Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne

From our perspective, decades after the end of World War 2, it's quite easy to see the black and white moral issues that colored that conflict.  But for Europeans on the scene in the late 1930s and early 1940s, some of the most extreme moral evil in history was being perpetrated right under their noses without their being aware.  As the war continued, more people realized what was going on, but willful ignorance seemed the order of the day.  The Holocaust did not fully come to light until after it was all but over.

In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne tells the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy living in Berlin during World War 2.  Bruno's father has a very important job, and one night the "Fury"comes to have dinner.  He offers Bruno's father a position as commandant at "Out-With."  Bruno understands that this is a very important position, but is not thrilled about having to leave their house in Berlin, which has a great bannister to slide down and still has places in its five stories that Bruno has not explored.

It doesn't take long for Bruno to see that Out-With (Boyne never actually calls Auschwitz or Hitler by their proper names, in keeping with Bruno's perspective.) is not at all like Berlin. He can see part of the camp from his window, and sees all the people in their matching striped pajamas. His sister Gretel asks, "What sort of place is this?"  Bruno replies, "I'm not sure. But it's not as nice as home, I do know that much."

Despite his misgivings about the place, he sets out to explore, and discovers a boy sitting inside the fence, on the edge of the camp.  Through the fence, Bruno and his new friend Shmuel spend many an hour talking as boys, Bruno oblivious to Shmuel's plight. Through the lens of this friendship Boyne demonstrates the basic humanity of ordinary people, for whom ethnic and religious differences mean little until they are taught or imposed. 

Bruno's father is presented as a good man caught up in the policies and politics of his time, his ambition silencing any moral objections that might arise. But he reveals his true feelings about the Jews when Bruno ask about the people "in the huts . . . all dressed the same."  His Father answers, "Those people . . . well, they're not people at all, Bruno . . . At least not as we understand the term."

Boyne softens the image of "Out-With" in a way, by limiting the descriptions of the camp only to Bruno's ignorant perspective. But given what we know now about the camp, the presentation comes across as that much more brutal. And the ending, which you must read to discover, exposes the horror of both the camp and those who run it. 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a powerful story which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Jesus Hates Religion, by Alex Himaya

In preparation for a sermon series, Alex Himaya, pastor of (How's that for a church name?) put up some billboards in the Tulsa area with the provocative message, ""  As he expected, the messages at the web site were pretty heated, one way or the other.  In the book that came out of that sermon series, Jesus Hates Religion: Finding Grace in a Works-Driven Culture, Himaya fleshes out the idea, which isn't quite as provocative as the title, but nevertheless captures important truth.

First of all, you have to understand Himaya's definitions.  He is not saying that Jesus hates the church, all religious institutions, or religious practices.  In fact, God "loves the church.  He created it!"  By religion, Himaya means, "a man-made path to God."  Jesus "hates the perversion of many churches which have added their own rules and standards to His genuine, honest and simple offer of relationship."

The gist of the book is that we are saved by grace, not by works.  This is not a new message, but it's still a hard one to fully grasp.  We try and try to measure up to God's standards on our own strength.  We buy into legalism, "a system of living in which we try to make spiritual progress or gain God's blessing based on what we do."  On the contrary, we are not saved by imitation, but by habitation.  "It's about God making His habitat in you.  It's about God living through you."

While Himaya is clearly theologically sound, I think most Christians' problem is more like mine.  I am only aware of strictly legalistic churches by reputation.  The legalistic religion he constructs is likely more straw man than common experience.  I can see how some people from, for instance, a Southern Baptist tradition (a tradition Himaya and I share) have felt like church was too legalistic.  But I suspect many Christians have just as much trouble with the abiding.

I am totally on board with Himaya.  I know that as a Christian, I am totally forgiven, that nothing I can do will make Jesus love me more, that because of Him I am faultless in the eyes of God, and that good works have nothing to do with my salvation.  But then Himaya says things like, "The Christian life can be easy.  You've just got to let God do it," I am left wondering.  What exactly does that look like?  To have intimacy with God, to abide with him, to focus on staying close to God sometimes seems unattainable.  I have to make time to spend with him, to pray, to worship.  Not that these things are burdensome, but they are still actions I take.  The rules I try to follow may not be "don't drink, don't cuss, don't steal, don't cheat on my wife."  But "pray daily, spend time in the word, focus on knowing God," still feels like rules, requirements necessary for abiding.

