Friday, December 14, 2018

Run the World, by Becky Wade

After a successful college running career at Rice University, Becky Wade won a Watson Fellowship, which enabled her to travel the world experiencing distance running cultures in a wide variety of countries.  First of all, what a fabulous, one-of-a-kind opportunity!  You'll be a bit envious of Wade's adventures and travels as you read Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe

England to Switzerland, New Zealand to Japan, to Sweden and Finland and points between, Wade meets up with local runners, watches and competes in races of a variety of lengths, and hangs out with running club members.  While she gathers tips and training practices from the runners she meets, Run the World  is really more of a travelogue.  There's lots of running, but also lots of food (she includes recipes in each chapter), the ins and outs of travel, and the many friends she makes along the way.

Her observations about running are more cultural than technical.  In Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, she finds that they have "a culture that breeds many of the qualities that happen to make distance runners: discipline, resilience, self awareness, and most of all, a desperate drive to succeed."  Each culture teaches her a little something about running, which she put to work in her training.  Wade's ultimate goal is to run the marathon at the Olympics.  She has certainly put in the miles, and, as you get to know her while reading Run the World you'll become a fan, cheering her on.

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Conscience, by Andrew David Naselli and J.D. Crowley

Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowley's Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ is that rare book that is theologically and biblically sound, philosophically engaging, though-provoking and thoughtful, challenging and readable.  Naselli, a New Testament scholar, and Crowley, a missionary and linguist, put their heads together to discuss the idea of conscience.

Writing from the perspective of the Christian faith, the authors don't neglect the psychological view of conscience, but focus primarily on a biblical view.  I appreciate their distinction between the conscience and the Holy Spirit.  While our conscience can be changed due to cultural norms and biblical understanding, the Holy Spirit does not change.  They write that "when the message [of the conscience] is consistent with Scripture, the Holy Spirit is likely working through your conscience."

Naselli and Crowley's ideas about the calibration of conscience were particularly thought-provoking.  In a single culture and across cultures, conscience changes.  As D.A. Carson writes in the preface, American Christianity, "by determined suppression a new generation silences the voice of conscience in many sexual matters, and teases it alive when it comes to the importance of finding out where your coffee beans were grown and what we should do to protect the most recently highlighted victim."  It is certainly interesting to compare what inflames the passions from one generation to the next.

Across cultures, the differences can be even more stark and challenging.  Cultural mores regarding food, clothing, modesty, giving and generosity, personal space, ownership of goods, and many more issues vary from place to place and people to people.  In many cases, we tend to tie culture to Christianity.  Paul's example of eating with Gentiles and becoming all things to all men sets the tone for missionary work.  The authors warn future missionaries that "you can't live this kind of life if your conscience is cluttered with all manner of restrictions that God hasn't instituted."

Both moving across cultures and seeking to live a more Christian life, we have to work on calibrating and flexing our consciences.  Calibrating to bring our conscience more in line with the Holy Spirit and biblical teaching, flexing to make sure we are not imposing cultural norms on the lived Christian experience of our brothers and sisters in different cultures.  Naselli and Crowley will challenge you to consider your convictions and to rely more on the Bible to check you conscience.

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

The State of the Evangelical Mind, ed. Todd C. Ream, Jerry A. Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers

I remember, as a graduate student at a major Christian university, the wide-ranging impact that Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind had when it was published in 1995.  His point and influence endure, as demonstrated, among other things, by the publication of The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future.  This collection of essays, including one by Noll itself, is occasion to assess the state of evangelical academic and intellectual life.

The heart of the book features essays on three sources for promoting Christian intellectual rigor and thought parachurch organizations, Christian colleges, and seminaries.  For a while in college I was involved in Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru).  I always viewed it and other campus organizations as a means for personal conversion and discipleship.  Of course that's a big part of it, but as David Mahan and C. Donald Smedley argue, these organizations can be a training ground for scholars to apply their faith to their academic fields.  This should have been obvious to me, but it was revelatory and gives me a greater respect for the importance of these groups on secular campuses.

One would hope that Christian colleges would be fertile ground for Christian intellectualism.  Unfortunately this is not always the case.  Timothy Larsen recalls John Henry Newman's influential book The Idea of a University and challenges Christians campuses to live up to his ideal.  Lauren F. Winner similarly discusses the role of seminaries in promoting intellectual life.

