Friday, February 5, 2016

Like Jesus, by Jamie Snyder

Pastor Jamie Snyder was bothered by the bumper-sticker sentiment: "I like Jesus.  I just don't like His followers."  He concluded that "the reason so many people do not like followers of Jesus is because they are not like Jesus.  By they, I mean we.  By we, I mean I."  With this sort of humility, and a desire to be like the real Jesus, he writes Like Jesus: Shattering Our False Images of the Real Christ.

Christians, he writes, tend to have a "Build-a-Jesus" mentality, creating the sort of Jesus we want to worship.  Snyder describes "The American Jesus," "The Political Jesus," "The Fundamentalist Jesus," and "The Emergent Jesus."  There are many other varieties, of course, depending on one's upbringing or theological hobby horses.  (I just don't know how Snyder can write this chapter without referencing Ricky Bobby's prayer in Talledega Nights.  He prays to "Dear Lord Baby Jesus."  He says "I like the Christmas Jesus best," but tells his wife she can pray to "grown-up Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want."  Ricky's friend says he pictures Jesus in "a tuxedo t-shirt."  His son says he pictures him as a ninja fighting off the evil samurai.  It's a silly scene, a bit irreverent, but it illustrates Snyder's point oh, so well.  Wow, that was a bit of a tangent. . . .)

Snyder's message can be pretty well summed up by his church's mission statement: "Love Jesus.  Love like Jesus."  If we want to be like Jesus, our compassion will lead to action.  We will show our love for Jesus by obeying him.  We will do what God calls us to do, "doing the right thing, not just avoiding the wrong thing."

And it's not just what we do, it's who we are.  If we are following Jesus, we will love people like he did, and we will experience inner transformation.  Snyder writes, "People are not going to mistake us for Jesus because we show up at a church building on Sunday morning.  However, they will mistake us for Jesus when we love in a way that doesn't make sense, when we give beyond what is expected, when we take risks that do not seem rational.  We resemble Jesus the most in the midst of active compassion."  I especially like one of Snyder's measures to determine whether we are living like Jesus.  He asks, Do "people of your town or city . . . eagerly approach you?  Do people who are supposedly untouchable . . . come running to you, knowing you will offer a warm embrace and a touch of healing?"

I'm not there.  I don't know many Christians who are.  "Becoming like Jesus is an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly commitment one makes."  People in Jesus' day said, in a variety of ways, "There is something about Jesus. . . ."  As we imitate him and grow more intimate with him, people will say there is something about us, too.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challege: A book about Christian living

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The State of Our Disunion, by Eugene Goodheart

Reading Eugene Goodheart's The State of Our Disunion: The Obama Years is a little like listening to an old but knowledgeable guy ramble on about politics and culture.  You appreciate the breadth of his knowledge, you respect his opinion even when you might disagree with him, but you wonder if he's ever going to get to the point.  Goodheart is certainly knowledgeable, with educational and teaching credentials to spare.  And I really disagreed with him throughout most of the book.  But he does tend to ramble.

Goodheart's is a voice of reasonable moderation, leaning to the left.  He's a fan and defender of Obama.     Critics of Obama's foreign policy unfairly criticize his "allegedly feckless behavior," calling him "incapable of acting promptly and decisively with the necessary determination and force." To Goodheart, white conservatives can't get over a black man in the White House: "It is hard to measure the extent of white displeasure with a black president, but the signs are hard to ignore."  (On a side note, Biden's quite pleased to have a black man in the White House.  Here's his endorsement of Obama: he is the "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."  All you pre-2008 black politicians just didn't measure up. . . . Nothing racist about Biden's remarks, no way.)

Don't get me wrong.  Goodheart is not among the "Obama can do no wrong" crowd.  His larger point as he discusses Obama's domestic and foreign policies is that he is a compromiser, open to the best ideas, not tied to the party line.  His "'willingness and ability to learn from everybody' and change direction becomes [to liberals] a reflection of his lack of commitment."  So he's too fluid and non-dogmatic for liberals, who "viewed his election as the second coming of Martin Luther King," and too liberal (and too black, of course) for conservatives.

This is actually what I like about Goodheart.  He's a defender of Obama, but not in a sound bite, Sunday morning talk show kind of way.  His style is not at all suited for talk radio, or the daytime talking-head news channel shows.  He would be much more at home on one of those PBS or BBC programs, with two guys having long conversations on a bare set with no live audience.  Or maybe on Diane Rehm's show.  Yes, Goodheart's liberal.  No, he's not the most structured writer.  But spend an afternoon on the porch with him and you'll definitely learn something.  He might even convince you to admire Obama just a little bit more.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challege: A book with an ugly cover.  OK, there may be uglier covers than this, but you gotta admit, it has a little slapped together, made on a word processor look to it.  That's John Boehner telling Obama he's full of bologna, while Obama tries to convince everyone Obama is the smartest, most reasonable person in the room.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Art of War, Stephen Coonts

For 30 years, Stephen Coonts has been writing best-selling military suspense novels.  With a law degree and time served flying for the U.S. Navy, he brings an authenticity to his fiction that is tough to beat.  His newest book, The Art of War: A Novel, brings together two of his characters, Jake Grafton and Tommy Carmellini, who team up to uncover a Chinese plot to destroy a large chunk of the U.S. fleet.

