Friday, May 22, 2015

Devo's Freedom of Choice, by Evie Nagy

As a young teenager, I remember being entranced by Devo, so delightfully different from the pop-rock garbage on the radio.  I joined Club Devo and eagerly awaited every new release.  Alas, I never saw them live.  Looking back after three decades, I am realizing how much I missed in Devo's music.  Evie Nagy has filled in a lot of gaps for Devo fans in Devo's Freedom of Choice.

Focusing on Devo's third album, Freedom of Choice, Nagy tells Devo's story.  She draws extensively on interviews with band members, who lend insight into the creative process behind the album and tell great stories about the life of Devo.  Perhaps more importantly, Nagy places the album in context.  She quotes contemporary reviews and other musicians who were influenced by Devo, and discusses Devo's place in and influence on the general state of rock music.

I enjoyed reading some of the backstory of the songs.  On "Whip It": it wasn't meant to be sexual.  They say "We wrote it as a 'you can do it, Dale Carnegie' pep talk for President Carter." After so many fans assumed a sexual theme, for the music video, "Devo ran with the S&M theme to the absurd extreme."

Devo famously had a dysfunctional relationship with record labels.  They also continuously satirized commercial culture.  So it's interesting to read their thoughts on the subject of money and success.  Nagy writes, "While Devo objected to the excessive corporate greed that led to unacceptable levels of inequality, they of course were not opposed to making money. . . ."  They also had a contentious relationship with MTV.  When the network started, Devo was one of a very few bands that had been making videos of their songs, so Devo got heavy rotation.  Soon, all the bands were doing it, and MTV shifted from "playing all the art stuff that was out there, to concentrating on music videos that record companies were basically making as commercials for the albums they were trying to sell." Since Devo didn't get the radio airplay that many other bands got, the found themselves excluded from MTV's rotations.

Now that I'm well into middle age, I have to admit Devo's music doesn't move me like it did when I was kid.  But I do still love it!  As a conservative Christian I probably shouldn't embrace them; I certainly don't embrace their liberal politics and atheism.  As a conservative Christian 13 year old, I know I didn't get some of that subtext.  As I've looked back at some of Devo's videos, I am also reminded that Mark Mothersbaugh is to blame for giving me the idea that it would be cool to wear my racquetball eye guards to a party.  I was a dork.

Spuds will love the nostalgia and the insiders' information in Devo's Freedom of Choice.  You may or may not agree with Mark that Freedom of Choice marked "the end of Devo."  But a good case is made here that, while their later work is enjoyable, this album did mark their pinnacle.  Non-spuds who think of Devo as a one-hit wonder will be surprised to read of Devo's impact and musical influence.  Spuds and non-spuds alike will want to dust off their old LPs or cassettes, or pull up some songs on YouTube, and relive the early days of Devo, a great band ahead of its time.

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Death Row Chaplain, by Rev. Earl Smith, with Mark Schlabach

Earl Smith has spent a good deal of his life behind bars--but not in the sense that he could have!  During his formative years (actually, into his adult years), Earl Smith lived his life is such a way that he could have become a permanent guest of the California Department of Corrections at the notorious San Quentin State Prison.  In Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable True Stories from America's Most Notorious Prison, he and co-author Mark Schlabach tell his story and the stories of the inmates he met during his twenty-three years as San Quentin's Protestant chaplain.

It takes a while to get to San Quentin.  The first 1/3 or so of Death Row Chaplain dwells on Smith's story.  He was a pretty bad guy, making some terrible choices.  Drugs, dealing, crime, stereotypical street thug behavior marked his life.  Finally, when he was nearly shot to death and somewhat miraculously survived, he turned to Jesus.  Then he went to college to become a preacher and, well, drank, did drugs, and slept around.  Like many, OK most, OK pretty much all of us, Smith didn't become perfect once he became a Christian.

He did have a passion for reaching prisoners with the gospel, though.  Early on, he heard the voice of God tell him that he would become chaplain at San Quentin.  Years later, he got the job.  Few would be as well-suited for the job.  He could relate the population.  In fact, he ran into plenty of his old street buddies from Stockton, including the man who shot him.

The theme of forgiveness runs through Death Row Chaplain.  When he first happens upon his would-be murderer, thoughts of revenge ran through his mind.  Smith could easily have had him killed.  But God gave him grace to forgive.  That forgiveness set the tone for his ministry among the hardened criminals and death-row inmates he met every day.

Rev. Smith had a much more forgiving spirit toward his charges than I would be able to have.  At times he seems almost flippant, with stories like, Oh, he raped some young ladies and killed some folks, but now he's a Christian, sings in the choir, and man, you should seem him hit the baseball!  But really what he's saying is, Jesus met this criminal in the depth of his depravity, and now, in prison, he is learning to be a disciple of Jesus.  Smith certainly does not condone crimes or rule out the need for prison.  He writes, "A prison has to exist for certain people.  Some are lawless to their core, and, even if given an opportunity to change into law-abiding citizens, they would turn down the offer."  But he approaches every prisoner as someone needing the love and grace and forgiveness Jesus has to offer.  As much as that may go against my human inclinations, I certainly can't argue against it from a spiritual perspective!

