Thoughts and Words

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I reviewed Adam Smyer’s You Can Keep That To Yourself yesterday. He make’s this interesting observation at the beginning of the book:

I will tell you what not to say, but I will not tell you what not to think. Think whatever you like.

Let’s review.

THOUGHTS are the things on the In side of your head. They are invisible. Your thoughts are yours. No one else’s. No one else wants them.

WORDS are the things that exit your hole to the Out side of your head, where we are. They are a lot like thoughts, except that we can hear them. We don’t want most of those, either. You can keep them.

Adam Smyer, You Can Keep That to Yourself, p. 9.

Smyer’s book is about the insensitive things “well-intentioned people of pallor” say to Black people. But there is a principle here that is worth considering in all situations: you don’t have to say everything you think.

This is a principle I’ve called to mind again and again during the past election season. Whenever I’ve failed to observe it online, I’ve ended up responding to those who disagreed with me, wasting too much of my one precious life. How liberating it was to realize that I didn’t have to respond to an objectionable comment. I could respond in my head and hit mental “send” and let it go.

There are so many times when I’ve wished I could stuff words back into thought-land. Unfortunately, you can’t. All you can do is clean up the mess.

I personally wonder why people feel compelled to disagree on matters of taste. If you don’t like butter pecan ice cream, you really don’t need to rain on my parade. Why not just share your own favorite, like cookies ‘n cream–or whatever!

I like how the New Living Translation renders Proverbs 10:19:

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.

There are times, though, when we do need to speak. It’s one thing to think about what not to say. What tests may we apply to discern what we should say? There is a test developed by Herbert J. Taylor and introduced to the Chicago Rotary Club that was eventually adopted by the Rotary International and called the Four Way Test for these four questions:

1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all Concerned?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Imagine applying this to work conversations, our marriages, and everything we post online. Imagine if we could get all our politicians to pledge to this simple test and keep everything that doesn’t meet the test in thought land.

I suspect using this test, if nothing else, will incline us to say less. Sometimes, by pausing and using this test I find my initial thought was wrong and not what I really think, or would say. If I am not sure in some situations how to answer, it can help. After all, should I say what I’m thinking when I’m not sure of the answers to the questions of the Four Way Test? Probably not.

Just remember. You don’t have to say everything you think. Less is more.

Review: You Can Keep That to Yourself

You Can Keep That To Yourself, Adam Smyer. New York: Akashic Books, 2020

Summary: A humorous and pointed list of “things not to say” to Black friends or colleagues.

“HELLO, WELL-INTENTIONED PERSON OF PALLOR!

“It’s Daquan–the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends.

“You are reading this book because you want to know what not to say. They get mad at you when you say the wrong thing. But no one will tell you, up front, what not to say. Well, I will tell you. Because I am your friend. Your real black friend.” (p. 7)

Adam “Daquan” Smyer more than delivers on that promise in a book that made me alternately laugh and cringe (“I’ve said that–ouch!”). The book is literally a list of things not to say to Black people, organized alphabetically. Here is the first:

Ally

Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Being part of the problem was never considered. And, really, “ally” was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now “I’m an ally” is the “Don’t hurt me” of our time. Don’t nobody want you, Karen. You can keep that to yourself.

Smyer, p. 10-11

Smyer can be blunt and use vulgarities. But that has become commonplace both in publications and public discussions. Think for example of the reference of one president to “sh*thole countries.” I’ve heard most of what Smyer says even in informal Christian circles. I’m not keen on this trend but I wouldn’t let the language distract from the message of the book, which it actually underscores, of the simmering frustration engendered by the repeated insensitivities of “people of pallor” And if you think this is just being “over-sensitive,” that’s in the list as well:

Over-sensitive

Y’all snap after you have been unpopular for two weeks. I’ve been black my whole life. In America. And I’m at least functional. I’m oversensitive? The record reflects otherwise.

Smyer, p. 67.

As for one of my cringes?

