The Month in Reviews: August 2020

A vacation week and some extra time on hot days just to read afforded the time to read sixteen books during August. Jeffrey Sachs and Anne Applebaum’s books offered different snapshots on global affairs. From very different perspectives, both Elaine Howard Ecklund and Gavin Ortlund’s books contribute to a better science and faith conversations. I had a chance to review a couple of new fiction authors, Bonnie Proudfoot and Joe English. Uncommon Ground and The Beautiful Community addressed divisions, the first in the culture, the second in the church. One of my most fun reads focused on amusing anecdotes about books, the other about the making of lists. And my baseball book for the summer was a fascinating account of the women’s professional baseball league that was the basis for the movie, A League of Their Own.

The Ages of GlobalizationJeffrey D. Sachs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. A study of seven ages of globalization, in which geography, technology, and institutions result in scale-enlarging transformations with global impacts. Review

Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Differenceedited Timothy Keller & John Inazu. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020. Twelve individuals from different walks of life discuss what Christian faithfulness and the pursuit of the common good looks like in a deeply divided culture. Review

Why Science and Faith Need Each OtherElaine Howard Ecklund. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. A sociologist who has researched the relationship between science and faith proposes that there are eight shared values that make it possible to move beyond a relationship of fear or conflict between religious and scientific communities. Review

Goshen RoadBonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020. A story told across two generations of two sisters, their husbands and children, and their dignity and struggle to exist in working-class, rural West Virginia. Review

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of AuthoritarianismAnne Applebaum. New York: Doubleday, 2020. An extended essay considering the shift to authoritarian leaders in Europe and the United States, analyzing both why such leaders are attractive, and the strategies they used to gain power. Review

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of CreationGavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of Augustine’s writing about creation and what that might contribute to the contemporary controversy. Review

The Beautiful CommunityIrwyn L. Ince, Jr., Foreword by Timothy Keller. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. An argument that churches united amid their diversity are beautiful communities that reflect the beauty of the triune God they worship. Review

For the Love of Books: Stories of Literary Lives, Banned Books, Author Feuds, Extraordinary Characters, and MoreGraham Tarrant. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. A fun read about everything books, from the beginning of the book, stories of authors and their loves and their fights, different genres, and the world of publishing. Review

Unto Us a Child is Born, Tyler D. Mayfield. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020. Proposes that, as we read Isaiah during Advent, we need to read “with bifocals,” considering both the Advent liturgical significance of the texts and their meaning for our Jewish neighbors. Review

Somebody Else’s TroublesJ.A. English. Union Lake, MI: Zimbell House Publishing, 2020. Several troubled individuals find their way to Mabuhay, a tiny Caribbean Island, and find in the troubles of others the possibility of the redemption of their own. Review

The Gospel in DickensCharles Dickens (edited by Gina Dalfonzo, foreword by Karen Swallow Prior). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020. A collection of excerpts from the works of Charles Dickens showing the Christian gospel themes evident throughout these works. Review

Befriending Your MonstersLuke Norsworthy. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. Discusses the fears (monsters) we often run from or that shape our lives, advocating befriending them by facing our fears, allowing us to move into healthier lives. Review

Seeing by the Light: Illumination in Augustine’s and Barth’s Readings of John, (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Ike Miller. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study on the doctrine of illumination examining how both Augustine and Barth exposited this doctrine in the gospel and letters of John. Review

The Breadth of Salvation, Tom Greggs. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. An exploration of the extravagant breadth of God’s saving work in all of its dimensions. Review

When Women Played HardballSusan E. Johnson. Seattle: Seal Press, 1994. The story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a professional league of women playing hardball from 1943 to 1954 told through a game-by-game summary of the 1950 championship, stories about the league, and player narratives. Review

Make A ListMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. An exploration of the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists wee might create. Review

Best Book of the Month: I really liked first-time author Bonnie Proudfoot’s Goshen Road. I loved the lean prose, character development, and believable dialogue in this work portraying the struggles and aspirations of working class people in rural West Virginia.

Best Quote of the Month: I loved this statement by Elaine Howard Ecklund expressing her own sense of the integration of science and faith in her life:

I am devoting my life to sociology, and to the sociological study of religion, because of gratitude. I am grateful for my Christian faith and the role it plays in my life. I am grateful for my church community. I am also grateful for the advances that science and social science have made in helping us better understand and navigate our world. I am grateful for the scientific tools and concepts that allow us to better get along and work together. Indeed my gratitude for both faith and science has compelled me to study faith communities and scientific communities and to endeavor to give back to both of those communities. And because of this gratitude I can say that my work is part of my worship.

