Review: Bookstore

bookstore

BookstoreLynne Tillman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.

Summary: The story of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co., once one of the premier independent bookstores in New York City, connecting readers with books and their writers until their closing in 1997.

Jeanette Watson is the grand-daughter of the founder of IBM, and the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr. who built the company into a computer industry leader. A reader from childhood, this daughter of wealth spent her early adult years working in early childhood education, mental health care, and going through one marriage and divorce. She struggled with depression, then faced hip surgery for congenital hip dysplasia. Facing surgery and a long recovery, she reached a turning point:

“I had a dream. The dream came almost immediately after I was told I needed surgery. I dreamed I was in a bookstore, surrounded by books, hundreds of books, and the place had two floors, and it was cozy. It looked like what would become Books & Co.

* * * * *

“Throughout the ordeal, the operation and the long recovery, the dream sustained me. I was determined there would be a bookstore at the end of the tunnel. One day I invited my friend Steve Aronson out for lunch. He was the only person I knew who was actually in publishing. I told Steven I wanted a bookstore that would look very old-fashioned, be like a private home, and carry wonderful books. There would be events, parties and gallery openings” (p. 13).

This book tells the story of the bookstore that came out of that dream, its twenty year run, and how Watson found her own calling in life in the process. The book, though authored by Lynne Tillman, is Jeanette Watson’s narrative of the history of Books & Co. and her own love of bookselling, interspersed with memories from publishers, writers, representatives, other booksellers, customers and celebrities about there experiences at Books & Co. The contributors anecdotes give us a sense of how Books & Co. served as kind of a literary nexus during this time.

It begins with Watson and her father investing in the startup after finding an old brownstone down the street from the Whitney, who owned the property, on Madison Avenue. She links up with Burt Britton, a book trade veteran who she signs on as a partner. The partnership lasted a year and resulted in “The Wall” representing the best of past and present literary fiction. Burt knew no limits to spending or acquiring books and eventually, Watson ended the partnership to try to meet the bottom line.

Watson realized her dream. She created a two story bookstore that included a green sofa on the second floor, and a curated collection of books centered on literature, philosophy, art, and children’s literature. She became renown for the authors who appeared and did readings in her stores. The list of those who did readings which appears at the back of the book is a snapshot of the literary world in New York in the from the late 1970’s to the late 1990’s. She was an aspiring writer’s friend, and introduced writers, and works she liked to the literary world, and underscored the important role booksellers play in promoting great writing.

Perhaps her greatest joy was connecting people with books, everyone from Woody Allen and Michael Jackson to ordinary residents of the city. Watson comments:

“There’s a significance too–almost a drama–in introducing readers to books. Dramatic because books can and do change people’s lives. I’ve felt that importance as much as I’ve felt it about introducing new writers to readers. Burt used to say, ‘It’s just as easy to read a good book as a bad book.’ If people were given the right book, they could experience something wonderful. One woman told me that she wasn’t a reader until the bookstore opened, but because of my suggestions, she was reading Balzac. It’s what I’m most proud of doing over the years” (p.52).

The book chronicles not only the joys but the struggles of bookselling. Apart from a few boom years in the 1980’s, it was a constant struggle to break even and Watson put a lot of her own money into the store. We get a glimpse behind the scenes of working with publishers representatives and making decisions about book acquisitions, working with distributors and staff, paying bills and making returns.

We also see the beginnings of a transformation of the book trade. Readers interested in the serious works sold by a store like this seemed to be aging and their numbers declining. The advent of the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders (!) began to erode sales as people turned to booksellers who discounted. Amazon was just new, and not yet perceived as the force that would threaten them all. E-books were still in the future. But the internet was dawning and cable and video were supplanting reading.

The death knell of this great indie was rent. For many years the Whitney and Books & Co. enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with people often visiting both. The Whitney was landlord, and as Madison Avenue rents were rising, it became necessary for the Whitney to raise rents on its properties to attend to their own bottom line. These rents became increasingly difficult to meet. There were negotiations, explorations of a merger with the Whitney, all coming to nought. After Christmas in 1996, Jeanette Watson announced the closing of the store on May 31, 1997. Some attempted to save the store, but it was not to happen. The last part of the book is painful in some ways, as the attempts to sustain the life of a dying patient.

Reading the book brought to mind the wonderful encounters I’ve had with great bookstores over the year, especially the ones where the booksellers knew their books and loved connecting their customers with books they would love. I wish I had visited this one. It also reminded me of the passing of so many of these, each like the death of a friend.

At the same time, the pronounced death of the indie bookstores seems premature. Their number is actually growing while Borders is no more and Barnes and Noble is struggling. People are still reading Jane Austin and Dostoevsky, and so much else.

