Monday, September 29, 2014

Letters to an Atheist, by Peter Kreeft

When Peter Kreeft met "Martha" at a conference, she asked for his assistance and advice in talking with her atheist brother "Michael."  So Kreeft begins a fictional correspondence with Michael, a friendly debate attempting to win Michael over to theism and Christian faith.  In Letters to an Atheist: Wrestling with Faith, Kreeft presents arguments for the existence of God and debunks atheists' arguments against theism with kindness, clarity, and respect.

Kreeft, a Boston College philosophy professor, has written dozens of books that bring theological and philosophical ideas into everyday language.  Letters is no exception.  He covers many of the classical arguments (design, natural law, the anthropic principal, etc.) and atheist objections (hell, the problem of evil) in a conversational, accessible way.  Kreeft discusses many of the standard arguments for the existence of God, but mostly resists categorization or listing of said arguments, because he doesn't want to "turn our letters into a philosophy class.  Nothing wrong with a philosophy class in philosophy class, but letters should be letters."

That said, while making the book highly readable, personal, and enjoyable, the fact is there is a lot of philosophy herein.  It would have been nice to have an appendix with a systematic listing of the arguments he makes, and a list of suggested reading for further study.  The dialogue approach is great for introducing ideas, but if I wanted to come back to Letters as a reference, I would be hard pressed to wade through it for the main points.  (I realize Kreeft didn't write this to be a reference. But I would still like to have seen a distillation of the core arguments.)

Kreeft's writing is engaging and entertaining.  I suspect his classes at Boston College are popular and packed.  But I also suspect that atheists reading Letters to an Atheist will have a similar response to Michael's: "I think I understand all the arguments we have exchanged, on both sides, quite clearly, and I am not convinced by your arguments, though you express them very well."

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jesus Is Most Special, by Sally Michael

Just in time for Christmas (I saw Christmas trees at Wal-Mart today, so it must be Christmas season!), Sally Michael has written a new children's book about the birth of Jesus.  Michael, along with illustrator Fred Apps, have produced a simple, beautiful book to share with young children.  Jesus Is Most Special will grab young readers with the beautiful illustrations and give adults a nice tool for teaching the Christmas story.

Michael and Apps cover the messianic prophecies, the annunciation, the journey to Bethlehem, Jesus' birth, and the visits of the shepherds and wise men.  (Even though she doesn't directly address the passage of time between Jesus' birth and the wise men's visit, I like the fact that in the illustration with the wise men, Jesus appears to be a toddler or young boy.)  Each page is accompanied by a scripture or Christmas carol to emphasize the theme.  Most importantly, Michael wraps it up with a call: "We must tell [people around the world] about Jesus, the Savior for all kinds of people, who is the most special of all."

Apps's illustrations have a classic, simple feel.  They reminded me of old Sunday school literature (in a nostalgic, classic way).  Michael's prose is simple and clear, and her teaching aids help the parent or other adult readers.  Michael suggests that you read it again and again, to instill the message of Jesus' birth in the hearts of young readers.  Sounds like a worthy goal to me!

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, by The Oatmeal

Running can help with those burdens. . . .
Matthew Inman, a.k.a The Oatmeal, has captured, for me, the essence and the joy of running in The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances.  He's not an elite ultrarunner, but he's out there, running and loving it more than most.  His stories and drawings are goofy, hilarious, thoughtful, and, in fact, inspiring.  That, to me, is the measure of a good running book.  When I'm done reading, or, better, while I'm reading, do I feel like going for a run?  TTAWRWIRLD passes that test with flying colors.

Inman's trademark contribution to running lore is "the Blerch," "a fat little cherub . . . a wretched lazy beast" who tells Inman to "slow down, to walk, to quit."  When Inman is "sedentary at a time when [he has] zero excuse for being sedentary," he is "blerching."  The good news is, the Blerch "can be outrun.  He CAN be silenced."  I can relate to Inman.  I have done more than my share of blerching.  But, as Inman comically yet profoundly illustrates, running can be a time that transcends the noise of the world.