I admire Rev. Smith's work with the San Quentin prisoners. He has impacted not only the prisoners' lives, but their families' lives, and even the lives of the victims and their families.  When the sheep and the goats are separated, there's no question that Smith will be counted among those who visited Jesus in prison. Well done.

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

American Hysteria, by Andrew Burt

From time to time, writes Andrew Burt, "America's sense of self-identity routinely comes under pressure, with the result that certain groups confront a loss in status."  In American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States, Burt looks at several episodes in American history of "hysteria," which he describes as "the way America's 'doomed classes' confront their loss of prestige."  Covering the anti-Illuminati movement, the anti-Masons, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the anti-Sharia law movement, he demonstrates how a seed of facts, watered by exaggerations, half-truths, and sometimes lies, can grow a flowering plant of full-blown hysteria.

The key to the movements described in American Hysteria is that they are not based on fiction, like Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" scare, but are grounded in reality (with the possible exception of the anti-Illuminati movement, in which an excitable preacher took every word of one European writer as gospel).  There really were Masons at many levels of power, some of whom got carried away with themselves.  There really were Communists infiltrating the labor movement, and, later, at many levels of government.  I am surprised how little time Burt, an accomplished journalist, spent on recent revelations that McCarthy was right, in spite of himself.  He was a showman, very undiplomatic, and made lots of poorly substantiated accusations.  The fact is, however, files have been opened in recent years showing that there were Communists in the state department after all.  Maybe McCarthy wasn't so hysterical after all. . . .

Similarly, Burt focuses his post 9/11 chapter on the anti-Sharia law movement.  He's never really clear about the basis for the accusations.  It's a stretch to say that Sharia law is taking precedent over U.S. law, but is it really a stretch to object to the increasing influence of Islam in U.S. culture?  Is it unreasonable to evaluate ways in which the values of Islam might contradict the American way of life? Do the growing threat and explicit goals of ISIS not have any relevance?  Burt gives examples of overblown reactions, but I'm not ready to call it hysteria.

Burt has some good insights on the movements covered in American Hysteria.  His left-leaning views probably colored his choice of movements to cover, however.  Surely he could have found some historical examples of the left having an overblown reaction to a real state of affairs.  The example that comes to mind is one he could treat in his next book: the police War on Blacks.  After Ferguson, we are assailed with reports of white cops killing blacks.  It's a crisis, a new hysteria!  We can all watch and wait to see if reason finally reigns, if facts and hard statistics trump emotions and anecdotes.  With a press and politicians willing to fan the flames, however, I'm not counting on it.  It will be up to the next generation of journalists to look with an historical eye.

Well-written, thoroughly documented, readable and interesting, American Hysteria is worth your time.

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Our Kids, by Robert Putnam

Our kids.  There was a time, if you listen to certain people among your parents' and grandparents' generations, when everyone viewed all kids as our kids.  As Robert Putnam documents in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, American kids are becoming more and more separated by class.  Whereas in the past children of white collar and blue collar workers lived in the same neighborhoods, and their families were not widely separated socially or economically, children today are less likely to live near and go to school with children of other classes.

The growing separation of classes has led to increasing divergence in a variety of educational measures, civic involvement, health measures and other areas.  Interestingly, this phenomenon was formerly tied to race, but now is a measure of class.  (Putnam chiefly uses parents' education as shorthand for class.)

Putnam does a nice job of laying out the trends.  His series of "scissors graphs" demonstrate the diverging prospects and outcomes for upper and lower class children.  His conclusions aren't terribly hopeful, and his solutions won't satisfy many.  With decreasing social mobility and shrinking equality of opportunity, Putnam calls for additional cash credits to families of young children.  He acknowledges that school quality is chiefly determined by the backgrounds of the children who attend those schools, yet calls for more money for poorer schools.

Putnam concludes with a challenge for "religious communities . . .  to become seized of the immorality of the opportunity gap" and aggressively mentor children from lower class backgrounds.  Ideally, this would be a tremendous boost for those kids.  But based on the statistics he provides about mentoring, the impact has little potential to be very strong.

The scenario Putnam outlines in Our Kids is discouraging (and a little frightening).  I was not left with much hope for turning around the trends he describes.  Residential segregation is at the core, and that's not going anywhere.  Any parents who are financially able will insure that their children go to the best schools, exacerbating school segregation.  I hate to sound pessimistic.  I guess I am.  They are all our kids.  But it takes every parent looking out for their own kids to provide the best opportunities for their kids.

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

Disability and the Gospel, by Michael Beates

Michael Beates, teacher, theologian, board member of Joni Eareckson Tada's ministry Joni and Friends, and the father of a child with a disability has given a gift to disabled individuals and their families.  His book Disability and the Gospel is a great resource for biblical, historical, and theological reflection on a Christian perspective on disability.

Some of what I liked about disability and the gospel:

A survey of disability in the Old and New Testaments.  The most important point: Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with disabled people.

A survey of theological views on disability.  Some of these were not very complimentary.  Insightful, nevertheless.