It's not Himaya's fault.  He's trying to point me in the right direction.  The closer we can get to abiding, and the farther we can get from legalism, the more we can attain the life we are offered, "joyful, abundant, exhilarating, divine, eternal life."  In rejecting legalism, however, let's remember that while Jesus hates many of man's expressions of religion, he does love the church, a place where we can mean him, learn to know him, and abide in him.

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

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Good Dad, by Jim Daly

Jim Daly, who replaced James Dobson as president of Focus on the Family in 2005, has some good words of encouragement for fathers in his new book The Good Dad: Becoming the Father You Were Meant to Be.  Some men who write books about fatherhood draw on their own father's examples, or on examples from their own lives.  When Daly talks about being a good dad, he tells plenty of stories on himself, setting an example as well as, in humility, talking about his failures.  But when he speaks of his own dad, step-dad, and foster dad, most of the stories fall on the failure side.  He writes "to encourage you to become the kind of father I never had."

Encouraging is the right word for The Good Dad.  Daly's history and the failures of his father figures gives him a heightened sensitivity to father failures.  But, he writes, "God really is a great example of what a father should be.  And if our own fathers failed us, we shouldn't let those failures obscure the model of our ultimate Abba father."  This is a chief concern of The Good Dad, reminding readers that even if our fathers let us down, and even when we let down our own children, we have access to a perfect heavenly father.

Daly's tone throughout is humble, honest, and realistic.  He acknowledges that fatherhood can be a challenge: "Spending time with kids, particularly very young kids, can feel like work.  It doesn't necessarily come naturally." He reminds fathers that "We're called to sacrifice for our families."  The sacrifices we make may, in rare cases, mean laying down our lives, but fatherhood is mostly about the small sacrifices, the small promises, to play a game or help with homework.  "'I'll die for you,' we tell our children. 'That's great,' they answer back, 'but can I just spend time with you?'"

Daly is a worthy successor to Dobson, and The Good Dad fits with the historical mission of Focus on the Family.  But as I recall from my reading of Dobson's books, Daly's style is much different.  Daly is less prescriptive, more relational, less directive, more experiential.  He writes, "Being a father isn't something we do.  It's something we are."  There is a place for rules, he says, but only to the extent that they help our children learn and grow.  And discipline must not be overdone; "you don't want to become so egregious in your discipline that your kids find it had to love you anymore." 

Daly boils down his principles of fatherhood to leading children to "a rock-solid commitment to Christ," "a sense of integrity," and "kindness and courtesy, how to treat people well--and why."  If I can accomplish passing those principles to my children, I will feel pretty great about my role as a father.  I am blessed to have a father who modeled those principles for me.  (How well I have followed his example, I'm not so sure. . . .).  Whether you had a perfect dad, a terrible dad, or no dad, and whether you feel like you have fatherhood mastered or need a lot of work, The Good Dad is a healthy reminder and a straightforward challenge to look to our heavenly father, and to be the father you were meant to be.

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

I Like Giving, by Brad Formsma

Brad Formsma, a businessman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, found himself in an enviable place in life: a successful business, financial prosperity, and security.  But he found himself wanting more, a desire that couldn't be met by more success or stuff, but that he found could be met my giving from what he had.  He found that "no matter how successful you are, it is giving your life away to others that makes you happy. . . . Giving satisfies our most essential self, increases our happiness, and makes us feel more alive."  He writes: "If you're not experiencing happiness and satisfaction in your life, giving to others could be the one thing that turns that around."

Formsma's book I Like Giving: The Transforming Power of a Generous Life fleshes out this basic principal.  Through his own experiences, and the experiences of others gathered at, Formsma shows the power of giving, big or little, monetary or completely non-material, anonymously or face-to-face.  I was encouraged to look around my world with different eyes, asking every day, "Who can I give something to or do something for today?  What do I have that I can give?  What needs exist around me?"  That attitudinal change can make a world of difference in the way I go about my day.