This autobiography, of Watson and her bookstore gives a glimpse into what it takes to make a great bookstore. There is one wrinkle in the book that may be off-putting to some. Watson, like so many bibliophiles, has a curiosity for everything and writes with more fascination than some might find comfortable of inter-species sex and every form of human sexuality, as well as an author’s study of cannibalism. Clearly, this is written in the progressive (and transgressive?) literary milieu of New York City. At the same time, we see the power of books to introduce us to so much of the world beyond just our own experience and the wonderful gift bookstores like Books & Co can be to writers and readers.

Jeanette Watson’s new memoir, It’s My Partywas released October 10, 2017. A video interview with Watson on her book is available on YouTube.

Review: Forgiveness and Justice

forgiveness and justice

Forgiveness and Justice, Bryan Maier. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017.:

Summary: Interacts with other models of forgiveness from a biblical perspective, proposing that healing through trust in the justice of God precedes forgiveness, which can only occur where there is sincere confession and repentance by the offender.

This book changed my thinking about forgiveness. Like many, I’d come to believe in the therapeutic value of “forgiveness” even when the offender has not confessed to wrong-doing and repented of it. I can think of situations where this counsel didn’t ring true. There had been great offense, and while individuals wanted to forgive, the refusal of the offender to acknowledge the wrong, and in some cases continued the wrongful behavior, leaving a deep sense of grievance that “forgiving” could not address.

This book helped me understand why. First of all, the author, basing his discussion in scripture, focuses on a more careful definition of forgiveness, which isn’t “letting go” or reframing the offense or having greater empathy. Fundamentally, he argues that forgiveness, as God forgives, is not about our feelings, but about the offender, and can only occur when the offender confesses to the wrong, and repents from it.

How then are we to deal with the deep feelings of anger, hurt, and grievance. Maier observes that we tend to make the decision that it is good to get rid of these, and he would say, “Not so fast.” If there has been real offense, and in many cases he deals with as a counselor, profound abuse, these may be warranted feelings that stem from a deep sense of wanting to be vindicated. We should not try to reframe these hurts. Maier argues that it is the God who is just who vindicates and that healing starts with trusting in the justice of God, that we need not seek vengeance, but trust God to deal with the offense. He argues that it is precisely this about which the imprecatory Psalms are concerned and encourages their use by counselees.

He also proposes that as we begin to trust in the God of justice we find healing, before we forgive, and that in fact this prepares us to forgive. For one thing, realizing that the offender faces God’s justice if they do not repent may in time move us to pray for that repentance. That in turn raises the important question of how will we respond if they do repent.

Part of this has to do with discerning genuine repentance, something we can never fully assess. He suggests several indicators: 1). No demands, even requests for forgiveness, 2) A willingness to assume responsibility, and 3) A willingness to pay off the debt over time, realizing that trust is not restored instantaneously.

All this also means that repentance does not necessitate an instantaneous response of forgiveness. While this may be desired, the person offended must truly be ready for this and the offender must not expect or demand this. Clients should not be pressured into premature forgiveness.

I appreciate the care Maier shows in handling of scripture as well as in recognizing the seriousness of offenses like abuse and sexual assault and the need for victims to legitimately protect themselves from further harm from offenders. Moreover, this book seems to me to give a better account of unresolved feelings of anger than the “let it go” school. It acknowledges the role of God in healing, and also the very real concern for justice that is sometimes minimized in forgiveness teaching. And it helpfully focuses on when and how real forgiveness of the other may take place in a way that reinforces healing for both parties rather than compounding the problems between them.

I would highly recommend this work for all pastoral and clinical counselors, and for anyone who is wrestling with having experienced deep wounds at the hands of another. You may have heard the Lord’s teaching of “forgive as I have forgiven you” and struggle to do this, particularly when the offender has made no attempt to acknowledge the wrong done. This book unpacks what biblical and not merely therapeutic forgiveness looks like and the ways of healing that prepare us to truly forgive.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Walking Back From the Abyss of Violence

staircase-962784_1920The latest (for now) mass shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest shooting so far with 58 dying as well as the shooter. Sadly, it seems that these horrors are becoming a regular occurrence, complete with victim accounts, an attempt to understand the shooter, thoughts, prayers, and candlelight vigils and renewed outcries that something must be done to limit guns in a nation where there is nearly a gun for every person already.

The reality is that this is nearly a daily occurrence. According to a Guardian story, in the 1735 days ending on October 1 when the Las Vegas shooting took place, there were 1,516 mass shootings (defined as an event where four or more people were shot, not including the shooter). This does not count the “routine” violence occurring in our major cities. For example nearly as many die every month in Chicago as died in Las Vegas. A Vox report on gun violence reports that 2900 people have died at the hands of police since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson (police are also at greater risk in states with more guns). The same report contends that guns allow people to kill themselves more easily and that where gun access is limited, suicide deaths drop. It may be that the only person your gun will ever kill is someone you love, or even yourself.

