Friday, September 4, 2015

Suburban Christianity, by Keith Miller

I think Keith Miller wrote Suburban Christianity for me.  Ever since my exposure to urban ministry on a trip to Chicago and a subsequent trip to Houston, as well as years spent working with an urban ministry in a medium-sized city, I have looked with disapproval on suburban churches.  I say this even as for the last ten-plus years I have lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and attended an even more suburban church.  The self-disparagement has been stifling.

Miller resists the idea that God's work in urban areas, which he narrows down to "pre auto urban core in a big metro area," specifically with a high concentration of multi-family housing and where walking and mass transit dominate, is somehow superior, more spiritual, or more important that suburban and rural work.  A movement has arisen, particularly among younger evangelicals, toward focusing ministry in these urban cores.  The reality, though, as Miller writes, is that this is simply a reflection of shifting cultural trends.  Just as the post-WW2 movement to the suburbs spurred the growth of suburban churches, so has the movement to new urbanism, gentrification, and downtown revivals led to growth in urban churches.

Miller addresses common criticisms of life in the suburbs: lack of influence, lack of diversity, lack of sacrifice, lack of authenticity, lack of community, and lack of beauty.  He shows that these criticisms are unfounded and stereotypical.  In my opinion the new urban evangelicals are making as aesthetic, lifestyle choice by choosing to live and worship in an urban core.  Far from being a sacrifice to "move to the heart of the city," they choose to live in hip, newly renovated housing, taking advantage of shorter commutes and cultural amenities, while couching their lifestyle decision in spiritual terms.

Miller's point is "No matter where you are and no matter where you want to live--live there on purpose." I think about my neighborhood, in the city limits of a big city in a major metropolitan area.  The neighborhood is quintessentially suburban, surrounded by green space, but filled with similar homes, all distant enough from schools, churches, shopping, and commercial areas that walking is not an option, except for a bit of exercise.  It is diverse, with whites, hispanics, blacks, and Asians.  Community is rich: my kids call our next-door neighbor their second mom, and kids from the neighborhood knock on the door to play and feel just as comfortable hanging out in our living room as their own.  Several teachers from the neighborhood school live in the neighborhood.  These are features that are supposedly absent from suburbia, according to the critics.  But they are just as likely in dense urban areas and in suburban areas like mine.

In no way would Miller say that Christians shouldn't live in the city.  Ministries such as the one I was involved in and that I observed in Houston and Chicago play an important role in the body of Christ.  He wrote this book "to demonstrate that evangelical Christians can live lives in suburban locations without compromising their commitment to biblical ethics."  Every area has opportunities for ministry.  Needs associated with "inner city ministry" can be just as prevalent in pockets of the suburbs.  On the flip side, materialism, self-centeredness, and status seeking are just as prevalent in urban areas and suburban areas.  (In other words, anywhere human beings live!)  I appreciate Miller's balance and insight.  I won't be so quick to criticize Christians who live and worship in the suburbs--including myself!

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Ancient Path, by John Michael Talbot

Like many Christians of my generation (I'm in my mid 40s), my teen and college years were shaped in part by the worship music of John Michael Talbot.  I wore out his albums (vinyl, of course!) from the 1980s both for general listening and for times of worship.  At some point I heard that he had become Catholic and I didn't really follow his career after that.  (This wasn't out of anti-Catholicism; it was mostly because the 1990s saw such a huge revival in worship music that there were tons of new bands and worship leaders to listen to.)

So I was interested in Talbot's new book, The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.  Talbot writes about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers "deeply influenced his spiritual, professional, and personal life."  For those unfamiliar with Talbot's story, as I was, for the most part, The Ancient Path serves as a nice autobiography.  I was interested to read about his life and the formation of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, the neo-monastic community he founded.

I was not as impressed with the selections and readings from the Church Fathers.  As I read I had to keep in mind that the book is lessons that Talbot has gleaned from the Church Fathers for his life.  That is, of course, the subject of the book.  The goal of any spiritual biography is for the author to impart lessons he or she has learned to the readers.  That is what Talbot does here, and he does it well.  I guess I was looking for something a bit more systematic or generalized.

So, bottom line, read as a spiritual autobiography, written by someone who has studied and been influenced by the writings of the Church Fathers, The Ancient Path delivers.  For many readers, it will serve as a springboard to inspire further exploration of the Church Fathers to see what lessons they have  for us.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Image for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Solarversia: The Year-Long Game, by Toby Downton

A novel about a year-long video game?  I have to admit, I was skeptical at first.  Solarversia: The Year-Long Game is, indeed, about a year-long video game, which is played by a hundred million people vying for millions of dollars in prizes.  Toby Downton, who is actually developing a game similar to the one in the novel, launching in 2020, goes way beyond describing video game play in Solarversia.  It's gaming, social commentary, global politics, marketing, celebrity, romance, friendship, family, and one really evil and insane villain.

The heroine of Solarversia, Nova Negrahnu, manages to have a somewhat balanced life outside of her VR goggles, but her studies somehow manage to take second place.  When the game Solarversia is announced, she knows it's made for her.  She's a talented gamer, brilliant with the puzzles with which Solarversia challenges the players, and has time on her hands to play.  I don't think I'll be spoiling anything to let you know she stays in the game a good long time.

