Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Becoming Dallas Willard, by Gary Moon

The biography of an author should not only highlight the life and background of the writer, but provide an overview of the author's work in such a way that the reader is compelled to read it.  Gary Moon has accomplished this in Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower.  I have read some of Willard's books over the years, some more than once.  His writing is of such depth and richness that I can't help feeling like I'm missing out on some of the meaning and need to read it again.  Moon brings together Willard's writing and teaching, highlighting themes and streams of thought.  I appreciate the way he illuminates Willard's books.

As a professional philosopher, one of Willard's focuses is realism.  Things we encounter are real, even things we can't see.  This seeps into his Christian teaching, as he teaches the we can experience God and Jesus and the Kingdom, even though we can't see them.  He once told a student, "Now when you pray, Jesus will walk right up to you and he will listen to you."  It's a simple point, maybe an obvious one, but to me it's a revolutionary idea.

He did not shy away from the idea of visualization in prayer.  This was a source of some resistance from Christians who thought his emphasis on visualization and other contemplative practices reeked of Eastern religions.  He had a perfect answer when someone asked him about similarities of this practice with other world religions: "Just because Buddhists eat breakfast doesn't mean I'm not going to eat breakfast."

Regular guys like me can be encouraged that Willard was a regular guy, too.  "The fact is Dallas was a real, sweaty, tobacco-spitting, occasionally cussing, often lusting, God-fearing Missouri farm boy."  He was sometimes not a great student, even failing some college classes.  He prefers paper plates to china, and always maintained a simple lifestyle.  He always found time for his students, pastors he mentored, and others who sought counsel from him.

Dallas Willard exemplified and taught a life lived in communication and fellowship with God.  He believed that "it is possible to live life 'with' God."  Life with God is not just about salvation.  When told of someone who "had accepted Jesus as his Savior," Willard responded, "Well, I hope that was good for him and leads him into accepting Jesus as his life."  Being a Christian means life with Jesus, day in and day out.

If you know Dallas Willard and his writing, Becoming Dallas Willard is essential reading.  If you don't, this is a great place to start to see how accessible and, at the same time, revolutionary his ideas are.

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

Anti-Money Laundering, by Rose Chapman

Each year for work (I work in a large financial services firm) I have to take the anti-money laundering training.  If you think of money laundering as a mobster carrying around bags of cash, your view is too limited.  That can be money laundering, but in this electronic, global age, the scope and possibilities of money laundering have expanded.  Corporate compliance expert Rose Chapman has written Anti-Money Laundering: A Practical Guide to Reducing Organizational Risk to help people like me, and, even more, people who supervise my company's business, to navigate the complex requirements of anti-money laundering compliance.

The highlight for me is the case studies.  As with any abstract principle of law, seeing it in application makes understanding it easier, as well as helping the reader grasp the implications of AML regulations.  A major theme is training and educating employees and keeping good records.  As one case study makes clear, as long as training has been demonstrably implemented, if an employee abuses his or her position to launder money, the firm is not held liable, only the individual employee.  This spotlights the importance of those training sessions I have to listen to each year.

Chapman says she is writing for "emerging AML professionals at all levels of an organization."  If you are there, in a supervisory role or in a role that touches on AML, Anti-Money Laundering will give you a helpful introduction and guide to this increasingly complex area of business.

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

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez

You know his songs.  You probably know his name.  But do you know his story?  Irving Berlin may no be a household name as much as he once was, but his songs, such as "God Bless America" and "White Christmas" are familiar to virtually everyone.

Nancy Churnin tells Berlin's story in Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, introducing a new generation to Berlin's inspiring life and wonderful music.  Berlin came to the US with his family in 1893.  The sounds of the big city of New York were musical in his head.  Soon he began singing on the streets for passersby, then worked as a singing waiter.  With the help of a friendly pianist--Berlin had not formal musical training--he put the songs in his head on paper and managed to sell a few.

Berlin wrote big hits, songs for musicals and movies, and patriotic favorites.  His songs have been performed around the world for nearly a century now.  Churnin clearly loves Berlin's legacy, and lovingly tells his story.  James Rey Sanchez's illustrations capture the chaos and charm of New York at the turn of the 20th century.  His ubiquitous orange scarf flows across the pages the way Berlin's music flows through American culture.  This book is a wonderful tribute to an American treasure.

