Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do Hard Things, by Alex and Brett Harris

I don't have a teenager yet--but I will in about 14 months!  Scary!  So this book written by teens, for teens struck a chord with me.  These young men, twin brothers Alex and Brett Harris, offer up a challenge to teens to join their "rebellion against low expectations."  With stories about their own endeavors, as well as many of their peers, they inspire kids to dream big and not be satisfied with our society's tendency to write off the teen years as a waste.  I was reminded of Mark Twain's parenting advice: when your kids turn 13 put them in a barrel and feed them through a knot hole--then, when they turn 16, plug up the hole!

The Harrises give reason for hope and provide practical advice and clear steps for kids wanting to have an impact on their world.  They have presented "Do Hard Things" conferences around the world, and maintain a web site with useful resources and forums:  I must admit, even as a middle-aged parent, they challenged me to stretch myself (not to mention chiding me for my self-centered, wasted teen years. . . .).

By the way, I picked up the audio book at the library, and didn't realize until I was into it that Alex and Brett's brother is Josh Harris, the pastor and author whose Dug Down Deep I just read!   This is a remarkable family whose successes speak well of home-schooling!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Daughter's Walk, by Jane Kirkpatrick

I have been taken in by tales of cross-country races, like the "Bunion Derby" of 1928 (I reviewed C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race here.) and the more recent Trans American foot race (I reviewed David Horton's A Quest for Adventure here.)  More recently, I followed Jeff Rudisill's walk across America (here).  So I was interested to hear about Helga and Clara Estby's walk across America in 1896. 

Think about coast-to-coast travel at that time: transcontinental railroad tracks had been completed less than 30 years before.  But Helga Estby boldly accepted a wager from sponsors in the clothing industry to walk from their home in Spokane, Washington to New York.  If they complete the walk in the allotted time, they would be awarded $10,000.  That money would have saved their farm from foreclosure and helped their struggling family. 

Jane Kirkpatrick, an accomplished writer of historical fiction, pieced together the limited historical record of their walk and creates an epic story of the Estby family.  The account of the walk itself fills only about a quarter of the book.  Most of the book deals with the impact on the family, specifically Clara's life after the walk.  Two of Helga's children died while they were on the journey, so the grief-stricken, controlling patriarch forbade the rest of the family from even mentioning "the walk."  Helga and her daughter Clara, then 19, had kept detailed accounts of the walk, but the family destroyed those records.  This family rift bothered me.  Talk about holding grudges: twenty years later, Clara was still ostracized from her family. 

Helga and Clara sporting the racy, scandalous outfits.
Kirkpatrick paints a detailed picture of life at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, especially from the women's perspective.  The walk itself promoted the "reform skirt" which showed the ankles (actually, the ankle high boots or stockings; bare ankles would have been too racy) and did not have a corset.  That alone caused some scandal; women walking unescorted added to it.  Their biggest supporters were suffragists; remember, at this time women could not vote.  The suffrage movement was in full swing, but it would be another 20 years before women were granted the vote.  Excluded from family life, Clara set out on her own, making a living in the fur industry, buying and selling real estate, and farming.  As an independent woman, she was an anomaly, but seems to have found success in spite of her unusual path.

I enjoyed the realistic, informative historical setting of The Daughter's Walk, and loved the account of the walk itself.  The women's audacity in undertaking it, their resourcefulness and perseverance in completing it, and their boldness, speaking out for women, made for a great story.  But after that, with the family drama and  Clara's subsequent life and business ventures, the story either withered, or became a women's book.  I didn't enjoy the rest of the book as much; I don't think I was the target audience.

I am curious to know how much Kirkpatrick embellished the story, given the lack of historical record and the nature of Clara's story itself.  There is a non-fiction account of their walk, Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, by Linda Lawrence HuntHunt also maintains a web site,  Also, in what must be a strange twist of publishing, Clara's great niece, Carole Estby Dagg, published her own fictionalization of Clara's life, The Year We Were Famous.  Dagg's book was released within a day of Kirkpatrick's.  Dagg also maintains a web site, 

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Other Jesus, by Greg Garrett

Reading Greg Garrett's The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love back-to-back with Josh Harris's Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths That Last (my review here) made for an interesting contrast.  Harris falls broadly into the conservative Evangelical camp; Garrett has Evangelical roots, but has morphed into a more ecumenical Episcopal Christian.  Both books cover major topics of systematic theology in a personal, lay-oriented way.  I have to say my personal theology lines up closer to Harris's than Garrett, but Garrett does have some good contributions.

I have never met Greg Garrett, but have been aware of his career for some time, as he is a popular English professor at Baylor, my alma mater.  I knew I'd find some common ground with Garrett, but from that common ground we have taken divergent paths.

