Review: Embrace

Embrace

EmbraceLeroy Barber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: An extended reflection on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and God’s invitation to embrace the difficult places, people, differences, and callings involved in bringing his peace and justice into a divided world.

Many of us who are followers of Jesus feel ourselves to be “strangers in a strange land.” As people who have experienced the life-giving shalom of new life in Christ, we are disturbed to witness the deeply divided public discourse in our country that reveals hostilities between political parties, between racial groups, between rich and poor, between natural born citizens and immigrants. As people who look forward to God’s new city, the new Jerusalem, we grieve the devastation of decaying cities, of polluted water and air, of unsafe streets.

Leroy Barber offers in Embrace a series of reflections on Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I  carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you to will prosper.”

Barber speaks as a black pastor who has worked extensively in Christian community development work. He sees in these verses a call to embrace that will lead to the healing of our cities: an embrace of the place where we are, an embrace of the “difficult people” in our lives, of difference as a gift of God, He invites us into the hard work of change that lays down privilege to serve. He bids us to settle in for the long haul.

For the baseball fan like me, he challenges us to recognize and embrace the sacred spaces of the other–a favorite sport, television show, and to create new traditions in our Christian communities that honor those spaces. He calls us into the embrace that grieves injustice and advocates on behalf of those who are on the receiving end of injustice. He calls us into the difficult choice to offer the embrace of forgiveness to those who hurt us deeply as did families and friends of the Charleston Nine did with Dylann Roof.

Probably for many, he could have stopped there but he concludes with a chapter on Black Lives Matter, addressing ten myths about this movement. He writes, “I am not requesting that you agree with everything you have read about Black Lives Matter. I am advocating for a listening ear, healthy dialogue, and love. This is where loving hard people–including our enemies–begins to take shape in our hearts. Can you love and disagree? Can you love and honor another’s humanity in spite of the differences?” It seems in this that Pastor Barber may defining something of what “embrace” looks like between whites and blacks.

I feel in writing so far I haven’t captured the “winsomeness” of this book. Leroy Barber’s personal stories, but even more, his embracing manner makes embrace across the divides and challenges he speaks of, not easy, but compelling. He helps us see that this is the arc of the biblical narrative, the arc of the ministry of Jesus, and the arc of joy for many like him who have dared to embrace. He helps us envision, and believe, that this could be the arc of our own lives as well.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Jay’s Famous Hot Dogs

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Frank Petrakos, serving up Jay’s hot dogs the way I remembered them. Photo courtesy of Greg Petrakos, used with permission.

They were just down West Federal Street from McKelvey’s, where I worked during high school and college. I don’t remember what they cost, but the chili dogs were the right price for someone earning minimum wage in the early ’70’s. You walked in and could watch the owner working over the grill with a row of buns up his sweaty forearm, putting in hot dogs and ladling his special chili sauce over top of them.

That was Jay’s Hot Dogs in downtown Youngstown. It was the perfect place to get a quick and tasty meal of chili dogs, fries, and a drink. It wasn’t health food and some might be a bit squeamish about how they were prepared today, but no one I know ever suffered anything other than a full stomach. It might have been a case of “that which doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger!” To me it is the quintessential Youngstown working man’s food place.

Jay’s Famous Hot Dogs is still going strong in its 37th year at its Boardman location at 68 Boardman-Canfield Road (Route 224), in their distinctive A-frame building. We stopped by a few years ago with our son so that he could get a “Youngstown original,” a Jay’s chili dog. It was a treat for all of us. The restaurant is still in the Petrakos family, run by Greg Petrakos, son of Frank Petrakos, pictured above.

What are your memories of Jay’s? When did you last have one of their chili dogs?