Yowza!

It’s weird–one minute we are having a normal conversation, and the next you are blurting out a minstrel show catchphrase. Verbal blackface.

So inappropriate! But mostly just weird. A thought: you could not.

Smyer, p. 111.

I did not know that. Now I do. I will not.

So much comes down to being considerate–to trying to imagine being in another’s place. When it comes to being Black, I cannot. But I can listen to how I am being heard by a Black person. That’s what Smyer does for us here. He says what is often only thought when we say what we people of pallor should keep to ourselves.

So what do we talk about?

There is so much that you can say. If we are at work, you can talk about work. (It really would be great if you could only talk to us about work, but we understand that you don’t know where you are.) You can talk about weather and/or sports. You can talk about your favorite shows. You can even talk about current events if your family raised you properly.

Smyer, 121.

This is a quick read that might be worth a periodic review. Old habits die hard. And it is probably worthwhile learning that we don’t have to say all we think or want to say. The truth is, black people have been doing that for a long time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Nazarene

The Nazarene: Forty Devotions on the Lyrical Life of Jesus, Michael Card. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The author helps us consider Jesus through lyrics from his songs and biblically informed reflections.

Michael Card has been singing and writing about Jesus for over thirty years. I first encountered his music in the late 1980’s and was struck with the depth of the lyrics that made the biblical text of the gospels come to life. Later on, he began writing more about the biblical texts that had informed his lyrics in books like Scribbling in the Sand, and commentaries on the four gospels titled The Biblical Imagination Series. Last year, his book Inexpressible made my “Best of the Year” list (review).

This work is a series of forty devotions, nearly all associated with lyrics from his music, beginning with his title “The Nazarene.” They are grouped in four groups of ten based on each of the gospels. Each of the devotions can be read on its own or in conjunction with listening to the recordings (not included with the book).

Each section begins with an imagined reflection on each of the attributed gospel writers. Matthew is found reflecting on the expulsion of Jewish Christians from the synagogues. This gives added meaning to his reflection on Jesus’s words, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His last devotion on the Kingdom reflects on the hidden and revealed, its smallness and enormity, its nearness and far off character.

In Mark, the devotion on “A Great Wind, A Great Calm, a Great Fear” brought to light the demonic character of the storm, enroute to the encounter with the Gadarene demoniac. Most fearsome was not the storm but the authority of the one who calmed it. It raises for me the question of whether I want Jesus to be that powerful. This is followed up with the devotion on “The Stranger” and how we the real Jesus may be a stranger to us. I think of the many times of reading the gospels, and asking, along with Card, “who is this Jesus?”

For me, one of the most thought-provoking of the reflections from the Luke section was number 26 on “The Bridge.” He writes:

From the head to the heart
From the heart to the mind
The Truth must make a journey

He believes that the “bridge” from heart to mind is the imagination–that we often read scripture only with our hearts or only with our heads. He proposes that the parables of Jesus help bridge these. It seemed to me that this devotional captured the essence of Card’s work–a life of studying and meditating on the word and using the imagination in lyric and writing to enter deeply into the narratives of Jesus.

Finally, in John, I felt Card brought to life for me the significance of Jesus’ proclamation on the last day of the feast, “come to me and drink” in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles. He also takes us deeply into the shortest verse in scripture, “Jesus wept” and why he did so at the death of Lazarus.

This work comes out just in time for Advent but equally would make a great collection of Lenten readings. More than that, Card invites us to join him in singing the songs of the Savior. When asked why he writes all these lyrics about Jesus, Card responds, “How can you not sing about him?” Perhaps amid a pandemic and after contentious election, we don’t want to sing at all, and perhaps if our worship is online, it has been a while since we’ve sung the songs of Jesus. This book will restore those songs, and perhaps help us approach with wonder the Jesus we thought we knew, but knew so little.

