Monday, June 18, 2018

We Own This Game, by Robert Andrew Powell

In the black neighborhoods of Miami, there's one game in town.  Miami journalist Robert Andrew Powell opens the curtain on the huge subculture of youth football in We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football.  If you, like me, have not been exposed to this scene, you're in for an eye-opener.

These kids, post-toddler to teen, play football in a league that's as competitive and elaborate as many high school teams.  Some of their games have higher attendance than college games I've seen.  They tailgate, have DJs and snack bars, travel to games in charter buses, have corporate sponsors.  It sounds like a spectacle.

Powell follows on team through a season, introducing us to the coaches, players, parents, and sponsors who make it all happen.  As the subtitle suggests, the league gets so adult that I had to constantly remind myself that the players are little children.  It frequently seemed to me that the coaches could have used a reminder as well.  The way they push the kids, the language they use, the weight they place on the games all seem too intense.  I know I wouldn't want my kid in this environment.

Rapper and producer Luther Campbell, whose cash has bankrolled the league, talks about the importance of youth football to the black community: "We own this game.  I mean, you can take whatever you want to take—our land, our housing, our jobs, whatever.  But we got our dignity and our pride.  We might not have ever had any leader to lead us to the promised land, but at least we got our football. We own football."

The larger story in Campbell's quote, and in the book as a whole, is the story of blacks in Miami.  Despite being the oldest minority group in Miami, through discrimination and unjust treatment, poverty and segregation persist.  In spite of the success of Campbell and a few others, Miami has a very small black middle class.  In between the football games, Powell tells the story of segregation and injustice.

Yes, it's a book about youth football.  But on a greater level, Powell writes about the history and culture of blacks living in Miami.  It's an enjoyable, enlightening book.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Messy Grace, by Caleb Kalenbach

Caleb Kalenbach certainly has a unique story to tell.  His parents divorced when he was very young, and both his parents turned out to be gay.  In Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction, Kalenbach tells his story.  Through his insights and experiences, Christians can gain a more compassionate, informed, and grace-ful perspective on their gay friends and neighbors.

From the start, when Kalenbach became a Christian as a teen, he had no doubt that homosexuality was not in God's plan.  This became a huge source of tension between him and his mother and her live-in female partner.  But even as a young Christian, and even more now as a pastor, he has maintained an attitude and openness, not to homosexuality but to homosexual individuals.

Kalenbach writes: "Christians need to stop trying to convert people's sexuality.  It isn't our job to change someone's sexual orientation. . . . It is our job to lead anyone and everyone to Christ.  I believe God is big enough to deal with a person's sexuality."  The problem is that many Christians see the sexuality before they see the person.  "We focus on people's morality instead of their spirituality--their sex life instead of their faith life."

This people-centered, gospel-centered approach sets Kalenbach apart from so many Christians who end up placing condemnation higher than love.  If we would look at people with the question "Does he know Jesus?" in mind rather than "I wonder who he is attracted to," we will come a lot closer to the character and compassion of Jesus.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Gaslighting America, by Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter has put in plenty of time to be a bona fide conservative Republican activist, writing and working on campaigns to advance conservatism in the U.S.  During the 2016 presidential election, she became a bona fide Never Trumper.  In Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, she writes about Trump's lies, narcissism, and tactics.  She does not approve.

Gaslighting America was published May 1 of this year.  Assuming her text went to the publisher a few months before publication date, she had to have been wrapping this up in late 2017.  So the book deals with the campaign and the first months of his presidency.  Anyone will acknowledge that his administration got off to a rough start in some ways.  But, at the time of this writing, it seems like the Never Trumpers have been proven wrong--so far. 

Economic success, foreign policy success, good approval ratings, judge appointments, and more point to promises kept and the right direction for the administration and the country.  Where are the Never Trumpers now?  Do they really think the U.S. would be better off right now with she who shall not be named back in the White House?  Perish the thought.  In fact, I never understood the Never Trumpers.  Sure, Trump is, they said, crude, sexist, a bully, unethical, offensive, etc., etc.  But he had one thing going for him that we could all agree on: he was, after the primaries, the only hope from preventing that Democrat from taking the presidency!  No way.  For all his faults, Trump was the only choice for anyone with a drop of Republican, conservative blood in her body. 

Yet Carpenter focuses on Trump's faults and prevarications.  She talks about his lies, but I think most of his "lies" can be explained by his swagger and style.  Sure, this may not be the greatest [insert anything here] in the history of mankind, but for Trump, that's just his was of saying he likes it.  As Carpenter points out, Trump's Art of the Deal ghost writer coined the phrase "truthful hyperbole" to describe this Trump trait.  That sums it up.