Finding E-Book Bargains

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My trusty old e-reader with a “Vicky Bliss” mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

While I am a print guy and I prefer buying books at brick and mortar stores, I do buy and read e-books, particularly when traveling. Here are five sites that I receive emails from to learn about currently discounted e-books. I have a Kindle, so I do acquire these from Amazon’s site, one of the places all of these sites will direct you to. The first three also options of purchasing in other formats. The fourth is an affiliate site with Amazon. All allow you to sign up for emails, most of which are daily.

Early Bird Books This site connects you to Open Road’s catalog of books. I’ve found some great older fiction, as well as history and biographies. They often have a free classic e-book at the bottom of the emails. You can set up categories of books you are interested in.

BookBubThis site also does daily emails and allows you to set up categories. What is different is that they highlight discounted books from various publishers and occasionally free books as well. I do sometimes see overlap between Bookbub and Early Bird.

Bookperk. This site is connected with HarperCollins and connects you with discounts from their catalog. In addition to daily emails they will sometimes send special emails.

Englewood Review of Books. For those interested in thoughtful Christian writing as well as classic literature, Englewood is a great resource. Once or twice a week they will send an email with current discounts available on religious books through Amazon, including alerts about discounts particular publishers may be offering (for example, Fortress sometimes offers deep discounts on hundreds of their e-books).

Kindle Daily DealsAmazon also sends emails (sometimes multiple per day if you sign up) of discounted e-books available through their site. Personally, I’ve found these the least tailored to my interests of any of these. Much seems to be popular fiction, which I read very little.

In most cases, the books on these sites are $1.99 to $3.99, occasionally less or more. Of course there are also various free sources of e-books from Project Gutenberg to Amazon, as well as borrowing at your library. I write about some of this here. Hope all this helps as you stock up your e-reader, tablet, or smartphone for this summer.

Review: Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible and the Church

Two views

Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and the ChurchPreston Sprinkle (ed.), William Loader, Megan K. DeFranza, Wesley Hill, Stephen R. Holmes (contributors). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

Summary: Four biblical scholars and theologians, two holding a traditional understanding of human sexuality, and two holding an affirming stance, but all taking the biblical testimony about human sexuality seriously, articulate the basis on which they hold their positions, and respond to the statements of the other three in gracious dialogue.

I don’t think anyone will contradict the assertion that recent discussions around sexuality both within the culture and the church have been fraught with bitter rancor and contention. Denominations have fractured and hurtful attacks have been made on those holding either of the two major stances, traditional and affirming. There are books demeaning those holding one or the other of these views while arguing for their own.

If for no other reason then, this book is a welcome alternative. Four scholars argue for variants of one of the two major stances in a dialogue that is unrestrained in the rigor in which one or the other view is held while speaking respectfully of the contributions of others, even those in disagreement. Furthermore, all four care deeply about the biblical witness on these matters, although they part ways in their interpretation of that witness. Strikingly, three of the four, including one of the affirming scholars would contend that the biblical witness precludes same sex unions but reach differing conclusions on how this might be applied in the contemporary context.

The four scholars then in the dialogue and the basic positions they hold are:

  • William Loader, a scholar who has studied sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity holds that the Bible prohibits all forms of same sex relations, but that this must be weighed against findings in biology and other fields related to sexuality and gender not available to the biblical writers, and thus he arrives at a position affirming same sex unions.
  • Megan DeFranza is a theologian whose research on intersex persons (those whose physiology is neither clearly male nor female) challenges the assumption that all people are born exclusively male or female. She notes the recognition of eunuchs in scripture as a biblical example contrary to this traditional assumption. She also argues that the prohibition passages have to do with exploitative forms of sexuality related to slavery, trafficking, and power differences and do not focus on loving, monogamous same sex relationships.
  • Wesley Hill, a celibate gay biblical scholar who shares something of his own narrative, contends that the prohibitive passages preclude any same sex relations and argues that these must be understood in the broader context of the Bible’s affirmations about sexuality, marriage, and procreation. Both he and the next scholar draw on Augustinian theology as the best resource for articulating a biblical synthesis on matters of marriage and sexuality. Hill also eloquently argues for the place of “spiritual friendship”–deeply committed, non-sexual friendships between two same sex persons as well as the full welcome of same sex persons committed to the traditional view within families, sharing his own experience of being invited to be the godfather of a couple’s children and thus drawn into that family.
  • Stephen Holmes is a theologian who argues that the prohibitive passages are actually secondary (though important) to the biblical passages teaching about marriage. He also draws on Augustinian theology, despite its acknowledge defects for its formulation of the three-fold goods of marriage: children, faithfulness (a God-graced experience of learning selflessness), and sacrament (revealing the mystery of Christ’s relation to the church). Holmes, while not advocating same sex unions, explores the possibility of some kind of accommodation for same sex couples who come into the church, along the lines of the church’s accommodation for at least some who divorce and remarry, or those made in mission contexts for polygamous unions.

