argue for an ethic of kinship in the global community, challenging the approach of political realism.

I found myself in full agreement with the biblical arguments of kinship, and particularly, their relevance to believing people who are called to “…welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, ESV). I was more troubled by the way in which it seemed they were calling on Christians to advocate with national governments and international bodies to do this. I would have liked to see more of the book devoted to addressing how churches and other organizations can fully prepare to become refugee welcoming communities. Instead of saying to governmental leaders, “we want you to open the borders to more refugees,” with the inference that federal, state, and local governments would bear the weight of this effort, imagine the reaction if church leaders came to government and said, “we have mobilized a network of 10,000 churches and organizations, who are trained and prepared according to best practices to welcome 100,000 refugees and integrate them into our local communities. We’re asking you to work with us to make that possible.”

There’s a lot of heavy lifting with this idea. But I don’t hear the authors discussing the heavy lifting we are asking governments to do, often against the political grain of their populace, to embrace a kinship ethic. I wonder if more hearts may be won by local communities across the country who are becoming known for their generous hospitality, in which others around them see how much fun they are having doing this, and how their communities are enriched by those they welcome, as they fill needed jobs, start businesses, and add the richness of their cultures to our towns and cities.

That said, the appeal to kinship, to expanding our boundaries of “neighbor,” and to trade our fears for the joy of the festive table is compelling. I suspect the beginning in many places are for groups to study and discuss this book, begin learning about groups like Kinbrace, who are involved in refugee work, and pray, dream, and work to mobilize the resources needed in their community. What I hope will arise are supporting structures without bureaucracy to amplify the efforts of these local groups through advocacy, training, and networking. It seems to me, given the magnitude of the crisis, which is likely to grow, that this kind of mobilization is key if we would extend the wings of refuge to more than just a token few.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Bob on Books Top Viewed Reviews of 2021

A few weeks ago, I posted my Bob on Books Best Books of 2021. One of the interesting things I noticed as I compiled this post is that none of the books on that list are on this list (although The Lincoln Highway lost out by a whisker to The Four Winds for best literary fiction in my opinion). What this list records are the interests of those who visit this blog. As I look over the list of my most viewed reviews, I see some great books, some well-written works, and important books. Here’s the list:

10. Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land. I think many, like me, eagerly awaited his follow-up to All the Light We Cannot See. It’s a layered story occurring in three different time periods. I thought he pulled it off well.

9. Review: The Western Canon. This one surprises me. I didn’t expect so many to be interested in Harold Bloom’s defense of the Western Canon

8. Review: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. I had a mixed assessment of this book, appreciating the intellectual tour de force of Carl Trueman’s exploration of the expressive individualism at the heart of the modern view of the self, but not the polemical tone of the work, which I believed would be off-putting to all but those already persuaded of his thesis. Clearly, a number were interested in this book, or at least in what I had to say.

7. Review: A Gentleman in Moscow. I was fascinated with the premise of this novel, a political detainee sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a Moscow hotel. Perhaps it is the feeling that all of us are living this life to some degree that made this such a fascinating book.

6. Review: The Nature of the Beast (second reading). This is the eleventh book in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. It was the first of her books I read, then I realized this was one series it was best to read in order. And so I have, and when I got to this book, I re-read it and reflected on how much richer the re-read was for having read the first ten. I was surprised so many others liked the idea.

5. Review: Bury Your Dead. This was the other Louise Penny book to make this list. It follows a volume in which Gamache and Beauvoir solve murders separately while dealing with the trauma following an ambush in which both nearly died, and several other officers did. I explored the process of healing and growth Penny develops in this book.

4. Review: Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes. E. Randolph Richards and Richard James show how we often misread the Bible which was written in a collectivist society when we approach it individualistically. I appreciated the nuance that saw both the good and the faults in each approach while showing how our reading could be enriched as we see that salvation is about “we” and not just “me.”

3. Review: Jesus and John Wayne. Kristen Kobes Du Mez explores the develop of the rugged masculinity typified by John Wayne, and traces how this shaped evangelical religious and political culture, and created a culture in churches often abusive or at least hurtful to women. This book has been discussed a great deal in circles I work in, perhaps accounting for the interest.