What I’m Reading: I’ve just finished Cindy Bunch’s Be Kind to Yourself, a book that commends that we afford more grace than criticism to ourselves and suggests practices to help with that. Also just completed, Tremper Longman III’s How to Read Daniel is a clearly written guide to help readers of this often puzzling book. I’m greatly enjoying Jon Meacham’s new His Truth is Marching On, his account of civil right’s pioneer and congressman John Lewis. What a life well-lived. Into the Unbounded Night is historical fiction set in the first century spanning the Roman Empire from Britannia to Rome to Carthage to Jerusalem. Jessica Kantrowitz’s The Long Night explores the realities of depression, both the author’s experience and those of others, offering hope. Finally, I just began The Holy Spirit by Gregg Allison and Andreas J. Kostenberger, which looks to be a highly readable study of the biblical and systematic theology of the Holy Spirit.

Read on, my friends!

Books I Keep Talking About

The banner of Andy Unedited

One of the blogs I follow is Andy Unedited. The “unedited” part has to do with his work through most of his career as an editor at a publishing house. He recognizes great writing, and knows how to make it better. So when he wrote a post recently titled Twelve Books I Keep Talking About, I paid attention. He confines his list to books he’s read in the last two years. It’s a great list. There’s one that would be on my list, four others I’ve read, and a few I might look into. But the hook for me was his question at the end of the post: What are the books you keep talking about? I said I might answer in a blog post (never pass up a blog idea!), so here’s my list!

The Crucifixion, by Fleming Rutledge is one on which we agree! It was the most profound theological book I’ve read in ten years, and greatly enriched my Lenten journey a year ago. Review

Write Better, by Andrew T. LePeau, the “Andy” of Andy Unedited. He focuses on the craft, art, and spirituality of writing and the book inspired me to be a better writer. Were it not for Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, this might have made my best of the year in 2019. It was a Christianity Today Book of the year. Review

Grant, by Ron Chernow. I think each book Chernow writes gets better, and this was magnificent in exploring both the inner man and outward accomplishments of this Union general and president. Grants Memoir is on my must read list after reading him Review

Goshen Road, by Bonnie Proudfoot. This is a first time novel published by a small university press that deserves much greater attention. The writing is exquisite and the story of two sisters in working class families in rural West Virginia was one I couldn’t stop thinking about. Review

Answering the Call, by Nathaniel R. Jones. Jones and I grew up in the same home town of Youngstown. A blog follower said I ought to write about him, and in researching his life, I learned of his memoir, an inspiring story of a persevering pursuit of civil rights from advocacy, to a legal career, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, general counsel of the NAACP, and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit. Review

Still Life, by Louise Penny. I’d heard from others how good the Chief Inspector Gamache series is and what a special place is the fictional village of Three Pines. The first book lived up to the praise, and from what I hear, it only gets better. Review

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. Finally read this “coming of age” classic this year. It was one of the “books that went to war” in World War 2, reminding many soldiers of the homes and family they left behind. Review

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James Cone. Draws a profound connection between Christ’s crucifixion and the lynching of Blacks readily apparent in the Black community, but one whites may be oblivious to. Review

City on a Hill, Abram C. Van Engen. A tour de force historical study of the phrase “city on a hill” from Governor John Winthrop’s sermon in the 1630 down to the present appropriation of the phrase to articulate American exceptionalism. Review

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah. Like The Nightingale, this book stuck with me when I wasn’t reading it. It is kind of a more toxic fictional version of Tara Westover’s Educated set in the beauty of the wilds of Alaska. Review

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight. Another magnificent biography of the escaped slave who became the greatest black orator, writer and activist of the nineteenth century. Review

Perfectly Human, Sarah C. Williams. An exquisitely written personal narrative of a couple facing a pre-natal diagnosis of fatal birth defects, their decision to carry their daughter to term, their process with family and friends, and the larger issues their own decision raised for them. Review

Well, Andy, there is a dozen to match yours, at least in number. As I put this list together, I realized that these really have been books I’ve talked about, and I’ve enjoyed the chance to do so once more, to give a shout-out for the books, and to remember the great pleasure each gave in a dozen unique ways. Thanks for the question, Andy. Hope you find something on this list, and between the two of us, we gave people 23 books to consider (one in common). Happy reading my friend!

The Month in Reviews: July 2020

the lost art of dying

There are so many ways in which books may be interesting. It may be reading a classic adventure novel in the full adult version that I had read in a children’s abridgment fifty years ago. It might be learning to think like a lawyer. It could be an in-depth dive into how junior officers and those they led helped re-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1864. You could read a memoir of an African American from your home town who pursued the fight for civil rights through the practice of law as an attorney, chief counsel, and eventually, a federal judge. You may learn about the Ars Moriendi, the art of dying, and the need to recover this wisdom in our day. You might explore the daily life of Ephesus in 90 AD, and the growing pressures on Christians during the expansion of emperor worship. I had a chance to do all that and more in July. With that, here are the fourteen books I read and reviewed.