Each of these scholars sets forth his or her own understanding and their reasons for that understanding–rooted significantly in biblical, cultural, and contemporary research as well as pastoral concerns.

The essays underscore several things:

  1. With some exceptions, the question is less what scripture says than what this is taken to mean for the church and how this is appropriated pastorally.
  2. While the tone of these discussions was irenic, the disturbing reality was the support this gives to the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” scholars like Brad Gregory and Christian Smith level against Protestant Christianity. At the same time, these scholars model a serious effort at engagement that looks for common ground, and perhaps in the future, a reconciliation of their differences.
  3. The essays and responses all model pastoral concern and compassion and respect for the dignity and character of LGBT persons as well as the challenge all in the church are faced with by the scriptures calling for integrity in our sexual lives.
  4. Both Hill and Holmes press a corollary of traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality that is neglected in much Protestant discourse, the good of procreation and children.
  5. Loader and DeFranza do raise an important hermeneutic question of how in other areas (for example, our understanding of the cosmos, a heliocentric solar system, the age of the earth) many in the church have accommodated their understanding of scripture to these findings in science. Is there similar warrant in matters of sexuality? Hill and Holmes would argue that there is no basis for such a warrant concerning homosexuality, and arrive at different hermeneutical outcomes.

Preston Sprinkle, editor of this work makes similar observations and also helpfully frames the discussion at the start, and points toward future work to be done. The need for this is clear. Often, the disputes of the church have taken a century or more to resolve. The discussion of justification, grace, faith, and works is five hundred years and running, with significant recent explorations of common ground between Catholic and Protestant. It occurs to me that a resolution will take further work along the lines of what these scholars done.

I also believe the conversation needs to be expanded to listen to scholars and theologians from non-Western backgrounds. While this discussion included a woman and a self-identified gay person, it was a discussion among four white scholars. One of my own concerns in this discussion is the exclusionary and culturally imperialistic consequences of how the church in the West has often deliberated and acted in these matters and sometimes spoken pejoratively of the views of believers from other parts of the global Christian family. Their voices must also be heard and honored.

Review: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1961.

Summary: Lewis’s reflections after he lost his wife, Joy, that explores the different seasons of grief and his honest wrestling with what it means to believe in God when facing profound loss.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

These are the first words of this extended reflection on the experience of grief by C. S. Lewis after he lost his wife Joy to cancer. It is not a theological treatise but an unvarnished account of the devastating experience of loss Lewis faced. During his life, he published this under a pseudonym (N. W. Clerk), only permitting it to be published over his name after his death.

So much of the book is like these opening words, simple description of the experience, and seasons of grief, the loss of energy, the moments of brightness followed by gloom, the remembering, the ache for one with whom he had been so intimate. He wrestles with the question of why, so late in life, he was granted to taste the joy of love with an intellectual equal, only to have her snatched away so quickly.

He speaks of how little comfort he finds in his faith at these times:

    Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

In fact he struggles at times in not believing evil of God and admits it. Certainly he struggles with the concept of the goodness of God. At one point he comments, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?”