2. Review: The Hidden Wound. This is an extended essay from Wendell Berry written in 1968 on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work. Berry’s analysis of the wound of racism in our national life seems as relevant today as in 1968, because we still are trying to conceal the wound. I hope it wasn’t only Wendell Berry fans who read the review!

1. Review: Lincoln Highway. This is the second Amor Towles book to make the list, representing my discovery of this author (I also read Rules of Civility). I suspect the popularity of the review was that it came out soon after the book. I described this as “one of the best road novels I’ve ever read–leaving Kerouac’s On the Road in the metaphorical dust.”

Even though none of these made my “best books” I like the choices of my blog readers. I was struck that both Louise Penny and Amor Towles had two books on this list. The Louise Penny choice is easier. I’m sure that a number of views are thanks to the Louise Penny group in which I post. Amor Towles is more interesting–the only reason I can think of is that many others are also discovering this author. I will likely buy his next book, as I will Penny’s as well.

I also realized that this list reflects the particular audience of my blog as well as the books I chose to read and review. It’s an interesting snapshot. I’ll leave it to you to analyze the picture, since I’m part of it. What I do want to say above all is how grateful I am for everyone that follows, who reads, and comments, and even buys some of the books. I hope you liked them and I look forward to another year of talking books!

Review: Riding High in April

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021.

Summary: A freelance writer faces some crucial life choices as she joins her software entrepreneur partner of fifteen years in Asia as he tries to launch an innovative open-source platform.

Stuart is a software entrepreneur has developed an innovative open source platform enabling people to securely network in the “cloud.” He teams up with a classmate, Niraj, from India to form a company to pursue clients and venture capital, a move that has taken them to South Korea, pursuing a contract with a telecom as well as the first round of venture capital funding.

Marie, his partner of fifteen years has a gift of finding the words to help companies explain their products. She sets all that aside to join Stuart in Asia. She tells him, “I don’t want to be apart anymore.” Yet Stuart keeps leaving as he pursues contracts, deals with his business partner’s meltdown in a family crisis, the betrayal of co-workers, and ultimately that of Niraj. She follows as he tries to put out fires, and has several encounters that force her to question the premise on which her life the last fifteen years has been based.

The narrative is punctuated with episodes of Marie’s swimming. It is her attempt to teach a fearful young girl to swim and consulting with a swimming guru, that confront her with a realization about her own life and how she has made decisions.

Stuart has those moments that could be moments of insight. A heart to heart with a Japanese investor speaking to him about his health. A bite by a deadly tokay that became infected. His father’s loving words to him amid the father’s declining physical and mental health.

But the pursuit of the dream, the ability to solve problems, the inability to fail, and the refusal to settle for…what? The house on a beach with Marie?

It’s a story about two people approaching midlife faced with choices about the second half and what these will mean for their relationship. But this central thread seems to get obscured with highly technical dives into the world of open-source software, networks, clouds, and data and the opportunities for fortunes or failures. At first, I thought this was a tech thriller, but the story unfolds amid a seemingly endless round of meetings, pitch decks, the ordinary business reverses and betrayals, the crises and the pivots.

And this seems to be the problem with the execution of this story. The “deep dive” into tech seemed to be so fascinating to the author that the reader scratches one’s head trying to figure out what kind of story one is reading. Then it dawns on you that it is about the choices of growth (or not) of two people and what those choices will mean.

And that is an interesting idea, one many couples face as they move from the first half to the second half of life. Perhaps the “deep dive” reflects how one or both may become so obsessed with their work, their dream, that they lose sight of the other or even of themselves. But I can’t help but wonder how many readers will wade through the tech parts of this book and how many others who geek out on the tech will be disappointed that this was not the tech thriller they might have hoped for.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Singing in the Shrouds

Singing in the Shrouds (Roderick Alleyn #20), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: Alleyn joins a ship bound for Cape Town seeking a serial murderer, one of nine passengers.