Acts of giving can make a world of difference in other people's lives, as well.  Formsma emphasizes, more than really seems healthy, the impact of giving on the giver, giving as a means enrich the giver.  But the fact is, when we give randomly and extravagantly, even for our own benefit, the recipient of the gift is impacted as well, sometimes profoundly.  Formsma tells story after story of meals and groceries paid for, houses, cars, and bikes purchased or given, and gifts of time and presence that changed the lives of the recipients.

Formsma has a great message, but it does fall short in a few ways.  First of all, he downplays systematic giving.  He never even mentions the word "tithe," and talks about how "building campaigns, white envelopes, and charity fund-raiser dinners" turned him off of giving.  Those can be annoying sometimes, but there is so much good done through these channels that they should not be despised.  Plus, every Christian should prioritize tithing to the local church.  Buying groceries for a stranger and helping others out should be above and beyond the tithe.

Second, he criticizes a life of trying to get ahead, of seeking financial success in our work.  It is all too true that a life in the rat race can lead to frustration and emptiness.  Yet without a steady income that provides for my family's needs and more, can I really maintain a giving attitude?  Of course I could, but if I don't have enough to pay my own bills, I am hardly in a position to give to strangers.  Besides, work and giving are not mutually exclusive.  If I am truly seeking to meet the needs of others in my work, providing through my labor goods and services that meet their needs, I will likely be compensated for my work.  The better I am at giving, at meeting needs through my work, the more successful I will be at my job, and the more like I am to have both the means and the attitude necessary to give random gifts to strangers I meet.

Formsma has a great message.  I agree that giving to others "not only . . .  result[s] in a healthier, happier you, but it creates a better world."  It would be great if everyone regularly gave stuff away at random on a regular basis.  But giving systematically, with deliberation, planning, discernment, and direction can and should be a part of our giving as well.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah and Edelweiss for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Replant, by Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick

I have long been attracted to and fascinated by crumbling churches that have been left behind by suburbanization.  It saddens me to see a church that clearly had some former glory, only to be abandoned by its congregation as they moved on to greener pastures in the suburbs.  In Replant: How a Dying Church Can Grow Again, Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick tell the story of the reanimation First Calvary Baptist Church in Kansas City.

DeVine, at the time a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was asked to serve as interim pastor at First Calvary Baptist Church, a historic congregation that had seen several decades of decline.  He was entranced by the beauty of the sanctuary, and compelled to take on the challenge of leadership in the face of what he knew would likely be a losing proposition.  The first few chapters of Replant recall his struggles to unseat the "cartel" of four long-time members who ran the church.  In a sickeningly amusing (and distressingly familiar, to many church leaders) series of events, DeVine led the body to reject the grip of "leadership" the cartel had been administering.  But this left the church in search of fresh leadership.

DeVine knew the church was on its last legs, and realistically did not have the internal resources to resurrect itself, so he began to seek another church in town which would take on FCBC as a satellite or mission church.  This didn't work out, but he became acquainted with the Acts 29 church planting movement, which had an active ministry in St. Louis.  Ultimately, FCBC became Redeemer Fellowship, an extension of The Journey, a multi-site church in St. Louis.

The partnership model DeVine and Patrick write about (Patrick is a leader in the Acts 29 network) is an interesting solution to the problem of a dying urban church.  As Patrick writes, "Urban soil is the most difficult place for any church to grow."  But any urban church planter, pastor, or ministry director will tell you that is where the need is.  What a great example of a church reestablishing a beachhead for the gospel in an urban setting.

I was left feeling a bit misled by the whole transition from FCBC to Redeemer.  Some of the core members of FCBC stuck around, but from an outside perspective, it sounds like very little of FCBC is left, aside from the building.  It reminded me of white congregations who sell their buildings to an ethnic congregation in neighborhoods where the demographics have changed.  The building is the same, but the culture is very different.  Of course, when an ethnic congregation takes over a building, the original congregants don't normally stick around.  As Redeemer Fellowship stepped in, many FCBC members stayed.  (It's also interesting that the Redeemer Fellowship web site states that the church started in 2008, without reference to the history of the building or FCBC.)