Among the wackiness, Inman does actually have some practical advice.  His "DOs and and DO NOTs of running your first marathon" includes helpful tips like:

  • DO let those pre-race jitters fly!  Start out at a completely impractical pace.  This will demoralize other runners into quitting early, and you will be crowned marathon champion at mile two.
  • DO NOT stop running when getting a drink at an aid station.  By enduring the "sprint-choke," you could shave three, possibly four seconds off your 5+ hour finish time!
  • DO delude yourself into thinking there is anything enjoyable about eating energy gels.  ("This tastes like boob milk from a cyborg.")

Runners will be laughing in recognition and looking for another race to sign up for.  The running tribe can be a bit odd, and Inman one of us.  Pick up TTAWRWIRLD, silence the Blerch, and then go for a run!

You can read a substantial excerpt at The Oatmeal.  But, trust me, you'll want to read the rest of it, too.

(I should add a content advisory: Inman uses some, uh, colorful language.  It may be a cartoon book, but it's not for the little ones. . . .)

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs

Robert Peace and Jeff Hobbs came from vastly different backgrounds, but when Yale paired them as college roommates, a race- and class-bridging friendship emerged.  When Robert passed away several years after they graduated, Jeff took on the task of chronicling his life in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League.  The story is not without its happy moments, but, ultimately, it's sad and discouraging.

Robert grew up in Newark, poor, son of a single mother and a father who was in prison for a double murder.  Even as a toddler, he showed signs of brilliance, so his mother made endless sacrifices to ensure that he got a good education.  He was a stellar student, and graduated with accolades from a local Catholic prep school.  Due to the generosity of the school's patron, he had his way paid to Yale, where he excelled in the molecular biology program.

At every point in his education, Rob was well-liked by his peers and lauded by his teachers.  He showed a remarkable selflessness, as he helped out his friends, many of whom would have struggled academically if not for his tutelage.  He showed a great work ethic in his studies, on the water polo team, and in his outside work as a lifeguard, lab assistant, and other roles.

Rob's story should have been a rags to riches tale, an inspiring story of a man who had everything going against him, but through hard work, a brilliant mind, and some great connections along the way, became a great leader in government, business, the community, or all of the above.  Alas, Rob was a habitual pot smoker, as well as being a very active dealer.  He became the number one dealer at Yale, where there was no shortage of customers, and continued his dealing after graduation in order to make ends meet and to fund his various endeavors.

One of Rob's Yale friends, who also came from poverty, put it well: "You do dumb sh-- and you know it's dumb sh-- but it's the same dumb sh-- you grew up around so you do it anyway."  Rob never seemed to wrestle with the ethical or legal implications of his dealing, only with seeking to avoid getting caught.  When planning the "last big deal" that was supposed to set him up financially, he told his friends, "There's no great man who doesn't have [an ethical gray area], no man who's ever made a difference, anyway.  You don't get to the top without compromising something along the way. . . . Look at politics and presidents . . ."

Ultimately, Rob's belief that he was above the law and above the darker side of drug dealing caught up with him and cost him his life.  While he showed a lot of character in his care for his mother, his legal efforts on behalf of his father, and his treatment of his friends, his lack of a true moral compass was his downfall.  He was able to justify the means by looking to the ends.  To his credit, he was enabled to do so.  One of the teachers at his Catholic high school confronted him about his drug use.  Rob laughed it off, and the priest figured Rob could handle it and dropped the subject.  I wonder if the priests who ran the school were so enamored with Rob's great qualities that they failed to see his need for moral instruction.  Later, Yale officials confronted him about his drug dealing, an offense that should have lead to expulsion, but, laughably, they let him off without a penalty--as long as he promised not to do it anymore.  Even his friends were reluctant to call Rob out for his self-destructive lifestyle, because they figured, he's Rob, he'll figure it out.

Hobbs does a masterful job of capturing Rob's life.  He conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, getting background and perspective from wide circles of friends and acquaintances.  Of course, he takes a novelist's liberty to reconstruct conversations and events, but the book has a very authentic feel.  Although Hobbs is a friend and admirer, he doesn't justify or excuse Rob's choices.  Refreshingly, neither does he make Rob's story a political or sociological statement.  The reader, of course, must inevitably confront the political and sociological questions raised by Rob's story.  How can such a promising young man, given the highest of opportunities, not rise from a poverty-stricken slum?  What does it take for a bright, inner-city student to succeed, if not a full ride at Yale?