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

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Life in the Sloth Lane, by Lucy Cooke

Everybody loves sloths.  Lucy Cooke loves sloths more than the rest of us.  In Life in the Sloth Lane, Cooke mixes adorable pictures of sloths from rescue organizations in Central America, short articles about sloths, and quotes about slowing down and enjoying life.  The pictures are cute as can be, showing why people love sloths so much.  They look so huggable and always seem to be smiling.  The quotes, from novelists, religious thinkers, songs, artists, etc., remind us to slow down and life, at least sometimes, more like a sloth.
Here's a taste:

"Forever is composed of nows." --Emily Dickinson

"It is a mistake to look too far ahead.  Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time."  --Winston Churchill

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view."  --Harper Lee

But the sloths are the real stars of the book.  They are so darn cute.  Check it out.

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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Chicago, by David Mamet

With apologies to David Mamet, who has written some brilliant stuff, I did not like his novel Chicago at all.  If you loved Glengarry Glen Ross or The Spanish Prisoner, as I did, prepare yourself to be sorely disappointed.  Chicago features a lot of dialogue--I mean a lot, as in do these people ever shut up--in the clipped, repetitive style that is so effective and distinctive in his Mamet's work.  I can't describe it very well, but you know it if you know Mamet. 

The story takes place in Chicago in the 1920s.  Gangsters, a newspaper reporter, his flower-shop gal, the hooker with the heart of gold, speakeasies, and a dash of gun violence all set the tone.  The problem is, I never could get into the story.  I stuck around to the end but never was glad I did.  Maybe there's enough of a story here that he could put together a decent screenplay and make a successful movie.  I guess I'd watch it.  It would only be a couple hours wasted if I didn't like it.  But really, there's just not much to say about Chicago except don't bother with the book.  Pull out your old VHS copy of The Spanish Prisoner and watch that instead.

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Living Room, by Robert Whitlow

In Robert Whitlow's book The Living Room, he detours away from his usual legal fiction.  Well, the main character is employed in a law office, but it's not his typical lawyer-based novel.  The protagonist here is Amy Clarke, a writer of inspirational romance who has just completed her second novel.  All her life, she has had vivid dreams when, in her sleep, she visits "the living room," an "empty, windowless room with shimmering walls."  Here she found "a presence that permeated her being."  As a child she cherished these dream times, and as an adult, she draws inspiration for her writing from these dreams.

After that second novel, though, she began seeing things in these dreams that had connections to real life.  A brief vision directed her to alter her morning commute and led her to discover an elderly man who had gotten lost.  She correctly encouraged a woman who had been infertile about her not-yet-discovered pregnancy.  She gave other encouraging words that turned out to be prophetic, all based on her dreams.

When Amy returned to work at the law office, to cover for an employee on maternity leave, her dreams began to infiltrate her daily work.  She is faced with decisions about what to reveal and when, and whether she can trust her dreams to guide her.  After some apparent misses, she learns that the real truth of what is revealed in her dreams can touch very close to home.

Whitlow keeps this story moving, and, while it's not as suspenseful as some of his other books, he does work in a few mysteries.  I enjoyed Amy and her writing process.  I wish I had stories to tell the way Amy (and Whitlow) do.  I suspect her habits and methods for writing reflect Whitlow's.  I wonder if he gets inspiration for his stories in dreams. . . . 

Monday, May 21, 2018

When Running Made History, by Roger Robinson

Ever since 8-year-old Roger Robinson cheered for Emil Zatopek at the 1948 Olympics, he has managed to be present at many highlights of running history.  As a child, as a runner, as a journalist, and as a race official or race announcer, Robinson has had a front row seat at many significant events and milestones in the world of running.  In When Running Made History, Robinson not only tells his stories and first-hand accounts, but weaves them into a wide-ranging historical look at the evolution of the sport.

Zatopek's wins at the 1948 Olympics inspired Robinson because "he gave hope to runners like me, who had little natural talent or seed, showing us that sheer hard work can make you a better runner and that all the hard work can still be fun."  With that foundation, Robinson went on to become a competitive runner, winning his share of races and setting a few records along the way.  As an academic, he got to do his share of writing as well, and, given his speaking experience, was recruited as a stadium announcer and television commentator at races and meets.

