Monday, November 23, 2015

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I love watching football.  I go to all the Baylor games I can, and catch games on TV that I can't attend.  When Baylor's not playing, there are plenty of college games I'll watch.  I love the long pass plays, the plays where the runner breaks free, the scrambles and miracle catches.  But I also love the tough hits, the flattening of the quarterback, the open-field tackles.  However, as the players get bigger and the game gets faster, these big hits take a toll, more and more.

Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian doctor, came to the U.S. to pursue the American dream and wound up in the middle of a controversy that shook up the sport of football.  Using first-hand accounts, as well as lengthy passages in Omalu's own voice, Jeanne Marie Laskas tells Omalu's story in Concussion.  Dr. Omalu had never heard of "Iron Mike" Webster before his body arrived in the coroner's office where he worked.  Omalu began studying his brain and the brains of other football players, discovering in the process a brain disorder he labelled chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Needless to say, his findings were not popular with the NFL, whose hired researchers were busy debunking the idea that football leads to brain damage.  Omalu stubbornly continued his research and ultimately changed the landscape of football.  Despite the efforts to improve helmet technology, the movement of the brain inside the skull can't be prevented in a collision.  As the brain is jostled on play after play, damage accumulates and may not manifest itself until years later.

As long as the teams line up every weekend, I and millions of fans will be cheering them on.  Fans, the NFL, college coaches, and coaches and players all the way down to the peewee leagues need to evaluate the way they coach, the way they play, and the extent to which they value the individual player.  I don't see American's giving up on their favorite spectator sport, but the pattern of damage that Omalu exposed cries out for change in the game.

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Take It as a Compliment, by Maria Stoian

Maria Stoian's Take It As a Compliment is, potentially, a very important book.  Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear about some sexual harassment or rape case, often on a college campus.  Whether people are reporting it and talking about it more, or if society has become more flagrant and open about sexual impropriety I don't know.  Stoian has gathered stories from readers of her blog about their experiences as victims of sexual assault or harassment and illustrated them in this book.

One on level, reading these experiences shocks me.  Are there really men who treat women like that? My life has been sheltered.  These women tell stories of being humiliatingly harassed by strangers in public, both verbally and with groping and slaps.  Do some men really think it's OK to put their hands inside a girl's skirt on the subway?  Other stories are about abusive relationships, or encounters with friends and acquaintances who force them to do things they don't want to do.  (Most of the stories are about men mistreating women, but one or two are about women abusing men . . . )

As shocking as the stories are, I found myself questioning the victims as well.  Men are groping you on a crowded subway?  Why not yell at them to stop?  Do you have that little faith in humanity that you believe no one would have a sympathetic ear?  And those abusive relationships--I know they can be complex, but why are women compelled to stick around when a man is beating her or forcing her to do things she doesn't want to do sexually?  And when a boy threatens that if you don't perform a sexual act, he will spread rumors about you, do you really think he won't spread rumors anyway when you do?

This comment by a girl who tells the story of waking in a stranger's bed after getting drunk was particularly telling to me: "Of all the times I've ended up in regrettable sexual situations, the one that will follow me the longest will be the one I remember the least . . ."  All the times??  Is she a slow learner, or what?  After one regrettable sexual situation, wouldn't you learn to stay out of the circumstances and settings that get you into those situations?  Apparently not.  Girls, here's a free tip: don't get so drunk you pass out when you're at a party.  I'm not saying it's OK for a man to touch you when you're passed out, I'm just saying it happens a lot, and you can prevent it.

I know I probably sound like a male chauvinist.  Someone might want to label me a predator, or at least a potential predator.  I'm not.  Guys, treat women with decency.  Treat them like you'd want your mom or sister to be treated.  Be respectful.  No means no.  Don't act like the guys in this book.

I hope readers of Stoian's book will take these stories as she intends them to be taken, as a warning of what might happen, an encouragement not to let these things happen to you, and as a comfort to victims of sexual abuse or harassment that they are not alone.  She ends with an admonition to listen to and support survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, to watch for signs of it happening or potentially happening, and to intervene to protect others before they become victims.  I can get behind that message, for sure!

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Losing Our Religion, by Christel J. Manning

The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is--no religion!  The "Nones" as they have come to be called are growing like crazy.  As a None herself, Christel Manning wondered about a little-discussed part of the lives of Nones, parenting.  In Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising Their Children, Manning asks, How are the Nones passing along their (non)religious views to their children, and what does this mean for the next generation?

