Found Between the Pages

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Librarians, booksellers, and those of us who frequent secondhand bookstores and book sales have probably all had the experience of finding “surprises” between the pages of books. I asked those on the Bob on Books Facebook page about the things they found between the pages. That made for some interesting reading and I thought I’d share some of it with you.

Some of the more commonly found items were:

  • pressed flowers or leaves.
  • stamps, envelopes, newspaper clippings.
  • boarding passes and various kinds of tickets, including a Gone With the Wind ticket from a vintage theater.
  • bookmarks–stands to reason.
  • tissues–mostly clean ones fortunately.
  • postcards, holy cards, business cards, and pictures.
  • receipts.
  • money!

This last was interesting. Several reported finding anywhere from $20 to $500 in a book. In the latter case, the $500 was from a father to a daughter who took five years to find a particular book and included $100 for each year. Another found $40 in a book that he remembered had been his emergency bank stash back in the 1970’s that he’d forgotten about. Another forgot about the $40 he put in a library book and received back from an honest librarian. One person found 10 $2 bills, and another currency from Texas in a book on Texas history.

One takeaway from one of the people on the page was to go through your relatives books before disposing of them. It appears that the habit of stashing away money in books and then forgetting it is a widespread one. If you don’t someone else may get a very nice surprise!

There were some more unusual finds:

  • Someone found a toothbrush (fortunately in its package).
  • Several people left ultrasounds in books. One even received a congratulatory card from the book’s new owner!
  • A bank ATM card.
  • Several notes with the same phone number and the message “CALL ME.” Wisely, the new owner of the book didn’t.
  • A guitar pick.
  • A wrapped condom.
  • A book signed by JFK.
  • A mother looking through a son’s book found a nude picture of his girlfriend. I responded “busted!” to which the poster replied, “Yes, she was.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories was of someone who bought a box of old books at an auction only to discover that the 1890 invitation to a New Orleans Mardi Gras ball was worth more than the lot of them.

Part of the serendipity of shopping for secondhand books is that you never know what you might find. Usually we are thinking of the books themselves, but sometimes it is the objects one finds between the pages rather than on them. Sometimes we gain a glimpse into the previous owner’s life. Sometimes it is a great old bookmark. And sometimes, what we find may more than pay for the book. It may not be why we shop for secondhand books, but it sure can make them fun!

Stinky Books

No, I’m not talking about books with lousy plots.

I’m talking about books that smell. I’m not talking about that faintly musty smell of “old bookstore” which is the smell of book love for most bibliophiles. Older books do, of their own, give off a smell (VOC’s) as paper and binding material ages.

I’m talking about the smell that makes you and everyone else who walks into the room wrinkle their noses and say, “Ew, what’s that smell.”

It happens. Sometimes we don’t notice it in the store. Some of us don’t have as strong a sense of smell as others and we don’t notice until we get home–or our spouse or partner notices

Sometimes the book smells really musty, probably if it has been stored for some time in a very damp place with little light or air circulation, like in a basement closet against an outer wall. The big thing here is to check the book for mold or mildew. Mold looks like any mold, fuzzy growth on the surface. Mildew is evident by smell and by discolored spots or a powdery flaking layer on the surface of a cover or page. You want to get these away from any other books you value because mold and mildew spread by spores. This kind of damage takes some work, either by you or a conservator, so you will want to decide how valuable the book is. If it is not, your best bet is to discard it–mold and mildew can be harmful to your health. This website offers good tips if you do want to try to conserve these books.

The other big problem is books that have been owned by smokers or by pet owners, particularly cats. I understand. I have a clock from a grandfather who smoked cigars. He died over 40 years ago and I swear I can still smell cigars when I’m up close to that clock.