He struggles with memories, and the question of how memories distort the character of the beloved. He speculates about the afterlife, but without but confesses that while he believes in the resurrection, it is something he does not understand. He also comments that between Lazarus and Stephen, Lazarus was the greater martyr, who had to die twice.

This is not a book to explain the inexplicable. Not even Lewis could do that. Rather, he simply gives word to his own grief, and perhaps that of others and the impossibility of just “getting over it.” We see someone facing the grief every widow or widower faces of being parted with one you’ve shared life and love with–whether for just a few years, or nearly 70 like my father. It is never easy, and the amazing thing is to watch Lewis lean into believing when one does not see, when all seems dark–with humility, with faltering steps, and with honesty that does not sugar coat death and loss.

This is a book we all need, whether to give words to our grief, or to listen, and maybe have a notion, of what our friends or loved ones struggle with in their grief. Read, reflect, and learn. So much in such a slim volume.

Don’t Forgive Us Our Transgressions?

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Stockholm, Sweden, where much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes place.  Photo by Hedwig Storch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the ideas that keeps cropping up on several literary sites I follow is that of the “transgressive.” Goodreads defines transgressive fiction as “Books that contain depictions of behavior that violates socially acceptable norms, often involving taboo subject matters such as drug use, violence, incest, crime.” At Goodreads “Best Transgressive Fiction” site, these works are the top 5 in transgressive fiction:

  1. Chuck Palahniuk, The Fight Club.
  2. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
  3. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
  4. George Orwell, 1984
  5. J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

One of the others on the list (and hence the image above) was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I understand includes significant episodes of rape (male and female) and violence.

I have to admit that, apart from 1984 I’ve not read anything of these five. In the extended list are titles like Crime and PunishmentThe Stranger, and Slaughterhouse Five. This suggests a few things about the attraction of such works. One is the acknowledged fact among writers that an evil character generally is far more interesting, and interesting to write, than a good one. Another is that the transgressive often seems to be acting against oppressive social norms or controlling circumstances. In 1984 the transgressive is an attempt to throw off the yoke of oppressive tyranny.

I also suspect that it may sometimes be attractive to explore what it is like to do things we don’t have the courage to do, or would never think of, except in our imaginations. We often wonder why a sociopath, or psychopath does what s/he does.

What troubles me is what seems to me a growing preference for the transgressive over the virtuous, in fiction, and perhaps in life. In matters of sexuality, it seems that the effort is to extend the “normative” to whatever one wants to do, with even consent optional. I understand this is a statement against hetero-sexist hegemony. Yet whether we consider sexuality, violence, substance use and abuse, or criminal acts, one has to ask whether the celebration of crossing boundaries is always a good thing. Are there any reasons for norms beside an exertion of power by a dominant group?

This is something I’m wondering about. I’m not sure I want to say more because I suspect there is much I don’t understand. But I’ve often written about “the good, the true, and the beautiful” and I wonder if making the transgressive to be a kind of good, or truth, or beauty is to destroy the meaning of goodness, truth, and beauty.

After Paris

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By Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There has been global dismay this past week with the decision of the current administration in the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. This Accord commits the global community to efforts and national targets to keep the global rise of average temperatures from the pre-industrial age to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and contributions to help poorer nations implement cleaner technologies. The dismay has to do with the dominant place the U.S. plays as a world leader in many ways–technology, political leadership, and in our contribution to greenhouse gases (although China passed us in 2006 and contributes twice as much).

I don’t want to get into an argument here either about this decision nor the climate science debate. Instead, I want to explore what those who differ on these things in the U.S. might agree upon in terms of what I hope are commonly shared values.

1.  Care. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes the case that we all have a fundamental interest in caring for our common home. The earth is a beautiful place filled with an incredible diversity of creatures, as well as 7 billion human beings. Having grown up in the rust belt, I’ve seen what can happen when beautiful lakes and rivers are treated as sewers for industrial waste. Fish kills, algae blooms, and toxins in our drinking water. It is clear that ocean levels have risen with rising temperatures, and some island nations and coastal peoples, many in poverty, face the loss of our homes. We can fight about causes, but will we care for the people who may lose their homes, no matter what the cause?