Before I go any further, I am not going to advocate any gun control measure, nor am I going to advocate gun rights. I think we are at a stalemate and there are plenty to argue one way or the other. I’m not going to join either chorus. Rather, I want to suggest that these almost daily reports of terrible shootings and the other forms of gun violence, along with our rancorous discourse, suggest we are becoming an increasingly violent society, and that if we don’t obliterate ourselves in a nuclear winter, we might be headed toward a violent, anarchic abyss.

Do we in truth want to live in one of the most violent societies in the world? What I want to propose is that we make a collective decision to walk away from the abyss of violence in our national life.

What I mean by this is that we begin the long and arduous journey to conceive a different kind of society from the one that alternately celebrates and grieves violence. Rather than looking for some kind of quick legislative fix or imposition of government power, I want to propose a movement that may take a generation, just as the campaigns to discourage smoking and warn of the dangers cigarettes pose in terms of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. As I child, I saw ads saying cigarettes were good for you. Now any ad, and every container of cigarettes warns of the health risks. For years, I had to inhale other people’s smoke in public places. Now my right to a smoke-free environment is protected in many public places. It took fifty years to get to this point.

Perhaps this journey needs to begin with a realization that we are all complicit in this violent society. Liberal Hollywood, the gaming industry, and all of us who consume their products participate in a celebration of violence. We may complain about those who manufacture assault rifles and other lethal instruments, and those who own them but how often do we passively absorb scenes of cinematic violence or participate in various forms of virtual violence? While most of us never conceive of violence, do we create a glamour around violence that suggests to some who don’t share our restraints, that violence is an acceptable way to go–often to one’s end?

Might we begin by agreeing that entertaining ourselves by virtual violence against human beings may not be the noblest of activities? If nothing else, there are other ways to employ our time, and a country as rich as ours provides many other outlets, including those that get us off our theater seating and toughen our bodies and minds.

* * * * *

Human beings will do all sorts of strange things when they don’t feel safe, from hoard water, to build underground shelters, to stockpile weapons, and to pass regulations and laws.  Most of the time, doing these things doesn’t make us any safer, they just give us some sense that we are in control.

A number of studies have shown that our number of confidants–real friends– has dropped (from roughly three to two on average). Likewise, there seems to be a correlation between time spent on social media and higher levels of anxiety. Correlation can’t determine which causes which or if there is some third factor. The past election cycle accentuated the phenomenon of “echo chambers” with the insidious addition of targeted ads playing to the tendencies of a given audience or even individuals. And social and other media amplify our fears of violence with the 24/7 news cycle. The old saw in the news world is that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

So, in addition to turning from our celebration of and pre-occupation with violence, might we turn from the things that induce fear? The truth is that while we have seen horrendous examples of gun violence, overall, gun violence, at least up to 2015, is down. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of future events like Las Vegas. It means dedicating ourselves to fostering a society where Las Vegas is even less likely to occur. Maybe rather than trying to limit guns, how do we foster a society where fewer people feel the need for them?

A few beginning thoughts:

  • Find out ways to re-neighbor with our real neighbors and build real community rather than the brittle virtual communities we’ve come to rely on that reinforce our fears and separate us off from the diversity of real humanity. This might also help us spot neighbors whose activity patterns are out of the ordinary and, where appropriate, “see something and say something.”
  • One common thread in so much violence is men.  Young men, old men, and men of every color. It seems to me we have to start asking what is going on with men that makes this resort to violence a choice a number are making. My hunch is that fathering may have something to do with it, and the absence of models to help boys pass into responsible and self-controlled manhood. It seems that much of the energy we spend on fighting about guns might be spent in understanding the men who use them.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to create incentives and easy paths to turn in guns, registered or not. Guns are often left behind on the death of someone and we should do all we can to make sure they as well disposed of as our recycling. This does nothing to limit the rights of gun owners. “How to Get Rid of a Gun” illustrates the challenges of legally disposing of guns. Our local county sheriff’s website gives detailed instructions on securing a concealed carry permit, but no instructions on legally disposing of guns.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I’d have to look at this more than I have, but I suspect we’ve always been a violent nation. I don’t think fighting about gun control is going to change that, except maybe for the worse. Like so many things, I doubt things will change until we are sick and tired of being sick and tired and we turn from our love of violence in film and sport and our habits of verbal violence in so much of our discourse. I doubt things will change until we start paying attention to why so much gun violence is committed by men. We can provide easier ways to legally and safely dispose of guns without impairing the rights of anyone to own one, and maybe if done extensively, this could reduce the number of weapons out there that could fall into the wrong hands.

The real question it seems is do we have the national will to begin the hard work of forsaking a culture of violence. Will we keep after it for twenty, thirty, fifty years? If we survive long enough, we might bequeath a less violent country to our great-grandchildren.