The scary part of The Art of War?  That Coonts makes everything seem so absolutely plausible!  He lays out a blueprint for someone to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the vicinity of a major U.S. naval base.  Granted, I'm no military expert, but I can see Coonts's scenario playing out.  Knowing that they are no match for the U.S. militarily, the Chinese plant a nuke to be detonated when five aircraft carriers are in port together.  They figure that will give the Chinese some time to catch up to the U.S.

When several intelligence officials are assassinated and Air Force One is taken down by an EMP, Grafton and Carmellini and their team scramble to figure out how it all fits together.  As a result of the CIA director's assassination, Grafton steps in as acting director and becomes a target himself.  The Art of War moves fast and keeps you guessing up to the end.  With more than a dozen novels featuring Grafton and Carmellini, there are plenty of references to events from the past, but The Art of War definitely stands on its own.  You won't want to put it down!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challege: A book with a great cover

Sunday, January 31, 2016

I Like My Brown Skin Because . . ., by Julia A. Davis

When Julia Davis's grandson asked her if her brown skin made her sad, Davis (after the shock wore off) was inspired to write a book about her pride in her brown-skinned forebears.  When culture seems to degrade or devalue those with brown skin, all of us, children especially, need reminders of the great people of the past and present who have brown skin and to whom we can look as role models.

Davis goes all the way back to Africa, describing the accomplishments and culture of Africans before Europeans colonized their lands and enslaved their people.  She tells of the strength of black people who suffered under slavery, and the bravery of those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement.  She describes the accomplishments of black war heroes, inventors, entrepreneurs, educators, doctors, politicians, engineers, and more.

With each chapter, she concludes with an admonition to the readers to look to what these people accomplished and an encouragement to follow their lead.  She writes, "No matter what negative comments others make about you, don't let their thinking stop you from reaching your goals and your full potential."

I love her positive attitude and the constant refrain that black people don't have to let unjust laws, societal pressure, racist attitudes, and the like keep them from living their lives well.  She acknowledges what many perceive as current reality: "'White privilege' still exists in most American institutions."  In my opinion she takes this a little too far (She says we live in "a nation that preaches equal opportunity for all, while practicing a policy of white privilege and black suppression.")  She's correct that suppression and restrictions in the past have lasting effects today, in terms of family wealth, education, and geography.  My own experience, and the experience of many of the contemporary African-Americans she profiles in the book, tell me white privilege is on the way out.

I Like My Brown Skin . . . will inspire young readers (old ones, too!) and instill an appreciation for the hard work, sacrifices, and accomplishments of black people throughout American history.  It's a hall of heroes; pick your role model.  Hopefully Ms. Davis's grandson, and kids of all ages with brown skin, can join her in saying, "I like my brown skin!"

(I do have to add one thing, concerning her admiration for Obama.  I know it's historically significant that he is the first African-American president.  But her praise of him was really over the top.  I laughed out loud when she called him "a brilliant African-American constitutional scholar."  Sure, he taught some classes at the University of Chicago law school, but he has never published any scholarly articles, on the Constitution or anything else.  This is one of many reasons I believe Obama was judged and elected based on his color not on his character or qualifications.  And before you accuse me of "resent[ing] his occupation of that office due to the color of his skin," just know that no matter his race, I don't like his politics and policies.  All of this is to say, after reading about the heroic, accomplished African Americans in I Like My Brown Skin Because . . ., I understand you have to include Obama because of his historical place, but the hagiography and skewed accounting of his record as president tainted the presentation.)

OK, political rant over.  It's a great book!  Buy it for your kids!

To read a sample and to purchase the book,
visit the Epps-Alford web site.

Friday, January 29, 2016

i-Minds, by Mari K. Swingle

Look around, at the dinner table, on public transportation, at other drivers at a stop light (or driving on the road), at work, just about anywhere, and many, maybe most, maybe all of the people you see are transfixed by their smart phones.  A boon to communication and information?  A detriment to social interaction?  A signal of permanent changes in the structure of our brains and of society?  All of the above?  Psychoneurophysiologist Dr. Mari K. Swingle writes in i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species that, in fact, our brains can change as a result of what she calls i-tech, but that doesn't have to be the bottom line.

On one level, Dr. Swingle's point is self-evident: new technology changes the way we interact with each other and the world around us.  Written language, the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, photography, movies, television, computers, the internet, now smart phones and social media.  Dr. Swingle argues, based on her clinical observations of brain wave patterns, as well as on behavioral observations, that current i-tech takes it a step further, with actual rewiring of the brain.

Dr. Swingle is not all gloom and doom, nor does she take a Luddite position rejecting technology.  "True integration," she writes, is technology that "fits in, being integral to modern life, without overriding, or eclipsing, the development, or maintenance, of other healthy behaviors."  Her theme is "nothing wrong with a little, a lot wrong with a lot."

