Thursday, October 25, 2012

Kingdoms Apart, ed. Ryan McIlhenny

Do the following words mean anything to you?
Neo-Calvinism -- New Calvinism -- Two Kingdoms -- Abraham Kuyper -- sphere sovereignty -- natural law -- dual citizenship -- church and state

If you are one who studies Reformed theology and ethics, these terms, and this book, will pique your interest.  If not, well, you'll want to move on.  Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective, edited by Ryan McIlhenny, is not a book for the casual reader or for the lay Christian seeking inspiration.  It is best viewed as collection of academic theological essays, which, for the most part, will not be of interest to many outside Reformed circles.

This is not to say the essays are not important, well-written, or accessible to the non-specialist.  They are.  But, as is fitting for a scholarly collection, they have the feel of a very small group of scholars swapping ideas.  Speaking of scholars swapping ideas, I enjoyed seeing an old friend, Stephen Grabill, favorably quoted.  He's done some good work in natural law as a source for Reformed theological ethics. 

I have done some academic work in this field, but still gave in the temptation to skim over large sections of the book.  As a reference, or as a resource for the researcher, as a collection for the specialist in the New Calvinism, Kingdoms Apart fits the bill.  For a more casual reader, not so much.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary review copy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Embracing Obscurity, by Anonymous

A while back, while I was on a long run, I conceived a book called I'm Nobody (and So are You).  As I recall, I had several chapters outlined and a pretty good theme going, but, like most things I come up with during a run, it never became anything.  That's OK, because the anonymous author of Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God's Everything developed the idea behind my book in a much more redeeming way.  Whereas my book was sort of a beat-down, the goal of the author of EO is to remind the reader that his ultimate worth is in God, and any glory and riches we might gain in this life pale in comparison to what we might gain in the next.

Anonymous is simply identified as a "an experienced author who shall remain anonymous given the topic of the book at hand" but I don't think his thesis would have been weakened by his revealing his identity.  In any case, his writing is engaging and affirming.  I agree with him (or her, for that matter) that many of us long to be known, for our efforts to be recognized, and to accomplish things that would bring us the respect of others (or at least of our disappointed parents).  But the question to ask ourselves is "Are our lives marked by service, sacrifice, love for others, abandonment of self, dependency on  God or genuine passion to see the lost saved?  Or are we more preoccupied with the things of the world?"  

Embracing Obscurity offers encouragement to those of us who are nobodies to look at the larger purposes of God in our day-to-day obscure lives, a challenge for those who aren't exactly obscure (although, as my book would have said, they're all nobodies, too) to have an eternal perspective with a dose of humility, and a good word for all of us that we are highly valued in the eyes of God.  Thanks for the good word, whoever you are!

And thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon

One of the great roles of fiction is the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes.  In the story of Beautiful Girl, Rachel Simon gives a voice to some who are literally voiceless and tells the stories of people whose stories are never told.

This novel, which spans several decades, opens with Lynnie, or Beautiful Girl, and her friend #42 arriving one rainy night at the home of Martha, an elderly widow whose reclusive life is mostly taken up by corresponding with her far-flung former students.  The rain-soaked couple have a newborn baby with them, wrapped in blankets. Number 42 is deaf and mute; Lynnie does not speak either, and seems to have an intellectual disability.  Martha realizes that Lynnie has just given birth to the baby, but is able to learn nothing more about them.  As quickly as they appeared they disappear, Lynnie taken away by officials from the institution from which they had briefly escaped, and #42 disappearing into the night.  But the baby had been hidden. Her existence was completely unknown to the school. So Martha raised her, keeping her identity a secret.

The rest of the story follows three strands: of Martha and the baby as they move about, evading those who would link her back to the school; Lynnie, as she returns to the school and her life after the school; and as #42, Homan, tries to get by in a world where he cannot hear or speak.  It's pretty melodramatic and contrived at times, but Simon draws the reader into the characters' worlds, making you care about them and the course of their lives.  Martha's heroic choices, Homan's steadfast determination, and Lynnie's unfailing hope will inspire you.

Simon tells the story against the background of the experiences of people with disabilities in the second half of the twentieth century.  The "school" where Lynnie lives much of her life, the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded (the name sounds silly to us now, but is typical of institutions founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries), is fictional, but is based on schools Simon has researched and seen first-hand.  (Her sister has an intellectual disability.)  Lynnie witnesses and suffers from unspeakable abuses by school staff, an expose by local and national media, subsequent reforms, and the eventual closing of the school.  When the school closes, she deals with living in a group home, finding work and getting around in daily life, and becoming a self-advocate, attending conferences and testifying before lawmakers.