He was there when Bikila ran by, barefoot, on his way to win the marathon at the 1960 Olympics, marking the rise of African dominance in the marathon.  He traveled through the U.S. and a runner and writer to witness the rise of the running boom.  He was the television announcer at the 1988 World Cross-Country Championships in Aukland when Kenyans took 8 of the top 9 spots.  He calls it "the greatest display of team running in history."  But more than just a great win, it marked the confirmation of Kenya as a dominant force in running.

Because Robinson is a runner himself, he gains perspectives that other sports writers don't get.  He's fast enough to run with elite runners in workouts and even compete with them, as when he won the master's division at the Boston Marathon.  As a participant or observer, he has great insights.  He also benefits from being married to a running legend, Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an official entrant.  Switzer became a promoter of women's races and advocate for women in racing, so Robinson naturally includes that historical perspective as well.

Any runner, whether a casual weekend 5K runner or a long-time competitor, will enjoy Robinson's insider stories and historical accounts.  He does a great job of putting his experiences into context and celebrating the rise of running as a popular sport.  I've said before that a measure of a book about running is whether, after reading it, I am eager to go for a run.  When Running Made History not only does that, but it also inspires me to pay closer attention to records and record-breakers.  Running is such a simple human action, but it continues to be the source of great fun, drama, and inspiration.

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

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Very Worst Missionary, by Jamie Wright

Jamie Wright is not the very worst missionary, despite her self-effacing blog and book.  In The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever, and the blog that inspired it,, Wright writes about her faith and the Christian life, especially the five years her family spent in Costa Rica as missionaries.  Her stories are funny and relatable throughout, and you can't help but love someone who is as comfortable mocking herself as she is.  This is the kind of book that will make you feel good by affirming that someone else, even a published author and actual missionary, has some of the same struggles and quirks as you do.

One of Wright's major themes is criticism of the missions "industry," which keeps "sending the wrong people to the wrong places to do the wrong things."  In her estimation, Costa Rica can do just fine without white, evangelical Americans moving there.  She extrapolates her family's experiences to the whole of American missions.  She calls out a "system that paves he way for any who feels like it to move to a foreign country, and then gives them permission to do virtually whatever they please under the loosely defined title 'missionary.'"  She says that "if you raise your hand (and have enough cash), someone will send you out."

Wright's disparagement of missions and missionaries goes beyond the "whole bunch of . . . unqualified/ill-equipped missionaries" she was "surrounded" by in Costa Rica, but to the whole of American foreign missions.  She says she has "tons of ideas about how to improve Christian missions (most involve gasoline and a match)."  Her attitude and conclusions are ungracious and unhelpful.  Sure she gets a good laugh out of her own foibles and the personal observations of some of her fellow missionaries.  But I think of missionaries I know who are: opening coffee shops where Christians can befriend Muslims and share the love of Jesus; translating the Bible into languages and dialects that have no Bible; developing businesses that can provide alternatives to opium cultivation and export; rescuing women from sex trafficking; planting indigenous churches; training pastors and church leaders from rural African churches; teaching in seminaries; providing medical care in underserved regions of the world ; and other productive, loving, kingdom-building endeavors.  It pains me to see their faithful, sacrificial, God-honoring, culture-honoring work being harshly criticized by this arrogant, foul-mouthed, judgmental former missionary.

(Yes, foul-mouthed.  I don't want to make a big deal out of her language.  She uses R-rated language for shock value and entertainment value.  It doesn't help her case, except to build her "rebel Christian" persona.)

No church is perfect, no missions agency is perfect, no missionary is perfect.  But Wright's critiques come off as flippant and mean-spirited.  It carries into her overall critique of the church.  As a young Christian, she talks about conforming to the conservative values of her fellow church members, including wearing a "gold-cross necklace," cutting her hair in a "mom bob" and talking in "cheap, cheesy platitudes."  Now she has tattoos and piercings, showing that she rejects Christian mainstream culture.  And she cusses to show she's not bound by language hang ups.  The problem is, her judgmental message is that if you don't cuss, if you wear a cross necklace, if you wear your hair in a bob, you are clearly a cultural Christian who has a shallow, cultural faith.  This is insulting to Christians whose fashion choices Wright rejects but whose faith is deep and sincere.

On a more theological note, she counseled a gay teen in her church's youth group to be "wholly herself" because "the Bible has been translated for us and taught to us mostly by straight white dudes, and I wasn't sure if I fully trusted those interpretations."  These days, Wright is certainly not alone in affirming homosexuality as acceptable to God, but her shallow counsel to the teen be "wholly herself," because "she was exactly who God had made her to be" ignores a long biblical and historical tradition and reflects the self-centered, emotional response to temptation that we hear more and more of.