 

Review: Race and Place

 

Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ten Fall Activities

Lake Cohasset

Lake Cohasset, Photo (c) Bob Trube

I just came back from a trip and found my yard littered with leaves. That is the sign for me that fall has officially arrived. Cool crisp days. Early sunsets. First frosts. Football Fridays. All this set me to thinking of my top ten fall activities as I was growing up in Youngstown. Your list might be different but I bet at least a few of these are on yours!

10. Raking leaves into big piles and jumping into them. Wasn’t this a clever way for our parents to get us to rake the leaves?

9. Burning leaves when this was still allowed. Nearly every late afternoon, you could scent the smell of burning leaves in the air. The pyromaniac in me loved doing this. Thankfully, I never set anything on fire I wasn’t supposed to!

8. Hayrides at some of the rural farms in the area. Always more fun if you were with a girl, but I remember great evenings singing folk songs, eating fried donuts, drinking cider around a campfire.

7. Haunted houses. Weird lighting effects. Skeletons and ghouls that would leap out at you. Headless horsemen. Great for raising money for local causes.

6. Touch football after school. Seems like most of my buddies growing up weren’t good enough to play on a team but that didn’t keep us from playing epic contests at Borts field, pretending we were Frank Ryan, Jim Brown, or Gary Collins (those were the years I was a Browns fan). No helmets, no pads but can’t remember any of us getting hurt. We did manage to get muddy.

5. Pressing the most colorful leaves we could find into books between sheets of wax paper. Forgetting you did this until you cleaned out your parents’ house years later.

4. Listening to or watching the World Series. Most of the time it seems we were either rooting for the Yankees or against them. Sadly, no Indians teams to root for back then. So glad it is different now. This could be the year!

3. Football rivalries and homecomings. Our big rivalry was the Chaney-Austintown Fitch game. Every school had one.

2. Making our Halloween costumes. It was cheaper and somehow more fun to go as a pirate, bum, princess, or tramp then any of the cheesy costumes they sold at the store. And some people rewarded creativity with candy!

1. Probably for everyone, the big activity was walking, riding, or driving through Mill Creek Park savoring the smell of the leaves and the myriad of colors. I most loved how some of the trees seemed to glow with a light of their own on dark and rainy days.

While summer was probably my favorite season as a kid (no school), I think the fall season is probably my favorite now. I still love working in the yard on those cool, crisp days and the colors and smells of autumn leaves. While I’ve outgrown some of my favorite activities from those growing up years, I still enjoy the memory of them. How about you?

 

 

 

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

weapons of math destruction

Weapons of Math DestructionCathy O’Neil. New York: Broadway Books, 2017.

Summary: An insider account of the algorithms that affect our lives, from going to college, to the ads we see online, to our chances of getting a job, being arrested, getting credit and insurance.

Big Data is indeed BIG. Mathematical algorithms shape who will see this post on their Facebook newsfeed. If you go to Amazon or another online bookseller, algorithms will suggest other books like this one you might be interested in. Have you seen all those ads about credit scores? They are more important than you might imagine. Algorithms used by employers and insurance companies determine your employability and insurability in part through these scores. Far more than another credit card (bad idea, by the way) or a mortgage are on the line. These algorithms seem objective, but how they are formulated, and the assumptions made in doing so mean the difference between useful tools that benefit people, and “black boxes” that thwart the flourishing of others, often unknown to them.

Cathy O’Neil should know. A tenure track math professor, she made the jump to Wall Street and became a “quant” who helped develop mathematical algorithms and witnessed, in the crash of 2008, the harm some of these caused. And she began to notice how algorithms often painfully impacted the lives of many others.  She describes how a teacher was fired because of the weighting of performance scores of a single class, despite other evaluations finding her an excellent teacher (afterwards it was found that there were a high number of erasures on tests for students who would have been in her class the previous year, suggesting these had been altered to improve scores).

As she looked at the algorithms responsible for such injustices, she came to dub them “Weapons of Math Destruction” or WMDs and she identified three characteristics of these WMDs:

  1. Opacity: those whose lives are affected by them have no idea of the factors and weighting of those factors that contributed to their “score”.
  2. Scale: how widely an algorithm is applied across industries and sectors of life can affect how much of one’s life is touched by a single formula. For example, the FICO scores mentioned above affect not only credit, but the ability to get a job, the cost of auto insurance, and your ability to rent an apartment.
  3. Damage: WMDs can reinforce other factors perpetuating a cycle of poverty, or incarceration.

She also shows that what makes these algorithms destructive is the use of proxy measurements. For example an employer may not know directly how savvy someone is as a marketer, and so they use a “proxy” measurement of how many Twitter followers that person has. Or age is used as a proxy for how safe a driver one is. For a group, the proxy may work well, and be utterly inaccurate for an individual that falls within that proxy group.