James K.A. Smith looks to the future, pointing to the importance of Christian scholarship that reaches more broadly than an institution's own historical and theological roots, toward a catholicism (with a little c).  He wins points for me because of his positive note about my alma mater, Baylor University, with its "vibrancy and growth of Christian scholarly endeavors."  However, his essay is fatally marred by a little political rant.  Amid a book with an admirable scholarly tone which thus far had managed to call out, in a pastoral way, evangelicals to deepen intellectual engagement and commitments, Smith writes this: "Nobody can be excited about the 'state of the evangelical mind' when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted in the 2016 US presidential election for Donald Trump, a lecherous, vicious, small-minded manchild who not only spurned evangelical distinctives like forgiveness but consistently emboldens racists and gives comfort to white nationalism."  Agree with him or not, I have to wonder how the editors of this book allowed this vitriol to stay in this book.  Besides, it ignores the fact that many, if not most, of those voters recognized Trump's shortcomings but considered the many moral, political, ethical, and personal failings of his 2016 opponent to be much greater.  My point is, this is not a crucial part of Smith's argument, but it soured the entire essay for me.  (Besides, Smith is Canadian.  Leave US politics alone, eh?)

Noll's work is not replaced with this book, but the challenge he laid out certainly continues.  While I appreciate and agree with the authors' mission, there is a sense of intellectual snobbery here.  The things they say about evangelicals' shortcomings in the intellectual realm certainly can be applied to everyone.  I would imagine plenty of professors at their secular universities would bemoan students' lack of intellectual engagement and their obsession with pop culture.  And the editors of the publications like The Atlantic or The New York Review of Books wish for a higher level of intellectual culture.  And, of course, PBS will never have as many viewers as The Bachelor.

Intellectual snobbery aside, evangelical pastors and professors must take up the mantle to promote critical thinking and intellectual engagement among their charges.  And Christian scholars and professionals in every field must live and teach in such a way that demonstrates the relevance and importance of the gospel in every part of life.

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

P is for Pteradactyl, by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter, pictures by Maria Tina Beddia

Raj Haldar (the rapper known as Lushlife) and Chris Carpenter don't want kids to be confused about silent letters.  Or maybe they do.  P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever lives up to its name, but it's still a lot of fun. 

In traditional alphabet book style, each page features a letter and a corresponding word (__ is for ______) along with a line or two of text with additional words that use that letter and a cute picture by Maria Tina Beddia.  The letters are either silent or else sound like other letters.  One of my faves: "The gnome yells, 'Waiter! THere's a bright white gnat nibbling on my gnocchi!'"  The pictures include additional bits and pieces related to the letter.  At the end a glossary defines and explains the words.

This is probably not the book to buy for the child who is learning the sounds of the alphabet.  But at the next level, when kids are beginning to read and recognize the fun and frustrating complexity of the English language, P is for Pterodactyl will make them smile.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Reckoning, by John Grisham

I'm one of those readers who reads a new John Grisham book as soon as I can grab it.  That said, as much as I was looking forward to The Reckoning, and as much as I enjoyed reading it, I was ultimately very disappointed.

The Reckoning opens with Pete Banning, pillar of the community, war hero, faithful church member, walking into his pastor's office and shooting him, killing him in cold blood.  He doesn't try to hide it, doesn't contest his conviction, and is executed without a word in his defense.  His motives go to the grave with him.

At one point in his trial, the defense lawyer offers a lengthy description and testimony about his service in World War 2.  He was a POW in the Philippines, suffered in the Bataan Death March, escaped, and fought heroically as a guerrilla for several years, until the end of the war.  The prosecution stepped in at some point and argued that as heroic as Pete was, it has nothing to do with the pastor's murder or the trial.

After the execution, Grisham jumps back in time to Pete's military service.  He includes a lengthy, detailed description of a part of WW2 history about which I knew little.  Assuming it's at least loosely based on historical facts, and that Pete's exploits are based on the experiences of real soldiers, Grisham shines in his dramatizing this historical moment.  I'm grateful to have this perspective, and inspired to read more about the Pacific theater.  However, I have to agree with the lawyer: this had very little to do with the story at hand. 