In a conversation on my book page, and in surveying book pages, it seemed like people found four methods useful in dealing with book smell:

  1. Fresh air and opening the book, fanning the pages. Some suggest sunlight, although the light can yellow the pages or even curl them if damp. Hairdryers can be used to dry and air out a book. I would use this “air books out” method first to make sure the book is not holding any residual dampness.
  2. Some try cleaning the books, with Lysol spray or de-natured alcohol wipes. Of course, you want to be careful not to damage the pages and make sure the book is thoroughly dry.
  3. Others try various scents or sachets of flowers or herbs–or Febreze. I wonder if this only temporarily masks the odor. Dryer sheets between the pages sealed in a food storage bag also is a version of this that may also absorb some odor.
  4. The one that made the most sense in avoiding further damage to the book was using some form of odor absorbent material with the book in a sealed environment. People mention newspapers between pages, sealing the book in food storage bags, or putting books in some sort of sealed bin with anything from baking soda to cornstarch to kitty litter. Some sprinkle cornstarch or baby powder or baking soda between the pages. Some just have it sealed up with the book. Just don’t use the baking soda you’ve had in the fridge. It has already done its job. Get fresh baking soda. Store these in an airtight container for at least three days. Don’t have the books tightly packed but upright, fanning the pages.

If these methods fail, discard the book, unless it is valuable enough either emotionally or monetarily to warrant the cost of a professional conservator. With online searches, many books are replaceable.

There are two other lessons in all this. Unless you are buying online (check on returning books in this case) give any secondhand books a good sniff before you buy them. If the bookseller ask, you can always just claim you love the smell of old books.

The other has to do with your own books. The basic considerations are:

  • Clean. This is the first line of defense against damage. Dust your books periodically.
  • Control moisture and humidity. They should be under 60 percent humidity and stored at around 70 degrees.
  • Circulate air. Some HVAC systems have a continuous fan feature to move air. Fans may also help. Taking books out when you clean and fanning through the pages is also a good idea.

While we may like the smell of old bookstores, we probably don’t want our homes to smell like one. If we have been away for a time and notice a musty smell, it is worth addressing, both for our own health, and for that of our books, especially if we have some stored away. If we think we would like to pass along some portion of our book collection, we want to make sure we are not passing along stinky books. That’s a gift that keeps giving, but not in the way we would like!

Review: Good Man

Good Man, Nathan Clarkson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: 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.

This is a hard time to be a man. There are all the stereotypes of what a “real” man is. There is also a widespread rejection of these stereotypes. The author goes a different way in this book. He explores what the character of a “good” man is, defining masculinity in terms of Christian character rather than external characteristics, roles, or stereotypes.

The author completes the sentence “Good men are…” with fifteen different qualities. Some sound like traditional stereotypic masculine traits like adventurous, heroic, ambitious, and fighting, but with each of these, the author thinks redemptively. For example, he would encourage fighting for the good and the just, though without physical violence. There are things worth fighting for, adventures worth pursuing, heroic ways to live, great, as opposed to small ambitions worth embracing.

He also proposes a number of qualities less-often associated with stereotypes of manhood, such as devout, honest, healthy, emotional, wise, simple, and servant-hearted. One that I thought was surprising was “healthy.” Between the extremes of “ripped” and “couch potato” he addresses the need for men to responsibly care for their bodies and the connection between our physical and spiritual lives. In the chapter on emotional life, he addresses male stoicism, the myth that men don’t cry and the permission to express our emotions.

He leads us through his own journey of growth in each of these qualities. He movingly shares his own headstrong character in high school, and the story of the college man who hosted him and his friends in weekly discussions, and one night washed their feet. He’s vulnerable about his struggles and failures–his struggles with weight, the break up of a marriage, struggles with porn and alcohol, with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. His honesty (one of the qualities of good men) offers hope that as messed up as we may be, God can work with us, and form us into good men.

Each chapter ends with a few reflection questions and a prayer, and I thought that the prayers alone were worth the price of admission. This is a good book for a group of men serious about following Christ might read with each other. And if one is serious about this “good man” stuff, you could read it with a wife or girlfriend, someone who sees a different side of you than your male friends.