influence of soros

The Influence of SorosEmily Tamkin. New York: Harper, 2020. More than a biography, an exploration of George Soros’ origins, how he made his money, and the motives behind his use of it in his Open Society Foundation, and the resulting contradictions. Review

the lost art of dying

The Lost Art of DyingL. S. Dugdale. New York: Harper One, 2020. A physician challenges our over-medicalized treatment of the dying, advocating a recovery of the “art of dying,” which also makes it possible to live well. Review

a republic in the ranks

A Republic in the RanksZachery A. Fry. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. A study of political loyalties in the Army of the Potomac, and the influence of junior officers and the experience of war among enlisted men, resulting in Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 to a second term. Review

wait with me

Wait With MeJason Gaboury. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2020. Proposes that the experience of loneliness is an invitation to grow in our friendship with God. Review

tending soul, mind, and body

Tending Soul, Mind, and BodyEdited by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A collection of papers from the 2018 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference drawing from a variety of perspectives to consider how as whole persons we are formed in Christ. Review

Working in the presence of God

Working in the Presence of GodDenise Daniels & Shannon Vandewarker. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2019. Addresses the question of workplace spirituality–practices that help us engage with God in the context of and amid our work. Review

That Way and No Other

That Way and No OtherAmy Carmichael (Introduction by Katelyn Beaty). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020. A curated collection of writings of Amy Carmichael, the missionary to India who became house mother to girls saved from sex trafficking. Review

Approaching the Atonement

Approaching the AtonementOliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of different models of the atonement, explaining and critiquing each model, focusing on the “mechanism” of atonement, the issue of violence, and the author’s own preferred approach. Review

Answering the Call

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016. The memoir of Judge Nathaniel Jones, from his early civil rights efforts to his work as general counsel of the NAACP, and then service as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Review

A week in the life of ephesus

A Week in the Life of Ephesus (A Week in the Life Series), David A. deSilva. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A historical novel exploring the religious and cultural context of Ephesus during the reign of Domitian c. 90 AD. Review

3 musketeers

The Three MusketeersAlexandre Dumas. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2011 (originally published 1844). An adventure that begins with D’Artagnan, a young nobleman who wants to join the musketeers of the guard, and quickly gets entangled with plots to bring about war between England and France, and love affairs that endanger his life and break his heart. Review

no border land

No Border LandTom Graffagnino. Grand Rapids: Credo House Publishers, 2020. A prophetic call to a world without moral or spiritual borders, to a lukewarm, compromised church, concluding with a vision of the beauty of the Christian hope rooted in the cross. Review

Thinking Like a Lawyer

Thinking Like a LawyerColin Seale. Waco: Prufrock Press, 2020. Applies the framework law students learn to teaching critical thinking for all school students. Review

analog church

Analog ChurchJay Y. Kim (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2020. An argument for churches maintain real community, participatory worship, the ministry of the word, and communion in an era when it is tempting to “go digital” with the rest of the culture. Review

Best of the Month: The Lost Art of Dying combined a depth of thoughtfulness with a quiet, articulate voice asking probing questions about how we die, and what it means to die well. The author proposes that we cannot truly live well if we haven’t reckoned with our deaths. Seems a most timely book in this time of great sickness.

Best Quote of the Month: In a wonderful collection of the writings of Amy Carmichael, I came across this statement that is a challenge for every bibliophile:

It matters a good deal that your book-food should be strong meat. We are what we think about. Think about trivial things or weak things and somehow one loses fiber and becomes flabby in spirit.

What I’m Reading: I’m finishing up several books as I write. Just finished Jeffrey Sachs The Ages of Globalization, looking at seven ages of “global” empires and the technology, the geography and the institutions that made them possible. I’m getting ready to interview John Inazu for work, and have been enjoying the collection of essays called Uncommon Ground that he and New York pastor Tim Keller have co-edited. Each essayist, in their own field, explore the challenge of Christian engagement in a divided world. Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist, looks at eight shared values of people of faith and scientists that may lead to a better science-faith conversation in Why Science and Faith Need Each Other. I’m greatly enjoying the work of a regional author, Bonnie Proudfoot, in her novel about a couple generations of close relations in rural West Virginia, their struggles and their dignity. Lastly, Graham Tarrant’s For the Love of Books, is a topically organized collection of book trivia that is a fun read for any book lover.

It’s hard to believe how fast the summer is going! I look at the books I had thought I would read this summer. I still want to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I’ve had for a couple years. It is both significant and imposing. I probably just need to set aside some of the books I have waiting for review. Ah…so many books, so little time! But it is not how many books we get through, but how many get through to us, as Mortimer Adler has remarked. Hope you will have one or more good books get through to you in the remaining weeks of summer!

Higher Education Books I Would Re-Read

red building with clock tower

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I work in collegiate ministry, particularly relating to grad students, faculty and administrators. That has resulted in a passion to understand the place where I and these people work. What is the history of these institutions? Why do they exist and toward what end? How do they work? And as a Christian engaged in ministry in this setting, what does religious faith have to do with the enterprise of higher education. Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful that I turn to again and again.

Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts. One of the early defenses of the classic idea of the liberal arts in the face of increasing questions about both their usefulness, and attacks on political correctness. He addresses “liberal bias” and discusses what’s right about the liberal arts.