Rob's life was full of drama, but Hobbs's writing transcends Rob's story.  He takes a troubled, tragic life and preserves it in a highly readable narrative.  In Hobbs's telling of Rob's story, I felt a sense of brooding inevitability of Rob's self-destruction.  Hobbs interjects some commentary on race, class, economics and poverty, elitism, and education inequality, but always from Rob's perspective and centered on Rob's experiences.  In that sense, he has given us a poor, black Everyman, whose life demonstrates that our destinies are shaped not only by our family, neighborhood, wealth or lack of it--things over which we have no control--but also by choices we make every day, large and small.

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Skink--No Surrender, by Carl Hiaasen

Lurking in the background of many of Carl Hiaasen's novels, and taking a crucial role in some of them, is Skink.  A hermit, lover of nature, hater of polluters and out-of-control developers, this former governor of Florida, officially believed to be dead, has chosen to live off the grid,  pursuing his own agenda.  In Skink--No Surrender the governor takes a larger role than in previous books.

Richard, the book's teenage narrator, first meets Skink on the beach near his home.  Skink has buried himself in the sand, disguising himself as a turtle nest, with hopes of catching someone who has been collecting turtle eggs.  (Later on Skink gets his man!)  Despite their age difference, and Skink's many quirks and oddities, the two make a connection.  When Richard tells Skink about his cousin Malley's running off with an internet predator, finding and rescuing Malley becomes Skink's new mission.  The mismatched pair set out together in Florida-wide manhunt.

Fans of Hiaasen's fiction will recognize the familiar settings, characters, and attitudes that inhabit his fiction: the hapless criminals, the less-than-intelligent adults, the riffs on endangered species and habitats, the somewhat random but still enjoyable plot connections.  Fans of Hiaasen's stories for younger readers will recognize characteristics Richard shares with earlier Hiaasen protagonists: independent thinking, curiosity, a love of nature.  Skink--No Surrender establishes a sort of middle ground between Hiaasen's novels for adults and his YA novels.  It has a bit more violence and more mature subject matter than the latter and less than the former.

If there's a complaint it would be that even though Hiaasen takes on the sticky subject of internet relationships and the terrible risk kids take when meeting someone online, it doesn't seem to weigh as heavy as it probably should.  So Malley ran off with a guy who turns out to be a criminal, but that's OK, here come her cousin and Skink, in a madcap adventure to the rescue!  In the hilarity, there is real peril, and there are real consequences, but it just seemed to be taken lightly.

Above all is Skink.  His oddball lifestyle (roadkill for dinner, anyone?), complete lack of fashion, grooming, or even bathing, coupled with his elevated sense of justice, his almost superhuman strength and skills (he's a Vietnam vet), and his resourcefulness (aided, of course, by his retired highway patrol buddy), make Skink one of the most oddly memorable and strangely lovable characters you'll come across.  I'm glad to see him get a leading role in this new book, and, as always, glad to see that Hiaasen has more stories to tell!

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Indifference League, by Richard Scarsbrook

It's reunion weekend for the Indifference League at the Hall of Indifference, and the Not-So-Super Friends are all going to be there.  Well, with the exception of Psycho Superstar, who crashed his motorcycle, killing himself instantly.  So begins The Indifference League, Richard Scarsbrook's light-hearted trip down some kind of memory lane.  Starting at the end of high school, this mismatched group of friends has gathered irregularly at Mr. Nice Guy's parents' house on a long holiday weekend.  This weekend, celebrating their collective thirtieth birthdays, is destined to be the last.

Scarbrook's amusing characterizations draw on common archetypes, fleshing out those people we knew in high school and college and throwing them together to see what sparks might fly.  The math nerd, the flirt, the rich girl, the goody two shoes, the jock, the people-pleaser, the alt girl all come together.  While their vastly different view points makes for good late-night conversations and makes their finding common ground more interesting, I failed to see why they were all friends.  Maybe I'm too cynical, but it seems to me that, for the most part, people congregate with and form lasting friendships with others with whom they have much in common.  I was never convinced that, given their fundamental differences, the Indifference League members would become close friends, much less friends who would continue to get together for holidays a dozen years after high school graduation.