Do I wish Trump would keep his mouth shut from time to time and not play fast and loose with the truth?  Yes, of course.  But I also wish people like Amanda Carpenter would take a moment to acknowledge that America is better off with Trump at the helm than with that other unethical, foul-mouthed, offensive, sexist candidate that he ran against.

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass

Like most of us, I would guess, I need to be more grateful.  Diana Butler Bass feels the same way, and has written a thoughtful book about the practice of gratefulness.  Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks is much better in principle than in execution.  Just read the title and you can discern the powerful message that living a more thankful life can be transformative.  Bass backs that principle up with a dash of scripture, a sprinkle of science, and a portion of good reflection.

She had a couple of ideas that stood out to me.  One is that centrality of thankfulness in one's devotional life.  One of her mentors helped her to understand that "the ancient practice [of daily devotions] did not begin with an hour-long Bible study involving a highlighter [as her evangelical friends would have her believe]--nor did it focus on getting something from God.  Almost every rite of prayer at every hour of the day in each of those books begins in a similar way, with a form of thanks."  This is something I will focus on in my own prayer life: putting thanksgiving before everything else.

This reflects the attitude of ancient Israel.  Their neighbors "gathered to give their gods gifts in order that the gods might respond in gratitude to the people's praise and send them rain, an abundant harvest, or a military victory."  By contrast, "In Israel, gratitude worked differently: God sends the gifts to the people, and the people respond in gratitude and with promises to live more deeply into love and the law."  I had never thought of this before, but it's an important distinction.

Among her good ideas and inspirational thoughts, Bass had a couple of consistent themes that bothered me.  First, even though she was, to an extent, shaped in an evangelical church, she ends up belittling that tradition, as if she had moved beyond such immature faith.  I understand that different people experience God in different ways, but I don't enjoy even subtle mocking of other traditions.

On a similar note, she let her political attitudes murk up the theme as well.  She wrote during the 2016 presidential election and in the early months of Trump's administration.  She embodies persistent Trump Derangement Syndrome.  She talks about not being able to function, how she and her friends despaired for the future of the country and humanity, and how hard it was to find something to be thankful for in light of Trump's election.  I find these attitudes ridiculous.  I can only hope that she and her ilk have come to grips with the election results and have realized that a Trump presidency is not the end of democracy, peace, and freedom.  This wasn't a major theme, but it popped up enough to be really annoying.

So take what you will, but I still attest that the best part of the book is the title.  If I'd stopped there, I would have saved some time and annoyance.

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Scapegoat, by Lane Alpert

For many college football fans in recent years, Baylor has come to mean "scandal" and Coach Art Briles is a rape enabler.  Unfortunately, this narrative has been promoted and promulgated not only by Baylor's rivals but by the national press, especially ESPN.  Even more unfortunately, the narrative is based on exaggerations and falsehoods.  Baylor alumnus Lane Alpert had enough of the smearing of his alma mater.  In a novelized account of the Baylor scandal, The Scapegoat: How a Network, a Conference Rival and a Commissioner Crucified a Coach to Accomplish Their Own Selfish Agendas, he attempts to set the record straight.

Alpert is an Art Briles defender, no doubt about it.  That colors his presentation.  But if you look at the whole picture, as Alpert does, it becomes clear that the truth about what Briles did or didn't do or knew or didn't know is not at issue.  Brile's downfall was the result of a ESPN's attempt to make UT relevant again (and the Longhorn Network profitable), a writer's animosity toward religious institutions, and a Big 12 commissioner who wanted the big schools in the conference to dominate.  Briles became a convenient target. 

None of the parties are named in this "novel."  Alpert writes about "Baptist University," "State University," "the Network," "the Reporter," etc.  Through these thinly veiled identities he tells the real story of the motivations and schemes that killed Briles's career.  The only truly fictional part of the story is the end, where Briles is hired by a small school in the south.  The athletic director convinces the president to ignore the press and the social media mob and make the hire.

In his announcement of the hiring of "the Coach" the AD states: "We have been unable to find any situation where the Coach ever had direct contact with a victim, where he ever discouraged someone from reporting the information or going to the police.  In fact, we have discovered just the opposite.  The Coach is on record for encouraging victims to press charges with the authorities.  We have also found no situation where the Coach ever played an athlete once the player was found responsible for committing a sexual assault."  This is taken from a letter from Baylor to Briles, which has been made widely public.