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

Review: Between History and Spirit

Between History and Spirit, Craig S. Keener. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

Summary: A collection of the author’s journal articles on the book of Acts

Craig S. Keener is a prolific biblical scholar. One of his most magisterial works is a four volume commentary on the book of Acts. Writing such a work involved him deeply in studies of context, exegetical matters, and other questions surrounding the book of Acts resulting in numerous shorter articles. This work brings a number of these works together in a single volume. It displays both his erudite scholarship (34 pages of abbreviations of ancient and modern sources referenced) and his missional passion.

The collection is divided into three sections and I will highlight a few from each part to offer a taste of the rich fare the reader interested in such matters will find within.

A Question of History

“Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus” examines what kind of writing is Luke-Acts and the accuracy of his sources. He concludes this is a form of first century historiography with biographic and rhetorical interests and that Luke draws upon reliable first generation accounts. We wonder if the writer of Acts was actually an eyewitness and participant in some of the events narrated because of the “we” language. Keener explores possible explanations and concludes that the “we” language with the omission of the author’s name reflects the practice of other ancient historians who participate in the events they narrate. “Paul and Sedition” considered the purpose for including so much material defending Paul against charges of sedition and the importance of the defense for the early church. Other essays consider the growth reports of the church in Acts, the novel official of Acts 8:27, whether troops were really stationed in Caesarea during Agrippa’s reign and the character of Paul’s ministry in Athens.

A Question of Context

Interethnic marriage has been considered problematic in many cultural settings including that of the New Testament. Given this, in “Interpreting Marriage in Acts 7:29 and 16:1-3, Keener argues that the only problematic instance of marriage in the New Testament is for believers to marry non-believers and that interethnic marriage of believers is not problematic “within the church. He offers a wonderful study on “Turning from Idols in Acts: 14:15-17 in honor of our shared mentor Ben Witherington III. He offers a careful study of Acts 16:8-10 and the crucial transition from Asian to European ministry by Paul and his team. There is also a wonderful short article proposing Acts 21 and the temple controversy as a backdrop for Ephesians 2:11-22 with it tearing down of dividing walls. A couple essays deal with language and rhetoric focused on Paul’s rhetorical techniques. He considers the charge of insanity in Acts 26:24-25. He also offers a fascinating article on fever and illnesses in Acts and ancient medicine.

A Question of Spirit

Keener has done extensive research on miracles, making the case for the plausibility of miracles in the biblical accounts. His article on “Miracles and History in Acts and the Jesus Tradition” is a great summary of this research. Keener’s work is especially worthy of reading if you are skeptical about miracles but open to argument and evidence. Several of his essays consider the work of the Spirit in empowerment for mission in Act. His study of spirit possession in Acts 16:16-18 and 19:12-16 comparing these accounts to modern anthropological accounts is remarkable for its even-handed discussion of Christian and other perceptions of spirit possession and the anthropological evidence for the universality of this phenomena. He recognizes the beginnings of ancient African Christianity in Luke’s encounter with the Ethiopian and expands of the early development of east African Christianity. His reviews of other works that conclude the section reveals a scholar gracious with those he differs and capable of learning from them.

Anyone who has studied or is studying Acts will find in this collection a treasure trove of insights. It is good for whetting one’s appetite for Keener’s commentary on Acts (at least it was for me if I could fit it into my budget and bookshelves!). It models well the fusion of evangelical conviction and scholarly rigor and careful textual and contextual study. I also find in his writing jargon-free clarity that makes this work useful beyond the scholarly guild. Finally, I value the fine balance between historical and contextual questions, and the unavoidable presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts that both accounts for much of the history in Acts and the empowerment of the missional momentum of that history.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Forest Lawn Memorial Park

Entrance gate to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, seen from the east on Market Street, Youngstown, Ohio, United States,” by jonathundr is licensed under GNU Free Documentation License