Manning points out that the Nones are a diverse and scattered group.  The fact it, they're not a group at all, of course.  This makes coming to conclusions about the Nones difficult, and, unfortunately, leaves Manning's book without a very coherent flow.  She puts forth a good effort, though.  Manning conducted interviews with a wide variety of Nones and drew from a number of sociological studies.  The problem is that Nones defy categorization.  Some are religious believers who don't participate in organized worship.  Others are decidedly non-religious, explicitly atheist or agnostic, and pursue alternative philosophies or world views.  Many simply don't care about religion or non-religion.  Questions of God or theology don't factor into their day-to-day lives.

One strength of Losing Our Religion is the personal interviews.  Manning interviewed a variety of None families, included religious, non-religious, and indifferent families.  Hearing them talk about inculcating values, balancing family traditions with independent thinking, and educational and ethical considerations added richness to what could have been a dry, impersonal treatise.  I was surprised by how little time was spent talking about truth and salvation.  Much of the conversation about religion centered around rituals, milestones like bar mitzvahs, family holiday traditions, and cultural trappings tied to religion.  As an evangelical Christian, rituals and traditions are far less important to me than a relationship with Jesus.  Although Manning did interview some Nones who were former evangelicals, the interviews seemed to skew toward Catholic and Jewish families, for whom religion is more closely tied to culture.

Losing Our Religion made me sad.  As a Christian, I am saddened by the church's failures.  Whether hurt by headline-grabbing scandals, or simply having been let down by weak theology and teaching, when someone leaves church behind, I see a bit of the body of Christ being cut away.  The growing number of Nones makes me sad, too, for the future of our country.  Manning emphasizes that Nones as a rule tend to hold high ethical and moral codes (some more explicitly than others), but I am pessimistic as to what the lack of a moral, traditional, institutional authority will lead to in future generations of Nones.  Nones will find Losing Our Religion interesting, but it should really be a clarion call for pastors and church leaders.   There is a mission field in every city in every state: the Nones and their children.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Year of Living Prayerfully, by Jared Brock

Jared Brock, a twenty-something author and beard enthusiast, took a year to go on a "prayer pilgrimage, for all those who, for whatever reason, can't go on on for themselves."  He sets out on a year-long, globe-trotting adventure, exploring prayer and pray-ers all over the world.  With good humor and a bit of spiritual insight, he chronicles his year in A Year of Living Prayerfully: How a Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life.

Brock's book is first of all an entertaining travelogue, second, a personal, spiritual memoir, and third, a book on prayer.  If a reader were to pick up A Year of Living Prayerfully with the expectation of deep, detailed, systematic teaching on prayer, he would be sorely disappointed.  Brock writes in such a way that among his funny stories of travel and the interesting people he meets, he sprinkles in things he has learned about prayer, making the lessons learned much more effective and memorable.

As the subtitle says, Brock did meet the Pope, who asked Brock to pray for him.  (If Brock was a fan of Pope Francis before meeting him, he was a die-hard super fan afterwards.)  He didn't get to meet Billy Graham, even after stalking him at his secluded home. . . .  Much the worse for Reverend Graham.  Brock has a skill for meeting folks and finding places.  Well, skill and a fair amount of luck.  Readers will envy the adventures and opportunities he writes about.

Well, what about prayer?  I was most impressed by the fact that after galavanting around the world, he discovered that one of the most important spiritual movements in the last few centuries had its origins, in part, in his own Canadian town.  It made me wonder about the natural impulse to seek the distant and exotic for inspiration, when what we are seeking might be right in our neighborhood.  I can read about prayer warriors from centuries past, but I can probably meet awesome prayer warriors in my own church.  I can visit the site of a famous revival on another continent, but there is probably much to learn about the history of the church in my own town.

One method of prayer Brock picked up along the way is holding someone in the light.  As a Quaker lady described it to Brock, "To hold someone in the light is to picture that person in the light of God's grace. . . . We try not to say anything or add our agenda.  Just by holding people in the light, God can do whatever He needs to do in their lives."  To me that sounds like a beautifully perfect, God-centered means of praying for someone.

I also liked his description of prayer as "hanging out with Dad." Brock laments that most Christians view God in prayer as "a needs-and-wants fulfillment service."  By contrast, he describes a teenager who comes home from school "and flops down on the couch in his dad's study."  He doesn't talk about his day or ask for anything, he "just wants to sit there--to be in his dad's presence."  Sometimes sitting silently in the presence of God is the best kind of prayer.