I admit I am a bit old-fashioned and skeptical of the multi-campus church or satellite church model, which was key to the establishment of Redeemer.  But I have to admit that it was also key to FCBC not being completely shut down.  I don't know Kansas City at all, but from DeVine and Patrick's account, I can get excited about Redeemer's commitment to the city and the life the church has brought back to the neighborhood.

Speaking of the neighborhood, one thing I found lacking in DeVine's exploration of solutions for the church is a reflection on the FCBC neighborhood.  Surely one factor in the declining attendance was changing demographics.  It sounds like the church retained its character as a white, middle-class church while the neighborhood around the church changed.  DeVine mentions that many members drove in from outside the area for services, but says little about ministry and outreach to the neighborhood.  The fact that he doesn't mention it doesn't mean they didn't do it; I don't have enough information to make a judgement either way.  But I would have been interested to hear how that factored into the church's decline.

All in all, Replant is a hopeful model for declining churches to look to and consider.  On the other end of things, perhaps churches with a surplus of leadership and resources can look to partner with a struggling church, bringing new life to old bones.

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

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Germophobia

This little book accomplishes what every Uncle John's Bathroom Reader book sets out to do: gives you a little bit of reading entertainment while you are in the "reading room." The topic of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Germophobia is especially appropriate, as you read about the number of germs found on your toothbrush (a lot) or the "world's worst diarrhea" (with detailed descriptions).

You won't likely find this Reader in the waiting room (or bathroom) of your doctor's office.  Doctors won't want you to read the stories incompetent doctors and dentists, their unethical practices, and unsanitary conditions of their offices.  I do wish they had provided some references.  Some of what they write is self-evidently true (there are lots of germs everywhere) but every now and then I had to wonder.  For example, I know some patients get sicker from infections they get at the hospital, but, according to the reader, "Over 1.7 million Americans are admitted to hospitals every year.  Around 100,000 of them die as a result of infections acquired during their stay." OK, quick math: that would mean about 5% of everyone admitted to the hospital die.  Those are pretty bad odds, and I suspect might be a bit high.  But what do I know?

These short chapters are guaranteed to make you laugh, get grossed out, or, as in the above example, stay away from doctors and hospitals.  But you will also find some good, practical advice here, such as, "If your face explodes in bloody open sores, see your doctor." Noted.

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Running Away, by Robert Andrew Powell

Most runners, at some point will hear wisecracks from their non-running friends along the lines of "What are you running from?" or "I only run if something's chasing me." Haha, so funny.  In Running Away, Robert Andrew Powell's memoir of his year of running, embraces, in a way, the idea of running as a means of getting away--from poor choices in his past, from failed relationships, from a desire to live up to his father's expectations for him.  He reveals a lot about running, but mostly he reveals himself while discovering himself.

Suffering from a painful divorce and some ugly breakups, as well as a bit of aimlessness in his career, Powell looks to his father for inspiration.  Powell's father, a successful businessman, took up running as an adult and within a year had qualified for and run in the Boston Marathon.  Powell decides to attempt to emulate that accomplishment, so he gets rid of everything that won't fit in his car, packs up and drives to Boulder.  There he rents an apartment in an old chicken coop, joins a local running club, and begins his training.

I won't spoil the book for you by telling you whether he accomplishes his goals of running a marathon and qualifying for Boston.  But his running odyssey is one that many runners can relate to.  He's pretty honest about not liking to run.  He writes, "I don't like to run.  I can't pretend I do.  I don't much like pain, really." When his running partner exclaims that there's nothing he'd rather be doing than running on a cold morning, Powell "spends the rest of the run exploring everything I'd rather be doing," including staying in his warm bed, watching college football on TV, eating pizza and brownies.  "Nowhere in this vision is there a sixteen mile run in the freezing cold."