This is a man calling out other men to live this way, calling them out of toxic forms of masculinity to what David Brooks calls the “eulogy virtues,” the things you would want others to say about you at your funeral. It’s worth considering because all of the “real man” stuff fades. It is the goodness that endures not only in the minds of people but into eternity in Christ-formed lives. Clarkson’s honest account points us all toward that journey of growth.

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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: All Thirteen

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, Christina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020.

Summary: 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.

It was a story the whole world followed, fearing for a time that the twelve boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand were dead. Then we learned they were alive. But could a rescue be mounted during a break in the monsoon rains, and would the boys survive?

Christina Soontornvat was in northern Thailand at the time this all happened, and in this “you are there” account she renders the story of how all this unfolded day by day. The account is accompanied lavishly with color photographs and diagrams.

The story begins with the boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and an assistant coach, “Coach Ek,” who has built a close bond with the boys, strengthened off the field with rigorous outings. On this day they decide to go to Tham Luang Nang Non–the Cave of the Sleeping Lady. They planned to go for an hour, but decided to go further–a fateful decision because while they went deeper in the cave, the Sleeping Lady woke up as heavy rains hit. When they turned around, they found the way out flooded.

They found a dry area, and figured soon that people in their town of Mae Sai would notify the authorities and rescuers would come. And soon they did–Navy Seals, an elite group, but one who lacked both equipment and experience in cave diving. Vern Unsworth, a world renowned cave diver happened to be in Mae Sai. He was aware of the dangers, rushing, silted waters that could disorient a diver, clog gear, and potentially take lives with the slightest mistake. Eventually the call goes out to the best cave divers in the world, who come from half way around the world to be part of the rescue effort.

Another part of the story is the incredible confluence of people to help with this effort from an American Air Force Special Tactics squadron to hydraulics engineers who worked on solutions both to pump out and divert water from the caves, critically lowering the levels to reduce the flow for the divers. Perhaps most inspiring is the “Get-It-Done Crew,” an army of local people who do everything from organize food to find critical supplies–fast.

Meanwhile, as days pass on, the boys are growing hungrier. They are wet and cold but still healthy. Coach Ek’s challenge is to keep up their spirits, their hopes, their will to survive. They meditate, they dig, they huddle. Their team bonds and conditioning serve them well. When divers finally make it to them, they find them alive, though losing weight from lack of food. They can’t get them out but they can supply food, and they leave a doctor and three Navy Seals to look after their health. But the extra people are depleting the oxygen in the cave and the continued wet and cold are starting to affect the boys.

The most significant factor are the coming monsoons, which will make the caves inaccessible for six months. The boys can’t survive that long, even if their sheltering place doesn’t flood. The mountain is too thick to drill. The only choice left is to diving in and bring the boys out. Even then, they estimate three to five will die. As the title suggests, there are no casualties (other than a Navy Seal who died earlier, showing the dangers of the caves). But I will leave the story of the rescue to you.

The publication information for the book indicates it to be written at a grade 8 to 12 level. The account has an up close and personal feel, coming from interviews with all the key people. One comes away with profound respect for the boys and their coach who endured sixteen days in the caves, and the combination of Thai people and experts from around the world who overcome logistical and cultural obstacles to mount the rescue. Soontornvat not only describes the challenges, but helps us become part of the scene, feeling the alternating fears and hopes of the parents, the determination of the rescuers, and the gritty loyalty to one another of the boys and their coach. She helps us understand the culture of the Thai people and the strong values that brought them together in this effort.

This is a story one can connect with on so many levels–a story of team spirit, of cultural values, of faith (Coach Ek is closely associated with a Buddhist temple), and of courage, and on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense. There are so many elements of a great read, which this was for me.

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

Review: Compassion (&) Conviction

Compassion (&) Conviction, Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Foreword by Barbara Williams-Skinner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: 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.

