Review: The Big Fella

the big fella

The Big FellaJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Summary: A biography of Babe Ruth, with the narrative of his life connected with a day by day account of a barnstorming tour of the country after his home run record-breaking 1927 season.

He was big in so many ways. He could probably have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. He not only held one season and lifetime home run records for decades, but his day in, day out hitting and slugging percentages and many other statistics place him at the very top of all time hitters. He was physically big, in height and girth, in hands. He not only hit a lot of home runs, but hit with a much heavier bat than most players used, and with a swing studied for its efficiency. He had huge appetites, for food, for women, for clothes, for adulation. He not only negotiated record salaries (and Leavy suggests he could have received more) but earned record amounts on appearances and endorsements.

Leavy tells this whole story from the loveless marriage of his parents that ended in divorce, with George, Jr. at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, and later St. James home, where he met Brother Matthias, who was probably the closest thing he really had to a father, and who taught him baseball. It is even thought that Babe modeled his swing on Brother Matthias. Leavy traces his career from the minors, his time in Boston and transformation from a pitcher to a hitter who played every day, his trade to New York.

She shows us a Ruth who tried to have a different life in his first marriage to Helen, yet whose appetites led to carousing and many women, and an increasingly distant relationship with Helen, who spent more and more time hospitalized or as an invalid, while Babe developed an extra-marital relationship with Claire who he married after Helen’s death.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was the role Christy Walsh played in making Ruth “big.” Long before agents became commonplace, Walsh worked tirelessly with Ruth to get him to amend his ways enough to stay out of trouble, play the game, endorse products, and make a fortune on post-season appearances. Walsh was the one who understood, in a way Ruth never quite grasped, how much Ruth was worth to the Yankees, and the limited time he had to capitalize on it.

Ruth, having not found love in his family, seems to never have been content with a family. He tried to keep playing when his body no longer could sustain it. Traded by the Yankees back to Boston, he hoped to manage a team, but was never given a chance. He got involved in a movie project that produced an inferior “B” movie. Then the cancer came. Ruth’s last years were hard and the “big fella” was reduced to 150 pounds by his tottering farewell appearance at an Old-Timers game at Yankee Stadium. A few months later, he was dead.

Leavy uses the device of a 21 day barnstorming tour across the country with Lou Gehrig following his 1927 season, the peak of his career. Each chapter covers one day of the tour and advances Leavy’s narrative of his life. The tour captures in miniature the story of his life from the game to the crowds including the kids, the after hours, and the adulation.

This was the one aspect of the book about which I was ambivalent. It captured an aspect of Babe’s life often overlooked in the accounts. But it also seemed distracting and one had to pay attention to when Leavy was writing about the tour, or moving forward the larger narrative of his life. It was an interesting device, but I’m not sure it worked for me.

However, Leavy gives us a portrait of both the power and pathos that were part of the Babe’s story. She helped me realize how extensive his accomplishments were long before today’s technology enhanced game, and how his presence changed the game. Christy Walsh anticipated the role agents would have in looking out for players’ interests, changing a game where the owners held all the power. It also raises the fascinating question of whether any of this would happen without the mentoring of Brother Matthias. One thing was sure. Ruth never forgot. And perhaps neither should we.

Review: Including the Stranger

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him.

Many people have the idea that in the Old Testament, God hates foreigners. At worst, some have called him a genocidal monster. David G. Firth argues from the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings)  for something far different. He believes that these books reveal a picture of a God who includes the foreigner who believes, works through such people for the benefit of Israel, and that ultimately, the people of God were defined not by ethnicity but by faith.

In Joshua, he contrasts the faith of Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (and ancestor of David and Christ), with Achan, who takes for himself what was to be devoted to destruction, to the destruction of his fellow Israelites and his own family. Firth also points to the inclusion of the Gibeonites and their subsequent role. In Judges, he contrasts Othniel the Kenite (an outsider), the paradigm judge who saves Israel from the invading nations, with the nation itself, divided by tribal rivalries and becoming more like the surrounding nations.