2. Caution. While some of our political leaders question the models of the results of continued global warming and the role of humans (despite the strong correlations between carbon emissions, CO2 levels, and temperature rises) it seems to me that at least caution is warranted when this is the only planet we get. I grew up in an era when physicians and medical researchers began warning of the consequences of cigarette smoking while manufacturers, growers, and many users denied the dangers of smoking. I’ve watched people die because of denials and lies, the refusal to face the truth about smoking. At very least shouldn’t the possibility of the danger to our life on the planet warrant redoubled efforts to know whether this is a clear and present danger, and what may be done to avert it? Do you want to risk the lives of your children and grandchildren on the hope that there is no danger?

3. Community. I also wonder whether there is a silver lining in the withdrawal from this accord. It is a false delusion that agreements of governments can effect the change needed. Yes, governments can incentivize or disincentivize certain behaviors. But we are those who behave. I’m glad to see mayors of so many cities saying they will press ahead with their efforts to reduce the emissions of their cities, to have clean, efficient cities that are better places to live. All of us, in our homes and businesses, can make a difference, and on our own initiative may come up with better solutions than the ones imposed on us–but we need to act.

4. Conserving. I garden. It makes me aware that whatever I take out of the soil must be replenished or I have weak and diseased plants. I was a volunteer with Boy Scouts when I was young and we taught kids to “leave no trace.” The goal was to leave the places we camped with minimal evidence of our presence so others could enjoy them just as much. Can we agree that the good things we enjoy from the earth should be replenished and especially when we use that which cannot be replenished, that we use only what is truly needed? It would seem that both “conservatives” and “liberals” should believe in conserving.

5. Consumer power. Businesses change their behavior because of customer demands and their own self interest. With coal, the major challenge is how dependent we are on it for power generation (59 percent of my home state’s power, 24 percent by natural gas). We’ve been able to reduce our household power consumption by 35 percent with more efficient appliances, light bulbs, and other energy saving measures. But it also seems that we need to press companies to shift to using renewable forms of power generation. Only 2.2 percent of our state’s power comes from renewables. I also wonder if we can use this power compassionately for those whose livelihoods have depended on coal–to invest in individuals and communities who invested their lives providing our energy.

6. Creative edge. It was interesting to me that the Mayor of Pittsburgh issued an executive order that his city would continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, after his city was mentioned in the President’s speech.  He said, “For decades Pittsburgh has been rebuilding its economy based on hopes for our people and our future, not on outdated fantasies about our past. The City and its many partners will continue to do the same, despite the President’s imprudent announcements yesterday.” Can we not agree that maintaining our creative, innovative edge is critical? For years, I watched the steel companies in my own city refuse to invest in modern technology while countries overseas were doing so, spelling the death of steel-making. I’ve also watched Pittsburgh turn from steel-making to becoming a technology center, leveraging resources like Carnegie-Mellon to build a new economy. Can we not agree that thinking about tomorrow rather than protecting the past is critical to national greatness?

In questions about climate change and the environment, as in so many other areas, we must move beyond two sides who won’t talk to each other. Whether the six points I’ve outlined are adequate to find common ground from which to work, or not, I will leave to you. What I hope we can agree upon is that caring for our common home, to use the Pope’s words, requires the love, and thoughtful action of each and every one of us. No Accord should be needed to convince us of that, nor the absence of one excuse us.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Promotional Items

Currier and Ives plates from our A&P Grocery Store. (C)Robert C Trube, all rights reserved.

Businesses have always tried to provide items, sometimes for free, and other times for a deeply discounted price to bring customers in and keep them coming back. I think the years when I was growing up was a heyday of such promotions.
You might remember some of these. Gas stations would give out cars and trucks with their emblems. The old Sinclair stations would give away toy dinosaurs. My wife talks about a gas station near the Point Market that gave away these beach balls with a handle that you could punch or bounce.

