Friday, January 31, 2014

Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter Brueggeman

Walter Brueggeman, surely the most well-known and well-respected scholars of the Old Testament, has been reading the prophets for decades, and occasionally takes that role on himself.  In his new book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Brueggeman examines the fourth commandment in light of the first and tenth, bringing worship and economic life into perspective.

Coming out of the slavery of Egypt, God reminded the Israelites, in the first commandment, that "the God of the exodus is unlike all the gods the slaves have known before."  Unlike the "insatiable gods of imperial productivity," God is committed to relationship rather than commodity (brick making).  Unlike the Egyptians, who demanded bricks without straw and gave no rest, God established the Sabbath rest.  Brueggeman writes, "our motors are set to run at brick-making speed.  To cease, even for a time, the anxious striving for more bricks is to find ourselves with a 'light burden' and an 'easy yoke.'"

At the other end of the decalogue, the commandment no to covet parallels the first commandment's rejection of commodification.  "Sabbath is the practical ground for breaking the power of acquisitiveness and for creating a public will for an accent on restraint.  Sabbath is the cessation of widely shared practices of acquisitiveness." This is the crux of Brueggeman's argument: in our culture of acquisitiveness, Sabbath presents "an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity."

Some readers may find Brueggeman's reading of the Sabbath as a break from acquisitiveness rather limiting.  But in a culture that rarely, if ever, steps aside from consumerism and labor, Sabbath as Resistance provides a welcome reminder to "rest in God's own restfulness."

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Knowing Jesse, by Marianne Leone

When Marianne Leone and her husband Chris Cooper had their first child, they could not have imagined what the next years of their lives would be like.  Jesse, born 10 weeks early, had cerebral palsy and epilepsy.  He would have very limited ability to speak.  Yet his life was an inspiration to them and many others.  Ms. Leone's memoir is an inspiration to me and other parents of children with special needs.

Leone writes in way that connects the reader to her family.  As she told her family's story, I saw many parallels to my family, and loved the way she put into words what families of children with disabilities experience.  Besides his severe physical limitations, Jesse was, for the most part, nonverbal.  Yet, as any parent of a nonverbal child can tell you, that does not mean he could not communicate.  Leone writes, "Having a nonverbal child means learning to really look and listen.  The rewards of nonverbal communication are as deep and subtle as the song of a whale, as complex and yearning as the trumpet of Miles Davis."

Having a nonverbal child is challenge at home, but turns into a huge obstacle at school.  Many educators don't know what to do with a child who can't speak, often assuming low intellectual ability.  Leone recognized that "even though the light of intelligence burned through Jesse's entire being, a nonverbal child has to prove that he's not an 'idiot' to the world again and again and again."  Early on, she decided that "our son was brilliant and we would raise him that way."

He would eventually prove her right, but she went through many battles with the educational system along the way.  She turned into a forceful advocate for full inclusion, that is, allowing Jesse to participate in school with typical kids in a mainstream classroom.  He ended up thriving, making good friends, and made excellent grades.  As our family has been through a similar fight, including hiring a lawyer to bring pressure to the school district, I was cheering for Leone all the way.  Her efforts not only enhanced Jesse's educational experience, but paved the way for other children to receive similar treatment.

Leone's passion as a parent, as an advocate for her son, and as a hero for her family make Knowing Jesse an inspiring, emotional read.  She and her husband are familiar to movie-goers and TV viewers, but there is no Hollywood facade in this memoir.  They are parents, whose love for their beautiful son is deep, whose hearts for his thriving is inspirational, and whose grace and hope in light of their grief is admirable.  This is a wonderful story, wonderfully told.