In spite of her entertaining writing, laugh-out loud, self-effacing humor, and legitimate challenges to genuine faith and foreign missions, Wright's weak theology and judgmentalism left me with a bad taste in my mouth. 

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mountain Top, by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow writes legal fiction with engaging characters and a strong spiritual, Christian element.  Mountain Top, like most of his books, traces the characters through spiritual revelations and development, against a backdrop of legal intrigue and suspense.

Sam Miller, landscaper and itinerant preacher, hears from God in dreams.  His dreams are vivid and accurate, and he habitually tells strangers about his dreams, revealing things in their lives.  One of his dream revelations hits too close to home and he finds himself the target of a fabricated accusation of embezzlement.  For his defense, he calls on a local pastor who left his law practice to enter into the ministry.  Trying to keep Miller out of prison, keeping his church happy, and straddling the worlds of law and ministry keep this young pastor on his toes.  Miller's dreams and a brewing land development scheme drift closer together. 

One of the features I enjoy in Whitlow's books is the honest grappling of faith and life we see in his characters.  He doesn't whitewash the issues that Christians deal with, nor does he gloss over the barriers that prevent people from following Jesus.  He also realistically portrays the supernatural side of the Christian walk.  In Mountain Top, it's Miller's dreams.  He hears prophetically from God, and uses his gift to draw people to repentance and to follow God's will.

Above all, Whitlow tells a good story.  He draws you in and doesn't tell too much too soon, making Mountain Top an entertaining and enjoyable novel.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Naked Marriage, by JoAnneh Nagler

In Naked Marriage: How to Have a Lifetime of Love, Sex, Joy, and Happiness, JoAnneh Nagler offers a few simple guidelines to preserve unity and intimacy in marriage.  The keystone of marriage is, or can be, the Naked Date.  Nagler proposes that couples choose and hour or two each week to get naked with each other.  Be consistent, shut out any interruptions, and take time to connect.  "We know that being close, touching, making love, having a good romp--and doing it regularly--is good for our marriage."

Nagler nails a fundamental, essential element to a healthy marriage: regular, focused time spent together.  Despite the nakedness, sex is only one part of this time.  As she says, "being 'naked' is about being transparent and honest and available to each other."  This practice of openness and intimacy is crucial to an ongoing relationship.

As someone who has been married for a quarter of a century, I can affirm what she says.  I welcome the challenge not to take a stable marriage for granted.  In the time we have been married, there have been periods of regular alone time and periods in which those times are hard to come by.  But it needs to be a priority.

While Nagler's words are encouraging, she does seem to take a long time to make her point and develop it.  The basic ideas--get naked together, be affectionate to one another, communicate openly about money--can be grasped quickly and could be communicated more succinctly.  But the book would be too short then. . . .   Nevertheless, those basic ideas can be transformative in a marriage and, if her models are followed, can strengthen and sustain a marriage.

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

How to Appear Normal at Social Events, by Lord Birthday

If you like useless advice and absurd humor, you will enjoy Lord Birthday's How to Appear Normal at Social Events and Other Essential Wisdom.  Who is Lord Birthday?  And what compelled him to come up with this wacky lists?  I have no idea.

About this book, I don't know what to say.  There are topics.  There are lists.  When there is advice, you probably don't want to follow it.  Or you could follow the advice, but it's probably not advice you need.  Like: Don't carry two shotguns under your arms while jogging.  Or: Don't bring a salad dotted with smoke bombs to a potluck supper.  But if you read the lists, you'll probably laugh. 

You should buy this book.  But guess what?  You can also read Lord Birthday's comics here:  But don't come crying to me if you don't enjoy it.

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

Water's Edge, by Robert Whitlow

Tom Crane is not having a good year.  His father has died in a boating accident.  His law firm, where he thought he was about to be made partner, has shown him the door.  And his girlfriend has abruptly left him--taking his cat with her.  In Robert Whitlow's Water's Edge, Crane heads back home to nurse his wounds and clean up some loose ends at his father's small-town law practice and his estate.