In Homan's story, Simon gives us a view to the life of an uneducated deaf man, who spent much of his life totally unable to communicate with most people.  He had learned a dialect of sign as a boy, but it was years before he began to learn ASL and speak with other deaf people.  Homan's character was inspired by the true story of a deaf boy who was arrested and dumped in an institution simply because officials didn't know what else to do with him.  His story is told in God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, which I haven't read, but will add it to my list!

Simon doesn't preach or shake her fist at the treatment of people disabilities.  The Story of Beautiful Girl is, first of all, a story, but there is no question that Simon has a bit of an agenda here.  She educates about the history of disability services, she gives the reader insight into the world of people with disabilities, and she helps the reader understand the perspective of people with disabilities.

I was particularly interested in Simon's treatment of religion.  Lynnie has dim memories of her family's Jewish heritage; at one point we learn that her family was shunned from the synagogue because of Lynnie's disability.  After #42's impromptu funeral, Martha "could not help but wonder how there could be a God if people treated this man as they had, and Lynnie was forced to live in a place like the School--and this child could be doomed to a life of desolation."  One of my favorite characters was Kate, who worked at the school and became a friend and advocate for Lynnie.  She "found her work an act of penance," a way to live out Jesus' admonition to "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."  She also remembered Jesus words in Matthew, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."  In her own family, "she taught her children that every person. . . deserved kindness."

Lynnie had some reflections of her own at her friend Doreen's funeral.  When the minister "moved on to talk about her finding eternal happiness now that she was home with the Lord, Lynnie stopped listening.  Doreen had never said a word about God, and Lynnie was far from certain she believed in God herself.  People who did talk about God, like Kate, said they felt His presence deep in their heart.  In Lynnie's heart, she felt nothing.  If there was a God, why did Doreen have to die to go home?  If there was a God, why did Doreen's father give her money but never visit?  If there was a God, why could Lynnie barely see Buddy and Julia in her mind? . . .  If there was a God, [Doreen's] parents would have come--eventually.  But never had come first."

Besides telling a great story, Simon gives us a lot to think about in our own relationships with people with disabilities.  Whatever someone's ability or disability, everyone has hopes and dreams and longs for friendship.  Everyone has a story to tell.  When we encounter someone with a disability, let's wonder, with Kate, "How many others are out there?  How many other lives are hidden, and hearts are seeking?"


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cleaning House, by Kay Wills Wyma

I got this book on audio from the library out of mild curiosity, and so I could put a review of it on Blogging for Books.  It didn't take long for me to smile along with Kay, thinking "Kelly has got to hear this!"  Then she mentioned that she lives in Dallas--a fellow Texan!  Then she mentioned that she went to Baylor--a fellow Bear!  I decided I need to buy this book for Kelly!

But the Texas-Baylor kindredness I felt with Kay was just the beginning.  Kay, mother of 5 kids, came to realize that her kids were spoiled and had a sense of entitlement, and worse, that she was their enabler!  So she birthed a one-year experiment in which each month she would add a skill or focus for them to build on, in hopes of building independent, self-sufficient, and unselfish kids.  The resulting book, Cleaning House: A Mom's 12-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement, will make you laugh while challenging and inspiring you.

Her initial list of goals is worth reproducing here, her "Top Twelve Things a Kid Should Know Before Flying the Wyma Coop."

  1. how to make a bed and maintain an orderly room
  2. how to cook and clean a kitchen
  3. how to do yard work
  4. how to clean a bathroom
  5. how to get a job . . . outside our home
  6. how to do laundry
  7. how to do handyman jobs
  8. how to host a party
  9. how to work together
  10. how to run errands
  11. how to put others first through service
  12. how to act mannerly

I figured the litle ones in my house (and the big ones, for that matter) could benefit from learning or brushing up on these skills.  Cleaning House started out as a blog for Kay's friends to read, with some input from guest bloggers and friends.  The book retains some of the breezy, folksy tone you might expect from such a blog, but has very practical tips and strategies for teaching kids life skills.  I came to admire her persistence, her kids' attitudes, and her honesty.  They are a bunch of kids, after all, so every "suggestion" wasn't met with enthusiastic glee.  But, as you might expect, by the end of the tasks and by the end of the year-long project, they seemed to have grown closer.  I think she reveals a simple truth: a cleaner, more orderly, and  less selfish household takes a little work, but the benefits to the family relationships are worth every second of effort.