(By the way, she reads the audiobook, adding a personal, dramatic dimension to an already terrific book.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bad Dads of the Bible, by Roland Warren

Most Christians think of the Bible as, among other things, a guidebook for life.  But Roland Warren, in his book Bad Dads of the Bible: 8 Mistakes Every Good Dad Can Avoid, takes a different tack.  I like his approach.  First of all, he's an entertaining writer.  I can see why he has had success as a public speaker in his role as, among other things, President of the National Fatherhood Initiative.  Second, here are eight examples of biblical figures whose actions and lifestyles had some not-so-holy moments from which we can learn.  We can certainly emulate our biblical heroes, but reminders that they were human, too, can encourage us in our own humanity.

Looking at episodes in the lives of David, Jacob, Laban, Saul, Abraham, Eli, Manoah, and Lot, Warren points out specific traits and actions that each of them failed at as fathers, giving us the blueprint not to make the same mistakes.  He concludes with "6 things a dad must do to be a good father" in the final chapter.

While reading, I was constantly reminded of the blessing I have of a great father, and of the many ways I can improve my father role as I raise my three kids.  Each chapter has some contemporary examples in addition to the biblical fathers.  In one chapter, Warren described the fall of the Madoff family's scandalous Wall Street fall.  In the wake of all of that, Madoff's son Mark couldn't get a job anywhere; the Madoff name had lost credibility and respect.  When I was growing up, when I gave my name and the person I met connected me to my dad, it never failed to bring smiles of recognition and kind words of respect and honor for my father.  Warren writes, "one of the most important gifts that a father can give his children is not wealth but rather a life example that is worthy to be honored."  My father gave me that gift many times over.

Besides being a man of honor, dads should honor their children as well.  God modeled this for us in his affirmation of Jesus at his baptism.  God affirmed who Jesus was at the start of his ministry.  In a similar way, I can affirm to my children that are loved, affirmed, strong, smart, able, holy, and a child of God.  This is one way that we help fill the "dad-shaped hole" children have; if dads don't fill it with good daddy love and affirmation, Satan will surely find some alternatives.  (Yes, he's borrowing from and altering C.S. Lewis here.)

Warren points out that dads can constantly make deposits into their children's "emotional bank accounts," by building them up, spending time with them, and loving them.  There will be times when dads need to make a withdrawal.  Warren writes clearly and encouragingly.  Any father with children of any age can get some good ideas and encouragement from Bad Dads of the Bible.  I know I need it.

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

Friday, January 24, 2014

Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, by Walter Wink

Walter Wink.  One of those authors I frequently saw referenced, whose titles always were somewhere down my list of books to read, but who I never got around to reading.  My loss.  I finally picked him up, in his swan song.  I think he is best know for his Powers books, as well as for his nonviolent activism.  Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, gives glimpses into his life and writings that promise treasures to be found by readers of his work.

The bite-sized chapters in Just Jesus run the gamut from autobiography to biblical criticism and political activism.  To the extent that they captured his personality and intellect, they leave me with the impression of a man at whose feet I would have loved to have sat.  Clearly, given his popularity on the lecture circuit and in the academy, many would agree.

Reflecting on his career, he writes, "I have been paid to do what I most like to do: interpreting Scripture."  It started when his mother "punished" him by making him read the Bible.  "Here is the most important book in the world, I thought, and yet it doesn't make any sense."  Not only did he find it made sense, but he was gifted in showing the Bible's sense to many others.  In these writings I sensed a deep respect for the Bible and a strong desire to read it in light of current events.

Wink's commitment to the Bible may stand in contrast, for more conservative readers, to some of his other views.  His work in "active nonviolence," his dabbling in Buddhism, his approval of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, among other things, might convince conservatives that he is hopelessly liberal.  But he resisted the liberalizing of the church in the mid- to late-twentieth century.  He went to Union Seminary, where he said he "caught the fading glimmer of [its] greatness" as it became more and more liberal.  He laments that "the community of accountability among biblical scholars had ceased to be the church and had become the academic guild of professional scholars."  More and more he saw the "impotence of the detached, objective approach to Scripture for dealing with the real issues of life."