Robert Boyers, The Tyranny of Virtue. A more recent book also holding up the classic view of the liberal arts against the virtue signalling, cancel culture becoming more prominent in university life. This book addresses what’s wrong with the liberal arts and why the death of these programs is at least in part, self-inflicted.

Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. This is a concisely present history of universities, an overview of what they are today, and Delbanco’s idea of what they should be as places that educate for citizenship and prepare people for useful work and a life of meaning.

Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul. Since 2008 when this book came out, Donna Freitas has been writing about campus sexuality, and the connection between sexuality and spirituality. In this book she studied four kinds of campuses including conservative evangelical campuses and how religious beliefs shaped sexual ethics and practices of students.

Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of the Universities. I read this in college, and it is a good basic account of the rise of colleges out the cathedral schools of Europe.

Anthony T. Kronmen, Education’s End. The title is something of a play on words, dealing both with the purpose and the demise of higher education. Kronmen provocatively questions why universities have given up on the big questions, like the meaning of life.

George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University. More than just a study of the history of the American university, he looks at how the place of religious faith shifted from the center to the margins as universities moved from church-centered schools to public and pluralistic research universities.

Paul H. Mattingly, American Academic Cultures. Covers similar ground to Marsden but looks at the history as one of seven overlapping academic cultures, featuring a prominent campus example of each.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. A classic, from his lectures as Rector of the University of Ireland, in which he discusses the unity of knowledge, the relation of faith to free inquiry, and the relationship between the church and the academy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom. A collection of essays relating faith and the educational enterprise where the author’s concerns for shalom, justice, academic freedom, and how a Christian world and life view works itself out in various academic disciplines.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University. Unlike the earlier book, written in the context of a Christian college, this work was written during the author’s tenure at Yale. He makes a compelling argument for the rightful place of religious voices in academic discourse.

As with other installments in this”books I would re-read” series, these are not the only books worthy of such a list. There are others on my shelves I haven’t read once that probably should be here. Universities are vitally important cultural institutions, both in educating the next generation and in conducting cutting edge research to enhance in various ways our flourishing as human beings. These are some of the books that have helped me understand that world.

 

 

The Month in Reviews: June 2020

the great alone

A classic biography. Agatha Christie at her best. Books on issues of race. American ideals, religious and otherwise. Theological works and atlases. A thoughtful work on the second half of life. A frank discussion of sexual abuse in the church. An exploration of the revival we so desperately long for. And quite possible one of the best novels I’ve read since the last one by the same author. That’s this month’s reading in a nutshell. And here are the books.

Paul and the Language of faith

Paul and the Language of Faith, Nijay K, Gupta (Foreword by James D. G. Dunn). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020. A study of the word pistis, often translated as “faith” as used in the writings of Paul, the rest of scripture, as well as in literature contemporary to the time, showing the rich nuances of meaning that must be determined by context. Review

The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American DreamD. L. Mayfield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A collection of Christian reflections chronicling the author’s awakening to the ways the American dream neither works for everyone nor reflects the values of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated. Review

sacred liberty

Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious FreedomStephen Waldman. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. Rather than a given of American religious history, religious liberty has often been honored more in the breach, and fought for by religious minorities excluded from this liberty. Review

when narcissism

When Narcissism Comes to ChurchChuck DeGroat. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Explores the expressions narcissism can take in the church, the damage it may do, and healing both for the abused and the narcissists who abuse them. Review

The Basic Bible Atlas

The Basic Bible AtlasJohn A. Beck. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. An introductory Bible atlas that combines an overview of the biblical narrative and colorful and detailed maps, with an emphasis on the significance of the geography to the unfolding plan of God. Review

In the Hands of the people

In the Hands of the PeopleJon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020. A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author. Review

good white racist

Good* White RacistKerry Connelly (Foreword by Michael W. Waters). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Explores how whites may be complicit with a system of racism while being well-intentioned and how white efforts to sustain a sense of “goodness” help perpetuate racial divides. Review

Crowmwell the Lord Protector

Cromwell: The Lord ProtectorAntonia Fraser. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. A biography of Oliver Cromwell, a military and parliamentary leader during the English Civil Wars, rising after the death of Charles I to Lord Protector. Review

brown church

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants. Review

Longing for Revival

Longing for RevivalJames Choung and Ryan Pfeifer. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A practical work on revival that begins with defining what it is and why we ought hope for it; second, what it means to experience revival; and third, what it means to lead in a time of revival. Review

the murder on the links

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), Agatha Christie. New York Harper Collins, 2011 (first published in 1923). A man who writes Poirot from the north of France of his life being in danger is found dead by Poirot under circumstances similar to another murder many years earlier that is key to Poirot unraveling the case. Review

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See-Through Marriage, Ryan and Selena Frederick. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. A fulfilling marriage is one that is transparent, about our joys and desires, our past and our failures, where all these things are brought into the light. Review

the great aloneThe Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin. Review

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators. Review

becoming sage

Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Press, 2020. An exploration of what Christian growth looks like in the second half of life. Review

Best of the Month: Hands down, it has to be Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. The combination of wonderful writing about Alaska’s beauty and the lines that run between beauty and danger, love and danger, and characters that you can’t get out of your head makes this a truly great work. I’d be surprised if people weren’t reading this work ten years or more from now.