Tom thought this would be a simple trip.  Once he closed his father's office and the estate, he would head back to Atlanta to find another job.  But things got complicated. . . .  Whitlow is in his element with small-town culture, Southern sensibilities, and the everyday implications of the practice of law.  In this setting, Tom is faced with making decisions about his career, come-ons from his high school girl friend (who is now married to a good friend), a budding relationship with a lovely Brit, and, most of all, what to do about this trust account with nearly $2 million in it and no client's name attached to it.

Whitlow navigates the small-town mystery and Tom's personal life with ease, making a readable, suspenseful story with likable, relatable characters.  As a practicing lawyer, Whitlow has strong legal themes in his novels, but doesn't let the law overwhelm the story or the characters.  And as a Christian, he includes Christian themes and the honest, heartfelt struggles, questions, and growth of the characters, in this case Tom's claiming the faith of his late father.

Water's Edge is a dramatic story with a mellow, small-town feel, sure to please fans of legal fiction with a personal touch.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Myth of Equality, by Ken Wytsma

Ken Wytsma is the son of immigrants to the U.S., but he is a white American, with all the privilege that brings.  In grappling with the meaning and implications of that privilege, Wytsma has expounded on race relations in America in The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege.  He makes some astute observations and gives some important historical foundations for his perspective, but ends up in the familiar position of white guilt.

First of all, as he writes about race, Wytsma brings some clarification and definition to the topic.  These points aren't necessarily original with him, but are worth repeating.  In response to people who talk about reverse racism, or racism against white people, Wytsma writes, "Racism is the diminishment of worth in men and women in and through bias, systems, and power structures that disadvantage them in tangible ways based on skin color."  Since white people have not been systematically discriminated against in the U.S., prejudice against whites isn't, by this definition, racism.

A more important point is that, historically, racism as we experience it today is a relatively modern concept.  Wytsma joins the school of thought that ties it to colonialism.  "In order to justify colonialism, an idea like white supremacy was needed.  The concept that whites were chosen by God and superior to people of color, who were less intelligent, less deserving, and savage, was born out of this need."  Whether or not you agree with Wytsma's definitions and explanations, it's important to understand that many thinkers and activists hold these views as central to their perspective on race.

White Christians (or anyone else, for that matter) are on shaky ground if they try to defend racism.  Sure, there are examples of it, but they are few and far between today, especially as compared to notable examples in the antebellum South.  It's worth considering the role race plays in the positions and status you hold.  One need not be a racist to benefit from long-held societal beliefs and structures that give an advantage to white people.

That said, I felt like Wytsma wanted me to feel guilty for being white.  He wants me to go ahead and admit that I am a racist.  I just don't buy it.  I owe my neighbors and fellow citizens a great deal: common courtesy, respect, kindness, even brotherly love.  I don't owe that because I'm white and they are black.  I own them because I want to do unto others as I would have them do unto me.  As Wytsma points out, "the golden rule demands action" while "the silver rule allows for passivity: do not do to others."  This often means that we must "intervene in injustice."  It demands generosity and demands that we pursue reconciliation.

Wytsma provides some strong biblical teaching on justice and living right, such as the above distinction between the golden rule and the "silver rule."  But in his white guilt, I felt like he too extensively and unquestioningly embraces racial movements of the left.  From the perspective of white guilt, black justice movements must be embraced wholly, overlooking ideological, financial, theological foundations that are counter to American values.  (Yes, in a sense American values are synonymous with white values, because minorities were not part of the intellectual, educated, powerful class at the time of the founding.  But I still believe values can be evaluated on their merits, without regard to the color of the skin of the writer, speaker, scholar, or artist.)  White people need to be OK critiqeuing movements on their intellectual conclusions, not on the race of the proponents, without then receiving accusations of racism.

The Myth of Equality is a good resource.  Christians of any race will appreciate Wytsma's laying out the issues of race and the thoughts and resources he provides.  But I can't buy his presumption of white guilt and pass he gives to leftist racial political movements.  Take his positions with a grain of salt.

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Future of Humanity, by Michio Kaku

In the best science fiction stories, the author takes real science of today and extrapolates it in realistic ways so that the reader can believe that the world the author describes could be an actual future.  Michio Kaku is a fan of sci-fi.  In The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Future Beyond Earth Kaku writes realistic scientific projections and about actual research and development in a variety of fields.  He fires readers' imaginations with possibilities and potential.