Wink's writing is engaging and thought-provoking.  While the short essays in Just Jesus do their fair share of wandering, they ultimately do point to Jesus as "the human representation of the human being," who can "open people's lives to the living presence of God."  Wink is hard for me to pin down.  But I think that's just what he would want me to say.

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What We've Lost is Nothing, by Rachel Louise Snyder

When an otherwise quite Chicago suburb is thrown into turmoil due to a mass burglary in one of the town's cul-de-sacs, human dramas unfold.  In her strong debut novel, What We've Lost is Nothing, Rachel Louise Snyder examines issues of urbanism, race, integration, poverty, relocation, and more, as she follows several families in the wake of the break-ins.

Snyder is not writing a mystery novel.  While crimes have been committed and suspicions are raised, the point of the book is not to reveal evidence, eliminate suspects, and expose the culprit.  Snyder's point is rather to expose the character and values of the families and their neighbors.  Michael McPherson spoke for many when he said in an interview, "What we've lost is nothing compared to what we in this neighborhood, on this street, will always have." Yet they still struggle with the loss of the sense of security they have in their homes, and, more importantly, the fracturing of community.

I like the way Snyder addresses the issues of community with the story.  In particular, the burglaries challenge the feelings of racial integration in which their city prides itself.  Do the mostly white victims really want to live in an integrated community?  Or only a community in which the black people are more like them?  And what does the assumption that the perpetrators came from the nearby poor, black neighborhood say about their presumptions about race?

I liked What We've Lost is Nothing, but felt like it was a little unbalanced.  The first part of the book explored the reactions of each family, putting together the puzzle of the crime piece by piece.  But the latter part focused on one family in particular, and, in a rather jolting way, adds crisis on top of crisis, so that the story becomes not the after effects of the burglaries, but a larger story of the consequences of our actions.  "The smallest decision, the smallest step to the left, or to the right, the smallest remembrance, the smallest moment, in anyone's life can upend so much more."  An enjoyable, thoughtful, intimate book.

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

Monday, January 20, 2014

Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander

When neurosurgeon Eben Alexander heard stories from his patients about their near death experiences (NDEs), he nodded and dismissed the stories as the product of imagination.  But when he contracted a rare case of e. coli meningitis and spent 7 days in a coma, he had a NDE of his own.  Miraculously, he survived the illness and lived to tell about his experiences of heaven.

In Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, Dr. Alexander recounts with a clinical eye the symptoms and effects of his illness, describes what was happening neurologically in his brain, and tells the story of what he experienced beyond his body.  Given his academic credentials, his story has credence that other NDE accounts may lack.  But even his Ivy League pedigree can't get past the inadequacy of his title: proof of heaven.  There is no proof here.  He gives a scientific justification for a belief in life and consciousness separate from the physical body.  But his experience of what he took to be heaven is, by definition, impossible to prove.

The two lessons that his book boils down to is that we are loved by God, and that there is more to the world than the material realm.  He was a nominal Episcopalian before this experience, but the NDE account doesn't seem to be guided by Christian theological presuppositions.  In fact, some might argue that his account does not mesh with the biblical witness.  (I found it odd that he frequently referred to God as Om.)

I absolutely believe in heaven.  I believe that many have had glimpses of heaven and lived to tell of them.  And I'm sure that Dr. Alexander's experience was genuine.  But proof?  I'm not so sure.  Proof of Heaven is a deeply personal book, heartfelt and passionate.  But despite his M.D. and experience as a neurosurgeon, it remains one personal account of an NDE among many.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Price of Paradise, by David Dante Troutt

Rutgers law professor David Dante Troutt has a dream.  He has a dream that the American dream, and Martin Luther King's dream can coalesce "to stabilize economic life for many more Americans and to discover along the way our common good. . . . A beloved community may be within a generation's reach."  In The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America, Troutt argues that in pursuit of the American dream, middle-class Americans and the U.S. government have left behind large swaths of poor minorities.