Garrett writes in the tradition of Christians who have found their denominational roots too limiting, legalistic, exclusive, close-minded, and/or stifling.  The problem with Garrett and other writers of his ilk is that they over-generalize the "other" Christians, creating a straw man church, and they oversimplify their own theological expressions, resulting in a nebulous, rootless theology.

He starts off by offending me and all but a few hundred Christians in Waco, by saying that in Waco "you might indeed set foot in a dozen extremely conservative Southern Baptist churches before finding a Baptist church that imagines people on a quest to work alongside God in the healing of creation," then goes on to name three churches that pass muster for him, churches where "you could begin a spiritual journey that would be meaningful and lifelong and not revolve purely around your answering an altar call to claim your salvation once and for all."

This sets the tone for the book: most Christians and most churches, especially those of more conservative persuasions, are myopic and insular.  Most American Christians exemplify "a shortsighted focus on individual salvation, a disengagement from the world, a fear or hatred of those who differ from them."  I know there are plenty of Christians out there who obsess over end-times, and who think that praying the sinner's prayer is all there is to the Christian life, but in my experience, including my experiences in a number of terrific Waco churches, that is not the norm.

Garrett rightly calls Christians to be more engaged with the world and more open to learning from traditions other than their own, even non-Christian traditions.  But I think he goes too far in his criticisms and in his rejection of theologically conservative Christianity.  One major point, related to his subtitle about "a religion of fear," is the exclusivity of the Christian faith.  Garrett explicitly states that he is not a universalist, one who believes all will be saved.  Yet he seems to embrace an "all roads lead to God" theology.  Yes, we can learn from the teachings and practices of other faiths, but, other world religions to the contrary, Christianity teaches that Jesus is the only way to God.  That may be expressed in a variety of ways, but Garrett moves toward rejecting that basic theological truth.

Garrett has a problem with Christians who do believe with absolute certainty that Jesus is the only way to God.  "Absolute certainty leads people to fly planes into buildings, . . . to launch wars, [and is] a sign that religion has become evil."  Obviously, there are historical examples of this, even among Christians.  But my experience has been that for the most part Christian groups who do believe in the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus Christ respond not with demonization and a desire for extermination, but with compassion and evangelization.  Again, there are plenty of historical examples to the contrary, but they are notable because they are outside the norm, not because they are the norm.

I did enjoy The Other Jesus.  I appreciate a challenge to think more deeply about my faith, to stretch my ideas about the Christian life, and, most of all, to have a humility about my faith.  One of the joys life in heaven will be laughing with other believers about how wrong I was about them, perhaps how wrong they were about me, and how little we really knew what we thought we knew.

I wish Garrett had better experiences in his early years as a Christian, and am happy that he has found renewed faith in his current role.  But I wish he could see more value in the churches of his youth.  Maybe they are not as contemplative as they should be, maybe they are too emotionally driven, maybe they are too easily led, maybe they have a hard time with a global perspective.  These may be valid criticisms, but they seem to be more tied to style, education, and intellectual elitism, not to genuine questions of faith.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dug Down Deep, by Joshua Harris

For my 100th Reading Glutton blog entry (yippee! 100!), I decided I should actually review a book, unlike my last 2 entries.  For the 100th entry, I will be reviewing Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths That Last, by Joshua Harris, which I received free from the publisher for the Blogging for Books program.  (Click the icon to the right to go to the Blogging for Books web site, and give all my reviews 5 stars!)  I have the paperback.  For some reason, the hardcover title is Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters.  Maybe it's common to change subtitles like this, but it seems odd.

This video introduces the book better than I can:

Joshua Harris, pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, first gained publishing notoriety with his best-selling I Kissed Dating Goodbye. At that time, tackling the biggest questions in the minds of teens and 20-somethings, he was 21, but now, as a pastor, he tackles nothing less than systematic theology.  Harris writes with a personal, conversational style, whittling down theological conundrums into bite-size morsels.  With a pastor's heart and preacher's gift for communication, he brings the reader to a deeper understanding of many areas of theology.  Eschatology was noticeably absent, but he covers a wide swath of Christian teaching.

For the most part, any evangelical will be comfortable with his exposition.  His perspectives are representative of his denomination, Sovereign Grace Ministries.  (I know they don't call themselves a denomination; they are a "family of churches."  But from an outsider's perspective, they seem to operate much like a denomination.)  Harris draws from his church's Reformed, charismatic theology.  He is comfortable with and relies on the writings of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, John Stott, and others.  If you know who they are, you have an idea of where Harris is coming from.

As a Baptist-turned-charismatic (I identify with the Vineyard tradition), I found Harris's strongest chapter to be the one on the Holy Spirit.  He calls on us to embrace the gifts of the Spirit while being careful to avoid the excesses that sometimes creep up in the church.  "You can limit him by thinking he can never work in specific ways.  But you can also limit him by thinking that only the spectacular is meaningful."  Most importantly, the Spirit gives us the power of a changed heart and life.  Like a spotlight focusing on a stage, the Spirit spotlights Jesus.  "You know the Spirit is working if you're more amazed by Jesus, more desirous to serve and obey him, more ready to tell other people about him, more ready to serve the church he loves."