Grocery stores did this as well. Remember when you could go each week and get another volume of The Golden Book Encyclopedia? They did another series of Natural Science Encyclopedias. I acquired the whole set through my dad’s weekly trips to the A & P.

Perhaps the classiest offering I remember were the Currier and Ives dish set. I learned on the JustCollecting website that these were produced in nearby Sebring, Ohio by the Royal China company from 1950 to 1986. My parents acquired a set at our local A & P during the 1960’s, replacing a collection of mismatched plates that were probably handed on from their parents. We could eat in style! A small number survived to this day and we inherited these. You see them in antique stores and flea markets everywhere. They are reproductions in blue of various Currier and Ives lithographs.

As I recall, it was not only the stores but also the companies that sold dish soap and other products that included things like glassware and dish towels. Of course, the fast food chains took this to a high art with collectible glasses of different comic strip characters, Happy Meal toys and other items.

Come to think of it, this practice continues down to the present. When my son was small, it was a series of yellow Sesame Street books we picked up at our local Bi-Rite when we lived in Cleveland. We walked into his room one day and he had used them to build a version of the bridge of Star Trek’s Enterprise! And my son has a whole box of “McJunk” from his childhood.

These days digital coupons and gas discounts have seemed to take the place of these promotional items. They serve the same purpose of keeping us coming back. But one wonders what collectibles we will pass along to our kids.

What promotional items do you remember from when you were growing up?

Review: The Circle

The Circle

The CircleDave Eggers. New York: Vintage, 2014.

Summary: Dystopian fiction exploring the potential in a digital, online age to create a world where nothing is secret, and whether that is a utopia or a nightmare.

Imagine a world where you can know anything, and nothing is hidden or kept secret. Imagine a world where every person has a digital profile that collects all your health, educational, commercial, and social data, every picture by or of you, and makes this available to all. Imagine a world where we have embedded chips so that anyone can know where we are. Imagine we all wear body cameras that record our interactions and activity throughout the day. Imagine that all the archival information in the world may be searched to put together your family history, dark sides and all,.

This is the world Mae finds herself in when she gets a job with The Circle with the help of her friend Annie, a higher up in The Circle. She begins working in Customer Experience, but soon discovers that The Circle wants far more of her than to get a 100 rating on every customer interaction. They want her to share her life with the rest of The Circle–to give opinions via a headset, to give them her digital life, to join groups, to interact with others in The Circle.

This alone would probably have creeped me out and had me running for the hills. But Mae has been rescued from a dead end job with a local utility. She has a father with MS struggling with his health insurer–until The Circle finds out and adds him to their plan. The hooks go deeper even as she is cut off from much of her former life, eventually moving into a Circle dorm. After an incident caught on Circle’s SeeChange cameras catches her “borrowing” a kayak after hours, she meets one of the three leaders of The Circle, its public voice, Eamon Bailey. He helps her to recognize that the worst part of her act was keeping secrets, that we are better people when we do not hide but rather openly share our lives with the world. And in her “evolved” state of insight, she agrees to go “clear” and wear a camera recording all her activity, and becomes an celebrity both within The Circle, and in the wider public who love watching Mae’s life.

She tries to usher her former boyfriend Mercer into the wonders of being connected with the world through The Circle. He will have none of it, and when she attempts to promote his business, he leaves the grid, writing her a long letter warning her of what she is getting into. He is not the only one. She encounters a shadowy figure, Kalden, who also tries to warn her of what would happen if they should succeed in “closing the Circle,” creating a world where The Circle becomes a vehicle by which all is known, seen, and nothing remains secret. She is disturbed, and also fascinated by him, reflected in some rather kinky hookups in bathrooms. Yet she goes further and deeper into the Circle’s plans. What will this mean for Mae? Her parents? Mercer? Her friend Annie?