I received a letter this week from Forest Lawn Memorial Park, one of the Youngstown area’s cemeteries, located in Boardman on 5400 Market Street. My parents are buried there, as are my grandparents on my mother’s side. It is the place where I was finally parted from each of them in this life, my mother in 2010, my father in 2012. Both were cremated but because they had graves there, were interred in the cemetery. Among those last memories, I can see my father seated in the Little Church holding the urn with my mom’s remains and saying his final goodbyes after nearly 69 years of marriage. Two years later I remember the military salute my father received as a World War 2 veteran, and the two other veterans, and my nephew, then in active service in the Air Force saluting their brother in arms. Taps were played. We each threw a shovel of dirt into the grave, underscoring the finality of our parting. Today, they rest together under the trees and lush lawns of the cemetery.

The cemetery is one of the newer cemeteries in the area. The land on which the cemetery was developed was first held by the Baldwin family, one of the early Youngstown area families, going back to the time of John Young. Later Hugh Bonnell owned a dairy farm, raising prize cattle. Hugh Bonnell was a bachelor connected to the Bonnell family whose wealth came from rail, steel and land interests. Youngstown expanded significantly to the south in the early 1900’s and people started moving in significant numbers into Boardman Township in the 1920’s and Bonnell decided it was just getting too crowded. He moved to Hubbard, moving his house with him. He sold the land to Parkland Development Company, a company founded by four partners: Earl M. McBride, Dennis T. Peters, Paul M. Ludt, and Raymond Book.

Their plan was to develop houses in one of the early automobile suburbs, calling the development Forest Glen Estates. Then the Depression hit in 1929 and no one was buying housing lots. While in California, Earl M. McBride toured Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in Hollywood and in Glendale. These cemeteries were designed as parks, with sweeping lawns, lush trees and landscaping and no big tombstones or monuments which he described as “depressing misshapen monuments and other signs of earthly death.” Gravestones were to be flush with the ground.

On August 18, 1930 the Mill Creek Memorial Park Association obtained a charter to operate a cemetery. They hired architect Monroe W. Copper of Dunn and Copper, Cleveland, Ohio. He designed the entrance at Market Street in the picture above and the chapel. Pitkin and Mott, landscape architects, also from Cleveland designed the layout of grounds and roadways.

Forest Lawn Map in my father’s papers.

Albert A. Haenny, Youngstown did the engineering. The stone mason work in the front entrance and other stone masonry work around the cemetery was done by Felix Pesa & Sons (Stone Masons), of Youngstown. Hadlock Krill and Company, of Cleveland built the Little Church, which was patterned after a 12th century church in Castlecombe, Wiltshire, England.

The first burial took place in 1931. The cemetery website states 19,000 people are currently buried there and 47 acres have been set aside for gravesites that will accommodate 44,000. In all, the cemetery owns about 80 acres with the remainder serving as a buffer. In 2018, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places, with plaques at the Glenwood entrance in 2019, and the Market Street entrance in 2020.

Perhaps the most famous person to be buried in the cemetery is actress Elizabeth Hartman who played opposite Sidney Poitier in “A Patch of Blue.” She grew up in Boardman and got her start at the Youngstown Playhouse. After her academy award nomination, she appeared in a handful of films, the last of which was “The Secret of NIMH” in 1982 in which she did voiceovers. She suffered from depression, was in and out of psychiatric facilities and died in 1987 from a fall from her fifth floor apartment. It was considered a possible suicide though there were no witnesses nor a suicide note. She was laid to rest at Forest Lawn, along with her parents, predeceasing her mother by ten years.

The letter I received traces some of the changes in burial practices over the years. When the cemetery began, they say, “It was a straight forward business with few options–full body burial within a week.” Now, cremations are changing the business. Many (up to 70 percent) don’t bury remains. The cemetery, however accommodates interment, including grave sharing which lowers costs and extends the working life of the cemetery. In 2019, the cemetery only had 147 burials and project 133 in 2020. However they have remained profitable through services, cost savings, and donations and grants.