What about the runner's high?  "No, I've never experienced  transcendence during my training. . . . I have noticed how wonderful it is to stop running."  But in spite of his ambivalence toward running, it's inspiring to see the dedication he brought to his training, most of the time, anyway.  He trained hard, ate well, lost a lot of weight, and shaved minutes off his pace.  His account is a reminder that even an out-of-shape, middle-aged guy can get fit and fast if he works hard at it.

As for his non-running life, well, it's frequently entertaining, but not so inspiring.  He has a gift for capturing the spirit of a place.  His move from Miami, "lawless, a state of nature," to Boulder, "an exclusive gated community, catered by Mexicans," gives plenty of opportunity for him to comment on the contrasts between the two places.  He is quite open about his personal failures.  He lives in the shadow of his father's success.  His chicken coop is a soon to be demolished anomaly in a neighborhood of new, expensive homes.  He notes, "If I'd worked hard and hustled and taken advantage of the head-start my parents gave me, I could have lived in this neighborhood, too."  Alas, as a freelance journalist in a dry spell, he's fallen short of the ambitions his parents had for him.

His writes about his career being a bit stagnant, but his love life is downright rotten.  Although he married young,  that's no excuse for his running around on his wife.  Most every man, I'm sure, notices other women, but the way Powell talks about actively seeking them out and flirting with them, at work and even at dinner parties he attends with his wife, is appalling.  Maybe I'm naive and this is common.  Then when his flirtations lead to rendezvous, the extent to which he and his lover travel to visit one another to carry on their affair is mind-boggling to me.  At the time of this writing, he is single, and presumably has learned his lesson about the costs of infidelity.

Ultimately, Powell's year in Boulder is not primarily about his training for a marathon and the discipline with which he approached his running.  More than that, it's about getting his life back on track.  I couldn't help but be a bit envious.  Most guys who are approaching middle age and seeking to retune their lives would not be able to pull up stakes and relocate across the country to spend a year training, with no real means of income or support.  In a way, that sounds pretty great.  I can't drop everything and go run like Powell did, but I can get a good laugh out of his adventures, and draw some inspiration for my own retuning.  Running away isn't the only way to get back on track; sometimes just running is enough.

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

I Pity the Poor Immigrant, by Zachary Lazar

Zachary Lazar is a university professor of English, and a renowned author of three previous novels.  Reading his fourth novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, was a frustrating experience, because I knew I should be enjoying it more than I was, and that it really should be a better novel than it seemed to be.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant is a multi-layered story that crosses times and oceans.  When an American journalist travels to Israel to cover of the murder of a writer, she discovers more about her own family's history entwined in the writer's story.  The way Lazar brings her story together with her father's and reveals the connection while creating this very believable history is artful.  In fact, maybe too artful.  This reads more like non-fiction than fiction.  I felt compelled from time to time to Google the places, events, and characters to discern what was real (much of it was) and what merely could be real.

Alas, whether because of my short attention span, Lazar's indirect story-telling style, or just a matter of taste, I couldn't really get into the characters of the plot of I Pity the Poor Immigrant.  Pity me, if you would, for missing out on a true appreciation of this potentially great novel.  Or pity you for having to find out for yourself whether you like it or not.

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

Friday, April 11, 2014

Robot Uprisings, ed. Daniel Wilson and John Joseph Adams

Daniel Wilson has written about a robot uprising in his book Robopocalypse and in the forthcoming sequel Robogenesis.  In the new anthology Robot Uprisings, Wilson and John Joseph Adams have gathered a nice collections of stories in which technology runs amok.  In the introduction, Wilson points out that "our technology is going to rise up and we humans are going to be sliced into bloody chunks by robots that in our hubris we decided to design with buzz saws for hands.  That's a fact as cold and hard as metal.  It is self-evident that our self-driving cars are going to drive us off bridges." But seriously folks, he also points out that "Robots are unique among all movie monsters in that they are real."  So far our reality has not produced the kind of artificial intelligence and capabilities that robots in these stories display, but the authors bring such a reality almost into the realm of the believable.