Then in successive chapters, she chronicles some of the ways WMDs operate in different parts of life. She discusses the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, and the use of algorithms in admissions processes. Social media uses algorithms to target advertising, which means some will see ads for for-profit schools and payday lenders, and others for upscale furnishing or Viagra, based on clicks, likes, searches, and comments. Policing strategies, including locations for intensified “stop and frisk” policing are shaped by another set of algorithms. Algorithms to filter resumes may use scoring algorithms that discriminate by address and psych exam algorithms may render others unemployable in a certain industry. Scheduling algorithms may promote efficiency at the expense of the ability of workers to sleep on a regular schedule, or arrange childcare, or work enough hours to qualify for health insurance. Algorithms sometimes shut people out from credit or low cost insurance when in fact they are good risks. She concludes by showing how algorithms determine ads and news we see (and don’t see). In an afterword she explores the flaws in algorithms revealed on the election of Donald Trump (algorithms, for example predicted Clinton would easily win Michigan and Wisconsin, where consequently she did not campaign, and lost by small margins).

In her conclusion, she makes the case not only for a code of ethics for mathematicians but also argues that regulation and audits of these algorithms are necessary. The value assumptions, as well as the mathematical methods of many algorithms are flawed, and yet opacity means those whose lives are most affected don’t even know what hit them.

She helps us see both the sinister and useful side of these algorithms. They may reveal where a pro-active intervention may save a family from descending into family violence, or provide extra assistance to a child in danger of falling behind in a key subject. Or they may be used to invade personal rights, or even to perpetuate socio-economic divides in a society. The reality is that the problem is not the math but the old GIGO problem (garbage in, garbage out). The values and assumptions of the humans who devise the formulas and weightings of values and the use of proxies determine what may be destructive outcomes for some people. Yet it can be hidden behind an app, a program, an algorithm.

The massive explosion in storage capacities, processing speeds, and the way our interests, health status, travel patterns, spending patterns, fitness, diet and sleep habits, our political inclinations and more may be tracked via our online and smartphone usage makes O’Neil’s warning an urgent one. We create mountains of data that may be increasingly mined by government and private interests. Perhaps as important as asking whether this will be governed in ways that contribute to our flourishing, is whether we will be alert enough to care.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Our Deepest Desires

Our Deepest Desires

Our Deepest DesiresGregory E. Ganssle. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Makes the case that Christian faith, truly understood, is most congruent with our deepest human longings.

Gregory Ganssle believes that one of the most important questions we can ask is “what sort of person should I be?” and two other related questions: 1) what sort of person do I want to be? and 2) what sort of person am I becoming? These get at our deepest desires and commitments, the vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful toward which we aspire to live. In this book, Ganssle makes the argument that some of the basic human longings common to many of us are most congruent with the Christian faith. It is not that those who are not Christians, and Ganssle especially has atheists in mind, cannot embrace and pursue these longings. He argues that in fact they do, despite the fact that these longings are often dissonant with an atheist or materialist worldview, whereas they are consonant with a Christian worldview. He does not argue that this shows that Christian faith is true or that this “proves” Christian faith, but only that Christian faith is consistent with our deepest longings. He says, “There are many people who think that Christianity is false; I want to help people see that they really want the gospel to be true.”

Ganssle looks at four types of longings that he believes are consonant with the Christian story. The first is our value of persons and longing for relationship, that he sees grounded in a God who is personal and relational, the triune God, whose relationships are marked by submission and self-giving. The second is what might be called the problem of goodness, that we want goodness, even when we are faced with evil, that goodness seems somehow primary, that we want to be thought of as good, and and that goodness is good for us. The gospel is a story that grounds goodness in God, that accounts for our rebellion against it, and enables us to be what we long for.

We also long for and are drawn to beauty. We have a deep impulse to create things of beauty, that mirror the Creator. We long for beauties beyond what this earth offers in ways that suggest we are made for another world. And finally, we long for freedom, to live consistently with our sense of our best self, and the gospel proposes we are set free by truth, by a truth-shaped life, and enabled to live freely in the face of death because of hope. Ganssle concludes by proposing that if this case seems to make sense of our longings, then the next step is to determine whether the Christian faith is true.

What I like about this is approach is that he explores aspirations that are common to most or all of us. He raises what is a genuinely important question–how do we explain these aspirations? Are they just an artifact of our evolution and can they be explained in purely material terms? While he proposes that Christian faith is the best explanation, he recognizes that some may conclude differently and that each must decide what makes the best sense of our longings for love, goodness, beauty, and freedom.