I was a little surprised by the small role Dad takes in this story.  He makes a few cameo experiences, especially around the handyman and work together projects, but mostly he's the guy who spends his life at work, while Mom runs the household.  I'm guessing this is just the reality in their life, but I couldn't help wondering if he really was as tangentially involved in all of this as it seemed.

Pick up Cleaning House, take on some of the projects and challenges that Kay's family took on.  I think your family will be better for it!

Kay blogs at

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Amateur, by Edward Klein

If I let myself think about it (which I try not to do) I get really angry that an ignorant 53% of Americans actually voted for this guy, Barack Barry Hussein Soetoro Obama or whatever his name is.  This guy had little legislative experience, no executive experience, scarcely any management experience, and 53% of my fellow countrymen want to put him in the White House?  I couldn't believe it.  Still can't.  Sure, the election of the first African-American president is a milestone, I get it.  Good for the U.S., racism is dead and buried. (Ha!)  Every time he comes on TV I regret that I turned on the TV in the first place.  Please, someone shut him up!

This is what Obama thinks of himself.
All of the vague negative feelings I have about President Obama, and all of the suspicions I have had that he is not fit for the office of the president, were confirmed in my reading of Edward Klein's, The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House.  Drawing largely from interviews with Obama associates, coworkers, friends, and others who have know him well, Klein paints a picture of "a president who is inept in the arts of management and governance, who doesn't learn from his mistakes, and who therefore repeats policies that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe."

One striking (but not surprising) feature Klein discusses is Obama's vanity.  His delusions of grandeur and megalomania led him to believe "he was qualified for the most difficult job in the world . . . even though he had never held a real job in his life."  As one Chicago acquaintance notes, "You can explain it with any number of words: arrogance, conceit, egotism, vanity, hubris. . . . But whatever word you choose, it spells the same thing--disaster for the country he leads."  As Klein documents, this attitude is manifested in the fact that wherever he is, whoever he's meeting with, Obama thinks he's the smartest person in the room, and his willingness to listen to other voices is limited by his arrogant self-centeredness.

There's plenty new here, but none of it surprising.  Each revelation only confirms what we suspected about his character: Michelle's darker, temperamental side, Obama's alienation of black leadership, Jews, and other democratic would-be allies, and, most of all, the amateurish way he is running the White House and the country.  Read Klein's book, for that matter just read one chapter of his book, and you'll be beating a path to the polls to vote for Romney and counting the days until Obama is sent back to Chicago or Hawaii or wherever he wants to go.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Devil in Pew Number Seven, by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo

You've probably heard stories of church conflict and embattled pastors.  Chances are, if you've gone to church very long, you've experienced some yourself.  I remember one former pastor of mine describing how every Sunday when he got up to preach, he had to face a contingent on the first row, glaring at him, sending the message that they wanted him gone.  Well I can almost guarantee that you haven't heard stories like the one Rebecca Nichols Alonzo tells in The Devil in Pew Number Seven: A True Story.

Rebecca's father was a pastor in a rural North Carolina church in the 1970s.  Shortly after he took the pulpit, it became clear that one attender, Mr. Watts, the local Henry F. Potter (like the It's a Wonderful Life character), wanted to maintain control of the church.  Most everyone in town owed him money, and he liked to be in charge.  He was not a church member, but was there every Sunday, and his wife was the church clerk.  When, under Rebecca's dad's leadership, the Watts were removed from their positions of influence, they didn't take it well.

That's when the terror began.  Threatening phone calls and letters led to sabotage of the heating and water at the parsonage, and a series of destructive bombings around the parsonage.  Even though no one in the church or community had any doubt that Mr. Watts was behind the threats and terroristic attacks, he was wily enough--and well-connected enough--not to be pinned for any of it.  The terror went on for several years, eventually wearing away Rebecca's father's sanity.

In simple, straightforward prose, Alonzo tells the story and its impact on her and her family.  Although repentance, redemption, and forgiveness finally prevail, I had a feeling of too little too late.  The cover quotes Romans, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse."  During all the years of Mr. Watts's persecution of Rebecca's family, her parents stuck by this admonition.  This story is a reminder of just how difficult that can be, yet how redeeming it is in practice.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Disability History of the United States, by Kim E. Nielsen

In writing A Disability History of the United States, Kim Nielsen takes on a difficult but very interesting task.  She examines the history of our nation from the perspective of disability, specifically the experiences and treatment of people with disabilities in the United States.  Given the changing perspectives of and language surrounding disability, it would not have been easy to trace that thread through historical documents, but Nielsen gathers plenty of anecdotes and primary sources to bring together a "wide-ranging chronological American history narrative told through the lives of people with disabilities."