The American middle class holds self-sufficiency and self-determination as central values.  But Troutt argues that much of the foundation of the middle class is built on preferential government policies and subsidies.  The list is lengthy: suburbanization spurred by the National Highway Act; redlining, which made home loans difficult or impossible to obtain, and which was endorsed by the Home Owners Loan Corporation; urban renewal, which razed or broke up poor and immigrant neighborhoods; and, of course, segregation.  (I was reminded of Eric Schansberg's arguments in his book, Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor.)  These policies, among others, achieved the goal of "preserving middle-class stability by keeping the poor at a distance." 

For a remedy, Troutt looks to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s idea of mutuality,which he expands to "progressive mutuality, the kind that recognizes that interdependency is not neutral if it rests in part on exclusion and must account for our effects on others." But interdependency has not been the norm.  To the contrary, whites, as a rule, did all they could to live separately from poor blacks.  "White homeowners were enjoying a culture of beneficial government assistance in the form of mortgage subsidization, yet public housing for blacks . . . was perceived as a threat if it was within distant sight of a white neighborhood."

Poor blacks are disproportionately concentrated in pockets of poverty.  They are subjected to "environmental racism, . . . predatory mortgage lending, and the self- and community-diminishing effects of our criminal justice policies," which all perpetuate their plight.  As the black experience has shown, "segregation typically indicates a grow that is captive to its vulnerabilities, with weak institutions, scarce political pull, and little market power in the regional context."

Turning to "progressive mutuality," Troutt calls for integration: "mixing income, increasing equitable arrangements, and decreasing local inequities."  I was reminded of John Perkins's 3 Rs, relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.  Troutt doesn't refer to Perkins, but their ideas certainly have much in common.  Personally, I find Perkins's arguments much more compelling, but Troutt does provide a solid legal, academic complement to Perkins.

As a white man, I have to admit that I was put off by some of Troutt's arguments.  But it's hard to deny that I have benefited, indirectly and directly, from decades of horribly racist government policies.  We can come up with plenty of anecdotal examples to contradict Troutt (our black president, for example), but society-wide, on a large scale, the effects of racism continue.  Whether Troutt's proposals and solutions would be entertained, much less embraced, is the question.

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

King and Maxwell, by David Baldacci

After five novels and a TV series, King and Maxwell are back together in David Baldacci's newest political thriller, the aptly named King and Maxwell.  With a fast pace and likable characters, Baldacci shows why he is one of the best selling authors in the history of publishing.  In case you have never met them, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are a couple of former secret service agents who have a PI agency together.

At the start of King and Maxwell, an American soldier transporting a load in the middle east is waylaid by a group of CIA agents, or so they claim.  The soldier knows something fishy is going on, but he can't trust anyone.  Meanwhile, back in the U.S., King and Maxwell are out for a drive in the rain and narrowly miss hitting a gun-wielding teenager.  They end up taking the boy home and befriending him. He asks them to find out what has happened to his dad, who the Army said was KIA, but who sent the boy an e-mail days after he was supposed to have been killed.  The dad? The soldier from chapter one, of course.

(By the way, it's a good thing they ran into that kid.  Otherwise, they'd be sitting around twiddling their thumbs.  There is no indication in the book that they had any other cases brewing, no calls from other prospective clients, no reference to any other income-producing activity.  Thus, they had plenty of free time to chase down leads for a kid who obviously had no means to pay them for their time.)

Their chance encounter with a sad and confused teen ultimately turns into an investigation uncovering a plot to bring down a foreign government and wreak havoc in the U.S.  As they unravel the interweaving tendrils of power, their investigative prowess, unusually good luck, and their brilliant, computer-hacking friend get them to the bottom of the situation.

Baldacci's readers will not be surprised that increasingly unlikely coincidences and scarcely believable leaps of insight and discovery mark King and Maxwell's investigation.  At one point, as Maxwell reports to the president on the progress they've made, he exclaims, "That's a miracle."  I was inclined to agree.  But these big leaps don't necessarily detract from the enjoyment of the book.  It's page-turning, suspense-filled, escapist fiction.  Enjoy it for what it is!