Hmm. This isn’t my idea of a good time. A cruise on a cargo ship with eight other passengers, all strangers. Add to that the possibility of a serial murderer on board, one of those passengers. That’s the scenario Ngaio Marsh has created in this installment of the Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

An eccentric group comes aboard the Cape Farewell, captained by Jasper Bannerman, an old sea dog used to being in charge–perhaps too much so. Mrs. Ruby Dillington-Blick is a widowed socialite, living large in every sense, used to being adored. Fred and Ethel Cuddy are a middle-class, middle-aged couple. Katherine Abbott is a spinster specializing in church music, with large hands and feet! Philip Merryman is a fussy retired schoolmaster. Jemima Carmichael is on the cruise to heal from a broken engagement. Dr. Timothy Makepiece signed on as ship’s doctor to travel to South Africa. Aubyn Dale is an alcoholic TV emcee skating very close to a breakdown. And Mr. Donald McAngus is an elderly, stamp-collecting bachelor.

Just before the ship sailed, a young girl is murdered near the docks. The murder has all the marks of “the Flower Killer,” who strangles the victims with a necklace, found broken, strews flower petals over them, and departs the scene singing. The murderer has killed at ten day intervals. The girl is found just as the Cape Farewell departs. Part of an embarkation notice for the ship is found in her hand.

The suspicion is that the murderer is one of the passengers. They all had been in the vicinity prior to sailing. Alleyn is assigned the case, boarding at Portsmouth, assuming the identity of a shipping company official. He has to investigate without appearing to do so or alarming the passengers. And Bannerman is less than willing to help. He doesn’t believe any of these passengers could be the murderer. But the case is urgent. The next ten day interval will expire while the ship is at sea. There could be another victim.

This is one of my favorites so far. There is a budding love affair between Jemima and the doctor. The doctor and the priest have alibis that check out and become silent partners with Alleyn in watching out for the women. Marsh does well in leaving both red herrings and avoids giving away the murderer. We can’t help but admire Mrs. Dillington-Blick, as do all the men around her. I found myself wondering a bit about the mysterious Katherine Abbott. And I didn’t want anything to happen to Jemima, who struck me as the perfect murder victim. This makes for a great holiday or vacation read!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Fifty Years Ago

“The familiar Christmas music beamed from our downtown tower expresses the wish that the spirit of the season may be shared by everyone.” Home Savings and Loan ad in Youngstown Vindicator, December 27, 1971.

In December of 1971, I was a senior at Chaney High School. I probably had worked my tail off on Christmas eve at the layaway at McKelvey’s, taking breaks to sample the spread of baked goods all the women in customer service and the cashiers had brought in. That night, I’m sure our family all piled into the car for candlelight services at our church followed by a drive around town to see the lights. Christmas Day was a rest before the big work day on the 26th as customers brought in returns and we tried to sell more than we gave credits or refunds for.

I looked at the Youngstown Vindicator for Christmas Eve of 1971. No paper was published on Christmas Day that year. Christmas eve weather that year was cloudy, breezy, with temperatures dropping to the low 30’s with snow flurries. Not too bad for Santa to make his deliveries.

Many churches were having special services Christmas eve and morning. St. John’s Byzantine Rite Catholic Church was featured in a photograph with notices about their midnight mass at 9:45 am Christmas Day mass. One other that caught my eye was Boardman United Methodist’s “Service of a Thousand Candles” at 8 and 11 pm. There was also an article about the tradition of Slovak and other Catholic parishes distributing oblatke to homes, unleavened wafers with holy scenes, blessed by the priest and eaten, often with honey, by families on Christmas eve. Fr. George Franko from Holy Name Church on the West Side was featured in the article. Local fire stations were accepting donations of good used toys up to ten days after Christmas for the Salvation Army.

In national news, the big stories were a Christmas cease fired by American and South Vietnamese troops over Christmas day, even while bombing went on. President Nixon ordered the release of former Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa after five years of prison to join his ailing wife. On July 30, 1975, he disappeared from a suburban Detroit restaurant. His body has never been found. Locally, not all was “peace on earth, good will toward men.” Gary Bryner, President of UAW Local 1112 vigorously denied charges of shoddy work and sabotage at the Lordstown Assembly Plant.