Kaku, a theoretical physicist, college professor, and all around interesting guy, starts with a challenge.  He writes, "If we scan all the life-forms that have ever existed on the Earth . . . we find that more than 99.9 percent of them eventually become extinct.  This means that extinction is the norm, that the odds are already stacked heavily against us."  In other words, the odds are that humans will become extinct.  But we have options: "Either me must leave the Earth or we will perish.  There is no other way."

The first chapters are most immediate and easiest to grasp.  What will it take to establish colonies on the Moon and on Mars?  How close are we to mining resources on asteroids?  How about the moons of the outer planets?  These are a relatively short step from current technology.  Given sufficient funding and national and international commitment, a more permanent human presence away from Earth could be a reality.

Kaku raises many of the questions that sci-fi writers conveniently avoid.  Is there a practical means of travel to other planetary systems?  Are multi-generation space journeys realistic?  Is it possible to put astronauts in suspended animation?  What about the time frames of terraforming, the physiological effects on humans of life in space or on other planets, or the prospects for downloading our consciousness to electronic storage?

As the book progresses and Kaku stretches his ideas further and further beyond current reality.  But even the wildly speculative portions have a basis in believable premises.  The Future of Humanity has lots of ideas familiar to sci-fi fans.  He includes copious references from movies and novels to illustrate his ideas.  Kaku makes science and the future very exciting and builds anticipation for what may be around the corner for us.  Hopefully The Future of Humanity will inspire a new generation of scientists to take humanity into a more hopeful future.

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Marvelous Mustard Seed, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Margaux Meganck

Jesus talked several times about the mustard seed, the smallest seed that grows into a tree.  Many kids The Marvelous Mustard Seed, by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg, with illustrations by Margaux Meganck, follows a seed from planting to full growth.
have no idea about seeds and plants and surely don't see mustard trees or plants. 

When kids plant the seed in their garden, they can't see what's happening underground.  Soon a sprout comes up.  It becomes a bush, then a tree!  Birds live in it, it provides shade, we get spices and medicines from it.

The authors follow Jesus' parable, showing how something we never could see grows into something we can't miss, that is live-giving and wonderful.  The Marvelous Mustard Seed is a lovely, colorful book that will get kids thinking about potential and the promise of the kingdom of God.

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

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Gospel Comes With a House Key, by Rosaria Butterfield

I love the title of this book and the imagery it invokes: The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World.  Rosaria Butterfield writes about her lifestyle of hospitality, setting an example that Christians can emulate.  Butterfield, who is married to a pastor, goes far beyond traditional pastor's wife hostess duties.  She hosts a large dinner in her home every Sunday night for friends and neighbors.  Her model is not fine china and carefully placed table settings.  Her model is what she calls radically ordinary hospitality: "using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God."

The Gospel Comes With a House Key is full of stories of her life as a neighbor and hostess.  She plans ahead while keeping the meals simple and plentiful.  She writes about adopting foster children, befriending the drug addict across the street (and maintaining that friendship after he goes to prison), dealing with the burglary and vandalism of their home, hosting a home worship service for the neighbors when the churches close because of snow, and providing a haven for the sick and wandering.

One miraculously odd part of Butterfield's story is her background.  While she was a liberal college professor, living with her lesbian lover, a pastor invited her to his home fellowship.  Over time, this family and their circle loved her into the kingdom.  She was radically saved.  Ironically, some of her model of fellowship is based on her experiences in the lesbian community, as they banded together in a hostile world.  But just as lesbians like to fellowship with their own kind, so do Christians tend to fellowship with like-minded people.  Radically ordinary hospitality reaches out, giving our "post-Christian neighbors" a chance to "hear and see and taste and feel authentic Christianity, hospitality spreading from every Christian home that includes neighbors in prayer, food, friendship, childcare, dog walking, and all the daily matters upon which friendships are based."

Butterfield's stories and example inspire and challenge me to open the doors of my home and pass out some house keys.  She doesn't provide a lot of "how-tos" but, like a true disciple maker, models hospitality for us.  In doing so, she never loses sight of the goal: bringing people close to God. It's not without cost or hardship, but worth the effort.  Making the "transition from stranger to neighbor to family does not happen naturally but only with intent and grit and sacrifice and God's blessing."  May our homes become places of radically ordinary hospitality for the glory of God and the growth of his kingdom.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Flags Across America, by by Karen S. Robbins and Dale Baskin

Dale Baskin and Karen Robbins have compiled an inspiring collection of photographs, essays, and anecdotes about the flag of the United States in Flags Across America.  If you love our flag, or if you need a boost to remind you to love our flag, you will love this book.