Best Quote of the Month: Jon Meacham’s In the Hands of the People, a book of quotes by and about Jefferson on numerous themes includes this one on voting that seems apropos in an election year:

It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

What I’m reading. I’ve just begun to read Lydia S. Dugdale’s The Lost Art of Dying. Dugdale explores how we have over-medicalized death and contends we need to recover the ancient wisdom of what it means to prepare for our death and die well. A Republic in the Ranks by Zachery Fry (an acquaintance) explores the way political influence played out in the Union Army and the reasons for the shift in affection from the Democrat McClellan to the Republican Lincoln that led to his 1864 re-election. The Influence of Soros by Emily Tamkin explores the ideals that motivate George Soros, the contradictory aspects of his life, and some of the reasons behind why so many vilify him. Lastly, I’m just beginning Tending Body, Mind, and Soul, an exploration of a theology of spiritual formation. As always, an interesting mix. It has been a busy month for me. I look forward to a quieter July, some chance to read and reflect, as the pandemic seems to be heating up. Stay safe out there my friends!

Ten Books on My Racial Journey

1024px-Civil_Rights_March_on_Washington,_D.C._(Dr._Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Mathew_Ahmann_in_a_crowd.)_-_NARA_-_542015_-_Restoration

Civil Rights March on Washington D.C., Photo by Rowland Scherman, licensed under CC0

True confession. I am a recovering racist. It has probably only been in the last ten years that I could even admit that to myself–or anyone else. I grew up watching the civil rights marches and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr talk about the dream. In elementary school we sang, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” with its soaring conclusion “To take each moment and live each moment in perfect harmony.”

Meanwhile, I grew up on the White West side of my town. In our schools, we were about 98 percent white. Years later, I saw the maps of my city from the 1930’s and 1940’s that confined Blacks to the most inferior housing, marked in red, hence the idea of redlining. I listened to those in my extended family talk about “them” and how they lived and imbibed unconsciously so many stereotypes. Going to college was supposed to shatter all that with a good liberal education. I learned how to talk the talk, but I still walked White.

I’ve worked in a collegiate ministry funded through donations. Though not as well connected as richer friends, I never had a problem raising funds, unlike most of my black colleagues, for whom it always seemed harder. It was here I began to understand something of the privilege I enjoyed, despite my modest background, simply because I was white (and male). It made me wonder why the playing field wasn’t level, despite all our civil rights rhetoric.

And so I did what I always have done as a bibliophile. I started reading. That’s not all I did. I was graced to have friends and colleagues that were black. And finally, it began to get through my head that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know and to stop pretending I was “woke,” and listen. I don’t think you can recover from racism just by reading books. But here are some that have helped me understand both the black experience, and hold up a mirror to myself.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Alexander helped me understand the ways the mass incarceration of black men, many for drug offenses (much more heavily enforced in black neighborhoods) that helped create a permanent underclass who couldn’t vote, couldn’t qualify for federally subsidized housing, or obtain work.

Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black American 1619-1964. This helped me understand better the 400 year history of black subjugation, that began prior to the Pilgrims!

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. A set of letters from father to son that reveals the abiding awareness of the threats against the black body, and the abiding struggle to hope for something different.

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. A profound reflection on the parallels between the cross of Christ, and the lynching tree, one white Americans are oblivious to as we deny our lynching history, but one that offers meaning to sustain the long struggle.

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility. This book showed me that most often I and other whites are the problem in race conversations. We so want to be good, to not be thought racist, that we do all sorts of things that shut down conversation. It also challenged me that as whites, we need to do our work rather than put that on blacks.

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith. Two sociologists look at why 11 am on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week. They note the individualistic solutions to race in white evangelicalism that fails to deal with the structures of a racialized society inside as well as outside the church.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy. This book, recently adapted into a film looks at the ways race often enters into the police and justice systems of our country, depriving many blacks of equal treatment under the law. Stevenson opens our eyes to this through death row inmate Walter McMillian, and how difficult an obstructive system made it to prove that he had been wrongly convicted of murder.

Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin. Wallis awakened me with how racism and the dehumanization of blacks traces to our national origins, our earliest economic patterns, and our founding fathers and documents. It persuaded me that, not wanting to face how profoundly we are implicated, we have tried to heal this wound lightly.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. Through three families, Wilkerson traces the great migration of blacks from the Jim Crow south to the north and the west, and how this transformed the cities of north and west, as well as the south.

Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality. The most memorable statement in this book, that the rest of the book unpacks was “White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”

These books are uncomfortable reads for a white person like me. They undermine the image I want to project, and the things I want to believe are true. They also liberated me because managing the image that I’m a good “woke” person, and sustaining lies about our society and about me is actually a burden. In shattering my illusions of my goodness, our goodness, they free me of demanding perfection of the other or patronizing them. They remind me that in some sense, we are all “muddling through” and it might make more sense to muddle together than separately.