I, like so many of you, struggle increasingly with two things. One is the character of our political discourse, that turns everything into an either-or choice, down to the wearing of masks in a pandemic, a practice uncontroversial throughout most of the world. The other is the increasing captivity and assimilation of blocks of Christians into our political divisions, on both conservative and progressive sides, where Christian ethics and convictions on a range of matters must be muted in the pursuit of a few political aims. The Anabaptist in me is tempted to flee it all, branding it as “just politics,” a mere shadow of the polis of the church, the harbinger of God’s in-breaking kingdom. And yet, I see the examples of believing people in scripture and history whose faithful lives and witness functioned redemptively within political structures. And government, around which our politics revolve, is a God-ordained structure to bring order and justice within society, and, when at its best, to protect the most vulnerable among us.

The authors of this book, described as “the AND Campaign’s guide to faithful civic engagement” renew my hope that a better form of political and civic engagement is still possible. The AND Campaign‘s stated aim is:

TO EDUCATE AND ORGANIZE CHRISTIANS FOR CIVIC AND CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT THAT RESULTS IN BETTER REPRESENTATION, MORE JUST AND COMPASSIONATE POLICIES AND A HEALTHIER POLITICAL CULTURE.

This book combines principle and practice to flesh out that aim. The authors begin by setting politics within the broader Christian mission, contending that faithfulness always comes before political wins. They offer a civics lesson on how our government is constituted and the First Amendment protections both from a state church and the state’s intrusion into the life of the church. This does not preclude the influence of Christian principles in political discussions pursuing the common good. The authors emphasize how our engagement must be shaped by compassion and conviction, love and justice. They discuss how we engage partnerships and partisanship without losing our identity. They offer guidelines for messaging that is clear, well-researched, persuasive, loving, and convictional. They give clear-eyed direction for engaging racial injustices and pursuing racial reconciliation while avoiding destructive mobs. They instruct readers in effective advocacy. And they offer practical guidelines for maintaining civility.

I particularly appreciated the following guidelines for partnerships and partisanship:

  1. Be confident in your identity in Christ.
  2. Get to know your partners and understand their endgame.
  3. Identify the objective and shared values.
  4. Identify differences and conflicting views.
  5. Don’t isolate the issue.
  6. Don’t take on your partner’s identity.
  7. Protect against losing your identity through active critique. (pp. 69-72)

All this underscores two major themes of this book. One is the theme of AND in a time of either-or. Their approach is one of reconciliation, that cares for both fetuses and mother, for both people of color and police. Yet it is also an approach grounded in truth and justice. The authors repeatedly speak of pro-life convictions, they uphold advocacy, oppose systemic racism, and counsel avoiding those who would engage in destructive mob violence.

The second theme is that our political and civic engagement, as every area of life must be shaped by our mission and ethics as Christians. We must never submerge our identity for political aims, no matter how good and holy those aims may seem. We are to do this confidently but humbly, not arrogantly, and to love those who oppose us.

It is a time when the only alternatives for Christians appear to be political captivity and assimilation or isolation that withdraws from and political involvements. The authors invite us to principled and loving engagement in civic and political affairs as acts of Christian faithfulness that undergird rather than undermine our Christian witness. They offer biblical principles and practical guidelines. This is a vital book for such a time as this.

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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 — Kennedy and the Pirates

The Youngstown Vindicator, October 10, 1960 via Google News Archive

Sixty years ago to the day, this was the front page of the Youngstown Vindicator. On the day before, candidate John F. Kennedy did a campaign sweep through the Mahoning Valley. The picture shows him speaking from the Tod Hotel to a crowd that filled Central Square and was estimated at the time at 60,000.

His itinerary took him from the Youngstown airport to downtown Youngstown. He then rode in a motorcade through Girard, Niles, and Warren, where he spoke on Warren’s square to a crowd of 42,000. He then drove to Salem, speaking to 10,000, and then through Canfield, Boardman, and back to Youngstown.