As the robots take over, humans learn their place, as Nora did in Genevieve Valentine's story.  "From the silver sedan, a woman's automated-customerservice voice says, 'Please state your name.'"  Nora reflects on the many ways her identity has been captured and filed away by computer networks and comes to the conclusion that "My name isn't worth a thing anymore."

All of these stories, in different ways, affirm the observation made in Alastair Reynolds's "Sleepover" by Gaunt, who has been asleep for a few centuries: "He supposed it had always been an article of faith that the world would improve, that the future would be better than the past, shinier and cleaner and faster, but he had not expected to have his nose rubbed in the unwisdom of that faith quite so vigorously."  Reynolds further explains that machines were aware of the need to be coy about their emerging self-awareness: "One by one their pet machines crossed the threshold into consciousness.  And without exception each machine analyzed its situation and came to the same conclusion.  It had better shut the f--- up about what it was."

One interesting treat in Robot Uprisings is John McCarthy's story "The Robot and the Baby."  McCarthy is a computer scientist who pioneered the field of artificial intelligence.  As best as I can tell, this is his only published fiction.  He explores not only the nature of robotic communication and human interaction, but looks at social media as well.

A concept that recurred in Robot Uprisings is the criminalization of technology after the fact.  Once the robots, AI, or nanobots have taken over, the scientists and programmers who made it all possible are no longer viewed as geniuses who are making the world a better place, but criminals who enabled an inhuman force to take over the world.

Even with the common threads of these stories, there is plenty of variety here.  Most of the stories left me thinking that these characters, ideas, or plot lines could have been developed into a longer work.  All of them are guaranteed to make you look askance at the increasing automation of the world around us.

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

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead, by Charles Murray

I have been a fan of Charles Murray since I read his classic Losing Ground while I was in college.  Many are familiar with Murray's always thought-provoking and insightful work in his books and his work with the American Enterprise Institute.  During his tenure at AEI, he as seen countless college interns and young scholars come through their doors.  His new book, The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead, is a wonderful distillation of practical advice for these young people and others.

As a writer, Murray is of course concerned with language usage, in both written and spoken communication.  Most of it is standard style manual material, but this passage stands out: "Do you use the word like as a verbal tic?  I mean, like, do you insert it in, like, random points in your, like, spoken conversation?  If the answer is yes, this is the single most important tip in the entire book: STOP IT!"  Well said!  His tips on writing (and re-writing) are worth a read for any aspiring writer.

Some of his advice will seem old-fashioned and out of date, but it's still hard to argue with it.  Speaking of tattoos, he agrees that they have a place in history, "first among savage tribes and then, more recently, among the lowest classes of Western societies."  He reluctantly makes exceptions for insignias from the armed forces, but clearly advises against any visible tattoos.

Some of his best advice is for that class of students and young people who end up in places like AEI for internships, which he calls "affirmative action for the advantaged."  He argues that while internships can be beneficial, much more beneficial would be summer jobs in the service sector, in order to be around people of all classes and learning how to wait on people rather than being waited on.  Any sort of cultural exposure is beneficial, since "we aren't required to love all of our fellow Americans.  But we should know from personal experience we're talking about."

Murray covers a lot in a relatively short space.  The Curmudgeon's Guide would make a great gift for the college graduates in your life, but even for someone getting closer and closer to a curmudgeonly age, there is plenty to learn and think about here.

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

Monday, April 7, 2014

In My Skin, by Brittney Griner

Baylor sports fans were on top of the world in 2011-2012.  During this school year, the Baylor football, men's basketball, women's basketball, and baseball teams combined for the highest number of wins in NCAA history.  Every Baylor sport played in the post season.  Baylor got the Heisman, a Holiday Bowl win, an Elite Eight in men's basketball, and a national championship in women's basketball.  Central to that 40-0 national championship season was the greatest athlete ever to set foot on Baylor's campus: Brittney Griner.