The books of Samuel contrast Israel who wants to be like other nations and Saul, whose kingship is shaped more by his responses to foreign adversaries than obedience to God, with David, the man after God’s heart, who slays Goliath who dares to taunt against Yahweh. Later, we see David the unfaithful adulterer and murderer of the faithful Hittite soldier Uriah. And when David’s actions bring a plague ln Israel, it is Araunah, the Jebusite, whose threshing floor becomes the site of an altar to Yahweh at the point where the plague stops.

In the books of the Kings, once again, it is the vindication of the greatness of Yahweh over the nations that results in the defeat of the Assyrians confronting Hezekiah. Often, as in Judges, the incursions of the nations are a judgment for Israel’s faithlessness. When Yahweh acts, it is that the nations may know him (2 Kings 19:19). Perhaps the height of this expression of concern for the foreigner is in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (I Kings 8:41-43, NIV).

Later, Naaman is a striking example of one who finds healing through faith in Israel’s God. Firth then concludes his treatment by tracing this trajectory of concern for including the stranger into the New Testament, and makes application to the church.

Firth’s point in all this is to show that the people of God may include foreigners, and exclude unfaithful Israelites. Foreigner nations face judgment not because they are foreigners, but when they embrace rivals to the living God and represent a threat to lure Israel into the same. Sometimes, these nations are instruments to draw Israel back to God through invasions.

Firth does a service in calling our attention to the numerous instances of the inclusion of the foreigner in the Former Prophets, and God’s revealed intentions, material overlooked by those who attack these books. In so doing he demonstrates that there is a greater continuity in the two testaments than may be thought. Some may find his inference that the people were destroyed or driven out not because of their ethnicity but because of the rival gods they believed in inadequate to justify this destruction. To fully address this would require a much longer book. What Firth does is show us that the actual case is far more nuanced than is popularly portrayed. While we cannot get away from violence against the nations, there is also an ongoing thread of the inclusion of foreigners from Rahab, to the paradigm judge, Othniel, to Naaman and many others that reveal God’s over-riding concern for his glory among the nations and the inclusion of all who believe into the people of God.

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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.

Review: Three Pieces of Glass

Three pieces of glass

Three Pieces of GlassEric O. Jacobsen. Grands Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: Focuses on loneliness and belonging and the influence of cars, television, and smartphones on the experience, and even design of community and the choices we may make to foster belonging.

A recent commercial for a pizza chain reprises a classic TV scene in which a figure of a somewhat heavy set man who walks into an establishment. In the classic version, he is instantly recognized and everyone calls out “Norm.”  In the contemporary version, no one knows his name because he hasn’t created an online profile tracked on his phone. In the old neighborhood bar, “everybody knows your name.” Now belonging is increasingly mediated through a screen.

Eric O. Jacobsen didn’t anticipate the commercial, which underscores the theme of belonging represented by Norm that runs through this book. He contends that three pieces of glass, the windshield of the automobile, the screen of the television, and the screen of our smartphones, tablets, and computers have fundamentally influenced our experience of belonging in society.

Jacobsen begins his discussion by exploring the nature of belonging as having to do with relationship, place and story, and levels of belonging from intimate and personal to social and public and how intimate and personal are not enough. He explores the way in which experiences of social and public, together referred to as civic belonging, offer foretastes of kingdom belonging.

The second part of the book then sketches out the nature of kingdom belonging which he characterizes as unconditional, covenantal, invitational, compassionate, diverse,  transformative, delightful and productive. He contrasts this with worldly belonging and highlights the inclusive (the images of the feast and the table) and the covenantal relationship character of the kingdom.

Part three considers the gospel and belonging and shows how through the gospel, broken relationships are restored and there is healing for the epidemic of loneliness. For people who feel estranged and exiled, there is a promise of homecoming. And for those living in a story of meagre existence, there is a better and grander story.