I saw John Kennedy that day. I would have been six years old. It was probably on his trip through Canfield. It was late evening and I remember being lined up along the side of the road with my parents. It happened quickly but I remember him standing and waving, still young and vibrant, unlike the aging Eisenhower. Less than a month later, he was elected, and on a cold day in January, the candidate I saw was sworn in, capturing our imagination with his inaugural address and those words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The irony of this day was that the big headline of the day was the victory of the Pirates over the Yankees in the fifth game of the 1960 World Series, giving them a 3-2 lead in the series with the final two games at home in Forbes Field. Many of us listened on transistor radios (some of my older friends would try to hollow out a book, put the radio in there and listen at school on headphones (the dead giveaway). The Pirates were from nearby Pittsburgh but seemed like the underdogs against the all-powerful Yankees of Maris and Mantle and Whitey Ford. In the final two games, the Yankees would win the sixth game 12-0. The seventh game was tied 9-9 in the bottom of the ninth when Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off homerun off of Ralph Terry, usually a starter, pitching in relief.

That World Series and how Pittsburgh won it is one of the highlights in Pittsburgh sports history. Pittsburgh has only won two more World Series since then, in 1971 and 1979. It was only time Mickey Mantle was ever seen to cry by his teammates. The moment when Mazeroski rounded second base and saw the ball go over the fence and began celebrating has been captured and memorialized forever by the statue below, outside PNC field.

Ironic Moments in Pittsburgh History” by daveynin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

These were halcyon days for a six year old. Seeing a future president and keeping hope alive that the Pirates would win it all against those hated Yankees (and then against all hopes, they really did!). I’m glad we didn’t know all that the 1960’s had in store for us–the Cuban missile crisis and hiding under our school desks, the deaths of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, and riots.

It seems we are destined to live our lives between hope and sadness. Maybe that can be a comfort in what seems to have been a pretty terrible year. Out of the Sixties came inspiring ideas, great cars, moon landings and new technology, some of the best Browns teams ever, so much good music, some of it coming out of Youngstown. Given all that, I’m not giving up hope. Personally, I look forward to an Indians-Pirates World Series. And I hope that we find the way to say “no” to any who would divide us from our fellow citizens. I want to say “yes” to all who rally us to being “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all,” words I recited every day in Mrs. Smith’s first grade class at Washington Elementary during those days in October 1960.

Review: God in Himself

God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, Steven J. Duby. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: 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.

In theology, the distinction is often made between what may be know of God in se, of God in Himself versus what may be know of God in his relations with the world. This holds true particularly in Trinitarian studies, considering what may be known of intra-trinitarian relations versus the was the Triune God interacts with creation.

Steven J. Duby believes that this theological work is vitally important for the church. For one thing, it underlines that while God is complete in Himself without any need of us, he has extravagantly loved us. Furthermore, this takes us into the transcendent wonder of the perfections of the Triune God, a foretaste of the joy to come. And this study sets out to help us reflect more deeply on the interactions of scripture, natural theology, the incarnation, metaphysics, and analogies in our witness to God in Christ among the nations.

This indicates Duby’s approach then. He explores what we may know of God in Himself through the testimony of scripture, the role of natural theology as preparatory, the incarnation of Christ and what this says of God in himself, the interaction of theology and metaphysics, and the role of analogy. We understand something of the perfections of God including the holiness of God and the perfection of love within the Trinity. We grasp more deeply the significance of the aseity of God, that God is uncause and self-existent and independent. We also learn something of the limits of our knowledge.

Duby does something more. These approaches often are set off from each other but what Duby tries to do is show how these work together in an account of God in Himself. He also proposes that what God shows of Himself in relation to the world, while not compromising God’s self existence, is utterly consistent with what we know of God in Himself.

This is a careful work of scholarship, engaging theologians and philosophers through history–Aquinas, Boethius, Turretin, Kant, Barth, and contemporaries like Bruce McCormack and Matthew Levering. It calls for close and careful reading, but I found myself at points caught up in pondering the excellence of God. While this is academic study, weighing the ideas of different thinkers and making its own proposals, it never loses sight of the fact that God can never be the mere subject of our study and dare never be an object for idle speculation, but is always the One before whom we wonder and worship.