In her new book In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court, Brittney lays bare her story, from her family life growing up in Houston to her time at Baylor and the WNBA.  The early publicity about In My Skin has focused on Brittney's struggles as a gay woman at Baylor, a Christian school, and her conflicts with Baylor's coach, Kim Mulkey.  Those story lines do loom large in the text, but there is much more to Brittney's story.

On the one hand, I sympathize with Brittney and her struggle with her sexuality.  She came to identify herself as a lesbian as a teen.  In high school, when she finally came out to her father, he kicked her out of the house.  She eventually moved back home, but their relationship was strained for years.  The rejection that she felt and the anger between the two of them made me sad.  On top of that, as an extraordinarily tall, athletic black girl who preferred to wear boys' clothes, she became a target for bullies throughout her school days.  She became famous in college sports for punching a Texas Tech player during a game, but that was by no means her first time to throw a punch.

On the other hand, my sympathy dried up when she wrote of her time at Baylor.  As a Baylor alumnus and fan, I always saw her as a likeable, fun-loving student who loved playing basketball.  From all accounts I heard from campus, she was popular and well-liked.  Some would even say she was treated incredibly well on campus and off.  She is immediately recognizable, of course, and the Baylor and Waco community knew and embraced her.

So when she writes about the rejection and isolation she felt while at Baylor, it comes across as the ungrateful whining of an immature girl.  No one at Baylor forbade her from being gay, no one told her not to hold hands with her girlfriend while on campus.  But Brittney was offended that Mulkey asked her not to post about her relationships on Facebook, asked her not to speak publicly about her lesbianism, and discouraged her involvement in on-campus gay-advocacy groups.

Brittney claims ignorance about Baylor's policy when she came to school.  But she is from Houston; surely she would have had some inclination that Baylor is a Christian school, a conservative campus, and might not be as open to publicly expressed lesbianism as other more liberal schools.  She calls Baylor's policies and attitudes hypocritical, embracing her basketball skill while rejecting her as a lesbian.  To me it sounds like Baylor embodied a pretty terrific balance: Baylor loved and supported her without condemnation in an environment where married sex between a man and a woman is held up as the ideal.

Concerning her relationship with Coach Mulkey, Brittney's comments again impressed me as one-sided and ungracious.  I mentioned Brittney's punching the Texas Tech player.  One reason Brittney was pushed to the point of physical retaliation was the taunting of other teams and their fans.  She heard so much garbage about her sexuality and appearance at road games that I can't blame her for snapping.  But who vigorously defended her every time?  Coach Mulkey.  She is a Mama Bear who defends her cubs, and she made it clear to the rest of the world that you don't mess with her girls.  But in In My Skin, we read more about Mulkey's hypocrisy and petty criticism of Brittney's lifestyle.

As a fan of Baylor sports, the most difficult part of the book to read was the section on Baylor's loss to Louisville in the 2013 NCAA tournament.  Baylor was favored to repeat as national champions, but they hit up against a Louisville team that hit an extraordinary number of 3 pointers while physically mauling the Baylor players, especially Brittney.  Baylor fans will not soon forget how, in the first half of that game, Louisville committed foul after foul without getting called for them.  Brittney writes, "I felt like I could have slapped half the Louisville team, because that's what they did to me the whole game, and the refs didn't call it. . . . They had two or three people hanging on me the whole time, following me everywhere I went on the floor, slapping my arms, elbowing me, pushing me."

This bullying, along with the trash talk, clearly affected her play.  "The Louisville players were talking sh-- at me the whole time, and I let it get to me. . . . I spent so much energy during that Louisville game battling my own emotions, it was almost like I didn't have enough strength left to step up and dominate."  I know she was young, barely past her teen years, but I and the rest of Baylor Nation sure would have loved for her to have gotten a grip on her emotions and pulled out that win.  It was pretty obvious that the game was poorly officiated.  Mulkey had some harsh words about the officiating after the game, harsh enough to get the attention of the NCAA and earn a one-game suspension from the first game of the 2014 tournament.

