Monday, November 29, 2010

Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

If you're like me, you get tired of hearing about new churches, or sometimes old churches trying to make themselves new, who say things like, "We're the church for people who don't like church," "We're a different kind of church," "This is not your grandmother's church," and such things, the implication being that churches are somehow bad, full of failed traditions and dead faith.  Even worse are those who "love Jesus but not the church," who are "spiritual but not religious," who "worship by enjoying nature" and consider fellowship at Starbucks to be a legitimate substitute for corporate worship.  Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have heard some of those same things.  DeYoung, a pastor in Michigan, and Kluck, a writer who attends DeYoung's church, take on some of these attitudes in a refreshing affirmation of church for people who like church, of church like your grandmother's church.

DeYoung and Kluck survey some of the recent literature that dimishes the role of church in the Christian life, discuss the demographic characteristics of "leavers," and provide some encouragement and inspiration in defense of churchgoing.  I have seen some of these books, many of which are written by leaders of the "emergent church."  (DeYoung and Kluck have also written a book called Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys who Should Be).)  Some titles are pretty self-explanatory, like They Like Jesus but Not the Church or When Christians Get it Wrong.  There are plenty of these, often written as a memoir of a 20-something or 30-something who has gone through some sort of crisis of faith. 

But I was surprised, as DeYoung was, by the anti-church writings of George Gallup and Leonard Sweet.  Both of these writers have been influential with their cultural, sociological analyses of church life and the role of religion in society.  But both have in recent years taken a turn for the worse.  According to DeYoung and Kluck, Gallup and Sweet are purveyors of the "Jesus on the golf course" and "Jesus at Starbucks" movement.  In their view, a good time enjoying creation and companionship on the golf course, or enjoying conversation and coffee at Starbucks, are legitimate expressions of church.  It's not that I, or DeYoung and Kluck, are against those things.  Of course relationships are crucial to the Christian life, and of course we can experience God in the beauty of nature (even the thoroughly manicured beauty of a golf course), but those experiences are not church.

One of the criticisms that church leavers hold against the contemporary American church is a disengagement from culture and the needs of the world.  Many churches have embraced social action in a positive way, but DeYoung and Kluck warn that churches often champion interests that are non-controversial rather than those with a biblical, evangelical mandate.  When churches oppose sex trafficking, work against world hunger, or build houses for the homeless, who would object to it?  "Let's make sure as Christians that our mission concerns go farther than those shared by Brangelina and the United Way."  The church isn't a social service agency, but the body of Christ on earth, with a very specific and unique gospel to proclaim.  Some miss the gospel; they want social action without atonement.

The younger generation, DeYoung and Kluck argue, is "prone to radicalism without follow through."  They see Bono and his ilk, setting that kind of activism up as the model.  The authors ask, "What's harder: to be an idolized rock star who travels around the world touting good causes and chiding governments for their lack of foreign aid, or to be a line worker at GM with four kids and a mortgage, who tithes to his church, sings in the praise team every week, serves on the school board, and supports a Christian relief agency and a few missionaries from his disposable income?  Even if one is not harder than the other, certainly one is more common.  And sadly, that is the one that is more despised."  It may be that the latter is more boring.  Punching a clock and paying a mortgage may not be too glamorous, even dull.  But boredom can also be an expression of and side effect of faithfulness, a "long obedience in the same direction."

DeYoung and Kluck are to be commended for defending the oft maligned institutional church.  The bottom line, for those who want the church to "do more" is to remember this truth: "The gospel is not about what we do for God.  It's a message about what God has done for us."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Common Lawyer, by Mark Gimenez

The Common Lawyer is another great legal thriller from D/FW's own Mark Gimenez.  I reviewed his The Perk back in June.  (I noted then that his books aren't too easy to find here; you can order from The Book Depository in the U.K., which ships to the U.S. for FREE!)  Gimenez scores another page turner with The Common Lawyer

Gimenez has been compared to John Grisham by reviewers.  The Common Lawyer, perhaps the most Grisham-like Gimenez offering yet, features a young, struggling lawyer getting an offer he can't refuse.  (Grisham lovers would say that sounds familiar.)  Andy Prescott is pretty content with his career.  Sure, he has a cramped office over a tattoo parlor, doesn't own a car, and makes barely enough money defending traffic tickets to support his mountain biking habit.  When a local billionaire drops by seeking Andy's services, his life takes a crazy turn.