I do want to acknowledge that I’ve written here in terms of black and white. The racial journey in this country is far more complicated. We are white, Latino/a, black, Asian, and indigenous peoples, and more. I will admit that I’ve read less of these others and wish to read more, listen more to their narratives. I’ve still got a lot of recovering to do.

Spiritual Formation Books I Would Read Again

close up of a bible

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

The idea of spiritual formation is that the spiritual life is not a static experience but a project of growth. Formation literally suggests the shaping of our lives, our characters, our affections to reflect who or what we consider the ultimate. As you know, I write as a Christian, so the books I share here reflect what it means to follow and be formed in Christ. They are books I have found helpful in my own spiritual progress, and would visit again (and have in some cases).

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat. A wonderful guide to answer the invitation of Jesus to “come with me.” I’ve appreciated a number of works by this author but this is one I pull out whenever I plan a retreat.

Carmen Butcher (tr.), The Cloud of Unknowing. Butcher’s translation of this classic work sings. The author is unknown but leads us into the richness of contemplative prayer.

Michael Card, Inexpressible. The whole book is a study and meditation on one rich Bible word, hesed, referring to the covenant-keeping, lovingkindness of God.

Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life. Ford follows the practice of praying the hours to help us discover what it means to pay attention to God’s work throughout our days and all around us.

Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening. This was the first book that drew me to rather than repelled me from spiritual direction. Guenther is so unpretentious about the whole thing.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal. The parable of the prodigal is such a profound story, and Nouwen’s use of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal takes us deeply into this story and what it means for our lives.

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles. The subtitle of this book is “The shape of pastoral integrity.” While I am not a church pastor, this book challenged me with suggesting that such integrity functions within a triangle of prayer, the reading of scripture, and the work of spiritual direction. He beckons away from the siren calls of charisma and technique.

Gordon T. Smith, Teach Us to Pray. A guide to prayer using our Lord’s prayer, taking us through three movements, of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren connects the extraordinary things we pray in our churches on Sunday with the ordinary events of our domestic daily lives.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard’s focus is less on the disciplines themselves that what is behind them, why we practice them. He contends:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” 

Nearly all of these writers have written other things, and I could have easily substituted other works. If you find one of these who is a good guide to you, keep reading their works. Above all, I think all of them would direct you to the ultimate formation book, perhaps obvious, but often neglected–The Bible.

The Month in Reviews: May 2020

5282This month’s reviews began with a graphic non-fiction work on the Kent State shootings on the fiftieth anniversary of the event. I ended the month with a sixty year retrospective on the Christian Study Center movement. Both were great accounts to understand different pieces of history in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s (as well as a chance to revisit some memories.). In between was the discovery of the mysteries of Georges Simenon, and the concluding volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I reviewed a history of the ServiceMaster company, which in reality focused around the character and values of five men who led the company during its first 75 years and an excellent study of how people learn. The rest? A good selection of biblical studies, theology, a faith and science book, and writing about different aspects of Christian living.

Kent State Four Dead in Ohio

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020. A graphic non-fiction account of the shooting of four students at Kent State University, focusing on the students who died, and the sequence of events leading up to the shooting, and the dynamics within the National Guard Troops sent to suppress the student demonstrations. Review

A Multitude

A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global IdentityVince L. Bantu. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A well-documented study of the global spread of ancient Christianity, controverting the argument of Christianity as White and western, and contending for the contextualizing and de-colonizing of contemporary global Christianity. Review

shaped by suffering

Shaped by Suffering: How Temporary Hardships Prepare Us for Our Eternal  HomeKenneth Boa, with Jenny Abel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A study of how suffering may shape a person for eternity with God, based on 1 Peter. Review

learning cycle

The Learning CycleMuriel I. Elmer and Duane H. Elmer. Downers Grove: IVP Academiv, 2020. The Elmer’s propose a five level process for learning that is not a transfer of information from the teacher to the student but the transformation of the life of the learner. Review

The Jesus Creed

The Jesus CreedScot McKnight. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019. Explores how reciting, reflecting upon, and living the Greatest Command can transform the lives of disciples. Review

From Adam and Israel

From Adam and Israel to the Church (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology [ESBT], Benjamin L. Gladd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A study of the theme of the people of God, tracing this theme throughout scripture in Eden, in Israel, in Christ, and in the church. Review

the sacred change

The Sacred ChaseHeath Adamson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. Using Jesus’ encounter with the demoniac who ran toward him, the author encourages us that as we pursue God, we may have the intimate relationship with God we desire. Review