His book poses a challenge for Christians as well. Does the kind of people we are becoming reflect the loving, good, beautiful, and liberating story we proclaim. Do we value people above programs–all people? Do we love goodness so passionately we pursue justice where it is lacking? Are our communities places that both celebrate beauty and evidence our hope in the beauty of the new creation? Are we consciously working to undo the personal and systemic evils that bind and limit people? In short, are we story-shaped people who find the fulfillment of our deepest longings in the story we proclaim? That, it seems to me, may be our most powerful apologetic.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Play the Man

play the man

Play the Man, Mark Batterson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Discusses seven virtues that distinguishes men from boys, and how Christian fathers can help sons navigate the passage from youth to manhood.

“He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” –Malachi 4:6

Mark Batterson believes we are facing a crisis of manhood in our culture. We neither know how to “play the man” nor how to “make the man” and these two phrases become kind of a mantra for Batterson’s vision of recovering a truly Christian manhood, and particularly, the crucial work of helping boys make the passage to manhood. Citing the verse above, Batterson lays the major responsibility for this latter task not on teachers, or youth workers, or pastors, but on fathers. But in order to “make the man,” one must “play the man.”

Batterson draws this phrase from the words Polycarp heard facing martyrdom in the Colosseum: “Be strong, Polycarp. Play the man.”  Batterson believes one “plays the man” when one embraces and lives out seven virtues:

  • Tough Love: a love willing to go to the cross for one they love, to forgive the offender, and to weep when faced with brokenness.
  • Childlike Wonder: the sense of adventure and child-like curiosity typified by Teddy Roosevelt who read voraciously and explored just as voraciously, and whose wonder translates into humble worship.
  • Will Power: the ability to defer gratification, to say “no” to desire to say “yes” to a life of integrity.
  • Raw Passion: “An insatiable energy that motivates you to live each day like it’s the first day and last day of your life.” He believes this comes as one defeats the three-headed dragon of doubt, apathy, and lust.
  • True Grit: Commending the example of the one-armed explorer of the American West, John Wesley Powell, he talks about the physical and mental toughness that is characterized as resilience.
  • Clear Vision: Real men live out of a vision of a life well-lived, shaped by the mission of Jesus and they give themselves to instilling that vision in their families.
  • Moral Courage: He argues that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe but to make us dangerous, which begins by choosing to wash feet and taking responsibility to serve rather than washing our hands of responsibility.

Batterson takes a chapter to explore each of these virtues, illustrating them from historical figures. One of the things I appreciated was that he incorporates honesty about where we fall short into discussions of each of these virtues, as well as illustrations from his own life. He also stresses that while he is speaking to men, by no means does he limit these virtues to men. I appreciated the fact that he seeks to encourage his daughter as well as his two sons in developing these qualities and a physical, mental and spiritual fiber, that included preparing to do the Alcatraz swim with his daughter.

The second part of the book focuses on “making the man”–how fathers may help their sons make this passage to virtuous manhood. Mostly, what he does is share what he did with his two sons in developing a discipleship covenant that included physical, mental, and spiritual challenges and that culminates in a rite of passage which included both an ordeal (a rafting trip down the Colorado River with one son, and a rim to rim hike of the Grand Canyon with the other) and a ceremony marking the passage with a blessing.

I suspect some women reading this may be uneasy about a book like this. Is this yet another assertion of male power over women? I don’t see evidence of this. I would like to have seen him add a virtue of respectful partnership with women to make this more explicit. What I see him addressing is the phenomenon of boys running around in men’s bodies, either passive or playing macho games of sexual conquest. His book is a call to character, and to the critical role fathers, or significant male mentors, can play in helping boys become men of character, of virtue.

I do hear overtones of John Eldridge and the “wild at heart” phenomenon. The question I would press with Batterson is whether this is simply a male need, or rather that all of us, both men and women are meant to live “dangerously” in Christ. I’ve had the privilege to work alongside women who are strong leaders equally ready to take God-sized risks. I actually think one of the most exhilarating experiences a leader can have is to work within teams with strong leaders of both genders who see leadership as not about power but partnership in serving the people of God in pursuit of the kingdom of God. Equally, I’m convinced that the best marriages are marked by two mature people mutually serving each other and pursuing God’s call together. While I would have liked Batterson to make that more explicit as something critical to the discipleship of our sons, his call to men to “play the man” and to fathers to “make the man” is one that I think is desperately needed in our day.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Bring Up the Bodies

bring up the bodies

Bring Up the BodiesHilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2013.

Summary: The second part of Mantel’s historical fiction on the life of Thomas Cromwell, from Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn to her downfall and execution.

Thomas Cromwell enjoys more power than ever. Katherine is out, her marriage to Henry VIII annulled. Anne Boleyn, never at ease with Cromwell, has borne Henry a daughter and the hopes are that she will bear a son. In the summer of 1535 she is pregnant once again, although the progress of the pregnancy doesn’t seem right. Already the aging Henry has begun to look elsewhere in hope of begetting a son to take the throne.