Andy's first job for the billionaire, acting as his representative for some real estate development on Austin's south side, where Andy lives, sets up one of the interesting subplots of the novel.  A trendy neighborhood with easy access to downtown, south Austin has seen dramatic increases in property values, so that some of the long-time, low-income residents are priced out of the neighborhood.  Andy's client wants to build affordable housing in the neighborhood, to the chagrin of some residents.  Andy uses his contacts and good reputation in the community to attempt to convince the neighborhood to embrace the housing development. 

This part of the story highlights a feature of Gimenez's novels: an intimate knowledge of not only the geography but the culture and ethos of his settings.  I have little doubt that he spent a great deal of time in this neighborhood, getting to know the people and places and creating a believable, realisitic setting.  I'm not from Austin, but have been there a few times.  I could picture Andy riding around downtown, on the University of Texas campus, and the trails of the greenbelt on his mountain bike.  (I also got a kick out of Andy's shopping.  When looking for a gift for his mother, he browses the cool shops in his neighborhood.  He runs across a purse made from an armadillo, which he deems "weird, but cool."  When I was in college I had the audacity to buy one of those for my girlfriend, and, even better, she had the audacity to carry it!)  He then addresses social and cultural issues relevant to the people there, weaving an interesting social message through the story (without distracting from the plot).  I wouldn't be a bit surprised to visit Austin and see the very housing development Gimenez describes, or reading about a controversy over such a project in the Austin papers.

The overall plot also has a message, posing a difficult medical ethics question.  However, Gimenez brilliantly keeps the reader guessing as to the nature of the issue.  I hesitate to reveal too much, but Gimenez forces us to wonder, if I had a child with a terminal disease, and I were a billionaire, would I not do everything I could to cure him?  Would I do the unethical or illegal to treat him?  Again, without beating up an issue or forcing a position down the readers' throats, Gimenez uses the issue to drive a great story, while giving us a context to consider the ethical questions.

The Common Lawyer displays Gimenez's great pacing, multiple plots levels, and engaging characters.  Even with some dark elements, Gimenez keeps it light, with bumbling bad guys who could have stepped out of a Carl Hiaasen book, and Andy's free-wheeling approach to life and law that makes you want to hang out with him in his hip south Austin neighborhood.  I think you'll want to, too.  The Common Lawyer is a terrific read, keeping you guessing and accelerating like one of Andy's mountain bike rides toward an unexpetedly wild, thoroughly satisfying ending.  Highly recommended!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson

Several years ago, my sister was reading Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea, and said I must read it.  Well, I finally got around to it, and she couldn't have been more right on her recommendation!  Mortenson's story inspires and challenges me, yet frustrates me at the same time.  He has become well-known for his work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, even earning a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.  Three Cups of Tea tells the story of his start and the obstacles he had to overcome.

Mortenson was a self-proclaimed climbing bum.  He worked as a nurse, but mostly worked to climb.  A friend asked him to come along as the medic on an expedition to K2, the worlds second tallest peak.  Due to a rescue of another climber, he did not get to summit, and then got lost on the way down the mountain.  He ended up in the village of Korphe, where he recovered, enjoyed the hospitality of the northern Pakistani villagers, and changed the course of his life.  As he got to know the people of Korphe, he observed the children sitting in a make-shift, open-air classroom, working on their lessons with no books, no paper, and no teacher.  He promised to return to the village to build a school for the kids.
For the next year, Mortenson lived in his car, worked extra hours at his nursing job, and saved everything he could for the school in Korphe.  He typed letters (Yes, typed!  He didn't know anything about computers at this point.) to every wealthy person he could think of.  He ended up returning to Korphe a year later in a truck loaded with materials to build the school.  They built a bridge, instead, which is a cool story in itself, but by doing so he gained credibility and momentum to come back and build the school and many more in the area.  To date, Mortenson has built dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, educating thousands of children, focusing especially on girls, who previously couldn't go to school at all.