Then back to the present, in which Pete's sister, widow, and children are dealing with the aftermath, and facing a legal challenge from the pastor's widow, who is seeking damages.  So what's the big secret? Why did Pete murder his pastor?  You think you sort of know as you read.  When the answer is finally revealed in the final few pages of the book, it's sort of what you think but not quite.  Ultimately, I thought, "This is what Grisham was driving at the whole time?  Yawn." 

Yes, Grisham tells some great WW2 stories.  Yes, he writes in a way that compels me to keep reading.  Yes, it's nice to return to this post-WW2 era in the south, where Grisham's talent shines.  Yes, there is some legal and courtroom drama that we expect from Grisham.  Despite all that, the whole thing doesn't work together very well.  The Reckoning will make Grisham's readers long for some of his stronger legal fiction

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Lewis on the Christian Life, by Joe Rigney

As I read Joe Rigney's Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Kingdom of God analogy came to mind.  Imagine an art museum you have frequently visited.  It's full of great works by your favorite artists.  You have visited many times over the years and are familiar with the works on display.  Then you have the opportunity to take a personally guided tour with the curator.  As you walk through the museum, the curator discusses each piece, pointing out features you haven't noticed before, drawing together themes that transcend multiple pieces, lending insight of someone with a different, knowledgeable perspective.  Rigney proves to be a worthy guide through Lewis's work.

One of the themes Rigney draws on throughout is Lewis's dualism, "body and soul, enjoyment and contemplation, God and self, pride and humility."  Perhaps the greatest dualism is the "wedding of reason and imagination."  That, truly, is what sets Lewis apart and has made him one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century.  He argues with such clarity while inspiring our imagination.  The imagery with which he writes helps the concepts stick with us.

The book is thematically arranged, but each chapter flows together with the others to present what feels like a thorough overview.  Obviously there will be more to be said, but Rigney, as a good curator, inspires the reader to dwell on and return to the source, while emphasizing Lewis's pointing us toward The Source.

Let Rigney be your guide.  I have read and studied Lewis's writing for decades, including reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child and taking a course on Lewis in college.  But as anyone who reads Lewis knows, re-reading Lewis is never a waste of time, and learning from a scholar and writer like Rigney is bound to bring insight to even the most avid Lewis fan.

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Pure in Heart, by Mark Miller

Josh Mason was doing his best to pastor his small Baptist church, trying to live like Jesus, serving his congregation and his community.  Dave Johnson has made his mission exposing pastors and destroying their careers.  In Mark Miller's novel The Pure in Heart these two preachers' kids' paths cross.  The question is, will either man's life be changed as a result?

Dave's father was an abusive and controlling, driving Dave away from the faith.  He was actually a criminal sexual predator, but apparently was not held accountable for it.  Dave understandably looked upon clergy with suspicion.  When Dave's own pastor had an affair with his wife, that was the last straw.  He hit the road, searching for pastors to bring down.  He aimed at sexual impropriety and financial irregularities.  His pattern was to ingratiate himself to a new church, then sow rumors, uncover secrets, and, at least once, going as far as seducing the pastor's wife.  The more havoc he left and the more pastors' resignations he forced, the better.

When Josh answered a call at church from someone asking how to be saved, he never would have guessed that Dave, on the other end of the line, was out to destroy him.  The problem is that Dave actually met a pastor who, while he may not be perfect, is conscientious and honorable.  Josh agrees to meet Dave and ends up spending most of a day with him.  Dave peppers him with questions, relentless trying to call him out for hypocrisy, pushing Josh to lend him his car and give him money (after denying that he wants any money).

Miller works in some entertaining and insightful conversations about money, racism, and the role of the pastor.  A pastor himself, he paints a realistic picture of life as a small-town, small-church pastor.  Sure, he preaches and leads Bible studies, but he also runs church ministries, community outreaches, and, of course, mows the grass.  I think any pastor will be able to relate to Miller's realistic, un-romanticized view of ministry.

The Pure in Heart is a fun, breezy read.  It's not too heavy on the preaching, and Josh doesn't come up with a lot of easy answers.  Miller will prompt some questions and discussion about ministry and benevolence, evangelism and giving, and that question so many of us face: when is it OK not give?  As I read, I thought many times about the "show, don't tell" maxim for writers.  Miller spends a lot of time telling and not showing.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book and appreciate the honesty, experience, and thoughtfulness he brings to the story.

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