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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: The Lost Get-Back Boogie

The Lost Get-Back Boogie, James Lee Burke. New York: Pocket Star, 2006 (first published 1986).

Summary: 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.

Iry Paret has been released from Angola after his sentence for killing a man in a bar fight. He arrives home just in time to be with his father in his last days. He survived Korea, with a Purple Heart. He survived the brutalities of Angola. Despite offers from the family and some inherited land, he decides to leave Louisiana, with the permission of his parole board to start life anew with his prisonmate, Buddy Riordan, who lives on his father Frank’s ranch near Missoula, Montana.

Iry is a dobro and guitar player, a blues player. He hopes for a new start, with music gigs to supplement whatever he can make at the ranch. It seems possible, amid fresh fish from the river and spectacular views. He discovers instead that he has landed himself in the midst of trouble both of, and not of his own making.

Frank Riordan has alienated himself from the rest of the people in his community in his efforts to prevent paper companies from spewing foul smelling pollutants into the pristine air. To most people who either are loggers or work in the paper mills, that is the smell of money. Anyone connected to Frank faces the cold shoulder, or worse, including Iry. The town sheriff has it out for him and would just as soon send him back to Angola. Then he discovers his friend Buddy isn’t doing so well. His difficult relationship with his father and the other perceived failures including his failed marriage to Beth, result in periods of self-medicated oblivion or mania. To top it off, Beth comes on to Iry, who is equally attracted to Beth, and he ends up cuckolding his friend while he lives with him.

And the Lost Get Back Boogie? It’s a song Iry tries to write through much of the book but can never quite get the words for. It seems to represent the longing of this blues player to somehow “get back.” Get back to what? Maybe to life before the memories of the war? To life before Angola? And yet that life seems lost in fresh troubles, and the words don’t come.

This is James Lee Burke before Robicheaux, one of his early works. Yet it already bears the trademarks of his future works. Vivid descriptions of place, albeit of the rugged landscape of Montana rather than the lush Louisiana bayous. Characters torn between longing for peace, a sense of justice, and trouble that dogs their ways. A plot where trouble brews and grows from a number of directions.

This is a book for James Lee Burke fans who discovered him through his Robicheaux stories. As it turns out, he was writing good stories well before Robicheaux. Actually, this was the last novel before Robicheaux and the various Holland stories. It might be a good place to get to know James Lee Burke again for the first time.

Review: Sarah’s Laughter

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020.

Summary: 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.

I thought a long time after listening to an older, respected teacher began a talk with words something like this: “As one gets older it becomes clearer that there is much in life that is hard, and that hurts.” This new work by Vinoth Ramachandra carries a similar message and it comes as a stark challenge to a lamentless church that proclaims a form of Christian life that moves from victory to victory.

Ramachandra has seen the hardness of life first hand, witnessing the bloody civil war in his native Sri Lanka, and the complicity of global powers that profited from the arms sold that perpetuated the conflict. He observes the staggering consequences of climate change for the poor of the nations and the unique vulnerability of the poor in our present pandemic. And he has grieved the loss of a wife to cancer. So much suffering leads him to ask two questions of God. One is “Why, Lord?” The other is “How long, O Lord?” They are questions that do not beg a theoretical explanation and this book is not an attempt to offer one. Rather it invites the unvarnished expression of our pain and doubts and questions, even as do the “psalms of darkness” in scripture. We both wonder about the existence of God and rage at what seems the unfairness of it all to the God we doubt. His message comes as a special challenge to many Western churches (at least white churches) where lament is not a part of either the liturgy or the life of the church.

In subsequent chapters he explores the anguish of Job, an anguish that both questions and seeks God, and is not answered by friends who can only muster arguments of divine justice and retribution. He explores the testimony of scripture and theologians to the grief and pain of God, the tears of God, the suffering of God with us culminating in the “handing over” of his son who “dies both at our hands and with us.” He wrestles with the realities of natural evil from animal predation to natural disasters, from which he observes the poor dying in disproportionate numbers, while reminding us that human evil is far worse.