Much of Three Cups of Tea reads like an adventure story, and what adventures he had!  Besides the sheer audacity of his mission, Mortenson was kidnapped and held captive by Taliban, caught in the crossfire between rival warlords, and was the subject of at least one fatwah.  But his reputation grew with every school.  The Taliban captured him, but only wanted him to build schools for their people!  Warlords rode for days to meet him and invite him to their villages.  He was loved and respected virtually everywhere he went (except by the CIA, who wanted him to reveal Osama bin Laden's hiding place.  He didn't know. . . .)

I said Three Cups of Tea inspired and frustrated me.  You can't help but be inspired by someone who does so much with so little.  Mortenson is not independently wealthy, was not well-connected, and did not have rich parents to get money from.  He had nothing when he committed to build a school for Korphe.  His single-minded, relentless commitment to education for these poor, rural people is impressive, especially when you realize he started not only with no money, but with no organizational or political support.  My frustration lies in the realization of how little I've done with my life, and how little passion and commitment I've brought to my endeavors.  Oftentimes when we read about people who do great things, their greatness springs from privilege or circumstance, and we can think, "Oh, of course he was great, or did great things!  Look what he had to start with."  But Mortenson (no slight to him is meant here) was an average guy with no resources, yet has accomplished much.  What a challenge to the rest of us regular folks!
The school at Korphe
One thing I would like to have seen explored in Three Cups of Tea is Mortenson's faith.  The child of missionaries, he was raised as a devout Christian.  Although he never states that he has rejected Christianity, he gives no indication that, as an adult, he is a follower of Jesus.  He does talk about taking on some religious affectations of the Muslims, such as joining them in daily prayer, but he seems to distance himself from the Muslim faith.  In a way, this works in his favor: there is no ulterior motive for his work.  He does not found schools as a means to gain a foothold in the culture from which he can proselytize.  His mission is to promote education solely for the sake of education.  I would just be interested to hear more about how his personal faith has shaped that mission through the years.

As a non-sectarian worker with the mission of educating children, he has been a force for peace in the region.  He started his work before 9/11, and, in the face of virulent anti-Americanism, has continued to be the face of America for Muslims in areas where he works.  How can they be anti-American?  They know and love "Dr. Greg," a fine American!  His presence there has done more for peace than treaties or troops or aid could ever do.

What a great story!  And it goes on.  He is actually promoting his new book, Stones into Schools, and will be in Dallas this weekend at an event for a fundraising dinner.  (details)  If you haven't heard his story before, pick up Three Cups of Tea.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Real Stars: In Today's America, Who are the True Heroes?, by Ben Stein

Who doesn't love Ben Stein.  He is, of course best known for his acting roles, like the unforgettable teacher in Ferris Beuler's Day off, Visine commercials, or his game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money."  Many don't know that he also holds a Yale law degree, worked as an economist in the department of commerce, and worked as a speech writer for Presidents Nixon and Ford.  For years I subscribed to The American Spectator, in which his regular column, "Ben Stein's Diary," was always the highlight. 

The Real Stars: In Today's America, Who are the True Heroes?, a collection of essays which remind me of the tone of his TAS columns, capture his optimism, his humor, his good nature, and his political and economic insights.  The title essay comes from a column he wrote for E! Online, in which he says our heroes should not be the "stars" who make 8 figure incomes reciting lines on film, but those men and women of the armed forces who leave the comforts of home, sacrifice families and careers, and lay down their lives in service to our country.  (Ironic, of course, that he writes this for a web site presumable dedicated to the rich and shallow of Hollywood.)

Many of these essays will make you laugh.  All will make you smile.  Some will make you cry.  I especially liked "My Father's Estate," in which he chronicles the legacy his father has left behind, very little of which can be stolen, I mean taxed, by the IRS.  His conversations with and anecdotes about famous and not-so-famous people are quite enjoyable to read.  One quibble I have with him, though, is his frequent harping about not being rich.  Granted, he's frequently hobnobbing with Hollywood moguls and other mega-rich folks, so maybe compared to them, he is a pauper.  But I would imagine that compared with most of America, he is quite wealthy.  That's a minor point, though.  He's so good-natured that he sees the very best in everyone.  Even though he says a $100,000,000 Hollywood starlet is not his hero, he doesn't take the step, which would be tempting to me, of pointing out her many character flaws.

This collection is a fun read.  If you've never read Stein's columns, you're in for a treat.  In fact, most of these are available, in one form or another, at his web site.  (But since he's broke, you should buy the book from him!)