Maigret

Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse , (Inspector Maigret #58), Georges Simenon, translated by Ros Schwartz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2019 (originally published 1962). Maigret investigates a murder of a loved and respected retired businessman, with no hint of motive from family, neighbors or associates–all good people. Review

the servicemaster story

The ServiceMaster StoryAlbert M. Erisman. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. A history of ServiceMaster, attributing its success to its ability to hold four ethical principles in tension and to the five leaders, who like overlapping shingles, led the company for over 70 years, including 29 consecutive years of revenue growth. Review

materiality as existence

Materiality as ResistanceWalter Brueggemann (Foreword by Jim Wallis). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Explores how the material aspects of life informed by Christian spiritual commitments may be lived as a form of resistance to a materialistic culture. Review

A worldview approach to science and scripture

A Worldview Approach to Science and ScriptureCarol Hill. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019. This book proposes that a worldview approach offers the best prospect of reconciling scripture and science, taking both seriously. Review

the mirror and the light

The Mirror & the LightHilary Mantel. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2020. The third and final installment of Mantel’s historical fiction account of the life of Thomas Cromwell from the pinnacle of his own career under Henry VIII following the execution of Anne Boleyn, to his own downfall. Review

to think Christianly

To Think ChristianlyCharles E. Cotherman (Foreword by Kenneth G. Elzinga).  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A history of the Christian study center movement, beginning with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri, and James Houston’s Regent College. Review

Best Book of the Month. Charles Cotherman’s To Think Christianly is a highly readable, well-researched narrative of Christian Study Centers, tracing the influence of Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri and James Houston’s Regent College on present day study centers.

Best Quote of the Month. In From Adam and Israel to the Church, I came across this statement on the new creation that was worth some wonderful reflection:

Perhaps another dimension of imaging God in the new creation will be the development of technology and science. Will we invent the wheel again? Will we learn how to start a fire once more? What about basic human knowledge such as math, language, music, and so on? I suspect that we will not start from scratch. One could possibly argue that we, being perfected in God’s image, will develop what we have learned in the past. The knowledge that humanity has acquired and is acquiring through observing the world around us may not only inform us about God’s creative power, but it may also prepare us for life in the new creation.

What I’m Reading. Having finished one Cromwell, I’ve moved on to another. I’ve had Antonia Fraser’s Lord Protector on my to read stack for a long time, her biography of Oliver Cromwell, the grandson of Thomas Cromwell’s sister. Unlike Thomas Cromwell, Oliver was executed after his death. I am also reading D.L. Mayfields essays titled, The Myth of the American Dream, how the American dream of some is the nightmare of others. Nijay Gupta’s Paul and the Language of Faith takes the novel approach of studying the language of faith throughout Paul’s writing (as well as in other parts of scripture and contemporary literature). Steven Waldman’s Sacred Liberty studies the history of religious liberty in the United States, one in which religious liberty was often a privilege of a religious majority, more respected in the absence of equal enjoyment by others, sadly accompanied by violence and death in some cases.

Hope you are able to relax with a good book this summer even if vacation is staycation this summer.

Theology I Would Re-read

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Theology books I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020. 

I read quite a few theology books, which may be odd for some. All I can say is that if one believes, according to the Westminster Confession that “the chief end of human beings (“man” in the generic form) is to worship God and enjoy Him forever,” then it seems a worthy form of reading to explore the excellency of God, and how we might joyfully relate to this God. No offense if you see things differently, though the question of “chief end” is one we all must answer. Here is some of the theology, I would re-read. In fact, some of these I have re-read.

Garwood Anderson, Paul’s New Perspective. There has been much discussion of the “new perspective” on Paul. This careful study of Paul’s writings explores the possibility of development in Paul’s understanding, offering warrant for both “traditional” and “new” perspectives.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  One of the best summers I ever spent including working through these two volumes, marveling at one who loved God so deeply and reasoned so carefully.

Daniel L. Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God. This is the best book I’ve read on the troubling Old Testament passages that connect Israel’s violence with God. Hawk allows for the disturbing complexity of the biblical witness that explores the messiness of God who is both in but not of the ancient Near Eastern world of Israel.

Matthew Levering, Dying and the Virtues. A probing exploration of the biblical virtues by which we live–and die. He revives the ancient pastoral conversation on what it means to make a good end to our lives.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God. No single book played a greater role in opening my eyes to the greatness of God and the joy of knowing Him. This was one to be read a few pages at a time. I’ve done so several times.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity. The shortest book in the collection, but no less rich in its insights into the mystery of the Triune nature of God.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. I spent Lent last year reading this work, leaving me in wonder at the death of the Son of God.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith challenges the notion that all we need to do is get people to believe the right things. His theology of what it means to be human is to be desiring creatures, and that we believe what we practice, that “thick” practices shape our spiritual affections.

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ. For many years, I was part of a reading group called the Dead Theologians Society. After reading this work together, one of our participants remarked that this was the best book we had read (in a group that had read Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and many others). Stott, with his typical clarity of expression and insight, sets forth the work of the cross, and his defense of substitution, not so popular nowadays, with depth and concision.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is an absolutely magnificent study of the idea of the resurrection in “second temple” Judaism and the surrounding culture, and the evidences for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things all these works have in common is that they are works of conviction, that pulse with the passion for God of the authors, that elevates them from our image of theology as a dry and dusty discipline. There are many others that I could have added and I’d love to hear of those you would re-read. It’s just possible that I might choose to read them for the first time. I always love a book recommendation that says, “I would read it again.” In the area of theology, that tells me that the author has moved beyond the commonplace nostrums to a personal knowledge of the God of whom they write.