I’ll leave you to discover what happens if you have not read the book or seen the recent movie version (trailer here). I will also leave you with the thought that everything the book describes, as far as I could tell, is technologically possible today. More than that, the amount of information we voluntarily surrender about ourselves via social media, online and offline purchasing with credit cards, our banking and credit histories, the photos and files we store in the cloud, the customer cards we use at various stores and more, is staggering. Increasingly our medical records and health history is digitized and shared between providers and insurers, and we agree to it all. And the GPS chips in our smartphones track our every move. Everything in The Circle could or is being done. The only thing forestalling the tyranny Kalden and Mercer foresee is the lack of sufficient will and impetus to do it. We’ve laid much of the groundwork for such things either willingly or unknowingly.

More intriguing yet is the effort to usher in a utopia, the effort to perfect human nature, this time through stripping us of any secret worlds. Such a world substitutes social conformity (and who decides what conformity is?) for the harder won integrity that consists of living truthfully, living consistently with what one values when no one is looking. Instead of living one’s life coram deo (before the face of God), we substitute the human god of the grid, and the much more capricious fancies of its controllers and the mentality of the online mob.

Finally, the book raises the question of whether it is really a good thing to be able to know everything. Is the steady stream of status updates, online surveys, likes, tweets, news stories really making us more informed? More wise? Perhaps if nothing else, Eggers book makes us reflect on all the information we offer up, our addiction to the little rectangles we carry in our pockets, and the illusions all this fosters of a kind of omniscience that may be too much for our little brains to handle.

The Month in Reviews: May 2017

Uneasy Conscience

I can’t think of a good way to summarize the books I reviewed this past month. They were fifteen distinctive books ranging from an Agatha Christie mystery, historical fiction, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a political memoir (by the sitting governor of my state), a classic manifesto that shaped mid-20th century evangelicalism, an exploration of prison ministries, a theological reflection on forgiveness, and much more. I reviewed another of the recent books commemorating the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses, posted the first of a series of reviews of books on homosexuality and the Bible, a great survey of scripture on the theme of multi-ethnic reconciliation, and a passionate and practical book on praying for pastors!

Uneasy Conscience

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern FundamentalismCarl F. H. Henry (foreword by Richard J. Mouw). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003 (originally published 1947). Henry’s classic manifesto challenging the heirs of the fundamentalist movement to a recovery of a social and intellectual engagement while maintaining gospel integrity. )(Review)

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2010. Book One of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation, covering the rise of Cromwell to power under Henry VIII, up until 1535. (Review)

Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the CrossJohn Frederick. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Contends that worship should be “cross-shaped,” that communities who do so may be formed in service of God and each other. Addresses flawed assumptions, interpersonal relationships, and liturgical elements as these related to cross-shaped worship. (Review)

God in Captivity

God in Captivity, Tanya Erzen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017. Explores the role that faith-based, predominantly Evangelical ministries are playing in the U.S. prison system, the hope they offer inmates, and the ways they may reinforce the efforts toward control and maintenance of a retributive justice and prison system. (Review)

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance AloneMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Argues that the words we translate as “belief” or “faith” are better translated as “allegiance” and that the focal point of the gospel is not simply being forgiven for sins or obtaining eternal life, but allegiance to King Jesus. (Review)

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About EvolutionKathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. Twenty-five narratives of Christians who accept evolutionary creation and how, in most cases, they changed their minds in reaching this conclusion. (Review)

The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow, Agatha Christie. New York: Witness Impulse, 2013 (originally published in the anthology Thirteen Problems in 1932). Actress Jane Helier tells a story of a mysterious burglary at a bungalow in the town where she is acting in a play, involving a woman impersonating her and an unfortunate young playwright. Miss Marple, professing to be baffled, privately hints at a different story. (Review)

Two Paths

Two Paths: America Divided or UnitedJohn Kasich. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017. The presidential candidate’s memoir of his campaign and the choice of the low and high paths of political engagement we face and his vision for that high path. (Review)