Parents and non-parents alike will nod in agreement with Dr. Swingle's assessments and recommendations to reduce i-tech usage, especially by very young kids.  Brain wave patterns aside, she describes the ways in which i-tech can alter the way people relate to one another, play together, and learn.  One troubling example relates to the online bullying.  She argues that given the zero-tolerance policies against physical violence at school, children have taken their bullying to i-tech.  In the past boys would fight and be done, or kids would taunt other kids as they passed in the hall.  Now boys and girls take their disputes and taunts to i-tech, where the audience is larger, the record is permanent, and the humiliation is more widespread and accessible.  The solution has become larger than the problem.

I was interested in her discussions of children with autism.  She writes that if you have an autistic child, "under no circumstances permit the child to engage with i-tech, any i-tech," arguing that the hyper-focus on i-tech with thwart social development.  She acknowledges that some individuals can "functionally use technologies for work and communication as needed when older," but doesn't say when "older" is old enough.  I personally have watched my non-verbal daughter, an i-tech lover, use her iPad and other assistive technology to communicate and interact with others.  I am delighted that we have i-tech tools to help autistic and other disabled individuals communicate.  Throughout the book, I was surprised that Dr. Swingle didn't encourage more use of i-tech for people with disabilities.

Much of Dr. Swingle's advice seems very old-fashioned and common-sensical.  (And I mean that in a complimentary way!)  She concludes with some great guidelines: set boundaries, play (she's big on play), get face-to-face with people, use i-tech purposefully and not for its own sake.  I don't know what permanent evolutionary changes we are bringing on ourselves.  Dr. Swingle does really, either.  But I can agree with her call to put down the phone and interact with the world around you.  I-tech is a tool, and can be useful, but we must not let it take over our brains and our world.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challege: A book about psychology

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Seven Bad Ideas, by Jeff Madrick

Ideas have consequences.  Journalist and author Jeff Madrick describes the bad ideas that led to economic crises in the United States and the world, particularly leading up to the 2008 recession, in Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World.

In general terms, what Madrick calls "mainstream economics" includes conservative, free-market economics primarily.  To Madrick, Adam Smith's invisible hand "is a brilliant idealization of markets that shows how limited laissez-faire theory is in reality."  Yet the theory has been abused by economists to dictate a limited role for government.  Milton Friedman is the biggest villain to receive Madrick's ire in Seven Bad Ideas.  Madrick talks about "Friedman's Folly," which he says is Friedman's  "failure to define what we may owe each other beyond the Invisible Hand," the failure of which "has had a deep and almost unconscious influence over economists."

Madrick makes some good points about the reluctance of economists to look to economic historical models, rather than relying on mathematical theories.  Many economists want to believe that economic theories are universal and unchanging, like the laws of physics.  One the other hand, Madrick also accuses economists of basing their theories on faith rather than on empirical data.

Madrick's preference toward a communitarian, statist position really defines his concerns with "mainstream economists."  He writes that in the 1970s they began to "denigrate government rather than reform it" starting with, of course, the pernicious influence of Friedman.  By "emphasizing the laissez-faire philosophies of their discipline over more pragmatic and non ideological ones," these economists are "profoundly responsible for what has happened to America and the world."

I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist, but it's pretty clear to me that Madrick's ideological bent is just as pronounced as those he condemns for letting their ideological bent bend their ideologies.  As occasionally insightful as Madrick might be, I found his writing to be rather smug and critical.  Even though he is undoubtedly right on some points, he seems to lack the humility and objectivity that he thinks he has.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challege: A book about money or finance

Monday, January 25, 2016

Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, by Kristen Welch

I try to be grateful.  But there's too much entitlement culture in me; it leaks out.  Now I'm trying to raise my kids to be grateful, but I'm afraid culture is more entitled today than when I was a kid.  To help me and other entitled parents get their heads on straight, Kristen Welch has written Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life's Biggest Yes.

Welch, author, blogger, and, most importantly, mother, compiles excellent wisdom on parenting.  She states up front that she's no psychologist, but between her own experiences and her sources, she puts together a worthwhile set of guidelines.

Of course it all starts with the parents: "Parents who want less entitled kids have to be less entitled themselves, and parents who want to raise more grateful kids need to start by living more grateful lives."  We all want our kids to be happy and safe, but "when we try to protect our kids from unhappiness, we make life down the road harder for them.  It can be summed up in one word--entitlement."

As it turns out, "Sometimes the best way to help our kids is to not help them."  They can learn to help themselves.  Another element of that is that we can help them learn to help others.  We need all the help we can get with that, because "When we focus all our time and attention on our own needs, it's really hard to see the needs of other people."  Welch points out that those who focus on other people are happier in the long run.

As I said, Welch is a blogger, and many of her sources are other bloggers.  So as you might expect, she has not written an academic treatise or psychology-based parenting manual.  What she gives us is practical wisdom, gleaned from a variety of families' experiences.  She is not shy about sharing her own family's mishaps and habits.  With her honesty, she encourages the rest of us to stop and think about the values we are instilling in our children.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challege: A book about parenting