It is a comfort to know that the place where your loved ones are buried is solvent. I hope it remains this way and retains its beauty for many years to come. It is one of the first cemeteries in Youngstown to represent a shift in the conception of a cemetery away from big monuments to a park-like atmosphere. Its entrance and Little Chapel are architectural gems, and the stone masonry was done by a local Italian Stonemasons. And it is part of my own family’s history.

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

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008.

Summary: A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is characterized at one point in this book as having “a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Her son at one point described her moods as capricious and that she never accepted responsibility for the ways she affected others. She was tall and imposing, irascible and difficult. And yet. She could cut through niceties to help a young man ready to take his life, or truly sympathize with a widow while her own husband was a vegetable. What you saw was what you got, and yet there were hidden depths to her that could catch you by surprise.

Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry live in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a middle school math teacher and Henry a pharmacist. Elizabeth Strout develops Olive’s character through a series of chronologically arranged short stories featuring different people in the town. Olive is not in every one of them but recurs throughout the book, intersecting with a number of the characters as she retires from teaching, sharing life with Henry, a most accommodating husband, as they go through life’s changes and grief’s, including a son for whom they built a house, only for him to move across country at his wife’s behest, only for her to divorce him, and then for him to return to New York and a new marriage. Olive grieves so much she won’t drive past the house, leading to an improbable adventure at the local ER.

The stories explore the challenges and comforts of marital love, the infidelities of mind and body of different villagers, including Henry at one point for his pharmacist assistant Denise. There are heartbreaks and verbal wounds that are not easily healed. But one thing you will never find is hypocrisy from Olive. One of the highlights was when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of her clothes. Most of us would fume and pretend we had not heard. Olive goes into the daughter-in-law’s closet and deviously ruins several articles of clothing. She can be maddeningly matter-of-fact in her acceptance of life’s hardships. What else ought one expect of life?

Despite all the flaws and foibles and failures of individuals, Strout portrays a community that somehow coheres, that is there for each other in the hardest moments. She creates a place and a character rooted in that place in Olive–the houses she builds, the tulips she plants, the donut shop she and Henry loved to get donuts from. Olive and the others endure loss and glimpse their mortality, making there way through life and finding what comfort they can in each other.

In the end, we see a character who seemed utterly certain of herself, who does not change, but turns her honesty upon herself and comes to more settled terms with the person she is, and the possibilities of her remaining life. There is both fine writing and fine insight into the human condition here.

Review: A Gentle Madness

A Gentle Madness, Nicholas A Basbanes. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

Summary: An entertaining journey through the history and contemporary world of book collecting, and the “bibliomanes” whose passion for books formed amazing collections.

I think it is obvious that I love books. More precisely, I love reading books and talking about them. I do have a number of books in my home (and have donated or sold large numbers). I am a bibliophile, but not a bibliomane. This is the “gentle madness” Nicholas Basbanes writes about in this thick, delightful book you just don’t want to end because of the interesting stories of bibliomanes. The title comes from a description of Isaiah Thomas as being stricken with “the gentlest of infirmities, bibliomania.”

The most interesting difference between bibliophiles and bibliomanes, is that the former love reading books, while the latter collect them. The collectors usually have some focus in their collecting, from first editions of great books, to everything coming from the hand of a particular author or set of authors. I love finding books at the lowest price. Collectors pay attention to price but will spare no expense for something they want. At the very beginning, we meet a chef and restaurateur, Louis Szathmary, whose collection of cookbooks and artifacts filled sixteen semi-trailers and went to half a dozen institutions. And this is the fascinating part of the story. So often the collecting efforts of individuals accomplished what great libraries could not–forming distinctive collections that eventually enhanced these libraries’ holdings, whether Samuel Pepys, whose holdings went to Cambridge, John Harvard’s library that formed the core of the university named after him or the Huntington Library formed out of the personal collection of Henry Huntington. For that matter, Thomas Jefferson’s substantial library became the core of the Library of Congress.