Like many historians in today's black studies, gender studies, gay studies or feminist studies field, Nielsen looks at history and events through a particular lens, in her case the lens of disability.  She demonstrates the extent to which ableism has prevailed, stigmatizing disability and equating disability with dependency.  To a certain extent, in the lives of Native Americans and in colonial America, disability was only an issue when it prevented useful work.  Nielsen may be guilty of idealizing some of the Native American groups, but the attitude she attributes to them, that everyone has a unique contribution to make, no matter what physical limitations they have, is certainly commendable.

The treatment of slaves and women receives special attention, as these groups were considered disabled simply because of their race and gender.  As they were by definition disabled, they required extra care--and of course extra measures of control.  With the establishment of a new nation, new forms of organization and bureaucracy emerged, one expression of which was institutions for the disabled.  In some cases, these were successful, such as schools for the deaf.  In others, however, disabled people "whose bodies or minds were believed to be beyond redemption were variably warehoused or removed."  This remained the case well into the twentieth century, when activists and reformers exposed horrific conditions at certain institutions, leading to a movement promoting deinstitutionalization and independent living.  This work continues to be necessary even today.

One of the many devastating outcomes of the Civil War was the huge number of soldiers disabled during the war.  Nielsen points out that every war leads to improvements in prosthetics, starting with the Civil War.  One Confederate veteran who had his leg amputated during the war, James Hanger, began a prosthetics company that survives even today.  (We have gotten orthotic foot braces for my daughter from Hanger.)  On the other hand, not only disabled veterans but others who were "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object" were prohibited from appearing in public or from begging on the street by "ugly laws" imposed in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, and other cities.

The reader, disabled or not, can be heartened by the progress made by disabled people, starting in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Although the disabled rights movement doesn't get the attention that  racial equality and feminism get, groups of disabled people fully embraced the civil rights movement as their own.  We tend to take for granted the fruit of the disability rights movement like wheelchair ramps, TTY phones, and countless other means by which life has become more accessible for people with disabilities.

Just as blacks, women, and other minorities have experienced subjugation and worked toward equality, so have people with disabilities.  Nielsen writes, "There is no question that the power to define bodies as disabled has given justification, throughout US history, for subjugation and oppression."  Far too often "ableism defines disability and people with disabilities as defective and inadequate, and . . . disability is used to create and justify hierarchies."  By telling the stories of disabled people in history, she points out the stigma while pointing toward the pride emerging in spite of ableist ideology.

Thanks to Edelweis and the publisher for this complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, by Charles J. Chaput

It's a familiar tale, at least to Christians who care about the fabric of American society: the Christian faith shaped the American character from its founding, but as Christianity has lost influence, American culture has crumbled.  In A Heart on Fire, Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, challenges American Catholics to "recapture the nobility of the human story and the dignity of the human person" by starting a "revolution of love."

Chaput argues that the principles that have made America great are derived from a Christian worldview.  He writes, "The American experience of personal freedom and civil peace is inconceivable without a religious grounding and a predominantly Christian inspiration."  The trouble is that dying spirituality and increasing materialism have, as John Courtney Murray said, "given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for."  The problem is that "without the restraints of a moral consensus animated and defended by a living religious community, the freedom of the individual becomes a license for selfishness." 

A Heart on Fire is Chaput's prophetic call to Catholics and all Christians to renew the nation's life of faith.  It's a short essay, more an extended magazine or journal article than a stand-alone book, but worth reading for a reminder of where we've come from as a nation, where we've ended up, and a challenge not to continue the way we've been going.

Thanks to Edelweis and Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sinner's Creed, by Scott Stapp

I was only vaguely aware of the rock group Creed before I picked up Scott Stapp's book, Sinner's Creed: A Memoir.  According to Stapp, Creed was, at least in 2006, "one of the most popular rock-and-roll bands in the world."  Sinner's Creed will certainly be of interest to Stapp's fans, and it does offer some insight into the life of a rock singer who shot to fame.  But readers seeking something more substantial than a decent celebrity biography will be disappointed by the book's cultural, spiritual, or literary contribution.