Katherine is dying and passes. Mary, her daughter, refuses to reconcile to Henry. Then Anne gives birth to a stillborn son. Henry is increasingly enamored with one of Anne’s ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour. Much of this volume centers around the shrewd maneuverings of the ambitious Seymour family of Wolf Hall. Jane shows herself receptive to Henry while giving nothing away as long as Anne is queen.

It is to Cromwell Henry turns once again to “fix” his problem, and he shrewdly manages to obtain critical confessions leading to Anne being charged with incest with her brother George, and adultery with four other men. Apparently a number of historians believe Cromwell was the one who engineered Anne’s downfall. Mantel portrays him as the loyal “fixer” who accomplishes the King’s wishes, inexorably building the case that eventuated in six beheadings, and opened the way for Henry VIII to marry Jane Seymour.

At the end, Cromwell is more powerful yet, being raised to Baron, succeeding Anne’s father as Lord Privy Seal. Yet throughout this narrative, one has the sense that Thomas knows that it could one day be his turn to feel the executioners axe. He has risen from a peasant to such power simply by serving at the King’s pleasure, a king whose pleasures easily change direction, whose loyalties shift, when one fails to please. He has watched this happen to Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and the powerful people around Anne. In Mantel’s words “He thinks, strive as I might, one day I will be gone and as this word goes it may not be long: what though I am a man of firmness and vigour, fortune is mutable and either my enemies will do for me or my friends.”

Mantel portrays a Cromwell who rises by competence, and by not being deterred by moral qualms from doing what was necessary to serve his king. He can be ruthlessly pragmatic and at the same time a loving father wanting only the best for son Gregory, worrying about his fate in jousting matches. With a wink and a nod as it were, he permits Lady Willoughby to attend Katherine at her death. Ruthless, shrewd, loyal, and tender by turn, this is Mantel’s Cromwell. He is also a man trapped by his loyalty and success, who cannot walk away from the King who has come to depend so much upon him and so richly rewarded him. What will that cost him?

Bring Up the Bodies is the winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

Earlier this spring, I reviewed the preceding volume, Wolf Hall, covering the rise Cromwell to the fall of Katherine, Henry VIII’s first wife.

The Month in Reviews: September 2017

Kingfishers

I don’t want to take much time discussing the sixteen books you will read here. Evicted and Just Mercy both touch on social justice themes. Two of the books I reviewedDaring Democracy and Forbearance, left me unsettled because I felt the bias of the authors undermined much of what was good in these books. A couple of the shorter books were absolute devotional gems, particularly J.I. Packer’s Finishing our Course with Joy and Charlie Dawes’s Simple Prayer. Renegade, a graphic biography on the life of Martin Luther was a refreshing look at the reformer’s life. I was struck that my last two books, Just Mercy and Unceasing Kindness, although very different books, share a common tie in the character of a God who is all these things. Enough discussion, here are my summaries. I hope you will take some time to read some of the full reviews, and find something useful or enjoyable for your own reading this fall.

The Mission of Worship

The Mission of Worship (Urbana Onward)Sandra Van Opstal. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Worship and mission are integrally related; recognizing the greatness of God propels us into mission and mission involves inviting others across cultural boundaries to join us in worship. (Review)

Paradoxology

ParadoxologyKrish Kandiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Argues that the seeming contradictions that leave many questioning the truth of Christianity are actually the points where Christian faith comes alive and addresses the depths and complexities of our lives. (Review)

evicted

EvictedMatthew Desmond. New York: Broadway Books, 2017. A look at the private rental market in impoverished communities and the dynamics of eviction, why it happens and the impact of evictions on the evicted and the communities in which they live. (Review)

finishing our course with joy

Finishing Our Course with JoyJ. I. Packer. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. A meditation on aging that combines coming to terms with the physical changes in our bodies while pressing on to complete our course of actively serving the Lord. (Review)

learning change

Learning ChangeJim Herrington and Trisha Taylor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Ministry, 2017. A biblically-rooted approach to congregational transformation that centers around personal transformation and that draws research on effective organizations and systems. (Review)

the worm ouroboros

The Worm OuroborosE. R. Eddison. New York: Open Road Media, 2014 (originally published 1922). A heroic fantasy of the warfare between Witchland and Demonland, including the quest to rescue Goldry Bluszco, after he is banished by spell to a remote mountain top in revenge for defeating and killing King Gorice XI of the Witches in a wrestling match. (Review)

Simple prayer

Simple PrayerCharlie Dawes (foreword by Mark Batterson). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. Helps us understand how the “simple” prayers of scripture and those from our hearts may lead us into deep relationship and communion with God. (Review)

Forbearance

Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable ChurchJames Calvin Davis. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017. Commends the practice of and virtues related to forbearance, as encouraged by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians as an ethic for dealing with theological differences within the church. (Review)