To complicate matters of the game, an evil scientist, whose expertise is artificial intelligence, has gathered a following of disciples who share his hope in a future AI being who will bring peace and prosperity to all the earth.  Of course, madmen like him can't accomplish their goals without violence.  When his group's violence touches the game, in VR and reality, including a bomb which kills Nova's best friend, the game changes and Nova begins to play for more than just a cash prize.  She wants revenge.

I am always delighted when a book is much better than I otherwise expected.  Solarversia is a fun read.  The technology is not entirely speculative; I can see everything Downton describes being in place by the time the game launches in 2020.  As cool as it sounds, I don't think I'd be a good candidate for the game.  1. I stink at video games.  2. I'm not that great at some of the types of puzzles and challenges described in Solarversia.  3. I have to hold a full-time job and take care of my family; I'm not sure I'd have time to commit to such a game!  On the other hand, if I could get to the final rounds. . . .

Pick up Solarversia for a preview of a game that promises to change the landscape of gaming.  Downton has a web site promoting the game:  I'll definitely be watching with interest when the game comes out.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The College Football Championship, by Matt Doeden

Ahhh, the most wonderful time of the year--college football season!  Starting this week, Saturdays will begin to be dominated by college football, with everyone's eyes, even from week one, on the question, Who will make the four spots in the college football playoff?  In The College Football Championship, Matt Doeden covers the history of the college football championship.  From the early polls, to the growing number of bowl games, to the BCS, to the playoff, which began with the 2014 season, the question of who is the best team in the land has never, really and truly, been satisfactorily answered.

Doeden tells the history of how the champion has been determined, and the many controversies over that determination.  He covers memorable championship games and memorable plays in championship games.  He describes some of the dynasties that have dominated the game.

My big disappointment with the book is that, due to Baylor's losing a game they should have won in West Virginia, plus a few other teams winning a game or two against the odds, Baylor did not get to play in the first college football playoff.  (Five major conferences, four places in the playoff.  Someone will always be disappointed.)  I would have liked the book much better if Baylor would have been on the cover instead of Ohio State!

That quibble aside, this is a great resource, gathering some highlights of college football history and whetting my appetite for football season.  With lots of pictures and short sections, his target audience is probably elementary and middle school audiences, but football fans of all ages can appreciate looking back at these championship highlights.

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

Friday, August 28, 2015

50 Children, by Stephen Pressman

Of the stories of heroism during one of humanity's darkest hours there seem to be no end.  The crimes of the Nazis against their fellow man were of a scale and brutality unmatched in modern times.  OK, a couple of regimes have tried to match them, but Nazis take the cake as personification of man's inhumanity to man.  Stephen Pressman tells the story of the previously little-known heroism of a small group of American Jews in 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.  

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple living in Philadelphia, became concerned about the plight of Jews living in Europe.  They cajoled, networked, pulled strings, stubbornly fought, begged and pleaded, eventually building a network of support in the US, specifically families to sponsor Jewish children, and in Europe to gather a group of 50 children and relocate them to a camp in Pennsylvania.  Using Mrs. Kraus's almost forgotten first-hand account, Pressman tells their dramatic story.

Several things stood out as I read.  First of all, the willingness of Austrians to participate in and endorse Hitler's rise to power.  Austria embraced him with open arms.  His policy to get rid of the Jews met very little resistance from non-Jews.  Jews had their businesses and homes taken away and/or destroyed.  Their synagogues were destroyed or at least desecrated.  The criminal activity of Kristallnacht was perpetrated by Germans and SS, of course, but ordinary Austrians pitched in or stood by.  Everyday Austrians fully bought into the vicious anti-Semitism.  This boggles the modern mind.

Americans were not immune to the anti-Semitism.  Prominent voices resisted the immigration of Jews to the United States.  One ship of refugees was famously turned away, sent back to Europe where many of the passengers eventually were murdered in concentration camps.

Lest we look down our noses at our forebears, the situation that he Krauses faced has a couple of modern parallels.  I was interested to read the remarks of a U.S. senator who objected to welcoming Jewish children as refugees: "What is American citizenship worth if it allows American children to go hungry, unschooled and without proper medical attention while we import children from a foreign country?  Let the sympathies of the American people be with American children first."  It's not hard to imagine that a 21st century politician saying the exact same thing today, as we see children illegally entering the country on our southern border.  Children and their families are not being killed because of their religion in Mexico and Central America, but conditions are pretty brutal.  I don't think the case of Nazism is parallel to the case of the treatment of minorities in Mexico.  I have to admit that I'm torn, as many are, between wanting to help those in need and wanting to protect the sovereignty of the U.S.  I am much more sympathetic to giving people safe harbor from a brutal, murderous dictatorship like the Nazis that from conditions of poverty and corruption.

A much closer modern parallel is the plight of Christians living in areas that have been taken over by Islamic radicals.  In some parts of the world, Christians are being targeted for murder, just as the Nazis targeted the Jews.  In many cases, the brutality is worse than anything the Nazis came up with.  If there is ever a time when U.S. immigration policies should take a back seat to humanitarian concern, this is it.    We can be inspired by the Krauses to reach out to Christians who are being persecuted and murdered.