Stapp takes us on a tour of his life, telling the story of how different people and experiences shaped him.  One thing that kept bugging me was the stories he told on other people.  Stapp's tone isn't malicious, but he paints some ugly pictures of people in his life.  He talks about his Christian school, where there was little academic curriculum, just admonitions to pray for hours.  He doesn't name the school, but surely it can be identified.  When he went to Lee University, the dean expelled him after he confessed to the dean that he had smoked pot.  He did not tell the dean that the pot was provided by none other than the dean's son, who stayed in school.  He only uses the dean's first name, but again, surely he and his son can be identified as well.

Scott Stapp, superstar.
His stepfather gets the worst of it.  A controlling, fundamentalist Christian of the worst kind, Stapp's stepfather verbally and physically abused Stapp, his siblings, and his mother.  From Stapp's telling, his stepfather was a deeply troubled man who, in my opinion, should probably have been sent to jail.  He lied to Stapp about the offers he had received for scholarships to top-tier universities and pressured him to go to Lee.  Later, after years of no contact, he and Stapp's mother pressured their successful rock star son to give them hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off their debts.  Clearly his relationship with his parents and siblings is strained at the time of this writing.

Fame and success presented Scott with temptations, and he lived the stereotypical life of a rock star.  Alcohol, pot, and prescription drugs kept him going on long tours.  One question that I would like to have seen explored a bit more is the struggle of being a Christian in rock music.  He was the only Christian in the band, but he was the principle song writer.  His Christian struggles and background come through, leading some to label Creed a Christian rock band, even though they were on a secular label.  So they were faced with the "uncool" factor (cool people don't listen to Christian rock).  Plus, his lifestyle brought accusations of hypocrisy from Christians.  I'm not sure he ever resolved this, although he has cleaned up his life (while still struggling with alcohol abuse).

It has always bothered me a bit that if someone is a Christian and an artist, they are expected to produce and present explicitly Christian material exclusively.  No one expects a Christian lawyer to only represent churches or ministries, or a Christian financial planner to only talk about tithing, or a Christian architect to only design churches.  Yet if you are a singer, novelist, movie director, or in some other creative field, but especially music, you are expected to include a Christian message.  Just try to get a song on Christian radio that does not have an explicitly Christian message.  I think Stapp has faced some of this attitude.

I am quite certain that Stapp is a great guy and a talented musician, but I was frankly a little bored with his story.  Even so, his honest account of his struggles and his ultimate reliance on God will encourage many readers.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for this complimentary review copy!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Libertarianism, by Jason Brennan

I'll start with full disclosure.  I am a libertarian.  I have little patience for the statism coming from the Rs and Ds.  I have run for office as a Libertarian a couple of times.  So I was predisposed to like Jason Brennan's Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  But, subjectivity aside, I think Brennan provides a terrific, accessible guide to modern libertarian political thought.

The structure of Brennan's book, a series of questions grouped by topic, make it a very useful reference.  It's worth reading straight through, but each short chapter can also stand alone, particularly the latter chapters addressing specific contemporary issues.  Covering libertarian foundations, political theory, economics, and modern problems, Brennan lays out the basics of libertarianism.

Starting with the basics, Brennan gives the core of what libertarianism is about: individual liberty, mutual consent, cooperation, tolerance, mutual respect, volunteerism, equality, responsibility, and radical freedom.  Answering the criticism that libertarians are too reliant on market solutions without acknowledging market failure, he points out that government also fail, and that while market failures eventually self-correct, government failure becomes entrenched.  Although markets and governments both fail, we should favor free markets and not government intervention, as governments stifle freedom and exercise their monopoly on coercive power.  Whether the issue is civil rights, poverty, the environment, crime, or international trade, government intervention, Brennan argues, is always the wrong choice.  He lays out the arguments in deceptively simple terms, but in such a way that demands further study and response.

If I have a quibble with Brennan, it is his tendency to homogenize the libertarian movement.  He does draw distinctions between some different types of libertarians, and occasionally notes alternative views, but most of the time it's "Libertarians believe. . . ."  I only bring this up because he fails to acknowledge that many libertarians are pro-life.  He writes, "Libertarians advocate women's reproductive freedom, including the rights to have an abortion, use birth control, . . ."  While it's true that many, probably most, libertarians do so, I wish he would acknowledge the view of some libertarians that an unborn child warrants the same protections as a newborn or an adult.

Libertarianism deserves a spot on the shelf of any libertarian or libertarian leaning reader, but it should also be on the shelf of Ds and Rs.  Pick it up, select a question, and be honest enough to compare your ideas with Brennan's on a given issue.  At the very least, you will come to appreciate the libertarian position.  If you're not careful, though, you may find that you agree with him.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary review copy.