Thank you for being late

Thank You For Being LateThomas L. Friedman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016. Discusses three “accelerations (computer-related technology, globalization, and climate change), how these might re-shape our world for ill or good, and the case for pausing, reflecting, and creating communities of trust working for the common good. (Review)

restoring the soul

Restoring the Soul of the UniversityPerry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman and Todd C. Ream. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. Traces the history of the fragmentation of the modern university including its loss of soul, the impacts that this has on various facets of university of life, and the role theology can have in restoring that soul and healing that fragmentation. (Review)

Daring Democracy

Daring Democracy Frances Moore Lappe’ and Adam Eichen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017. Responding to the concentration of political power within monied elites, the authors expose their strategy, and advocate a growing Democracy Movement to recover American democratic institutions. (Review)

Renegade

Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic BiographyAndrea Grosso Ciponte (illustrator), Dacia Palmerino (text), Michael G. Parker (translator). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017. A richly illustrated graphic biography of the life of Martin Luther, covering the major events of his life from boyhood to death, and the setting in which that life took place. (Review)

shalom in psalms

Shalom in Psalms, Jeffrey Seif, Glenn Blank, and Paul Wilbur. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. A devotional based on the Tree of Life Version (TLV) of the Bible, a Messianic Jewish translation of scripture. (Review)

Kingfishers

As Kingfishers Catch FireEugene H. Peterson. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017. A collection of 49 of Peterson’s sermons grouped into seven sections, focused on lives congruent with the teaching of scripture. (Review)

just mercy

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014. A narrative of the author’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative, representing death row inmates and other prisoners–people of color, the indigent, mentally impaired, and children–not always served well by our justice system. (Review)

Unceasing Kindness

Unceasing Kindness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A study of the theological themes that may be discerned in the various placements of Ruth in the canon, and the broader themes of unceasing kindness, famine, redemption, divine and human initiative, and the mission of God connecting Ruth with the rest of scripture. (Review)

Best Book of the Month: This is tough because several of the books here easily deserve this in my mind (especially Evicted and Just Mercy), but I’m going to give the nod to As Kingfishers Catch Fire, by Eugene Peterson. The book is a fitting valedictory for the ministry of Peterson, consisting of forty-nine of his sermons across the span of his ministry grouped by seven key biblical figures. Peterson’s focus is on living the congruent life, and I daresay it may be argued that this thought undergirds all of his writing. Peterson fans will love this, and for others, this is a great way to discover the writing of this skillful shepherd of God’s people.

Quote of the Month: A book I’ve not said much about other than in the review summary is Restoring the Soul of the University. I was impressed with this thoughtful argument for the role of theology in healing the fragmentation of the university, and this quote which addresses the source of virtue that integrates the lives of the professors who serve in the university:

“Although we agree with the importance of practicing virtue in the academic calling, we contend that any approach to integrating virtue must not prioritize teaching over scholarship or service but should instead prioritize the role of the triune God and God’s theological story in defining, directing, and empowering the virtues that sustain excellence in these practices and help promote flourishing academic communities. We doubt broadly defined virtues on which we all agree can sufficiently reorient the academic vocation. After all, professors need a compelling identity and story that will motivate them to acquire certain virtues. Instead, Christians must think about virtues such as faith, hope, and love as well as other fruits of the Spirit, in the light of a theological narrative and realities that usually do not enter standard secular reasoning” (pp. 245-246).

What I’m reading: I’ve just finished Hilary Mantel’s second installment of historical fiction on the life of Henry VIII’s chief minister and “fixer,” Mark Batterson’s Play the Man is an exploration of the virtues that describe godly men, including some of his thoughts on the important of rites of passage in helping our boys pass into manhood, something I’ve written on. Weapons of Math Destruction is a fascinating exploration of Big Data’s use of algorithms, and how these may have destructive effects on the real lives of people. Greg Ganssle, in Our Deepest Desires, makes an argument that our deepest human longings are best explained and addressed by Christianity, that Christian faith is most congruent, to use Peterson’s word, with our deepest aspirations. Upton Sinclair is best know for his expose of the meat packing industry in The Jungle. He also wrote a series of eleven novels whose main character is Lanny Budd, son of an American arms maker who mingles with the leaders of both Allied and Axis powers before and during World War II. I’m sampling the seventh in the series, A World to Win. Our Dead Theologians reading group is discussing The Long Loneliness, the autobiographical memoir of Dorothy Day, Catholic social activist. Reading her story, I’m struck once again that often it seems it is not we who seek God so much as God haunts and seeks us until we awaken to the One who in love wants us to be his. She is also a female illustration of C. S. Lewis’s observation:

“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” 

That you follow this blog suggests you are one who cares about his or her reading. I hope you will find something here of help in your own journey!