In an afterward to 50 Children, Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, writes that "American isolationism and anti-Semitism made it impossible to craft public policies that might have been more compassionate toward refugees."  As a result, American Jews were overly cautious in their advocacy.  Further, he calls the American claim that "we did not know what Nazi Germany, her allies and collaborators, were doing" a myth.  True, the extent of the brutality of the Nazi regime was not fully realized until after the war, but there was plenty of press coverage of Kristallnacht and other episodes of Germany's treatment of Jews.  The Krauses did not have access to top secret reports; they read the newspaper.  Today the brutality of ISIS is no secret.  We can see videos of ISIS criminals murdering Christians.  Anyone with an internet connection can learn about ISIS's brutality.

The Jews say of the Holocaust, "Never again."  Let us follow the example of the Krauses, and declare that never again will the United States stand by while a whole people group is marked for extermination.  It happened in Rwanda.  It's happening now under ISIS.  Let us look the model set by the Krauses and others who saved Jews from the evil hand of Hitler.  Perhaps we can be a part of saving some from the evil hand of ISIS.

(By the way, this book is a tie-in to an HBO documentary.  Somehow I missed that little fact as I read.  I really want to see it now.

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

One Thousand Wells, by Jena Lee Nardella

From a very young age, Jena Lee Nardella displayed an unusual sensitivity toward and compassion for the poor.  As she grew older, she became more passionate about forming relationships with poor and marginalized people.  The plight of Africans suffering from the pandemic of AIDS caught her attention and she began to shape her college studies toward addressing that issue.  A providential meeting got Jena in touch with the rock band Jars of Clay.  They shared her passion, and the band's popularity provided a platform through which she could put her passion to work.  Together, they formed Blood:Water (, dedicated to providing fresh water in Africa, especially for those suffering from AIDS.

Jena tells her story and the story of Blood:Water in One Thousand Wells: How an Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It.  Jena may have been just another idealistic teenager, who turns into an idealistic college kid, who turns into just another clock puncher when reality begins to conflict with idealism.  But she was more than idealistic, she was visionary.  And she wasn't content with meeting Jars of Clay; she doggedly pursued partnership with them and used their popularity, connections, and fan base to transform her vision into reality.

I was impressed with the wisdom, resourcefulness, and maturity she displayed during the founding of Blood:Water and the early years of the mission.  She's very honest about some mistakes she made, as well as about her romantic and personal journey.  One Thousand Wells is a great case study in dreaming big and putting feet to the gospel.

Even amidst the "audacious goal" of digging 1000 wells in Africa, Jena never seems to have lost sight of the one-by-one nature of their work.  She writes: "The faithful actions of loving one person at a time, working for justice one place at a time, providing water one village at a time--that is how we love the whole world."  Amen to that, and more power to Jena and Blood:Water as they continue their important work.

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

Eight Twenty Eight, by Ian and Larissa Murphy

You may have seen the viral video that circulated a while back about Ian and Larissa Murpy.  As college kids, Ian and Larissa met and fell in love.  While they were dating, not yet engaged but definitely thinking about marriage, Ian had a car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury.  They stuck together and after a few years they got married.

This video tells part of their story:

They have written a book about their relationship and what they have learned about God.  Eight Twenty Eight, as most Christians will recognize, refers to Romans 8:28, which says that all things work together for the good of those who love God.  It's also the date they chose for their wedding.

Larissa, a longtime journaler, reveals her thoughts from the time they were dating, the time after the accident wondering if Ian would survive, and the years of rehab and contemplating their future together.  She's honest and vulnerable in her writing.  One can't help but be moved by their story and by Larissa's devotion during a time when many would not have considered continuing the relationship.

I couldn't help but wonder what I might have done in a similar situation.  If someone is married, and one spouse has an accident or becomes ill, I think sticking around is non-negotiable.  That's part of the wedding vows.  (Of course, that's ideal, not reality for every couple. . . .)  If a couple is engaged, there are implicit vows, but the relationship hasn't been sealed before God.  Ian and Larissa had been dating for only a few months when Ian had the accident.  Their relationship was still in that giddy college dating stage.  For her to decide to stick with Ian reveals a heart that had vowed to stick with him forever.

Given the freshness of their relationship and their young age, as I read I continually found myself wondering if there was a sense of projecting her ideals from the "newly in love"relationship onto their "forever no matter what" relationship.  Ian's injury seems to have frozen their relationship in her perception at the college romance stage.  Larissa's writing repeatedly has the tone of "I really want this to work out. . . . I'm going to make it work out. . . . I feel like it should work out. . . ."  It just seemed forced and artificial.  Being in the voice of a girl barely out of her teens, has a "Dear Diary" feel that I found hard to get past.

The bottom line is that I admire the Murphy's bond.  I hope and pray that Ian continues to improve and regain abilities.  I am confident that their relationship will continue to grow and to inspire others.  I just wish I had been content to stop with the video and not read the book.

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