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

Monday, January 13, 2014

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready, Adam Sternbergh's first novel, explores the world of New York City in the years after a dirty bomb is detonated in Times Square.  Half of the population has dispersed to less radioactive climes, and most of the half that remain spend their time hooked into virtual reality.  Sternbergh paints a grim picture of life and culture in this environment, and presents Spademan as the hit man with a heart of gold.

In this post-dirty-bomb New York, we meet Spademan, a garbage man turned hit man .  He's not all that thrilled about his line of work, but he knows he's providing a valuable service.  And it's not like he's culpable, any more than a bullet is culpable for a gunshot wound.  Someone else is pulling the trigger.  Having lost his wife in the terrorist bombings, his sense of ethics is deeply affected: "I may have once had some thin faith in something like cosmic justice, but now I believe in box cutters [his weapon of choice].  Everything else I left buried in  a tunnel along with the number 2 train [where his wife died]."  He does, however, have his limits.  When he gets a request to kill a pregnant teen, he has to draw the line.

Given his qualms about killing the teen, who turns out to be the daughter of a famous evangelist, he ends up as more detective than hit man.  With a little help from his friends, he uncovers a nefarious plot and saves the girl.  Shovel Ready is gritty, raw fiction, with a style matching the bleakness of this future New York.  Enjoyable, original, and likable.

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

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Baby Boom, by P. J. O'Rourke

The arrival of a new book by P.J. O'Rourke is always a cause for celebration.  He is, hands down, one of the funniest, most insightful living writers.  The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn't My Fault) (And I'll Never Do It Again) continues his string of great humor, great social commentary, and great thinking.  O'Rourke fans will not be disappointed.

In the style of a rambling memoir, O'Rourke recounts his own life as a mirror of his generation.  Much has been written about baby boomers, none of it as funny as The Baby Boom.  Randomly open the book and you will, without fail, find some laugh-out-loud one liners.  But reading the book cover to cover and seeing the themes and running jokes develop make this much more than a collection of jokes and anecdotes.

I devoured the book and found plenty to love, but I am still nostalgic for some of his past books.  I don't know of a better book on our system of government than Parliament of Whores.  And no one breaks down international economic theory better than O'Rourke in Eat the Rich.  The Baby Boom is more like CEO of the Sofa, a loosely structured stream of consciousness.

O'Rourke is a national treasure.  Long may he make us laugh.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Satisfied, by Jeff Manion

Does it sometimes seem that enough is never enough?  Jeff Manion, pastor of Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, challenges Christians to pause a moment and reflect on their spending habits and lifestyle in Satisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption.  Manion has served for decades at Ada Bible.  I never did attend when I lived in Grand Rapids but was familiar with the dynamic, growing ministry of the church.  Manion's clear teaching, biblical grounding, and story-telling ability to bring to life the setting of the New Testament are evident in Satisfied and surely reflect on a successful career in the pulpit.

In Satisfied, Manion's target audience is Western Christians who, either through growing salaries or growing credit card debt (or, likely, both) have made the accumulation of stuff the focus of their lives.  How easy it is in our culture to believe that what we have equals who we are.  He writes, "We live in a consumer-driven, debt-ridden, advertisement saturated culture, and it will require nothing short of total transformation to adopt the heart and brain of Jesus."

One key is contentment, "the discipline of being fully alive to God and to others whatever our material circumstances." We get caught up in the desire for more, but "if our goal is more, then whatever we have is not enough.  It is like running a race where a finish line doesn't exist."  We might lose our contentment due to comparison with others.  I know I often fall into this trap, where I fail to enjoy what I have because I obsess over what I lack and others have.  "Comparison is the enemy of the satisfied life."  We should foster an attitude of thankfulness for what we have and proper perspective on the blessings in our lives.