Lindley Vickers was still writing columns for the Vindicator, in this case about nature observations at Little Beaver Creek. Youngstown State had just won its sixth straight basketball game under coach Dom Roselli, defeating Illinois Wesleyan 85-76. Boardman handed a previously undefeated Columbus South team an 80-60 loss. Disney had re-released Lady and the Tramp for the holidays. Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, “$” with Goldie Hawn, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and Sean Connery as James Bond in Diamonds are Forever were also showing.

Throughout the paper on that day were large ads from many of the businesses in Youngstown sharing holiday greetings. In addition to the iconic Home Savings ad, there was a full page ad from McKelvey’s with holiday greetings in every language represented in the Valley and beautiful ads from Strouss,’ Hartzell, Rose, and Sons, Lustig’s, Butler Wick, Ohio Bell and A&P. All those names are gone. A number of restaurants also had holiday ads while the more enterprising already advertised New Year’s events. The Zanzibar had $20 couples packages!

Peanuts that day featured Snoopy and Woodstock knocking back mugs and celebrating Christmas atop Snoopy’s dog house with the two disheveled and Snoopy commiserating in the last frame, “Bleah!! Every time we have an office party, I drink too much root beer!” Then there is Dennis the Menace praying, “…an’ please tell Santa I got all the clothes I need.”

That’s a snapshot of Christmas in Youngstown fifty years ago. So many memories. For most of us, our family celebrations and our religious traditions, if we had them, are what we remember the most–the three “F’s”–faith, family, and food. Many of the events are in the past or forgotten, a number of the places of business are no more, but the memories we carry last, at least as long as memory does.

So I will close with wishes of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you who follow these articles. I appreciate you all so much and wish you all the blessings of the season.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Finding Your Yes

Finding Your Yes, Christine E. Wagoner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: An exploration of what it means to listen for God’s invitations and say “yes” to them.

One of the questions I often dealt with in student ministry was how one knows God’s will. Christine Wagoner, in Finding Your Yes, suggests that one of the key aspects of this is listening for God’s invitations, and that implies that God is even more interested in guiding us, at times, than we are to be guided.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is “Getting to Yes.” She begins by confessing that “yes” has often begun with “no.” She illustrates this with the story of how she kept saying “no” to writing as well as to teaching a woman’s group in her church and how Jesus pursued her until she said “yes.” She discusses all the “not me” obstacles we erect to those invitations, and how Jesus can shift our perspective, as he did with the woman at the well. She addresses the places of inner resistance, particularly our fear of failure. She tells stories of people who began with small “yesses” and how these led into bigger things. And she discusses how we grow in our yes through partnership and debriefing.

The second part is “Staying with your Yes.” Yes doesn’t automatically lead to a promised land of fruitful life. Sometimes “yes” involves waiting, as it did for Abraham, or recalibrating, when a reality we’ve said “yes” to, like motherhood, is not being fulfilled. Sometimes we say “yes” and life seems to fall apart. Were we mistaken? Sometimes “yes” takes us to a place of pain. Some of this is complicated by lies of the enemy: “this will destroy you”, “if, as a woman, you keep growing as a leader, you will never get married.” She talks about how we sometimes say “no” without exploring the possibility of yes and sometimes have a “no” concealed in our “yes.” I did find myself wondering in this chapter about discerning when God is inviting us to say “no” in order to say “yes.” Finally, she concludes with the joy of a life of saying “yes” again and again.

Wagoner shares a lot of her own experiences of God’s little and bigger invitations, her struggles to find her way to “yes” and then to live into those “yesses.” She writes as a woman leader, single until approaching forty. Her story may help other women who struggle with what saying “yes” to God may mean in terms of marriage and family, and where the use of one’s gifts defy traditional gender role expectations. But the basic message of the book speaks to men as well as women. God’s invitations come to all of us, and we all find ways to try to deflect them, or struggle within ourselves to say “yes.”

As we approach the new year, this book may be helpful as we consider what God may be inviting us to say “yes” to in the coming year. The questions at the end of each chapter are great to talk over with a trusted friend. As Wagoner reminds us, we often grow into and through our “yesses” with partners on the journey. Wagoner’s book can also be a partner in the journey of finding your yes.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.