It also bothered me how sex-obsessed these characters were.  With each other, with random people, in their own minds, etc., each seemed to be a bit more carnally oriented than ordinary people.  Granted, their escapades and couplings were part of the story, but I began to suspect that the author's own fantasies interjected themselves here, rather than an honest rendering of the thirty-something generation.

None of this is to say that I did not enjoy the stories Scarbrook tells of the League's weekend together, and the back stories of how they came to be there.  Like much fiction, sometimes you just ignore the absurdity of the set up of a story and enjoy the ride.  These are silly people, getting themselves into silly circumstances and love triangles.  Ultimately, The Indifference League is about a group of friends learning about themselves and each other, and taking steps to move on to the next phase in life.  In some cases, it means making a drastic change from the phases that have come before.

On a couple of blurbs of The Indifference League refer to the movie The Big Chill.  "A Big Chill for Gen X and Gen Y . . ."  "The Big Chill meets Marvel Comics . . ." The comparison is apt.  I don't remember much about the movie (I was 14 when it came out.), but there is plenty of similarity.  I will give Scarsbrook the benefit of the doubt and view this as an homage rather than a rip-off.  He puts a pretty hilarious twist on one major, climactic plot point that I remember from The Big Chill.  I won't give it away, but it has to do with conception.

The bottom line: The Indifference League is a humorous, sometimes thought-provoking mix of old friends and new ideas.  In Scarsbrook's archetypal characters we can surely find bits and pieces of ourselves.  In their lives and interactions we can find lessons about friendship, love, and moving on.  Or, at the very least, we can have a laugh at their expense.

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sinners, Saints, and Savages, by Daniel Byrum

As far as I know, Daniel Byrum, an American missionary serving in The Gambia, has had a pretty peaceful experience during his family's stay in Africa.  But in his first novel, Savages, Sinners, and Saints, he lets his imagination run wild as he spins a tale about some other missionaries' experiences, and shows the dark side of the exploitation of Africa and the corrosion of the soul caused by greed.

It's 1940, Europe is at war, and 3 American couples have crossed the Atlantic to live and work as missionaries in Africa.  Their journey, which should have been an uneventful prelude to their new life on a new continent, turns into a nightmare when they discover that among the cargo on their ship are six young women being smuggled for sale as slaves.  When the missionaries confront the captain, he does not repent of his wicked ways.  Rather, he reveals himself as a greedy, murderous madman.  He ultimately determines that the only way to keep the missionaries from reporting his slave trade to the authorities is to murder the American men and sell their wives as slaves.

Dan keeps this story moving along well.  He ably handles the action of the plot, the slow reveal of the captain's evil, the dilemmas faced by the missionaries, and the ties to the action on the mainland with a storyteller's talent.  He writes of the harsh reality of the illegal slave trade, which has relevance, sadly, even today, and the motives and moral choices of the traders.  Even though Dan writes about evil men and their evil deeds, he doesn't sensationalize the content.  (Parents' note: I'd be comfortable with my teen reading this.)  Most importantly, he shows the struggle the missionaries have to do the right thing, as they approach their dire situation prayerfully, weighing the use of violence in defense of justice and presenting a consistent, redemptive witness in the face of deep-seated evil.

Savages, Sinners, and Saints has some of the marks of a first-time novelist, but the action is crisp, the dialogue is well-written, and the characters are believable.  The captain does lean toward a caricature of extreme evil, but not so much that he becomes cartoonish.  I will also say the resolution came around very quickly, almost seeming rushed, with a climax that didn't seem as explosive as it could have been, given what had come before.

Dan's author bio states that he has two more novels in the works.  I enjoyed Savages, Sinners, and Saints and look forward to reading his future work as he hones his craft.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Perimeter, by Kevin Miyazaki

In 2012, Kevin Miyazaki, a native of Milwaukee, spent 18 days traveling the perimeter of Lake Michigan, photographing the lake and the people who love it.  The result was an exhibit at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art, and now the book Perimeter: A Contemporary Portrait of Lake Michigan.