Basbanes takes us through the fascinating world of booksellers, agents of buyers, and auctions of rare books. We are introduced to the high priced world of incunabula, early printed books, usually those printed before 1501. He describes a sale of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a collection of 36 plays for $2.1 million in 1989 (recently Christie’s auctioned a copy for $10 million). We learn of Ruth Baldwin who collected children’s books, eventually installing this collection at the University of Florida. Then there is Harry Hunt Ransom, who became the driving force behind the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. Ransom cozied up to Texas politicos awash in funds from the Texas oil industry.

One of the unavoidable realities of collecting was the death (or sometimes the insolvency) of the collector. The efforts and funds to build up a collection then required the organizing, curating, and protecting of these rare resources. Inevitably, the question arises of the disposition of the collection. We learn both about auctions that form the inheritance of future generations, and the intentional donation or sale of libraries to other institutions. In some cases, the donor came along with the library during their life as did Ruth Baldwin who oversaw the installation of her children’s books and continued to curate the collection until shortly before her death.

Perhaps the strangest story is that of the collector who stole rather than bought his collection. Stephen Carrie Blumberg amassed a collection of Americana in his home in Ottumwa, Iowa valued at roughly $20 million. It consisted of stolen materials from libraries from all over the country. His thefts involved everything from stolen or duplicated keys to crawling through ventilation systems. Eventually he was caught. Basbanes interviewed him during his trial, during which he recounted his drive to build “his” collection and how he obtained it.

This book has become something of a “classic” among book lovers. If nothing else, it is comfort to most of us who may be berated for how many books we have. If nothing else, we can point to people even more eccentric than we are. They are each uniquely eccentric, yet also incredibly focused to assemble their collections. We learn about this gentle madness that has existed as long as there were books, and even become acquainted with some through the author’s travels and discussions with them. And since this book is out of print (though listed on Amazon and other sites), you can have a taste of the fun of collecting in finding a copy. If you love books about books and those who collect them, this is a treasure trove for your own collection.

Review: Live Not By Lies

Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher. New York: Sentinal, 2020.

Summary: Drawing on interviews with Christians in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, Dreher warns of a rise of a similar, though “soft” totalitarianism in the U.S., and outlines what Christians must do to live in the truth.

In The Benedict Option (review), Rod Dreher outlines how he believes Christians, having lost the culture war, must live. Live Not By Lies offers an even grimmer future, the rise of a “soft” progressive totalitarianism functioning by rhetorical and social control, utilizing the capacities already in existence for digital surveillance.

He draws on interactions with survivors of Communism in the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union. His title comes from a statement by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in what would be his final message to the Soviet Union. Dreher writes:

What did it mean to live by lies? It meant, Solzhenitsyn writes, accepting without protest all the falsehoods and propaganda that the state compelled its citizens to affirm–or at least not to oppose–to get along peaceably under totalitarianism. Everybody says that they have no choice but to conform, says Solzhenitsyn, and to accept powerlessness. But that is the lie that gives all other lies their malign force. The ordinary man may not be able to overturn the kingdom of lies, but he can at least say that he is not going to be its loyal subject.

Dreher and his eastern bloc interlocutors recognize the same troubling trends around the suppression of truth, the attractions of progressiveness to the discontented, the loss of faith in institutions, and a combination of destructiveness and transgressiveness. He points to the safety and cancel cultures of universities that foreclose open discussion of ideas.

The second part of his work addresses how Christians ought prepare for the rise of progressive totalitarianism. He argues for the importance of cultural memory, particularly the memory of totalitarian regimes. He believes that the family and networks of small groups are critical to resistance. He believes that the church is the critical bedrock of resistance, although it is also important to stand in solidarity with others who resist. It was heartening to not see him reprise the strategic withdrawal into monastic-type communities of The Benedict Option but rather listen and draw upon the testimony of those who resisted in the urban centers of Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union

Perhaps his greatest challenge to Christians is to accept the possibility of suffering as testimony to the truth–not sought, but not avoided. Talking with those who suffered, he stresses both the challenge to suffer without bitterness, and the gift of suffering.