The fourth part of the books addresses how the “three pieces of glass” have contributed to our crisis of belonging. The automobile has changed how our living spaces have been configured, from the design of our homes, to the walkability of our neighborhoods, and the location of where we shop and work in relation to where we live. Television changes how we view real people versus our “TV friends.” Our smartphones and other devices have led us to substitute virtual for face to face interaction. These have led erosion in the civic realm and an epidemic of “busyness.

The last two parts consider, first, the influence of our choices on our communal life, our public policies, and on our liturgical life and second how we may encourage belonging. The last part reprises ideas elaborated at greater length in Jacobsen’s earlier books, Sidewalks in the Kingdom and The Space Between, both influenced by the new urbanism. He looks at the design of our communities, advocating for walkability, our proximity, which includes a parish vision for the church, the making of meaningful public places, and a local culture reflected in language, shared stories, and events.

Writing this review during the Covid-19 pandemic gives me a different perspective on this book than I might have had during “normal” times. The latter two pieces of glass have taken on critical importance both as sources of information (although we have to watch for media overload), and as the one means of connection, or belonging most of us have when we must practice physical distancing–particularly in connecting with family, friends, our church community, our work colleagues, and even our political leaders. For many of us, we can work from home (and this may not even represent a change for some of us.)

By the same token, people are walking their neighborhoods at safe distances, in some cases meeting neighbors they never knew by name. I know of one neighborhood where a local folk singer set up in his front yard and staged an impromptu singalong. When we can’t go to restaurants, sporting events, and many of the other places our cars take us–we are left with walking and a kind of “neighboring” occurs. By the same token, I wonder if fights would have occurred over essential goods in the neighborhood markets I grew up with that occur in our megastores where people come from miles around and it is rare you meet someone you know. You shopped with people you knew in those neighborhood groceries and, perhaps we would be more considerate of the needs of others and neither hoard nor fight. After all, we lived with those people and we would be publicly shamed if we took more than our fair share!

Jacobsen’s book makes me wonder whether we will be more mindful about this question of belonging, as we realize how dependent we are upon both in our churches, and in the civic sphere. It makes me wonder if we will take a fresh look at our neighborhoods, both what is good about them, as well as what could be better about our places, and how we connect with each other. With internet connected devices, I suspect it is a bit more complicated. It would not surprise me if life becomes more oriented for more people around these devices. We are doing more education through them, more commerce, more business collaboration, and even more religious activity. While we discover that the church is not a building, will we also jettison the physical encounters that are at the heart of Christian community, from the breaking of bread and the cup to all those meals and potlucks that are some of the best part of our lives? Even before this crisis, I was in conversation with those who talked about declines in church attendance, in which someone pointed to their smartphone and said, “that’s because many think they carry church in their pocket.”

Yet Jacobsen reminds us of our epidemic of loneliness. He raises the critical question of whether belonging can be mediated through a smart device, or whether the proximity necessary for social and public belonging can be created in a car culture. We may love our TV friends, but will they love us back? Jacobsen’s book raises a series of inter-related questions for how the church understands its message, how we steward our technology, and how we configure the places where we live. How we answer those might well make the difference between places where nobody or everybody knows our names.

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

Early Spring 2020 Book Preview

wp-15845727474905349126795391162499.jpgIt’s been a while since my last book preview post, and a number of new books have arrived for review. I don’t know if I’ll be able to settle into a routine during the present crisis, which is uncharted territory. But if I do, I have plenty to read. I thought I would give you a preview because it will take some time to get to them all. The link in the title is to the publisher’s website. Most of the time, you can order the book there, or at your favorite local bookseller, who especially needs your help right now. So, from the top of the pile…

becoming sage

Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2020. Loon explores how we navigate through mid-life to grow in wisdom and purpose.

myth american dream

The Myth of the American DreamD. L. Mayfield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Is the American dream compatible with the teaching of Jesus? I’m guessing, no.

good white racist

Good* White RacistKerry Connelly. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. If you are white, you don’t want to think of yourself as a racist, yet may be complicit in things that perpetuate racism.

#metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Everhart calls attention to the ways the church has participated in the epidemic of abuse and sexual misconduct that the #MeToo movement has exposed.

goshen road

Goshen RoadBonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020. A novel centered around a working class family in rural West Virginia. Sounds like a fictional Hillbilly Elegy.

when narcissism

When Narcissism Comes to ChurchChuck DeGroat. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Narcissist pastors and church systems are deadly to a church. The book offers hope for healing for churches and narcissist pastors and leaders alike.

experiencing God

Experiencing GodEberhard Arnold. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020. What happens when a Christian truly invites God to rule in one’s life?

Approaching the Atonement

Approaching the AtonementOliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Is there more to our understanding of the atonement than the cross? And how shall we understand this doctrine?

Paul and the Language of faith

Paul and the Language of Faith, Nijay Gupta. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020. Paul studies the language of faith in Paul’s writings, proposing an active, rather than passive understanding of faith.

God in Himself

God in HimselfStephen J. Duby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. The author explores how we may know God and can we know God as God is in himself?

a republic in the ranks

A Republic in the Ranks, Zachery A. Fry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. In an army shaped by George McClellan, a Democrat, Fry shows how officers in the Union Army shaped a Republican awakening, leading to Lincoln’s 1864 re-election.

basic bible atlas

The Basic Bible AtlasJohn A. Beck. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. An atlas of the lands of the Bible that integrates Israel’s history and geography.

Blood Letters

Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s ChinaLian Xi. New York: Basic Books, 2018. A meticulously researched account of Lin Zhao, a political dissident and Christian who was tortured and died for her faith.

Kent State

Kent State: Four Dead in OhioDerf Blackderf. New York: Abrams Comic Arts, 2020. A graphic non-fiction account of the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, leaving four dead and nine wounded, being released for the 50th anniversary of this event.

Philippians

Philippians (Kerux Commentaries), Thomas Moore and Timothy D. Sprankle. Grand Rapids, Kregel Ministry, 2019. Part of commentary series co-written by an exegete and a homiletician (one who teaches the art of preaching).

46043079._SX318_

A Worldview Approach to Science and ScriptureCarol Hill. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019. The author argues that understanding the worldview of the biblical authors and the modern scientific worldview helps resolve points of apparent conflict between scripture and science.

As you can see, I won’t lack for books if I must shelter in place for a good while. I suspect that will be the case for most readers of this blog. Desiderius Erasmus once said, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Hopefully none of you will lack for any of these things. More importantly, my prayer is that you and yours may be spared illness or harm during these months. Remember kindness both to others and to yourself!

Review: Running For Our Lives

Running for our Lives, Robb Ryerse (Foreword by Brian D. McLaren). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: A northwest Arkansas pastor decides to run in a primary against one of the most powerful Republican representatives in a grassroots campaign to restore a say in government to ordinary citizens.

Robb Ryerse was a political junkie. He was also a pastor whose developing ministry led him to political views at variance with many of his fundamentalist counterparts. It led him eventually to launch a counter-cultural and inclusive church in northwest Arkansas. It led to weeping when the nominee of his party was elected president in 2016 and joining others who were concerned about the way our political process was going.

All this led to Ryerse being recruited by Brand New Congress to run a grassroots campaign oriented around the common good of the everyday American. He went to a “Congress Camp” with a number of candidates from both parties including Antonia Ocasio-Cortez. What is striking is that Ryerse went as a Republican running against a Republican incumbent. He finds himself at variance with his party, not with the philosophy of governance, but rather with positions on healthcare, climate change, and immigration that have become immigration. He discovered that for all their disagreements, he could find common ground by focusing on the common good with those at Congress Camp who did not share his party affiliation–something they all wanted to take to Washington.