The book consists of beautifully done portraits of people Miyazaki met along the way, and pictures of the water.  There is beauty in the simplicity of his work.  The portraits, which he took in a portable studio, reflect a wide variety of people and faces.  But he could have gotten a bunch of people in one place to line up at one studio to take their pictures.  There is no sense of place.  The water pictures show a variety of place, but uniformity in composition.  Sky on the top half, water on the bottom, the horizon right in the middle.  In the sameness, Miyazaki shows the many faces of the lake.  At the same time, he could have reached a similar result had he stayed in one spot and taken photographs at different times of day and in different weather. . . .

Lake Michigan lovers who love the sights of the lake will be disappointed in this book.  It's not a travel book, and does not feature the many interesting land formations, the lakeside architecture, or the animal and plant life of the lake.  Just the water.  And a random collection of people.

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lost in Translation, by Ella France Sanders

Have you ever been reading something and the author mentions a foreign word, and says "this is literally translated as," and goes into several sentences of explanation?  Well, sometimes a single word in one language doesn't have a direct parallel in other languages.  Ella France Sanders's beautiful book Lost in Translation takes a number of these words from a variety of languages and describes and illustrates the rich meaning to be found.

Some of my favorites:

Boketto (Japanese): gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking about anything specific.

Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu): I find my worth in you and you find your worth in me.  Or, I am what I am because of who we all are.

And some a little more mundane but amusing:

Karelu (Tulu): the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight.

And some very practical, depending on your setting:

Poronkusema (Finnish): the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before taking a break.

Word lovers will get a kick out of Lost in Translation.  The lovely drawings and lively commentary bring these obscure foreign words to life.  They may not make it into your everyday vocabulary, but you can file them away for when your own language doesn't have quite the right word for what you want to say.

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Story of Santa Claus, by Joseph McCullough

I know Christmas is still a few months away, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see Christmas trees at Wal-Mart soon.  Looking ahead to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I read Joseph McCullough's The Story of Santa Claus.  McCullough traces the origins of the the Santa Claus legend from St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, through Kris Kringle and Sinterklaas, up to the Americanized Coca-Cola/Nast Santa we know and love today.

The best part of The Story of Santa Claus is the compilation of biography and legends (and of course, these mix and mingle) about the original St. Nicholas.  Drawing on centuries-old writings, he makes the  case for a real, saintly person who loved to give gifts.  His saint's day, December 6, was frequently celebrated with gift giving, but eventually, after the Reformation, the gift giving in his memory was moved to Christmas Day.

It's interesting how several other traditions merged with the legend of St. Nicholas to give us the Santa Claus figure that we now recognize.  Is it a bad thing that pagan legends have a part in the story of Santa Claus?  I don't think so.  But Christians who want to "keep the Christ in Christmas" would be well-served to remember the example set by St. Nicholas himself.  He embodies the spirit of Christmas and the sacrificial, self-giving character of Christ.  Happy reading, and a way-to-early merry Christmas to all!

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mindset List of the Obscure, by Tom McBride and Ron Nief

Perhaps you have been reading an old novel or watching an old movie or TV show, and some cultural reference passes you by without your getting it.  It happens.  Ron Nief and Tom McBride want to help out citizens of the 21st century by bringing to their attention some long-forgotten tidbits of life and culture.  In The Mindset List of the Obscure: 74 Famously Forgotten Icons from A to Z, Nief and McBride have selected a few dozen of those tidbits, bringing them back to life, and placing them in their history and context.

As a reader in my 40s, some of these were quite familiar, either through first-hand experience or second-hand awareness.  I actually made collect calls, listened to 45s on my sister's record player, enjoyed the smell of mimeographed worksheets at school, played with my father's slide rule (although I never figured out how to actually use it), and saw Liberace on TV (with rabbit ears).  But kids today, well, they don't know what all those things are.

Most of the items on McBride and Nief's list were from well before my time, although the names might ring a bell.   The alphabetical arrangement gives The Mindset List the feel of a reference book, and it certainly can be, but I think I would rather have seen the items listed chronologically or by type.  Plus, although the list is wide ranging, it is by no means comprehensive enough for this to be considered a go-to cultural reference work.  Ironically, just as the authors say World Book Encyclopedia has been rendered obsolete by online alternatives, so their book may be already obselete because of Wikipedia and the like. Still, it's fun to read about these relics of the past.