Ramachandra considers what it means for the church to live as a community that holds grief and hope together. He believes that this is a creative place, one of forgiveness, of making meaning, of pursuing justice, and of anticipating a new creation. It is also a place of waiting. Ramachandra calls us to a faith that “is about faithfulness in action rather than knowing all the ‘right doctrines.’ ” It is a life lived both with all our questions and griefs, and yet in faithful and hopeful actions that follow in Christ’s steps, both to the cross, and beyond.

This is a far cry from “happy, clappy Christianity.” Ramachandra writes a book that unflinchingly looks at the hardest realities, the hardest questions we may ask and the most painful cries of our heart. And yet he also explores the possibility of a life still lived toward God, by faith and faithfulness, where doubt and belief, lament and joy live together. This book is for those whose life is hard and hurts. Inevitably, that will be all of us.

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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: The Violence Inside Us

The Violence Inside Us, Chris Murphy. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: 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.

December 14, 2012 changed the course of newly minted Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy’s life. He was with his family about to catch the train to New York City when his aide called with the news of the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook. He made it to the scene waiting with the parents not reunited with their children. Their tragedy, and all the funerals, changed Murphy’s life, and gave him the greater purpose he had lacked, despite all his political success.

Another tragedy, one of which he learned later, but which had occurred two months earlier, while he was running for office, in nearby north Hartford, revealed the other side of gun violence. Young Shane Oliver, son of Pastor Sam Saylor. Shane was a promising young man, making a living repairing and flipping cars until a sale went bad and ended with Shane bleeding out in the street in his mother Janet’s arms. Sam became bitter. He’d buried other young men, but this was different. Janet went to a dark place. The couple came to Chris’s attention when Janet fought with a family member of the shooter during his arraignment.

And so began a journey of learning why so many mostly young men were dying on our nation’s streets, and what was behind mass shootings. It was a journey that took him into the roots of violence within us, into the biology of human violence, from brain structures to opposable thumbs, and why some particularly have a propensity for violence.

While violence is a human condition, the incidence of gun violence in the U.S. sets us apart from the world. Murphy looked both at mass shootings that continued to capture the headlines and empty nostrums of “thoughts and prayers” and the violence we ignore–the violence in our cities. He brings to light the more hidden violence of suicide, in which attempts end with death at far greater frequencies than by any other means. Sadly, the life that many guns are most likely to take are the lives of their owners, especially men in rural areas and others who are isolated.

He uncovers the fatal alignment of the arms industry and the National Rifle Association. He describes the resistance to common sense measures like universal background checks, extended to gun shows, that would make guns available to legitimate gun enthusiasts and others who have a legitimate need for them, while keeping it out of the hands of many who would do harm to self or others. He also tells the story of growing groups of mothers, of youth, and even some gun shops whose sales were used to terrible ends. He shows the interesting connection between reducing gun violence and criminal justice reform and other systemic interventions including President Bush’s PEPFAR program in Africa that not only reduced AIDS mortality rates, but also gun violence,

He ends with an account of his filibuster effort, a rarely used and seldom effective measure, to bring a background check bill to a vote. His effort failed, but he left his hearers and the readers a story of someone at Sandy Hook who found something different than violence within–something he believes we all need to find to reduce this terrible scourge.

Murphy offers a moving narrative. Although he upholds the right to own guns, I don’t think he will convince the hard core that he isn’t after their guns. I don’t think all the stories, statistics, reasons and proposals will do that. The question is whether it will encourage hope and action with many who have stayed out of the fray. Will it persuade those in the middle, who are tired of the polarities that a both/and solution is possible–one that keeps guns out of the hands of many who would use them for lethal purposes while allowing law abiding citizens to own them. I also wonder if Murphy and his like will have the staying power of a Wilberforce to pursue this effort even if it takes a life time. I think that is what it will take.

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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.