A discussion of the meaning of "the image of God."  This was the most thought-provoking part of the book, for me.  I've always though of the image of God not as a physical image but ability to reason.  So what if an individual is born with a disability, or becomes disabled, and loses capacity for reason?  What about the severely mentally handicapped?  I have no doubt that they share the imago dei, but what is the image dei in the context of disability?  Interesting and challenging.

Most important of all is Beates's clarion call to the church to include individuals with disabilities in church life.  Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said that 11 o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.  He applied that sentiment to race; it can be applied even more strongly to disability.  For the most part, Beates writes, churches are not welcoming to individuals with disabilities.  From simple matters like parking and ramps, to more challenging matters like noise and grooming, many don't know how to assist and respond to fellow worshippers with disabilities.

I hope churches are making more progress than what Beates reports.  In my experience, many churches are making strides.  Some in small but significant ways, like in my small church, where disabled children have a buddy to help out during Sunday school. Other larger churches in the area have dedicated classes for children with special needs, and host respite programs, where parents can drop off their disabled children for a night out.

However, these are focussed on children.  Adults with disabilities are embraced less readily.  Beates wants the church to understand that disabled Christians are no less gifted by God, are part of the body, and have much to offer the body as a whole.  Church leaders will be challenged by Disability and the Gospel to seek out disabled Christians in the church and community and help them exercise their spiritual gifts.  (I love to see my non-verbal daughter wheel herself up to the front of the church and lay hands on people, praying silently for them!)

Beates writes out of his personal experiences with his daughter.  His scriptural and theological treatment is accessible (pun intended!) to the layperson.  I was encouraged and challenged to foster spiritual involvement and ministry with my daughter and other disabled individuals in my church and community.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mama's Right Here, by Susan Kerner, illustrated by Estelle Corke

Just in time for Mother's Day, here's a storybook for kids whose mother is no longer around.  Mama's Right Here, by Susan Kerner, illustrated by Estelle Corke, assures children that even though their mother might not still be with them, she cares for them, is proud of them, and is watching them.

We never hear what happened to their mothers, but that's not the point.  Having lost their mothers, these children are encouraged and reassured by their fathers, grandparents, and others.  We need that kind of support when we lose a loved one, especially Mom.  Corke's watercolor illustrations are evocative and dreamlike, giving the perfect setting for Kerner's text.

I am thankful I still have my mother, but Mama's Right Here is a reminder of how much she loves me and to cherish the time we do have together.

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

Friday, May 8, 2015

By the People, by Charles Murray

Is it just me, or is Charles Murray getting angrier and more frustrated as he gets older?  Murray's new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission reveals Murray at the end of his rope.  This stuff he's been writing about for decades--limiting government, declining societal norms, the welfare class, racial divides--is coming to a head.  In By the People, he addresses the out-of-control federal bureaucratic state, offering solutions but with reservations about success.

The U.S. federal government has grown beyond anything the founders would ever recognize.  "Under Republicans and Democrats alike, the federal government went from nearly invisible in the daily life of ordinary Americans in the 1950s to an omnipresent backdrop today."  He paints a bleak picture of the administrative state, and finds that "solutions are beyond the reach of the electoral process and legislative process."

In the first several chapters, Murray describes how we got here, a nation of rules, whose rule makers are unaccountable and who frequently impose "arbitrary or capricious" rulings.  He compares our system of rules to a Third World kleptocracy, where lobbyists have pay the bribes and legislators shake down donors.  It leads to effectual lawlessness and inevitable corruption.

Given the corruption of the legislative process, what does that leave?  The judicial process, of course.  The most substantial section of By the People has Murray calling for civil disobedience, in which people refuse to follow certain types of regulations.  He primarily has in mind businesses whose operation is constrained by those "arbitrary and capricious" rules.  In order to protect these righteous scofflaws Murray proposes legal defense funds, similar to the Institute for Justice (only on a larger scale) and industry-specific trade associations.  When a company or work site is targeted by OSHA or other government agency, they will have a means to defend themselves.  Given the number of work sites across the country and the limitations of the regulatory agencies, Murray foresees an eventual concession to a "no harm, no foul," hands-off regulatory atmosphere.  He sees these concessions as potentially changing overall attitudes toward the regulatory state.  "Once it becomes normal for liberals as well as conservatives to react to stupid regulations with 'This is ridiculous,' the way will have been opened for larger changes."

Murray can be simultaneously bleak and wildly optimistic.  On the one hand, "The federal government was created with one overriding duty: to allow us to live freely as we see fit. . . . It has betrayed that duty." Yet, he writes, over the next two centuries, "America will do a better job of leaving people free to live their lives as they see fit. . . . There will be too much money and too many technological resources to make today's leviathan government necessary."  In the meantime, I really like his proposal for the Madison Fund, the legal defense fund he outlines.  If he can get the funding and recruit some good lawyers for it, I think it can have the impact he describes.  If he gets busy on this, maybe he will have a role in reining in the bureaucratic state and relieve some of his frustration!  More power to ya, Dr. Murray!

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