I think the two most important lessons of this book are that “it can happen here” and that Christians are woefully unprepared as yet. What troubled me in reading this was that Dreher’s apprehension of threats from the far left seems to have blinded him to threats from the far right. In warning exclusively of a progressive, Communist-leaning totalitarianism, I found him more or less silent about the danger of a fascist totalitarianism. In the “survival of the extremes” character of our parties, it seems increasingly that they are moving toward one of these two polarities. The culture war no longer is Christians versus the secular culture but rather these two polarities against each other, each using parts of the Christian community to gain political leverage.

Where Dreher gets it right is that both of these extremes are built on the lie of ultimate allegiance that no Christian can accept, with a whole host of other lies paving the way to believing this big lie. I believe he is right in recognizing how we may be seduced by lies from one extreme or the other. What I wish he had addressed is how we might be people who turn neither to the Left nor the Right but who are shaped by the narrative of the Gospel of the Kingdom. But in a culture where lying is endemic, the call to not capitulate to the lies and the community that sustains a people of truth is no insignificant thing. A Czech emigre friend told the author that writing this book was a waste of time because, “People will have to live through it first to understand….Any time I try to explain current events and their meaning to my friends or acquaintances, I am met with blank stares or downright nonsense.” I hope he is wrong.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Rhythms for Life

Rhythms for Life, Alastair Sterne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An approach to spiritual practices and a rule of life tailored to the unique identity, gifts, calling, and roles of each person.

Rhythms for Life joins an increasing field of books exploring spiritual practices and the idea of a rule of life. The author even includes a list of these books for further reading. What, then distinguishes this book?

I would contend that it is the first half of this book, coupled with the second half. The first half explores who has God made us to be. Sterne explores in successive chapters 1) identity, 2) gifts, talents, and personality, 3) virtuous values, 4) roles, and 5) vocation. The chapter stood out to me, defined as what we consider important and worthwhile, differentiating aspirational and actual values, how values are formed and transformed in Christ, and how we identify them.

Each of the chapters in the first part include a “workbook” section at the end beginning with prayer, identifying descriptive words that resonate, and asking a variety of questions to help one tease out and reflect on oneself. Doing this together in a group and inviting others to confirm or challenge your insights can be helpful.

The second part focuses on developing rhythms to live out our vocation based upon what we’ve learned about ourselves and our vocations. Sterne proposes four types of rhythms: 1) Up–Upward to God, 2) In–Inward to Self, 3) With–Withward in Community, and 4) Out–Outward in Mission. In these chapters there are brainstorming questions at the end of each section, rather than at the end of the chapter. Each of these chapters concludes with a sample set of rhythms organized around regular and seasonal rhythms and a growth rhythm.

In addition to the appendix on further resources, there is one on develop rhythms in community, and one on discerning a call to ministry.

Books have been written around the content in the first part. Others have been written around the practices of the second. What is unique is the idea of developing a rule of life around the self-knowledge gained in the first part. This sounds great in theory but I found the book short on ideas of how this translates in practice. Perhaps it just follows from working through the exercises. My own sense is that this is done best either with a spiritual director or a community of those who know and trust each other.

What is of value, it seems to me, are the insights gained by working through the first part of this. Knowing ourselves and knowing God walk hand in hand. And perhaps that helps us face honestly whether our spiritual practices are helping us engage with God and his calling in our lives.

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

The Month in Reviews: October 2020

With the cooler weather, I think I’m catching up on the books I didn’t read early in the pandemic. In this month’s reads, there are a couple books about relationships and marriage, a senator’s conversion to activism against gun violence, an exciting rescue, Marilynne Robinson’s latest, some good theology, a profound book on suffering, and a wonderful book about political and civic engagement that renewed my hope.