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus. (Review)

The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of ForgivenessPhilip D. Jamieson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. Explores the struggle of many in experiencing and granting forgiveness and what the author believes are inadequate understandings of the atonement that fail to deal with our shame as well as our guilt, and how in fact the work of Christ addresses both. (Review)

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Margaret R. Ellsberg ed., Foreword by Dana Gioia. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2017. An exploration of the life and faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins through commentary and a selection of his poetry, letters, journal entries, and sermons. (Review)

Remembering the Reformation

Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic TheologyDeclan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, Gesa E. Thiessen (eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. A collection of papers exploring Martin Luther in historical context and his roots in the medieval tradition and what might be learned by Catholics and Lutherans from him and how that may contribute to rapprochement. (Review)

Speaking of homosexuality

Speaking of HomosexualityJoe Dallas. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. A point by point refutation by a former gay activist of the arguments against the church’s traditional view of homosexuality. (Review)

The Post Racial Church

The Post-Racial Church, Kenneth A. Mathews & M. Sydney Park. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011. A survey of the teaching of the Bible that concludes that racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic Christian communities are integral to the message of the gospel. (Review)

Praying for your Pastor

Praying For Your PastorEddie Byun (foreword by Chip Ingram). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A practical guide both advocating for the importance of prayer for our pastors and offering a practical rubric in the form of the acronym PRAYERS. (Review)

Classic book of the month: I came up with this category so that I could feature Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry is a bit of an unknown these days but he offered an intellectual and theological heft and vision of social engagement to mid-twentieth evangelicalism that is well worth reconsidering.

Best Book of the month: This was especially tough because there is so much good material here, but I found Eddie Byun’s Praying For Your Pastor singular in addressing a great need in an age when pastors are leaving the ministry in droves. It is a model of concision, passion, and practicality. If I might add, I found it striking in tracking review stats that it received less than one-tenth the attention that a book on sexuality reviewed a few days before received, yet I would consider it far more vital, and a better book!

Best quote of the month: This is from another wonderful book, Philip Jamieson’s The Face of Forgiveness:

“In his last act, high and lifted up, Jesus–the man who fully reveals God, now fully revealed–joins sinful humanity in our downward gaze. Jesus dies in the posture of shame, embracing the world’s shame. ‘It is finished.’ The face, once set like a flint (Isaiah 50:7) on his way to Jerusalem, to this very death (Lk 9:51), now stares, unblinkingly downcast, bearing humanity’s shame. He joins all of us: solidarity with the shamed. But again, this face is different. For this face in its downward gaze is not looking away from his neighbors; he is looking at them. The last act of the dying Savior is to fix his gaze upon those who are in need of salvation. Our forgiveness has already been pronounced (Lk 23:34) and now the dying God provides the means to accept it. Karl Barth notes there is no other face like Jesus. Jesus’ is the face that will not look away. Jesus is the face that sees all and still loves all. Jesus’ face alone is the one that has power to forgive and to give us the healing power to accept that forgiveness” (p. 114).

What I am reading right now. I’m just finishing up Dave Eggers The Circle, a dystopian piece (out as a movie recently) that is chilling because all the technology required to make this dystopia happen basically is in place. I just began Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church in which two theologians and two biblical scholars with opposing views (traditional and affirming) engage in respectful dialogue around the relevant scriptures, theological history, and their bearing on how the church responds to gays, lesbians, and bi-sexually oriented persons. Our Dead Theologians group is just completing our reading of A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis (written after the death of his wife Joy Davidman). I’m enjoying a biography by Amity Shlaes of Calvin Coolidge who among other things said, “No man ever listened himself out of a job.” And I’ve just begun Michael Frost and Christiana Rice’s To Alter Your World which explores how Christians ought engage their society, using the metaphor found in scripture of being midwives to what God wants to give birth.

I’d love to hear what you are reading!