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

People I Want to Punch in the Throat, by Jen Mann

There are mommy blogs, and then there are the anti-mommy-blogs.  (I mean blogs opposite of the usual mommy blogs, not blogs against motherhood. . . . Although perhaps there are those, too.)  Jen Mann has a mommy blog with attitude, and has collected some of her rants and observations in People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges.

Social niceties aren't really Mann's thing.  She doesn't have a lot of patience for the "perfect mothers" who surround her in her suburban neighborhood.  I'm no PTA mom and I don't have as much experience in the carpool lane or neighborhood book club as Mann does, but, like any parent of school-age kids, I could relate to her wild tales of confrontation and disputation.  I am not as confrontative or disputative as Mann, but I loved living vicariously through her.

Mann has an attitude and a potty mouth to go with it, but I couldn't help but laugh with her.  I'd love to be a fly on the wall at her next teacher-parent conference or PTA meeting.  She's a riot.

For more from Mann, follow her aptly-named blog,

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

I Need a New Butt, by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird

If there is a need for silly, pointless, entertaining children's books, Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird have found that niche.  Their new book, I Need a New Butt definitely fits the bill.  Their hero has discovered his butt crack, decides that it must have happened when he farted, and speculates over getting a replacement.

He weighs the virtues of different types of butts he might get (wood, armor-plated, chrome, rocket-powered, different colors) but resigns himself to his fate.  He's stuck with the butt he has, and is somewhat comforted and disturbed to discover that his dad's butt has a crack as well.

I Need a New Butt reminded me of I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Seuss.  I could speculate that McMillan and Kinnaird have a lesson here about kids discovering how their bodies work, etc.  But mostly it's just a silly book.  This is one for dads to read to their boys.  Little boys will enjoy the silly humor, but mothers who forbid their children to use the "F-word" (fart) will not appreciate it.

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

Friday, September 5, 2014

Dear Friends, by Christopher L. Webber

Here's an ambitious project: how about an updating of the letters of Paul for the church in the United States today?  That's exactly the task Christopher L. Webber, Episcopal pastor and writer, takes on in Dear Friends: The Letters of St. Paul to Christians in America.  With a great sense of Paul's style and theology, Webber gives a modern take on Paul.

The result is not quite what I expected, but was enjoyable nonetheless.  Webber's book is more than a new translation or paraphrase of Paul's writing, but not a whole lot more.  He retains the essential structure of the epistles, with much of the same phrases and wording that Paul uses, yet with Webber's own voice, so the text was constantly familiar yet fresh.

Some of the best bits were the modern cultural references, but even then, as you might expect, the concerns are timeless.  For instance, Paul writes, "You cannot drin gthe cup of the Lord and the cup of demons, too." (1 Cor. 10:21, NIV)  Webber's parallel is convicting, if not exactly equivalent: "You cannot pay more for sports events than you give to your church or spend more at restaurants than you give to the poor."  Ouch.  Tough reminders of our tendency toward idolatry.

Another example from 1 Corinthians:  In chapter 14, Paul reminds his readers not to focus on their own edification when exercising the gifts of tongues and prophecy.  Expanding on that idea, Webber writes: "You measure a congregation by attendance and provide convenient parking, comfortable seating, and the music of the secular world yet your divorce rate is growing, poverty is increasing, and anger and divisiveness are more evident every year.  I see little difference between the lives Christians live and the lives of those around you."

I cringed a couple of times, as Webber allowed his liberal (read: more liberal than I am) tendencies to come through.  In his version of 1 Corinthians 7, on marriage, Webber has Paul clearly endorsing same-sex marriage.  "As to faithful marriage between two men or between two women, I find no guidance in scripture. . . . Why should the church not ask God's blessing on that relationship?"  I find it hard to believe that Paul would agree.

He later rejects a legal ban on abortion, in Galatians 2, which deals with Jews who want Gentile Christians to follow Jewish customs.  "Are you not also returning to the bondage of the law when you deny all access to medical help for those who cannot face the difficulties of childbirth? . . . I wish all abortion clinics could be closed this very day, but I cannot force my opinion on others whose circumstances and motives are unknown to me. . . . I will not turn to the law to compel them against their will."  Molech is alive and well, and accepting sacrifices daily.