 

The Month in Reviews: April 2020

the seamless life

This month, I went to war with Old Testament Israel and World War 2 soldiers and their books. I went questing for unicorns and explored life in the Cleveland Zoo and on to nearby Newark, Ohio for an up-close look at Ohio’s addiction crisis. I went to Princeton to listen to a professor from the late nineteenth century as he engaged the then-new theory of evolution and listened to seventeen biblical scholars talk about their work and how it has affected their faith.  I followed the career of John Jay. I traveled to idyllic Three Pines, and to dystopian southern California in a not-too-distant future. I did all this and more while staying at home.

still life

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005. The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer. Review

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published 1993). Lauren Olamina, whose life has been spent in a guarded enclave from a violent society, flees with two other survivors when it is destroyed, the core of an Earthseed community, the outgrowth of a religious vision. Review

When Books Went to War

When Books Went to WarMolly Guptill Manning. New York: Mariner Books, 2014. This history of efforts to supply American servicemen in World War 2 with books. Review

Philippians

Philippians (Kerux Commentaries), Thomas Moore and Timothy D. Sprankle. Grand Rapids, Kregel Ministry, 2019. A biblical commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians combining exegetical and preaching resources for each passage. Review

9781532690143

Evolution, Scripture, and ScienceB. B. Warfield (Edited by Mark A. Noll & David N. Livingstone). Eugene, Wipf & Stock, 2019 (originally published in 2000). A collection of the writings of B.B. Warfield consisting of lectures, articles, and reviews showing his engagement with evolutionary writers and his conviction that scripture and science need not be in conflict. Review

This is Ohio

This Is OhioJack Shuler. Berkeley: Counterpoint, (forthcoming August) 2020. A narrative account of the overdose crisis in the United States, focusing on Newark, Ohio, a former industrial center, advocating for harm reduction and the involvement of drug users in policy decisions. Review

the last unicorn

The Last UnicornPeter S. Beagle. New York: Roc, 1968. A quest in which the last unicorn embarks on a quest to find her lost kin, eventually join by Schmendrick the Magician, and Molly Grue, a quest involving a confrontation with the Red Bull, and a grim king. Review

the seamless life

The Seamless LifeSteven Garber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. A collection of short reflections around the integral relationship between our daily life and work and the love of God, accompanied by the author’s photography. Review

bloody, brutal and barbaric

Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. Using an incremental, redemptive ethic approach, and careful textual study, the authors argue for assessing the Old Testament warfare and war rape narratives against the Ancient Near East cultural context, the constraints on warfare for Israel, and evidence in the arc of biblical narrative that God both grieves warfare and redemptively works for the end of it. Review

experiencing God

Experiencing God (Inner Land – Volume 3), Eberhard Arnold. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2020. What it means for us to truly experience the greatness of God and the peace of God. Review

i still believe

I (Still) BelieveJohn Byron and Joel N. Lohr, editors. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. Seventeen narratives of scholars who address the question of whether academic study of the Bible is a threat to one’s faith. Review

Life in the Cleveland Zoo

My Life in the Cleveland ZooAdam A. Smith with Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2014. A memoir recounting numerous stories from the author’s years of working at the Cleveland Zoo as a tour train driver, a night watchmen, and a animal keeper with pachyderms. Review

john jay

John Jay: Founding FatherWalter Stahr. New York: Diversion Books, 2012. A full-length biography of this lesser-known founder, drawing on new material tracing his numerous contributions to the beginnings of the United States. Review

Best Book of the Month. I loved Steve Garber’s new book, The Seamless Life. He takes us on a journey across the country, complete with gorgeous photographs, describing people and organizations living a seamless life of faith and practice.

Quote of the Month. This is a short one that might well appear not only on a mirror in Louise Penny’s Three Pines, but on each of our mirrors:

“You’re looking at the problem.”

What I’m Reading. I’ve just begun Hilary Mantel’s latest and last installment in her account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light. I’ve just begun a new book by Muriel and Duane Elmer, The Learning Cycle, on how we learn and how learning may transform us. Kenneth Boa’s Shaped by Suffering is a study of 1 Peter and how suffering may transform our character. Vincent L. Bantu’s A Multitude of All Peoples gives the lie to the idea that Christianity is the white man’s religion, showing the ancient global spread of Christianity. I expect to follow these by Scot McKnight’s The Jesus Creed, and a graphic non-fiction account of the Kent State shootings. This year marks 50 years since that tragic event that shattered the spring of my sophomore year in high school.

I hope in this time of stay at home orders, your books take you many places, help you reflect on things that matter, and remember.