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author. Review

The Violence Inside Us, Chris Murphy. New York: Random House, 2020. A Connecticut Senator describes his own awakening to the scourge of gun violence after Newtown, and explores the causes and remedies for this uniquely American problem. Review

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020. An exploration of suffering, whether through illness or physical decline, human or natural evil, and the embrace of grief, lament, doubt, questioning and more, and what it means to hope amid our struggle. Review

The Lost Get-Back BoogieJames Lee Burke. New York: Pocket Star, 2006 (first published 1986). On release from prison, Iry Paret leaves Louisiana for Montana for a new start with his prisonmate, Buddy Riordan, only to find he has landed in the midst of new troubles. Review

God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian TheologySteven J. Duby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of what may be known of God in God’s self rather than in God’s external relations to the world and the role that scripture, metaphysics, natural and supernatural theology, and the use of analogy all play in forming this understanding. Review

Compassion (&) ConvictionJustin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Foreword by Barbara Williams-Skinner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A handbook for better political and civic engagement, overcoming the highly polarized character of our current discourse and the unhealthy assimilation of the church into politics. Review

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer TeamChristina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020. An account of the rescue of the Wild Boars boys soccer team describing the engineering and diving efforts, and how the boys endured this experience. Review

Good ManNathan Clarkson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. Goes beyond the stereotypes of what a “real man” is to explore the character of a good man and the journey of discovery this involves. Review

Friends DividedGordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Books, 2018. An account of the sometimes troubled and unlikely friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Review

JackMarilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020. The story of an inter-racial love affair between Jack Ames Boughton and Della Miles, and Jack’s struggle to find grace. Review

Blessed Are The NonesStina Kielsmeier-Cook. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A memoir of a Christian woman coming to terms, with the help of some Catholic nuns, with her husband’s de-conversion. Review

Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1922). A collection of eleven short stories, the most famous of which is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Review

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020. An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings. Review

Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy, Reid Forgrave. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2020. The account of Zac Easter, who grew up in the football culture of small town Iowa and his family, played hard, until he began to experience the consequences of repeated concussions, when his life began to unravel. Review

Best Book of the Month: Compassion (&) Conviction is a timely primer on practical and effective political and civic engagement built on a biblical framework that moves beyond the binaries that have so deeply divided us. It was so refreshing to read a book taking both a strong pro-life stance and a strong social justice stance.

Best Quote of the Month: Carolyn Weber is a gifted writer whose work I’ve previously enjoyed, but I thought she soared to new heights in Sex and the City of God, a book on singleness, courtship, and marriage as a young Christian. This quote is one of many I could have pulled:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

What I’m Reading: I have three books ready for review this coming week. Rhythms for Life helps connect spiritual practices to the kind of person you are. Live Not By Lies is Rod Dreher’s sequel to The Benedict Option. Having studied the Communist governments of eastern Europe and talked to Christians who bore faithful witness under totalitarian regimes, he offers a warning of the coming of a soft totalitarianism, and what Christians must be prepared for. Nicholas A Basbanes A Gentle Madness was written in the 1990’s and tells the stories of those obsessed with book collecting, a very different group, I found, from those who love reading.

I’m in the middle of several other books right now. All I Did Was Shoot My Man is my first dip into the crime fiction of Walter Mosley, the dean of Black crime fiction writers. Olive Kittredge is an older work, a collection of stories set in a coastal New England town around the formidable title character. Craig S. Keener’s Between History and Spirit collects a number of journal articles by Keener on the book of Acts. on which Keener wrote a four volume exegetical commentary. Finally, Aida Besancon Spencer’s Commentary on James is just that–a careful exegetical commentary that draws out James on faith and works, money and speech.

Writing from the United States, it appears with the spike in COVID-19 cases that I will be sheltering in place for a good while yet. I’m fortunate to be able to work from home, collaborating with colleagues and connecting with friends via video technology. I’m also quite grateful for the literary companions with whom I have the chance to keep company. I hope this time affords you that opportunity as well. Stay safe, my bookish friends!

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.