I don't think I'll be able to take a year off to explore the world and see what I can learn about prayer.  But I enjoyed vicariously living Brock's year of living prayerfully through his book.  He meets some remarkable people, and picked up plenty of practical wisdom about prayer to pass along to us.  No matter what kind of prayer life you currently have, it will be enriched by sharing Brock's experiences.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, November 16, 2015

All Dressed in White, by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke

Mary Higgins Clark, best-selling author of dozens of mystery novels, has recently teamed up with Alafair Burke for a new series, the Under Suspicion novels.  In the second title, All Dressed in White, the titular TV show, Under Suspicion, features the cold case of the Runaway Bride.  Five years ago a wealthy bride-to-be disappeared from the resort where her elaborate destination wedding was to take place in mere hours.  No body ever turned up, but the mother of the bride had never given up searching for her. The groom, on the other hand, married the missing bride's best friend two short years later.

The reality TV show gathers the family and wedding party together at the same resort, revisiting the scene, asking hard questions, and seeking answers that investigators never were able to find.  Clark and Burke cleverly build the story through the show's interviews with the friends and family, and with carefully placed conversations and interactions.  Like any good mystery, they spread the suspicion around liberally, but carefully conceal the identity of the real culprit to the very end.  (If I read more mystery novels, or maybe if I were just more clever and/or devious, I probably would have figured it out earlier.)

I like the way Clark and Burke tell the story.  They include very little action for most of the book.  The story is told through the interviews and investigation.  Building toward the climax, the action climbs exponentially.  I thought of those indoor bike races, where it looks like the races are cruising along easily for most of the race, all keeping a similar pace, until the last little bit where they furiously race to the finish.  All Dressed in White is an entertaining, suspenseful read.  I enjoyed the Under Suspicion characters and would definitely look forward to meeting them again next time Clark and Burke decided to put their minds together.

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jesus is Born, by Sophie Piper, illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Can there ever be enough Christmas books?  New ones are always welcome, especially when they are as beautifully written and illustrated as Jesus is Born.  Sophie Piper has retold the Christmas story, in its most classic, nativity scene, Christmas pageant glory.  Anne Yvonne Gilbert's illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment, recalling Sunday school lessons and flannel boards from childhood.

Piper's text loosely paraphrases the Bible story, while remaining faithful to the text and original intent.  She captures the heart of the story and reflects the message of Mary and Joseph's faithfulness and the hope our Savior brings.

Jesus is Born is not original, but I mean that in the best way.  Piper and Gilbert capture the spirit of Christmas and point readers young and old to God's best gift, his son Jesus.

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Living God and the Fullness of Life, by Jürgen Moltmann

God is alive.  Life in his is full.  Jürgen Moltmann is deep.

Moltmann's new book, The Living God and the Fulness of Life, straddles an awkward space between academic theology and devotional literature.  During my reading, at times my Christian spirit was moved and inspired, at times my academic, philosophical mind was challenged.  Sometimes both at once.

Long a fixture at the University of Tübingen, where he taught systematic theology from 1963 to 1994 (I think I had a couple of professors who studied under him, so I guess I've been indirectly influenced by Moltmann), Moltmann writes from a Reformed, evangelical perspective, but I have a hard time pinning him down within that tradition.

I'm no theological scholar, and certainly have not extensively studied Moltmann's full body of work, but I like the way he seems to challenge core theological positions without wandering into the woods of heterodoxy.  For example, he challenges the idea of God's unchangeable, immovable nature.  "It is impossible to consider God as being unchangeable and immovable without declaring God to be dead.  But the living God is free to move and change."  God can also suffer: "The living God cannot be a God unable to suffer, because God is not a God without relationships."  This idea of God in relationship, in community, is central to Moltmann's understanding of the trinity.  After some of his early writings, Moltmann was criticized as a non-trinitarian.  His discussion of the trinity in The Living God is worth studying, and, I think keeps him well-placed in orthodox, trinitarian theology.

I must admit that I sometimes felt out of my league when reading The Living God, but I think that's a good thing.  It's been too many years since I've read serious theology, too many years of reading popular pastors' sermon series turned into inspirational but light-weight books.  My mind and my spirit need to be challenged by theologians like Moltmann.  I'll close with an apt summary of Motlmann's theme.  "The experience of God will become the experience of being loved and affirmed from all eternity.  That is the fullness of life."  Amen to that, brother Motlmann.

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