The photographs range from inspiring and noble, to kitschy and cute.  The stories, anecdotes, and essays lean toward the tear-jerking and inspiring.  The flag is objectively beautiful, with its bold colors and simple design.  But in certain settings--on the battlefield, on foreign soil, draped over the coffin of a fallen soldier--the sight of the flag is moving, even heart-rending.

At the same time, the flag has inspired a wide range of folk-art and more casual use, including quilts, murals, fine art and more unconventional art, even a giant flag-shaped hot air balloon.  These unofficial representations may not pass muster on a flag pole at a veterans' cemetery or government building, but they reflect adoration and admiration for the stars and stripes.
This is a beautiful book that would make a great gift for you patriotic friends and family.  It's a grand old flag, long may she wave.

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

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, by Jeanne Theoharis

Jeanne Theoharis opens her book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History with a quote from James Baldwin: "American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it." Theoharis expands on the popular view of civil rights history in the U.S.  As the civil rights generation begins dying, their memory become fable and legend, often whitewashed or, at the very least, oversimplified.

As one writer observed, "much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice."  Theoharis concurs: "Our popular history of the movement largely sidesteps how and by whom racial inequality was perpetrated and maintained."  I found the most revealing and powerful portions of the book to be those that focused on the "de facto" racism of the North.  As a Texas, I have directly and indirectly endured the scorn of northerners who think that they have a moral upper hand on race issues by virtue of geography.

As Theoharis points out, though, while northern states may not have established de jure racism with the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, racist, segregationist policies created de facto racism in schools, housing, and employment.  We remember the kids being spat upon and their buses being pelted with rocks in Alabama.  We don't remember the same things happening in Boston.  We remember people marching in Selma.  We don't remember marches in New York and Detroit.

Theoharis fills in a lot of these gaps, but she also gives a more complete picture of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.  The popular imagination things of MLK as the preacher who followed Ghandi's model, and Rosa Parks as the meek and mild seamstress who just wanted to sit down on the bus after a long day.  These images are not false, but they are far from complete.  Theoharis fleshes out their activism, and details the long months and years of advocacy that preceded the iconic moments of the civil rights movement.

While the body of A More Beautiful and Terrible History was enlightening and solidly researched and documented, as one might expect from someone with a Ph.D., the partisanship of her opening chapter almost made me stop reading.  Her disdain for President Trump, her asserting that his election was illegitimate, and her embrace of the now-discredited Russian "collusion," and her questionable statement that "voter ID laws . . . enabled Trump's victory" reveal a lack of historical perspective and objectivity.  Thankfully, the rest of the book doesn't continue in this vein.  Hopefully, despite his caustic language, the results of Trump's policies will continue to benefit minorities in the U.S.

I appreciate Theoharis's more complete picture of the civil rights movement.  As she points out, the book is not closed on the struggle for equal rights.  While de jure racism may be gone, de facto racism thrives.  Just yesterday I read an article about parents in New York protesting integration of their all-white schools.  It's the same story Theoharis tells; same arguments, same denials of racism, new decade. 

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

80s Redux, by Mike Hipple

Do you ever think about some of those flash-in-the-pan, one-hit-wonder bands you listened to in the 80s (or, likely, saw on MTV) and wonder what ever happened to them? Mike Hipple has tracked down a bunch of musicians from the 80s and features them in 80s Redux: Your Favorite Musicians Today.

Hipple's choices reflect tastes that lean away from top-40 or mainstream rock, and more towards alternative and punk.  Some of the musicians features are genre-defining and well known, like The Cure, The B-52s, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and The English Beat.  Others were only vaguely familiar or completely unknown to me.

Each artist is featured in a page or two of text with some well-done portraits.  It's interesting to read about some of their post-80s lives.  Hipple's goal is not to air gossip or dirty laundry but to portray them as the regular people they are.  Many have taken time off from touring to raise a family but are back in the studio or on stage.  Others work in the arts but not as musicians.  Some are plugging away in jobs completely unrelated to music.  Most of these middle-aged musicians, despite their varying degrees of former fame, would blend right in at a PTA meeting, shopping in the local grocery story, or hanging out in the neighborhood.

80s Redux may not be full of great stories, but it's neat to see the personal side of these iconic artists.  At the very least, it will inspire you to pull out some old LPs or cassettes and remember the great music from this era.

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