This is the frustration of many Baylor fans: if Briles is as bad as he has been presented by the press, if he covered up and condoned rape, if he truly created an environment in which Baylor women were in danger from predators, shouldn't he have been summarily fired?  If his offenses are so bad, why let him go with a multi-million dollar parting gift?  And if there was no cause, why let him go at all? 

The toothpaste can't go back in the tube.  Scapegoat is a good effort to set the story straight, but no one will listen.  Briles has been declared to be the devil by the court of social media.  He brought Baylor to a higher lever of greatness, and Baylor turned their institutional back on him.  No college will touch him now.  Meanwhile, Stoops retires with accolades, in spite of very public problems at OU.  After years at the helm at Florida State, where rape was epidemic in the football program, Fisher is getting paid millions to coach at A&M.  Where was ESPN when he was hired?  This whole thing is frustrating.

Scapegoat will only make frustrated Baylor fans more frustrated and will make Baylor haters hate Baylor more.  But it's a story that needed to be told.  Too bad Briles himself can't tell all. 

(By the way, while I did enjoy the story, keep in mind it's self-published by an amateur author.  It's riddled with typos and grammatical goofs.  He could have used a good editor, but please look past that to the story and the message.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Choice, by Robert Whitlow

It's 1974 and, due to the recent Roe v. Wade decision, a pregnant woman can legally obtain an abortion.  When Sandy, a junior in high school, becomes pregnant, she's faced with a stark choice.  Her boyfriend's family wants her to get an abortion.  Her parents lean that way, but they support her choice to move in with her aunt in Atlanta until she delivers.  While she's pregnant she has an encounter with a mysterious stranger who prophesies (correctly, to everyone's surprise) that she will have twins.

Thirty-three years later, Sandy is a high school teacher and one of her students becomes pregnant.  The student is under pressure from her father and the school counselor to get an abortion.  Sandy, of course, remembers being in a similar position and counsels the student not to get the abortion.  This leads to a legal battle challenging Sandy's right to influence her students with her own religious convictions.

Along the way, against all odds, Sandy and her twin boys are reunited.  She had placed them separately in a closed adoptions to families on opposite coasts, so the reunion is rather unlikely--but providential. 

The Choice has a strong pro-life message, presenting the choices of the pregnant women with sensitivity and compassion.  As an adoptive parent myself, I was brought to tears by Sandy's turning over custody of her babies.  Whitlow, as his readers know, is a lawyer himself, so it's no surprise that the twins both become lawyers.  His treatment of the legal questions of abortion and of the limits of a teacher's speech is worth reading.  Not incidentally, he also deals with the plight of immigrants, parental responsibility, and rape.  He writes a terrific story about some tough topics.  Check it out.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Letters to an American Christian, by Bruce Riley Ashford

Seminary professor Bruce Riley Ashford longs for Christians to approach political questions with grace, love, and adherence to scriptural principles.  In Letters to an American Christian, he pens a series of letters to a Christian college student who is studying political science and journalism at a major secular university. 

After a discussion of Christianity and culture and the intersection of religion and politics, Ashford coves a bunch of "hot-button issues."  One of his basic assertions is that taking religion out of politics is impossible because everyone is informed by and driven by religious beliefs of one kind or another and the very nature of religion means it will influence our political perspectives.  As Christians, "our words and actions should be characterized by truth and grace."  Throughout the book, he reminds his young correspondent that "one thing American Christians must remember is that we do not have to agree on the minutiae of every single issue or policy matter." 

On the individual issues, Ashford's positions are decidedly conservative (as you might expect for a Southern Baptist seminary professor and minister).  But rather than merely give political talking points, he explains from scripture and Christian tradition the basis for his beliefs.  In most cases, he presents a variety of positions and leaves the question of which is the "Christian" position open to the reader while describing his own. 

Wherever your political and policy inclinations lie on the left-right scale, as Christians we have a commitment to be salt and light in the world.  Raucous debate has its place in certain contexts, but in the life of a Christian love and grace need to provide the context for speaking the truth.  Ashford provides both.  Readers of a conservative or Republican bent will find much to agree with in Letters to an American Christian, but Ashford isn't just giving us an echo chamber.  Even if you agree with him on every point, he gives logical arguments, scriptural references, and solid sources and footnotes for further reflection. 

Readers to Ashford's left might disagree with him, but Ashford's approach and tone are not condemning of other people but respectful of other positions.  Liberal Christians should probably pick this up, if only to be reminded that there are Christians in the world whose conservative principles are based on actual Christian, biblical principles, not on Fox News segments. 

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