One of the key issues he explores is the issue of campaign finance. He argues that you will only have a Congress responsive to everyday citizens when they, and not big donors fund the campaigns, something Antonia Ocasio-Cortes was able to do. The challenge: this will probably take a constitutional amendment unless Americans refuse to support candidates funded by big money interests.

He traces the high and low points, the latter including a party dinner in a remote part of the district where his name was mispronounced and no one would talk to him. On the other hand were voters dissatisfied with the direction of the party who listened. A documentary crew follows his run from when he pays the $15,000 entry fee set by the party, his early high hopes and his increasing realization that he just didn’t have the votes. He ended winning 15 percent of the vote.

He ended the race a changed person. He reached a position on gun control that focused not only on the right to bear arms, but the “well-regulated” character of a citizenry who did so as a basis for gun legislation that did not take weapons away, but did govern how they could be obtained as part of a package of common sense gun legislation. Most of all, he became even more convinced of the need for a movement that focused on the electing of everyday people by everyday people committed to the common good. So when the invitation to become executive director of Brand New Congress to continue this movement, he said yes.

I suspect a number of people who read this review would not agree with all of Ryerse positions. I don’t. But what strikes me is that Ryerse argues for the kind of politician that I think we need to change the character of our legislative branch — people committed to seeking the common good of our citizens. What Ryerse does not answer is what it takes for such candidates to unseat a heavily funded incumbent on a shoe string. His support from everyday people, which he prided himself on, only amounted to $30,000, a paltry amount compared to his opponent. He can pride himself that he ran a principled race all he wants, but the truth is, he didn’t even come close to being elected. Nor did he generate enough of a movement of “everyday people” to even make the race competitive. Does that say something?

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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.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943).

Summary: A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn.

Published in 1943, this was one of those “books that went to war,” a special edition of which was carried in the rucksacks of soldiers in World War II as a reminder of home. Many wrote Betty Smith to tell her of what it meant to them.

The question one asks is what the abiding power of this book is. My sense of the answer is found in the sheer determination and grit of the character through whom the story is told, Francie Nolan. We first meet her as a young girl on a third floor fire escape, reading one of the latest books she has taken from the library (withdrawn in alphabetical order), looking over the patch of dirt out of which a tree had grown, “neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew upon green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas….No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky….It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district.”

I’m convinced that Francie is that tree–having a peculiar beauty, a resilience that thrives even under the toughest circumstances, struggling to reach for the sky and the stars, growing lushly amid the tenements of Brooklyn. She tells of her and her brother Neely, collecting rags and scrap, to bring home the pennies that help the family survive on their alcoholic father’s sporadic wages as a singing waiter and their mother’s cleaning work.

Smith vividly portrays the life from penny candy shops, to indifferent librarians, to brother-sister spats, loving her father’s voice, confirmation and first communion–and a terrifying attempted rape. Katie, Francie’s mother provides the steel that holds the family together while Johnny brings both the fun and the tragedy. Katie insists the children read a page of the Bible and Shakespeare each night, and imparts to them the importance of an education she never had. Francie picks this up, first lying her way into a better school, later longing to go on to high school and even college. When a teacher marks Francie’s compositions down despite her writing skills, rather than write the sweet drivel the teacher wants, Francie stops writing and takes a lower grade.

Johnny Nolan dies short of 35 and the family’s struggle for existence becomes yet more precarious, not only because of Johnny’s death, but also that he left Katie pregnant with Laurie. Wages from McGarrity’s bar help some. Then comes a painful scene where Katie decides upon Francie and Neely’s graduation that Francie would work while Neely goes to school. In spite of her disappointment, she holds a number of jobs, becoming the family breadwinner, even taking summer college courses. We watch a girl become a young woman, both with a determined sense of self and longings for love.