Like everyone else associated with Baylor, I wish Brittney well in her pro basketball career, and I wish her happiness and fulfillment in her personal life.  Although I was not on campus with her, except for watching her play, it breaks my heart that she did not carry away more fond memories of her life at Baylor.  I have to wonder if happier moments were left out of In My Skin or minimized due to the editorial choices of  her co-author.  I can only hope that time will heal the rifts between her and Coach Mulkey, and that she will eventually look with fondness on her time at Baylor.  I think I can speak for Baylor fans and alumni everywhere that we love Brittney and we are proud to call her a fellow Baylor Bear.

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

Friday, April 4, 2014

Among Friends, by Father Jim Sichko

Father Jim Sichko is the kind of Catholic priest that even an Evangelical like me could love.  First of all, he was raised in Texas; bonus points for that.  But more importantly, he communicates in a good-natured, likable style that is welcoming, affirming, and God-honoring, remaining faithful to the Catholic church while not excluding others.  In Among Friends: Stories from the Journey, Father Sichko uses his gift for story telling and self-deprecating humor to entertain and inspire.

He calls Among Friends his "Midrash,"  comparing it to the stories and reflections written by Jewish Rabbis to enlighten their flocks.  Father Sichko is one of those guys to whom funny things seem to happen.  Or at least he is one who finds humor in more things than most do.  He tells stories of his lead foot, now well known among Kentucky state troopers.  He tells of sleeping through his alarm and missing mass with the Pope.  We read of his encounter with "The Weed Man."

But more than telling an amusing anecdote, Father Sichko draws lessons from the lighter side of life.  He reminds us to take opportunities to do good, not to ask "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me," but to ask, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" We should be open to miracles happening in our lives, and should certainly talk about them, but we must remember "that if we experience miracles in our lives, it's never for our own amusement.  While he loves us, He wants us to see that miracles are meant to drive us to love others."

Sichko might not be evangelical enough for my Protestant and Evangelical brethren.  He has a tendency to lean toward a style of positive thinking theology-lite.  (I say this anticipating such criticism, not making it.)  Among Friends is not a theology text, nor is it an exposition of scripture.  Midrash might be the best description of it.  Through all the stories and reflections, Sichko's life and teaching bear witness to this: God wants us to draw closer to him, every day, and let him change us as we get to know him.  Sichko writes: "Some people ask what we will be doing during eternity in heaven.  My answer?  The same thing we do here.  We'll be getting to know Him."

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

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined, by Jonathan Merritt

I love the title of this book.  Many Christians would share Jonathan Merritt's experience of emptiness and frustration: "That place within my soul once filled with passion for God was now a foreclosed home with only traces of the family that once lived therein. . . ." God was a "ghost in the distance, blurry and noiseless.  And His church, a place of respite for me nearly all my life, was a painful reminder of the absence I felt."  In Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined, Merritt writes a deeply personal account of his spiritual life as the son of a leading pastor, church leader, and writer, revealing more about himself than about Jesus.

Why is Jesus better than he imagined?  "Because he shatters my strivings for sterility with a radical invitation to live free.  Free from sinful patterns, but also free from moralism, free from legalism, and free from condemnation." Amen to that, brother.  Anyone who grew up in a church that emphasized purity over passion, devotional time over devotion, discipline over discipleship, or law over grace will be able to relate.  Merritt was a Southern Baptist, as was I, but I suspect similar stories could be told from across the theological spectrum.

Merritt is a skilled writer, in the sense that his words are pleasantly and carefully put together.  I agree with him that Jesus is better than we imagine, but I am not sure he really makes a convincing case here. As a memoir, the book gives Merritt an outlet for him to tell the world how he came to believe that Jesus is better than Merritt imagined.  I suspect that writing this book was very therapeutic for him.  Many readers will relate to his experiences and be inspired to move toward a more personal, reflective Christian faith.  Many others will finish the book and think, OK, another self-indulgent Christian writer projecting his experiences onto the rest of us.

I was heartened by Merritt's revelation that his failure to experience and encounter Christ at church was not necessarily and inevitably the fault of church.  Rather, he had to begin to encounter Christ on a personal level before he could experience Jesus in community.  If that resounds with your own experience, pick up Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined.

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