Sorry if it seems I'm unfairly focussing on some quibbles.  All told, Webber stays very true to Pauline theology.  Reading Dear Friends is much like reading the Bible.  I think most of us take Paul in little doses.  I can't think of when I've ever read Paul's letters straight through in a couple of sittings.  That's really the best feature of Dear Friends.  It points the reader back to scripture, encouraging all of us to pick up the Bible and reflect on God's message for today in these ancient pages.  Webber is to be commended for that, if nothing else.

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Perhaps you heard some media coverage last spring about Brandeis University's inviting and then uninviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak at their commencement ceremonies and to receive an honorary degree.  (In case you missed it, try this:  They said they admire her, but "cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."  It seems that badmouthing Islam is not approved on the Brandeis campus.

In older news, you may have read about Ali's speaking out against forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and Islam's overall poor treatment of women. For her efforts, she became the subject of an international hunt. She not only survived but became a member of parliament in her adopted home, the Netherlands. In Infidel, Ali tells her story. Born in Somalia, then living in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, she experienced the full range of subjugation under which Muslim women suffer.  Reading about her experiences, I can't say that I blame her for rejecting Islam.

The vehement opposition she has met from the Muslim community stems from her claims that Islam should end.  Ali sees the oppression of women as an essential element of Muslim theology and practice, thus she not only rejects Islam but also calls for its eradication.  Further, she rejects theism altogether.  Surely this is a case of the baby going with the bathwater.  I am a Western Christian, and no fan of the horror that elements of Islam have brought into the world, but I also recognize that many Muslims are, in fact, peaceful, life-affirming people, even though I completely reject their overall theology.  I also recognize that many Christians, Jews, and even Muslims have long advocated for women's rights.  I got the feeling that Ali's atheism is grounded more in her personal pain; her tormentors did what they did in the name of what they recognize as God.  I just wish Ali could experience the boundless love and grace of the God of creation.

Her story is a powerful one.  The first half of the book drags a bit; there was a lot of detail about her family and childhood that provided somewhat interesting cultural background, but it contributed little to her larger message.  I wish her the best as she continues to advocate for women's rights in the Muslim world.  God bless you, Ayaan.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Overrated, by Eugene Cho

The subtitle of Eugene Cho's book Overrated: Are We More In Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World? asks a compelling question.  Cho's answer: yes.  Cho writes that "we are more in love with the idea of compassion and justice than we are with actually putting it into practice" and that "we love compassion and justice . . . until there's a personal cost to living compassionately, loving mercy, and seeking justice."

Cho, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, and founder of One Day's Wages, writes this as confession as much as a challenge to the rest of us.  As he and his family struggled with what justice and compassion mean for Christians, they decided to give away a year's salary.  I don't know that there are many of us who would be able to pull that off, but he did.  His mission: to demonstrate a "lifestyle of enough.  We have enough.  We are blessed and blessed immensely.  God has given us enough.  God is our enough."    

With the resources, information, and communication we have, Cho calls us the "most overrated generation in human history."  Looking at Facebook posts and social media, someone might think that we are radically committed to a wide variety of causes, but we are rarely willing to make sacrifices and really make a difference.  "People who demonstrate support for causes and organizations on social media, such as Facebook, actually do less in real life."

I especially liked two of Cho's emphases.  First of all, changing the world and seeking justice must start with prayer and contemplation.  Just as Jesus took time to get away for prayer and to spend time with his Father, so must we.  Cho puts it bluntly: "Shut up, listen, and pray."  Second, when we do take action, it should be done with the right preparation and information.  Remember that "having a good heart is not enough."  It's not about our heart and what makes us feel good, but about the lives of others in need.  In this vein, he openly questions the effectiveness of short-term mission trips.  The money and time resources used for these trips are often wasted.  "Spending more money to visit in person and see the work than you are investing in the work is ludicrous."  At the same time, he does allow that "the value in international travel and 'vision trips' remains."

Cho gives readers an honest, personal challenge to be thoughtful and deliberate about their giving and actions in the name of justice.  The bottom line is that it's not up to us to change the world.  Rather, "God called us into this journey not just to 'change the world' but more so to change us." It's a reminder that we could all heed.

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