In the backdrop of her story are Katie’s twos sisters, Sissy and Evy. Evy’s husband seems a pitiful excuse of a man. Sissy goes through a series of “Johns” with whom she lives, in the quest to bear one live child until she finally meets a John named Steve. Through the conversations of these sisters the paradox of how good men are hard to find, men like McShane the policeman and aspiring politician with a sickly wife, and the attraction of men who end up not making good husbands. Most of the women whose characters are fleshed out are strong characters, even while they lack the formal power of men.

The other strong character in the book is Brooklyn itself. Smith evokes a sense of what the place was like in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But the character who takes center stage is Francie. When America’s entry into the war is announced, this is how she reacts:

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

I’ll leave you to discover if Francie realizes all her dreams and is the “something” to which she aspires. What I will say is that the tree about which we’ve heard nothing through most of the narrative recurs in the final pages. Chopped down, it does not die, but rises again. “It lived! And nothing could destroy it.”

 

Review: Unsettling Truths

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.

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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.

 

 

Review: Living in Bonus Time

living in bonus time

Living in Bonus TimeAlec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.”

I still remember the day when I opened the video from then President of InterVarsity/USA, Alec Hill, and heard the news that he was stepping down from his position to fight a rare form of cancer, Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS) that could take his life within eighteen months. I work for InterVarsity and Alec had energetically led us in fourteen years of growth. He communicated personal concern for us as a couple when my wife faced a cancer diagnosis for us. I was stunned, and joined with thousands of others in prayer for him.

alec hill

Alec Hill

This book describes his journey from that time onward. The first part of this book describes a journey of descent.  A bone marrow donor match was critical to his survival. As it turned out, his brother Grant was an exact match. For Alec, this meant toxic chemo and full body radiation to destroy his white blood cells, while Grant received injection to boost his stem cell production. Hill describes the side effects of this treatment, including the risk that any infection could kill him, requiring isolation from all but his wife Mary, and scrupulous sanitizing of surfaces. He also describes the struggles with depression and the “dark night of the soul” through which he went, and his struggle to hang on to the disciplines that had sustained him in health. He struggled with why this had happened to him. Had he done something to cause it? He warns against the prosperity preaching and false messengers who unhelpfully approached him. And when the treatment worked and his blood counts rose and health returned while friends in treatment died, he wrestled with survivors guilt.

The second part of the books focuses Hill’s transition to new realities as he realizes that he is among those who survive cancer. He describes the lessons of control–over-control like that of Steve Jobs, who thought he could out-think pancreatic cancer, or under-control, which becomes passive in the face of cancer. He recognizes that appropriate control involves humility, trust, gratitude, and rest. Cancer forced him to learn dependence on others–family, friends, professional caregivers, and other cancer patients. In this section, he also discusses the challenges caregivers face and the needs caregivers have for self-care. Perhaps the most significant chapter in this book was his one on identity. He talks frankly about the experiences he faced in self-perception, bodily changes including those affecting sexuality, social roles and spiritual identity. He writes:

Cancer is a watershed event that divides our lives between BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis). If given a choice between our BC and AD selves–what we look like, how we feel, how we perceive others regard us–most of us would gladly select the former.

The final part of the book describes how Hill came to terms with “bonus time” (a phrase he draws from soccer, where at the end of regulation time, the referee can extend the play with bonus time. He identifies how survivors often show growth in grit, spirituality, and boldness (e.g. why am I afraid what people think when I’ve had cancer?). Surviving cancer can lead to a clarifying of purpose as one faces one’s mortality. He proposes that clarified purpose comes through surrender of control to reliance on God, assessment of our responsibilities, resources, capabilities and calling, and attentiveness that requires slowing down. For Hill, it meant a shift from executive leadership in a fast-paced collegiate ministry to the thoughtful mentoring of young leaders. He concludes with a pair of chapters on redeeming the time and on wonder that get to the most important aspects of bonus time–savoring one’s life, loving, living freely, giving of himself, and delighting in wonder.