Manion is not, however, an ascetic.  He acknowledges that God does want to bless us, and wants us to enjoy his blessings.  "The gracious Father provides innumerable gifts and wants you to enjoy them." God gives us "a whispered invitation: 'Enjoy this.'" But he does not stop there.  When he whispers that he wants us to enjoy his blessings, our response should be, "Is there anything you desire from me?" We may hear him say, "Yes, I want you to share."

Unlike many books on giving and finances, Manion doesn't focus on money-saving tips or suggestions for communal living.  His project is more fundamental, to spur a change in focus from ourselves and our money and things to enjoying God and serving others.   I enjoyed the book, enjoyed Manion's style, and was challenged by his substance.  I am guilty of wanting more, of focusing on money and things, and of letting myself become immersed in our consumer culture.  Manion provides a remedy, or at least points us in the right direction.

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

Monday, January 6, 2014

Hive Monkey, by Gareth Powell

Ack-Ack Macaque made his debut in the eponymous novel from last year, and comes back strong in Gareth Powell's sequel, Hive Monkey. The cigar-smoking, hard-drinking, Spitfire-flying, enhanced monkey helped to save the world from nuclear Armageddon in the first novel. In Hive Monkey, he's called on to save the world again, this time from an invasion from a parallel universe.

This is a sequel, and readers will want to read these in order. But I love the way Powell adds a few key characters and creates an unexpectedly completely new story. One of the characters is a sci-fi writer who writes about parallel worlds. In the world of Ack-Ack, England and France united as one kingdom after WW2, and fossil fuels are not used extensively. But in the character's fictional alternative world, "the UK and France had never merged, and England now stood on the edge of a federal Europe; a world of financial chaos and Middle Eastern oil wars, in which Westminster's loyalties leaned closer to Washington than Paris. Stupid." I got a kick out of that.

For the uninitiated, the following exchange gives a good picture of Ack-Ack. He and Marie have just blown their way into an enemy stronghold. "He grinned at her, scooped up a smoldering piece of wood, and lit his cigar. 'There's something you need to know about me, lady--'. 'That you're dangerously irresponsible with explosives?' He frowned, pulled out his cigar, and exhaled smoke. 'Uh, yeah,' he said. 'That's near enough.'"

One comment on the story, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing, just an observation. In Hive Monkey, Ack-Ack is recruited to join the Gestalt, a sort of hive mind. Star Trek fans will be reminded of the Borg Queen's appeal to Data. I won't go into detail, but there were many similarities in the story lines.

All on all, Hive Monkey is a blast to read (literally--there are lots of explosions!). Powell writes with creativity and vision, and hopefully will take Ack-Ack on more adventures!

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

Friday, January 3, 2014

Sacred Sex, by Tony Evans

I have never heard Tony Evans preach live, but after reading a few of his books, I am impressed and can easily see why people love him and his teaching and reaching.  Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, writes with straight-forward language, a solid biblical foundation, and practical, convicting content.

In his book Sacred Sex, Evans speaks frankly and openly about sexual purity and the high value God places on sex.  He addresses unmarried people, but the focus seems to be on married men.  (Of course, as a married man, I may have simply read through my own lens. . . .)

As is often the case when someone writes from a strong biblical perspective, someone familiar with biblical teaching on sex will not find much new in Sacred Sex.  Evans points out that "the consummation of a marriage on the wedding night is designed to inaugurate a covenant." This is the reason the misuse of sex is so destructive: God has made the act of sex a bonding event.  When the act of marriage is performed outside the covenant of marriage, the consequences can be devastating.

Evans offers hope and healing, but pulls no punches: "If you are involved in an illicit sexual relationship, using porn, or dabbling in any kind of sexual immorality, you must stop it, repent, and begin the process of seeking forgiveness, offering forgiveness, and healing."  Evans doesn't allow for any gray area, doesn't beat around the bush, and calls for repentance and a renewed commitment to Jesus.

Sacred Sex is too brief, and leaves some questions unanswered, but it's solid and straightforward enough to be a great resource for teaching on sexual purity.

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