I was less impressed with his chapters on salvation and sanctification.  I felt like he was really trying to convey the reformed position, but he had a hard time fleshing out that difficult balance between salvation that comes as a work of God's grace alone, and that comes by our faith in Jesus, and between the holiness that comes from God and the obedience that comes from our effort.  I'm sure I couldn't do a better job with these questions, but I finished those chapters torn.  Did he make sense or didn't he?

Overall, this is a helpful, thoughtful book for the new Christian and the mature believer alike.  Whether or not he has all the answers, he provides fodder for discussion (discussion questions included at the end) and points us to resources for further study.  Dug Down Deep reminds us that if we want to know God, we ought to make an effort to know about him as best we can.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Celebrities and Bestsellers

I noticed on a recent list of NY Times bestsellers (they publish the list in the Sunday Star-Telegram) that most of the books are simply celebrity crap.  OK, I haven't read them, so I don't know that they're all crap, but here's the run-down, from the May 22 hardcover non-fiction list:
  1. TV star memoir
  2. rock star memoir
  3. movie star memoir
  4. TV star memoir
  5. poems collected by a Kennedy
  6. country singer memoir
  7. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
  8. biography of Barack Obama's mother
  9. Navy Seal book
  10. TV star memoir
  11. football coach memoir
  12. Starbucks CEO business book
  13. movie star memoir
  14. The Social Animal, by David Brooks
  15. TV star book
  16. movie star memoir
Nine of the top 16 are these celebrity books, 10 if you include the football coach.  Plus, BO's mom is a person of little consequence, and, even though some great, famous poems are collected in the Kennedy book, would anyone care if they were collected by, say, an English lit prof who doesn't come from a famous political family?  Unbroken is a great book (I reviewed it here), I'm sure the Starbucks CEO has some interesting things to say, and Brooks's book sounds pretty legit.  A Navy Seal book may not be great literature, but it's probably an interesting perspective on their role in the U.S. military, especially given their role in the raid to kill Bin Laden (which was quite a distance from any navigable body of water. . . .hmmm . . . ).

So what's my point in all this?  I don't know that I have one, except it bothers me that 75% of the NYT bestseller list, the thermometer of American literary culture, is a bunch of garbage.  I guess I'm used to the fiction list being a mix of movie tie-ins, pulp fiction, and good literature.  But these "books" that make it onto the non-fiction list bother me.

I was prompted to write this by a Star-Telegram article this morning (here's the link to the NYT version) that discussed upcoming novels by the Kardashian sisters, Snooki (from some reality show), and some other people who are famous for being famous.  It's a funny article, especially when the air-headed celebrity "authors" talk about the rigors of writing, then, as it turns out, have a ghost writer doing the real work.

Speaking of writing garbage, maybe that's what I'm writing with this little rant.  I just hope the future of a literate United States doesn't rest exclusively on the shoulders of Snooki, Shania Twain, and the Kardashians.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Treasuring the Word of God

As a Reading Glutton, I read a lot.  I almost always have at least a couple of books going, plus an audio book.  But even though I read some good books, maybe even some edifying books, I have neglected the best book of all: the revelation of God's love for us in his Word.  I'm being honest here, I can't even remember the last time I read the Bible devotionally.  I have been mildly convicted by some of my recent reading, but today I ran across a powerful reminder of what a treasure we have in the Bible.

According to
The Kimyal Tribe live in the Eastern Highlands of West Papua, Indonesia. They are sustenance farmers who were untouched by the outside world until World Team missionaries Phil & Phyliss Masters brought the Gospel to their area in 1963.  Phil Masters was martyred in 1968 when he and fellow missionary Stan Dale were killed and cannibalized by the Yale tribe. . . .  From the beginning, the Kimyals have had a love and desire for the Word of God. The World Team missionaries that came after the Masters have been witnesses of this. 
The Kimyals have had access to portions of scripture in their own language, and in the languages of neighboring tribes. But until last year, the did not have the complete New Testament.  The following video shows part of the celebrations around the arrival of the first copies of the New Testament in their language.  Watch the exuberant dancing, tears of joy, and passionate prayers as they welcome these Bibles.  They act like the Bibles are a gift from heaven!
Of course they do.  In my media-saturated, Bible-saturated, Christian-radio-saturated, church-culture-saturated world, I forget that the Bible is just that: a gift from heaven!  A love letter from God!  A history of salvation!  Words of life!  Thank you, Kimyal people, for reminding me not to be a glutton, not to munch God's word like it's a bland but hopefully healthy meal, but to take it in like it's both the finest delicacy imaginable as well as the source of life.