No two cancers are alike. Neither are cancer journeys, some of which end one’s life and some that pass through the valley of the shadow of death into survivorhood. One thing that is true is that one is not the same–physically, emotionally, mentally. There are bodily changes, fears of recurrence and survivor guilt, and chemo brain. But there are also the opportunities of additional years of life and the question of how one will live those years. Alec Hill has given an incredibly honest, but also life affirming account of his journey. He takes us through his process in the hope that it will be helpful to others. In this, he practices something he learned through cancer–no one survives alone, but rather with a host of others who walk with one on the way–including other survivors. He supplements his own story with those of others, questions and scriptures for reflection, and a helpful bibliography organized around chapter topics.

This is a wonderful resource for cancer survivors and caregivers. It should be noted that Hill’s Christian faith pervades this memoir, not in a preachy way, but rather as what sustained him and helped him as he clarified what life in the bonus time of surviving cancer would look like. Hill’s aim is not that people imitate him, but rather through his reflection questions and insights, discern their own paths in “bonus time.”

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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.

Review: Loving Your Community

Loving Your Community

Loving Your CommunityStephen Viars. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: A pastor whose church has developed a number of community-based outreach ministries, describes their journey into this work, and the variety of ministries that have resulted.

Is the motto of your church “Say no unless you have to say yes” or “Say yes unless you have to say no”? That is a question Stephen Viars poses in the opening pages of this book. Sadly, a number of churches say “no” to community outreach because of possible risks to their facilities. Viars proposes that it comes down to loving our neighbors in the name of Jesus.

This is where the journey began for Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana. The church was growing and they began to ask what God was calling them to next. They started to realize that one of the best ways to do this was to listen to their neighbors. They surveyed the neighborhood, talked to law enforcement, and out of this discerned that the start was to build a community center instead of a larger sanctuary–a center that supported families, provided good childcare, youth programming, and served veterans and seniors. They are honest when asked why they are doing this, that they want to show love that reflects God’s love in sending his Son, and that they are glad to talk about that if people want to know more.

The second part of the book describes some of the ministries they developed. They offered biblical counseling and equipped counselors. They found ways to make their facilities available for everything from childcare to community forums. They tapped the talents of members to offer instructional classes on an array of subjects from marriage, family, and parenting to computer classes to financial management. They restructured ministries from just being oriented around church members to include the community–youth ministry, community picnics, and other gatherings. They developed outreach activities and collaborated with the community in staging them. At the request of the city, they engaged in neighborhood restoration. They built multiple community centers in different parts of the city, again at the invitation of the city and funders. They created residential treatment programs.

The third part of the book offers advice and answers questions for others considering getting started. They talk about risk management, disclosure, insurance, and legal reorganization (fourteen separate entities in all for this church’s various efforts). An important principle is to separate risks and assets so that “any entity that does ministry has no assets and any entity that has assets does no ministry.” They are committed to not compromising the gospel in any ministry. Viars outlines a twelve step process for others wanting to get started in community-based outreach. The book concludes with stories of two other congregations who worked with Faith Church in the launching of their own, context specific community-based outreaches.

All this may sound a bit overwhelming until one realizes this was a thirty year journey for this church. One of the big takeaways is that a church can listen to the community, work with public officials and outside funders without compromising gospel integrity. The key is a church known for serving its community, that shows up and can be counted on. This is so rare in any city, and people will listen to, or at least tolerate its message when it is accompanied by attentive listening and love in action.

The one thing I miss in this account is how this church collaborated with other churches in the community, particularly as they ministered in neighborhoods distant from their primary location. Sometimes, I’ve seen large congregations simply outshine and overwhelm smaller, under-resourced neighborhood churches rather than partner with and empower them. I don’t know what is the case here.

What is so helpful is the model of a church that keeps saying “yes” to God in terms of serving its community. Viars offers so much in the way of practical accounts of how each ministry developed and the process they went through that may serve to persuade other churches that it is really possible to love one’s community not only aspirationally but in deed as well as word.

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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.